Clive Standen, Travis Fimmel (History Channel)

The contrasting roles of religion in the Viking-English conflict have always been illustrative, a dichotomy explored to striking effect in Kings Ecbert and Ragnar’s journeys in “Warrior’s Fate.” Linus Roache’s Ecbert, wheeling on the muttering nobles questioning his ongoing decision to allow the Norsemen to both farm on English soil and fight for “puppet princess” Kwenthrith, upbraids them with silky menace, secure in his manipulation of the heathens he believes under his control. His disdain for the nobles’ intransigence in dealing with non-Christians stems not from the “respect for other cultures” he unctuously claimed to Lagertha and Athelstan last episode, but from the implacable belief that both he and his religion are destined to overcome them. In contrast, Ragnar, faced with similar objections from his most inflexibly religious follower, Floki, after a decisive but costly battle against Kwenthrith’s traitorous brother (in which grievously wounded Viking warrior Torstein died), addresses things in a more direct manner:

Floki: This is your fault Ragnar. Torstein died fighting for a hill he did not want to own. Something which meant nothing to him. He has died a pointless death. How many more of us must die for your Christians? Or have you, in your heart, already renounced our gods and turned to the Christ god. Is that what your friend Athelstan has persuaded you to do? But look, here we are under a English sky burying our dead. Look at those we have sacrificed for Jesus Christ.

Ragnar: We are all fated to die on a certain day, yes? But it is our own choice to do what we please until that day comes. I did not force Torstein or any of you to come, for that matter. You all chose to be here. My heart is as heavy for Torstein as anyone’s, but I am sure I’ll bump into him again soon. But in the meantime, Floki, shut your face.

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Travis Fimmel as Ragnar (History)

Both Ecbert and Ragnar have belief, but, for Ragnar, belief is a pragmatic thing, an advantage that’s served him well thus far, and one whose efficacy continues, especially when reflected on Ecbert’s face when confronted with Lagertha’s practice of it at episode’s end.

From the first time he laid eyes on Lagertha this season, Ecbert’s understandable attraction to her has been tinged with expertly veiled condescension, the patronizing playfulness of one secure in his manifest destiny to overcome this pagan woman. Tonight, their mutual flirting ends with them having sex in the spacious Roman bath in Ecbert’s villa, a development that would seem to diminish Lagertha’s character if she either treated the event as a big deal or weren’t preceded by another subtle indication that Lagertha isn’t as swayed by Ecbert’s supercilious charms as he believes. Inspecting a painting of the Roman gods left in the bathhouse by the former conquerors:

Ecbert: She’s a pagan god, like your gods Lagertha.

Lagertha: She’s not like my gods. My gods are as real as you and me. They love they, breathe, they rush around the skies.

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It’s only when Ecbert returns to Lagertha’s settlement to patronizingly attend her announced sacrifice to ensure the crops the settlers have just planted (with the help of the iron plow he bestowed upon her), that Ecbert’s assurance is shaken. In the haunting, brutal ceremony, a cow is slaughtered, and Lagertha, standing regally in a white robe, anoints her face in red before two bowls brimming with blood are poured over her shoulders. Throughout, the regal, inscrutable smile on her face, while never directed at Ecbert specifically, reads like a riposte to his presumption. When one of his nobles repeats that the Vikings are savages who need to be converted or driven out, Ecbert doesn’t look as self-assured. Meanwhile, Lagertha, sowing the blood over the fields recently tilled by Ecbert’s gift, strides confidently ahead, her eyes and her smile unreadable.

Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha (History)

As striking as that scene is, “Warrior’s Fate” equals it with the season’s first great battle sequence when Ragnar’s band finally take care of Kwenthrith’s brother Burgred (an enduringly whimpery Aaron Monaghan). Always a strength of the show in the past, this season has seen its fight scenes disappoint, the crisp, intelligent action storytelling grown prosaic and clichéd. Here, however, the fight scenes find the old balance, the combined efforts of director Jeff Woolnough, editor Aaron Marshall, and music director Trevor Morris telling multiple characters’ individual stories through performance and action, and springing a series of satisfying surprises. Beginning with the final sacrifice of Jefferson Hall’s Torstein (who survived last week’s amputation, but not in good shape), drawing out the entrenched English, to the initial charge, where Ragnar and Gaia Weiss’ Porunn are both wounded, to the double shock of Ragnar cresting a hill and seeing a seemingly insurmountable second English force—only for Prince Aethelwulf’s archers to appear on the surrounding ridges and rain down arrows on Burgred’s doomed soldiers—it’s as assured a piece of sustained action as the show has ever done. In the initial battle, Morris’ music remains subtle, incorporating a syncopated chanting that underscores both the savagery and the alienness of the scene. There’s sparse but effective use of slow motion, spotlighting characters at moments of distress, or realization. And—one of Vikings’ unique traits—the kinetic storytelling is blessedly direct through all of that, the topography and the journey of each character told with clarity and energy.

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Ragnar Lothbrok (center) (History)

It’s in the aftermath that the episode’s theme of belief comes in again. Floki’s visceral hatred of all things Christian outlined above, was established from the series’ start, his position as mystic/madman making his aversion seem to come from somewhere deep and primal. (The look on Gustaf Skarsgård’s face when he spits out the name “Jesus Christ” is as Floki as Floki gets.)

When Bjorn tends to the grievously wounded Porunn (her face horrifyingly beaten by an English soldier), it’s uncle Rollo who reaches out to the boy, finding a way through Bjorn’s self-involved grieving, drawing on his own relationship with the gods (and perhaps his own experience with massive facial injuries). Rollo’s journey has been an inconsistent one, but his current characterization has taken on an appealing serenity—or as close to serenity as the axe-happy Rollo gets. Here, his advice to his nephew is less about worship, or pragmatism, and more emblematic of Rollo’s resigned understanding of his place in the Norseman’s universe:

I do not think she will die. She wants to live. She has a lot to live for. But if she hears you weep and lament she will chose to die. Be strong, be a man, coax her back from Valhalla—but make it worth her while, for she is already at the gates.

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Meanwhile, back in Kattegat, the arrival of the stranger last week—there an alarming promise of a more supernatural turn for the show—comes back down to earth, thankfully. Despite his simultaneous dream appearance to Aslaug, Helga, and Siggy, the stranger (Kevin Durand, here named as Harbard), while remaining enigmatic, appears more like a flesh-and-blood character, although a vaguely sinister one. He describes himself as a storyteller and regales the women with boastful tales of carousing with giants. Given room to speak, Durand plays more like a character than the spectral harbinger he was introduced as, especial when he proves himself the only person capable of silencing the incessant crying of the unfortunate baby Ivar by, he says, “taking away his pain.” That two of the village’s children soon turn up drowned, far out to sea in a fisherman’s net, introduces, again, a more human creepiness to Harbard, and Siggy’s visit to the Seer walks back the prophecy talk further, as the soothsayer claims he has seen nothing of the stranger’s coming—or his intentions. It can’t undo the unpromising way this storyline was introduced, but it’s a more interesting direction for it to take.

“Warrior’s Fate,” similarly, is a promising sign for Vikings’ third season, reintroducing some of the complexity and flair for visual storytelling that marked the show at its best. Unlike the programmatic nature of the first two episode’s, it’s entertaining not knowing where it’s headed once again.

Stray observations:

  • Poor Athelstan—when Ecbert and Lagertha start unashamedly coupling in the bath, he’s simply ignored, left to look awkward and towel off.
  • Speaking of, while George Blagden’s sly watchfulness as Athelstan remains a fascinating portrait, his ongoing storyline being pursued by Jennie Jacques’ Princess Judith isn’t promising. Although his position as spiritual representative of both worlds marks him out for bigger things this season.
  • Lagertha’s gleam when hearing tales of Paris does not bode well for the city.
  • While Lagertha seems to have learned a few phrases in Ecbert’s Old English, the show continues to play loose with translation rules.
  • Ragnar’s response to Bjorn upon learning that Porunn came raiding while pregnant is worth examining further, but his fury at his son strikes deep at the contradictory heart of the king. There’s a level of paternalism there, sure, but it also speaks both to Ragnar’s lesson on power and sacrifice to Bjorn in the season’s first scene, and his speech to Floki tonight:

This is not about you, Floki. This is about our children. And their children. It is about our people’s future. I do not want there to be endless conflict with the Christians.

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  • And the way he deals with his grief by headbutting the groveling Burgred with a smiling, “I forgive you,” is some prime Ragnar.
  • The way that baby Ivar pointed, terrified, at Harbard was…unsettling.
  • Siggy is the one of the three Kattegat women who’s having none of Harbard.

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