Katheryn Winnick (Jonathan Hession/History)

From the beginning of this season, Ragnar has been a different man. Still physically hobbled, his demeanor has changed to match—limping around with the help of his imposing wooden cane, his signature piercing vision emerges from within a hunched, fur-draped form. There’s an edge of bitterness to his interactions with those around him, and a seeming indifference that he unsuccessfully hides only when bidding farewell to Bjorn and helping Helga bury her daughter. Being Ragnar, there’s undoubtedly a game being played here, but “Yol” makes the case that there’s a lot of truth to Ragnar’s withdrawal from his position as king. When, in his vision, those gates to Valhalla shut just before he could enter, there’s the real sense that the experience has robbed Ragnar of his unshakeable confidence in his destiny.

Again, Vikings’ previous three seasons have all turned on the twist that Ragnar Lothbrok always has a longer game going than we (and his adversaries) are led to expect, so it’s most likely safe to assume that’s the case here. But “Yol” sees Ragnar reveling in his dissatisfaction by ticking off so many “mid-life crisis” boxes that it’s tempting to imagine that, while there are always new world’s to conquer, the effort, for once, outweighs the rewards. Like the proverbial man who says his wife doesn’t understand him, Ragnar, in this episode, sets out to craft an alternate life with one who does.

In this case, that’s Yidu, the exotic slave girl who’s caught Ragnar’s eye and who, tonight, becomes Ragnar’s confidante and companion in alienation. First seen emerging from his bath (echoing Bjorn’s rebirth from that frozen lake), Ragnar engages Yidu in philosophical discussion that’s simultaneously playful and menacing. As Aslaug’s rejection of all outside influences in Kattegat only hardens (tonight she gives over youngest son Ivar to Floki for instruction, hissing, “Teach Ivar the true path, to hate the Christian god as you hate the Christian god”) Ragnar, deprived of the Christian Athelstan’s company and knowledge, seeks a replacement in Yido, whose Asian foreignness proves even more fruitful to his unquiet mind than he’d hoped. He tests her through the episode, cornering her in a pigpen, pinning her against a wall, slamming doors to startle her, and eventually spiriting her away to the heretofore unseen lodge in the woods where he plies her for information about her background, and reveals much of his own.

When speaking to Yidu as she fills his bath at the start of the episode, Ragnar asks the helpless girl, rather unsettlingly, “In my world it is believed that the day of your death is fated. Would you like to know the day of you death?” When she answers back, “In my world you must have a life worth living before you can even consider death,” he opens up further, replying, ”In my world I am constantly torn between killing myself of killing everyone around me.” He takes her measure, there and after, until he brings her to that cabin (filled with caged rodents and free-roaming snakes)—and frees her. Being Ragnar, he does it with a glint of mischief, teasing her incredulousness at his act with a boastful, “I am king. Everything is possible,” and taunting that her services are no longer required because she is a “worthless” and “useless” slave. When Yidu asks, “What is this place?,” Ragnar responds with the matter-of-fact, “Mine. Although no one else has ever been here it is the only place I do not feel alone. If you want, you can come and go as you please.”

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She doesn’t leave, instead producing a traditional herbal remedy for his pain, which turns out to be, regardless of its other properties, a powerful hallucinogen. We’ve seen Ragnar tripping before (with that potent mushroom concoction back in season one), but that was a communal and Norse-specific ritual. Here, he sits (and hangs from the rafters, wears masks, and appears to eat a live snake) with a foreign slave girl, someone even more alien to him than was monk Athelstan, alone in a cabin in the woods, abandoning his responsibilities. Once he recognizes the potency of this ancient Ecstasy, as it were, he revels in the tingling excitement of the experience, and this new, completely foreign woman, and essentially plays hooky. (When he later shows up to lead the Viking winter ceremony back in Kattegat, his ritual face paint glows gold in the firelight, looking for all the world like he’s come straight from a night of clubbing.) Ragnar still retains his restless curiosity about the world outside his kingdom, and even the other kingdoms he’s conquered, but, at least to all outward appearance, now that curiosity springs from indolence rather than aspiration.

Meanwhile, in his absence, a new enemy sails unannounced into Kattegat, bringing the very real possibility of ruin. Harald claims to be a king as well, and he and his men rumble into Ragnar’s royal hall only to be met in his absence by a cagily regal Aslaug who brushes off the smug Harald (Peter Franzen, giving off a runty, tattooed Robert Carlyle vibe) by smiling and telling the leering interloper, “You’ll see him soon enough.” And he will, but not before Harald speaks tauntingly of his ambition to be king of all Norway and making himself at home in Ragnar’s hall, challenging Ragnar’s young sons to a board game, and speaking of a princess who turned him down for marriage in a manner that intimates the queen is only safe in his presence because he chooses not to rape her. (When he answers Aslaug’s “Why didn’t you just take her?,” with “That’s a good question… Queen Aslaug,” that pause is especially repellant.)

So when Ragnar does saunter in, absentmindedly eating and smiling in the face of this obvious new challenger, his insouciance is the first glimpse of the old Ragnar’s confident guile. “And you are?” is such a quintessentially badass Ragnar-esque way to end the episode that I broke into a dopey smile. Ragnar may, indeed, be casting about for ways to counter the disappointments of ruling, of his marriage, of fatherhood, of friendship (and from the loss of Athelstan), but, in moments like this, it’s exciting to be reminded of how Vikings sparks to life with Raganar’s unknowable charisma.

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As for Yidu (a warily dignified Dianne Doane), there’s clearly a lot more to know. How a young Asian woman would up a Viking slave is hinted at with a sketchy story about her merchant father’s ship, and pirates. When Ragnar, never softening his superior position even as he’s drawn to the girl, asks bluntly, “They raped you?,” the word is shocking, as is her fiery, “They did not dare to rape me.” When she stays with Ragnar—it’s not clear whether they have sex—her decision is equally strange and uniquely her own. Indeed, she joins the parade of women in this episode whose individual journeys see them marking out their own freedoms in any way available to them.

In Hedebey, Lagertha marks time with Kalf, who claims to love her (and may) but whose offer to rule as partners is meant to obscure the fact that he usurped her position as earl in the first place. When Bjorn—fresh from dispatching the enormous warrior Kalf and Erlendur sent after him (in easily the most brutal scene since Ragnar took his revenge on Jarl Borg)—demands that former lover and Erlendur’s wife Torvi (Georgia Hirst) leave and come with him to Kattegat, Lagertha counters Erlendur’s decree that she can go but must leave their child behind by telling her, “If you want to go with my son then go with my son. I will look after your child. We have one life, Torvi. So go and live it.”

Over in Paris, Gisla reverses her decision to have her marriage to Rollo annulled only once Rollo convinces her not only that he actually loves her (his impressive mastery of her language touches her deeply) but that he is truly committed to protecting Paris from his brother. Only when he relinquishes his arm ring (a truly potent symbol to any Viking) does she agree to remain his wife. Over in Wessex, Judith has traded her body to King Ecbert only in exchange for access to the sacred knowledge traditionally denied all women, and for the king’s promise that she will be treated as an equal, and a free woman. Standing up to her disapproving father, King Aelle (it’s fun to have Ivan Kaye blustering around again), Judith glories in her newfound independence, asserting, “You don’t own me father, nor does any man own me. Though encumbered everywhere, I am free.” And deposed queen Kwenthrith knows her claim to power rests on men she cannot trust, but manufactures leverage (with Aethelwulf, with Magnus) where she can. Aslaug, seeing her influence over Ragnar fading, hardens herself, relying on the Seer’s prophecies and now Floki’s help to craft the peevish Ivar into her instrument. Men own this world, but this episode emphasizes how its women carve out their own kingdoms—and wait for opportunity.

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Stray observations

  • Unlike his fight against that bear last week, Bjorn takes his time in dismantling that tracker. Disembowelment? Damn, Bjorn.
  • The board game that Harald plays with Ubbe is a version of hnefatafl. The rules of the game (such as they are known) involve a king attempting to evade larger pursuing forces through strategy and guile. We last saw Ragnar play it against King Horik.
  • “A king and a slave. It is both our duties to serve others, whether we like it or not.”
  • A pair of idylls for a pair of brothers as Ragnar luxuriates with new companion Yidu (and whatever’s in that medicine) and Rollo, finally accepted as husband proper by Gisla, has his long-postponed wedding night with his wife. Both sequences are a little long and gauzy (Gisla has a literal toe-curling orgasm) and slow things down a bit.
  • Post-wedding night Gisla allows Morgane Polanski to show how truly attractive a partner she is for Rollo—not because of any “she just needed a good fuck” cliché, but because the formidable Gisla is now free to be her complete self with a man she feels is worthy. Although, her rumpled appearance at her father’s banquet (where she unashamedly makes up a lame excuse so she and Rollo can scamper off and have loud, joyous sex) is a wonderfully fun and sexy moment for Polanski to play.
  • Floki, unsure of where he stands in Ragnar’s eyes, goes to see the Seer, who demands, “Show me who you are.” Cue the return of Floki’s mad little giggle.

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