The energy of Vikings post-Ragnar Lothbrok could have been the undoing of the series.
Luckily we have such a cast and interesting array of characters that though the exit of lead actor Travis Fimmel as Ragnar stung for fans, it has been soothed by the interplay of his sons and the power vacuum it left in the wake of Aelle’s murder of the beloved Viking hero.
The best line of last night’s action-packed episode, titled Revenge, was the display of Norse battle power and desire to avenge their beloved Ragnar, succinctly delivered by Floki at the end of the episode who tells a cowering Aelle: “I’ve been told your god is a carpenter. And guess what? So am I.”
This chilling zinger is the beginning of the already introduced (Season 2, Jarl Borg) “blood eagle” as a punishment that is like no other in the Viking world.
The end result for the latest episode was that Aelle was flayed from his spine to his ribs and hoisted of Ragnar’s graveside while the sons regroup and head towards Aethelwulf, Ecbert and Wessex.
The story has evolved to pivot on Bjorn, who must manage the unmanageable, Ivar — whose own full blood brothers wisely know how to deal with (save for Sigurd who butts heads constantly with him).
This dynamic was artfully shown as they sat together sharing a bowl of fraternal snot and spit while working out the battle details.
The machinations of coordinating an army of this size are a tall order. Bjorn happens to be the tallest physically, but we hear Ragnar’s whispers to Ivar in our mind: “They will always underestimate you.” In Ivar’s case with Bjorn, we fear that may be so.
The balance of this season also hinges on the fate of Kattegat, and after seeing Lagertha arrange a human sacrifice, this oddly powerful moment was inspired by their belief that blood sacrifice to the gods helped their cause.
“If our army fails, if they are defeated by the Saxons, our people may never recover.” True! Every available vital male was conscripted and joined this Great Army, which made the sacrifice of a strapping Earl in his prime all the more hard to swallow.
The scene raised the blood and the emotions of all who watched, not to mention Bjorn and Astrid’s torrid illicit stand up trysting which was figured out by all parties concerned.
The scene was culminated in a knife plunging into a willing human sacrifice which was juxtaposed with Bjorn’s sexual penetration of Astrid. The predictable moment was a bit of an eye-roller in an otherwise excellent episode overall.
Alexander Høgh and Gustaf Skarsgård continue to excel in their moments as Ivar and Floki, respectively, but Maude Hirst is being wasted as Helga who is now obsessed with a dirty street urchin she plucked from Islamic Spain on their last raid. We feel your pain, Floki!
So we were given our revenge of Ragnar in phase one, with Aelle and his posse surveying what appeared initially to be a small band of viking soldiers.
“Not such a great army after all.” Uh oh. Here comes their thousands and thousands of fellow vikings over the hill.
Cut to the dragging of Aelle and his blood eagle demise. Of note in that moment was Ivar who stared into Aelle’s eyes — it was the last image Aelle had before expiring in great agony.
Høgh (Ivar) is proving to be the true rising star of this series, and Alexander Ludwig’s (Bjorn’s) growth into manhood too has shown he is also a compelling actor to look forward to in any role he takes on.
One of the sub-stories of King Harald reinforces all of his personality shortcomings as he nearly guts a princess he has fixated on for years.
She of course has a life and never gave him a second thought, until their paths cross again. Actor Peter Franzén was never so fearsome as a man scorned of love. More than any battle scene. His furtive plotting against Lagertha paled in comparison to his moment with his long lost one-sided love.
Moe Dunford gets amazing props too as his turn as an unlikable character who also is a grieving son of Ecbert. The cunning King never loved his son the way he doted on Judith, Ragnar, Alfred and Athelstan.
To know this and live with it for all these years saw Aethelwulf finally break down. It was a sad scene.
TV critics Ernie Estrella and April Neale discuss the episode Revenge in detail…
Ernie Estrella: April, it’s hard not to start off this conversation with the way the episode ended. We got to see King Aelle’s blood eagled filet of a corpse hoisted up for all to see that Ragnar Lothbrok was not one to have been f-ed with.
I almost didn’t think we would see any action, much less a blood eagle. We had this incredibly breathtaking scene of The Great Army climbing the hills of Mercia before charging towards the Saxons.
I thought we were going to see all of those extras clash and then cut to the end credits. First, did you feel cheated by the lack of battle and secondly, your thoughts on Aelle’s blood eagle?
April Neale: Not cheated, relieved actually. An over-the-top battle scene would have felt a bit Braveheart wouldn’t it?
First, I was relieved our imaginations were able to visualize and process the scope of Ragnar’s sons’ amassed army. I loved how Floki encapsulated the rage they felt, and that is a big point here, the personal inspiration to go and fight a bloody war like this is critical for a win.
He was primed for battle in war paint and that we were spared the hand-to-hand bloody combat after Lagertha’s human sacrifice and Aelle’s demise, honestly, I think it would have been overkill.
Quite frankly, the point was perfectly made in the wide shot. That’s the power of cinematography done well, letting the imagery paint the action in and give us the story. Aelle was screwed and he knew it immediately.
Also, I sensed the blood eagle was coming for Aelle for sure this episode, but this visually viscerally assaulting episode delivered the goods. You could almost have called this Revenge, Part One.
Ecbert is now in the sights of the Great Army and Ivar and Bjorn’s animosity to each other is teased heavily in the next week’s promo.
EE: You make good points. I’m being a little selfish in wanting to see the brothers in action, plus Floki, too. You point out wonderfully the personal investment of this retaliation.
Personally, I wanted a longer build up to Aelle’s death. Not two episodes worth, mind you, maybe just another segment within the episode or another five minutes’ worth. They pack an immense amount of story in each episode so I’m greedy in wanting to see Ivar’s chariot rushing in at a Saxon with nowhere to run.
I think we always knew that Aelle was a coward when it came down to it, even when he says, “The Lord comes before all.” But he looked like Scooby Doo had been pulled out of a lake when it jumps to Ivar dragging him with his chariot.
Call me a sadistic viewer but I wanted to see him suffer more, especially with him trying to break down Ragnar to beg for forgiveness.
But you know what this blood eagle showed me the most? That Jarl Borg was one bad mutha for not uttering a word during the entire ordeal.
Aelle? Not so much, but he got off lightly because Bjorn didn’t rip out his lungs and put them on his shoulders.
AN: You wanted a battle scene! I think you might get your wish when Aethelwulf is dealt with in Revenge Part two. I think that writers for shows like this (Walking Dead comes to mind too) have a line they need to keep to. Go over it and people tune out if there is too much repetitive violence, so they have to balance the action and these retribution scenes.
Aelle was treated exactly as he was, for me. An insignificant piss-ant who got his payback. I believe that if Ecbert is dispatched, that is where you will be given your red meat.
Yes, as for poor old Jarl Borg, he really kept to the Viking code of silence, like our poor Swedish earl who gave himself up for Lagertha’s war bon voyage. To me that was a crazy and quite frankly hard-to-swallow scene.
EE: I nearly passed out at the sight of Lagertha’s sacrificial sword! I guess we’ll have to wait for more battles with the following two episodes when the Vikings raid Wessex next.
AN: The next two episodes will really set the stage for the rise of Ivar and, potentially, the demise of Lagertha’s blood line with regards to Ragnar.
I hope Bjorn can survive into the next season but each victory emboldens Ivar, and only Ubbe and Hvitserk know the score on him and how to manage.
I even fear for Sigurd because Ivar does not forgive or forget, ever. It is Ecbert’s death that I hope is the build-up you wanted with Aelle. Ecbert was the biggest betrayer of Viking friendship.
EE: We should also look back at my first conversation with Michael Hirst this season about what’s in store for the brothers, and how he alluded to something that will happen between Hvitserk and Ubbe.
He also spoke about how every major character is forever changed in comparison to the beginning of the season, which has me fearing or pondering deeply for a handful of characters which haven’t seen a lot of development yet like Floki, Sigurd, Lagertha, and as you said Bjorn, even though we know he’s a bigger part of the show now.
Now Bjorn put his step-brothers in place before this all started but like Ragnar and Rollo before them, these Lothbrok brothers can’t help but pick fights with each other.
It’s such an interesting dynamic because we know Bjorn Ironside’s greatness is still yet to come and Ivar the Boneless hasn’t even started. What do you make of this uneasy dynamic so far and moving forward?
AN: Your interview with Hirst was insightful for us fans. Well, Bjorn’s sojourn into the north — facing and killing a berserker and a bear, pretty much solidified his badass cred.
He’s the eldest, he’s seasoned and he is the son of TWO great Viking legends. I genuinely fear that Ivar is going to be doing some dirty deeds to kneecap Bjorn who plays by a different rule book than Ivar.
The other brothers are no alpha males, and they know it. Sigurd I feel in some way is in jeopardy too. Hvitserk is in the most interesting position because he did battle and went to sea with Bjorn, so he has a camaraderie with Bjorn, and he is the one who said to Ubbe and Sigurd, ‘You know, Ivar is insane, right?’
He’s the realistic one. Ubbe is most complicated. He appears simpler, basic… but he is a ball of all kinds of psyche issues I fear.
EE: Although Ubbe and Hvitserk are at least willing to share their woman. Ubbe marrying Margrethe took me a little by surprise but the sharing and lack of jealousy was something I was expecting.
AN: So here’s my theory. The viking culture is painted by historical accounts (and Hirst) to be laissez-faire about sex in general, but as we know, Lagertha would not enter into that kind of relationship sexually with Aslaug, she drew a line with Ragnar and stood by it.
Now Margrethe is no Lagertha, but she is used like a bonding agent that these brothers keep close by. She’s a vessel, insignificant and not in a position to make any demands to any of them.
She is no shieldmaiden and her general demeanor is subservient anyway. She was a perfect slave. She’s also a boring as hell character, there’s no fight or fire in her like, say, Astrid.
Torvi was willing to overlook Bjorn’s dalliance as was Astrid’s lover, Bjorn’s MOM, Lagertha, because they knew in the scheme of things, it was more important for Bjorn to feel alpha and get his head into the battle mode and let him take what he wanted to get fueled for war.
Lagertha’s no lesbian, she doesn’t love Astrid the way she did Ragnar and as I have said before, she just really liked sex.
This powerful woman was offered up to Athelstan in a Ragnar three-way and she even slept with Ecbert!
She was able to process that whole sexual episode in a pragmatic way. She’s got bigger fish to fry and she knows it. I personally think it was so damned cold that sex was the electric blanket of their time!
EE: Yeah that’s a great breakdown and Torvi and Lagertha know what’s up with Bjorn, but boy, you just hate to see even the slightest scandal or betrayal stack on top of Lagertha’s shoulders as I feel she’s carrying a heavy amount of that.
But it’s important to remind ourselves that, as you said, their views on fidelity and loyalty may not necessarily line up with our own and that’s important in getting immersed in the show because we can’t project our own morals to their stories.
Now King Aelle wasn’t the only one to go in a nasty way. What about Earl Jorgensen who found his way at the end of that sacrifice. That sword was about as big as my house!
AN: So that scene I had the most trouble with. We knew the women decided on a human sacrifice, then cut to…this Swedish earl? He was practically high five-ing the Kattegat villagers on his way to the post where he was gutted.
I don’t buy this moment at all. Why sacrifice a perfectly fit young man when they were at a premium in this age of physical labor, farming, fishing, boat-building and hand-to-hand combat battles?
Men were a valuable resource for all of those reasons and more. There were plenty of geezers that Lagertha could have called up.
The whole scene to me felt ridiculous and, quite frankly, I thought Margrethe was going to be dispatched somehow.
EE: Great Army and great cause, I guess a great man had to go. Now we come to King Harald and Princess Ellisif. I did NOT expect we’d see some insight into what fuels Harald Finehair. Interesting to see the comparison of these two brothers and the Lothbroks, isn’t it?
AN: Okay. So once a stalker always a stalker right? Some Vikings never get that acting like a disinterested cat is the actual catnip to lure woman.
The ardent wearing of one’s heart on a sleeve combined with a club behind one’s back to bop some lady princess on the head is a total turn off.
You could see her disgust, fear and general tolerance for Harald was non-existent. These two creepy connivers are really cooking up a s***storm in Kattegat for Lagertha.
Harald fixating on this woman is indicative of his continually covetous nature in general, a total turn off.
People’s intentions and heart broadcast without having to say much often times, and astute observers can see it a mile away.
Her female intuition and innate intelligence saved her from a life of misery with this wannabe joker.
EE: Okay, now I want to close on a moment that may easily get passed over and that’s Aethulwulf asking his father if he loves him.
You could see the painful walk-up to that question, but I felt for the guy, as much of a dick as he is. He’s a confused kid who was never shared the same openness that Ecbert gave to Athelstan or Ragnar.
But I kind of see how that same kind of guidance may give Ivar the edge over Bjorn too, since he was able to absorb Ragnar in his final, regretful days whereas Ragnar was never there emotionally or in a supportive way.
This could have easily been a Wes Anderson story exploring bad dads.
AN: That is a great observation and one we close on. A father’s confidence, love and support means the world of difference for a child.
Aethelwulf never, ever got it and had to observe others reap the rewards of Ecbert’s love. That’s soul damaging.
As you note, Ivar has that advantage over Bjorn whose anger about being ripped from his father is being displayed in his dismissive sexist behavior towards Torvi, taking Astrid and deep-seated anger ultimately at Lagertha for the time gap he lost with Ragnar.
Ragnar gave Ivar a great gift towards the end of his life in instilling a sense of worth and confidence the others never got from him. And history proves that theory of paternal love and guidance Ragnar gave Ivar was to his great benefit.
Vikings airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on History.