SPOILER ALERT. A number of characters meet their ends in this episode. One death, at least, has been anticipated for some time. One is a total surprise, so if you haven’t seen this episode yet, read on at your peril. (And now you can’t resist, can you?)
The Reckoning has elements of King Lear, Richard III, and Hamlet, and I loved everything about this season finale. Terrific, long-running story lines are satisfactorily wrapped up while new plot elements are introduced for the story going forward.
We begin with Ecbert (Linus Roache). We will, essentially, end with Ecbert. And all through the episode we keep checking back with Ecbert.
There is a kind of Lear quality about the king as he sits on the floor in front of his throne, rocking back and forth, knowing – because he has a brilliant tactical mind and his son does not – that the Saxons facing the Great Army in a battle miles away, are losing. It seems to me that Ecbert has been, throughout this series, the quintessential medieval king: pious, ruthless, cruel, compassionate, treacherous and, now at the end of his reign, wise. Many fans of the show are already lamenting the disappearance of Ragnar, who has been such a fascinating hero. But as marvellous as Ragnar has been, for me he faded into the background the minute that Ecbert arrived on the scene. Are you Viking or are you Saxon? In my heart, I have always rooted for the Saxons.
So after a brief glimpse of Ecbert, it’s off to the battlefield where we see the Lothbrok Lads, all but Ivar, having a grand time at the slaughter. Æthelwulf (Moe Dunford) puts up a good fight, but when he is unhorsed and then flattened into the mud we go into slow-mo and see the battle from his point of view, and he knows that all is lost. Nice technique.
It’s a Richard III at Bosworth moment, but Æthelwulf doesn’t have to call for a horse. His steed awaits, and when Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen) arrives in his little cart with more Vikings, the Saxons retreat, falling back to Winchester where Æthelwulf announces that the royal family must flee.
Ecbert, still in Lear mode, refuses to budge. He insists on a ceremony that transfers the crown and its powers to his son, then sends his family away with a kind of wild bravado that, when they are gone, dissolves into grief.
The Vikings are deliriously happy about their victory – all but Bjorn who has been grim-faced from the moment the fleet set sail from Kattegat. Now he snarls that they’re not finished yet, that they still have to deal with Ecbert, and that puts a damper on the celebration as they start for Winchester…
…where Ecbert and the bishop, two old allies, are silently getting drunk as they await the reckoning that they know is coming. I felt sorry for the poor guards who stayed behind with them and had to face a Viking horde sober.
The Great Army can’t believe their good luck at finding Winchester deserted, except for Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) who is still wearing his angry face because he hasn’t found Ecbert. But then Ecbert appears in all his drunken, mad-Lear glory. He doesn’t rage, though. He reaches out to Bjorn – the son of Ragnar who is so like his father.
Meantime, Helga (Maude Hirst) is wandering through the burning halls of Wessex singing a mad Ophelia tune and dragging poor, terrified Tanaruz (Sinead Gormally) along with her. We’ve known for some time that Tanaruz was working up to suicide, and I wasn’t terribly surprised when she took Helga with her. Poor Helga.
Next, Ecbert sits in a cage hanging from on high while the Lothbrok Lads debate what to do with him. Ivar wants to Blood Eagle him and continue to ravage the land. The others think they should settle down and hold Ecbert as hostage for their protection. Ecbert makes them an offer: I will give you a deed to East Anglia; that kingdom will be yours and you’ll have the paperwork to prove it. (This, by the way, was the same agreement that Rollo made with the Frankish king. That actually happened and the deed still exists. Ecbert, though, never ceded East Anglia to the Vikings.) In return for what? Bjorn asks. Ecbert is cagey. Well, he’s in a cage after all. Not sayin’ until you agree to the deal.
The Lothbroks decide to accept Ecbert’s offer, although Ivar insists that Ecbert has to be Blood Eagled. But Ecbert’s one request is that he choose the manner of his death. This is good diplomacy. Everyone at the table gets something. EXCEPT: Unknown to the Lothbrok Lads, Ecbert is no longer king. The deed he signs is worthless. (And he was never the over-king of East Anglia in any case.) The once-king is still duplicitous.
So Ecbert comes full circle in this series. We first glimpsed him in his bath, and that is where his life ends.
It is a fitting end, but I will miss him. He was a mighty king.
Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård), too, seems to be bidding us farewell. There is a lovely Hamlet-like moment when Floki lays Helga in her grave and tenderly places her treasures beside her.
Later, in a beautiful soliloquy, he offers himself to the gods – I am an empty ship with no rudder, set upon their endless sea.
But the episode isn’t over yet. Hirst has a surprise in store for us at the celebration feast where the Lothbrok Lads quarrel yet again about what to do next. Feasts were a time of drunken boasting and taunting, and often it was up to the queen to keep order. Weapons were not allowed in the hall. But there is no queen here, and weapons abound. Ivar, who has anger management issues, snaps. He throws an axe at Sigurd (David Lindström), and the blow is lethal. At first Ivar seems surprised at what he’s done. But his look of surprise fades, and as he justifies his action to himself we can read it in his face.
I am unhappy with Ivar. I was hoping for someone more like Richard III – false and treacherous, yes, but subtle and clever. Ivar, instead is like a blunt instrument – a cudgel instead of a scalpel. I presume that is what Hirst intends, but I wish it were otherwise.
And still the episode isn’t over. In far off Dorset, in a matter of literally minutes, a warrior bishop (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) engages in prayer, sex and violence, and opens up a whole new story line.
His Latin, by the way, is excellent. No doubt he picked it up at the Tudor Court.
And now we wait for Season 5.
Patricia Bracewell is the author of the Emma of Normandy Trilogy. The latest, The Price of Blood is out now. She blogs about historical drama on her website and will be covering Vikings for Historia. Keep in touch on social media for the latest reviews.
Photos of Vikings © The History Channel