The action this week swings between Kattegat and Wessex, and the face-offs between Lagertha/Aslaug and Ragnar/Ecbert that we have all been eagerly anticipating. Kudos to the actors, whose expressions convey a wide range of emotions – doubt, fear, anxiety, understanding, astonishment, suspicion. For a show that glories in sweeping battle scenes, this episode is dialogue-rich and intimately emotional.
It begins with Ragnar’s wives – women whom he has loved, who have borne him children, and who have assumed, each in her own way, power over her followers. There is a great deal of uncertainty in their meeting, reflecting the title of the episode. Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland) claims that Ragnar is dead. Unsettled, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) questions her ‘sight’, and Aslaug confesses that she cannot be sure. The grievance between them revolves around Ragnar, and writer Hirst uses it to explore the limits of Viking age female power. Lagertha seems to be stepping into the role of the ruthless early medieval warlord; Aslaug, despite her heritage and mystical abilities, claims that her true destiny was to bear Ragnar’s sons. Their dialogue implies that it was not their own decisions that led them to this moment, but Ragnar’s decision to choose between them – which is too bad. I expected more from Hirst. He created two powerful women – probably more powerful than they could actually have been in that period – but he didn’t go deep enough into their minds in this scene to suit me. The resolution, when it came, was so unexpected and abrupt that I felt cheated. It was over and done in maybe five minutes, while the resolution of the conflict between Ragnar and Ecbert would go on for most of the episode. Lagertha and Aslaug deserved far better. In particular, I needed more exposition for Lagertha’s actions. Hirst, though, saved all the good stuff for the men.
And it was really good.
King Ecbert (Linus Roache) is not at Winchester when Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) and Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen) arrive so they are delivered into the hands of Æthelwulf (Moe Dunford) who gets more unlikable with every episode. This time around he gets to enjoy seeing Ragnar beaten and caged, and he gets to toss Magnus, the adolescent son of the woman he supposedly loved, out into the wilderness alone. Into the rain yet.
Æthelwulf has no cunning. He’s simply a thug. And is this the last that we will see of Magnus (Cameron Hogan)? Or is he a character – purely fictional as far as I can tell – that Hirst intends to use later on?
But back to Ecbert and Ragnar. When they meet, Ragnar is caged like an animal, and Ecbert treats him warily, clearly afraid of what Ragnar might do if he is set free. Because we’ve actually seen Ragnar rise from the dead last season, we are as wary as Ecbert. But Ecbert sets about taming this wild monster – setting food before him, ordering that Ivar be brought in to assure Ragnar that his son is safe and well cared-for, even confessing that he ordered the massacre of Ragnar’s Danish settlement and apologising for that act.
It was part of a larger and bolder strategy, he says. And we know that he means the conquest of Mercia, part of his effort to form a united ‘Englalond’. Their conversation is wide-ranging. To begin, Ragnar claims that Magnus is not his son. But is Ragnar lying to protect Magnus, as he will lie to protect Ivar? And is Magnus the real reason that Ragnar has returned to Wessex? We are uncertain. (See episode title.) But some truths are agreed upon. (Ecbert to Ragnar: You are the most dangerous man on earth; Ragnar to Ecbert: You like power don’t you). And even though it is Ragnar who is in the cage, it is Ecbert who seems trapped. What do you want me to say? he asks. And the answer comes back, The truth. Although we already know that both these men are kind of allergic to the truth.
But the king breaks out the wine because In vino veritas, and Linus Roache gives a fantastic performance here as he taunts Ragnar with the key to his cage, uncertain whether this monster is tame enough to let it lose. He approaches Ragnar, key in hand while the caged and cagey Ragnar toys with him – Are you sure? – and we don’t know which of them is the cat and which the mouse.
Ragnar, though, came to Wessex to die. I’m fated to die the day the blind man sees. Remember those words. First, though, they have much to talk about. They argue about life and death and the gods, and Ragnar even questions the existence of any god at all. Which is when Ecbert quietly says that Athelstan was a godly man. And now the conversation turns on love and guilt and Athelstan’s fate, which is the fate of all men, and why Ragnar has come to Wessex. Twice he says to Ecbert, You have to kill me.
Then we are in the hall and the two kings are seated on thrones where we have seen them before, equals, side by side.
Now they are old, and in what seems like a farewell gift from Ecbert to Ragnar, Judith enters with Alfred who looks like an adolescent Athelstan and Ragnar, moved, knows immediately who he is.
In terms of historical impossibility, this scene is off the charts. But Hirst is tying up all the threads he’s left hanging from the first four seasons, clearing the decks for future story lines with the new generation.
This impossible scene is followed by Ecbert praying alone, not in Old English which is what he would have known, but in the beautiful language of the King James Bible: I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. It’s Ecclesiastes 1:14-18, and concludes with the line, For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. Meantime, Ragnar is seated alone, thinking his Viking thoughts which Hirst expresses through images of the vast, eternal sea. What an eloquent way to portray the reflections of these two men as they contemplate the end of their days.
In the final scene, both men admit that Ragnar must die, but Ecbert is unwilling to kill him, not least because, as Ragnar points out, the sons of Ragnar will seek revenge. It’s Ragnar who suggests that he be turned over to Ælla, and that poor, crippled Ivar, who is no threat at all, (hah!) be sent to Kattegat with word that Ecbert is the good guy, and they must take out their vengeance further north, on Ælla.
How much of this is a ploy on Ragnar’s part? Do we trust him? Does Ecbert trust him? We are, as the title of this episode suggests, uncertain. Ecbert prays for guidance and Ragnar clasps his hand with the very unreassuring assurance, Don’t be afraid.
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