Spoiler Alert! Reader Beware.
As the episode opens, King Ecbert (Linus Roache) has decided to deliver his ‘frenemy’ Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) into the hands of King Aella, who will very happily kill the viking leader. Tormented by guilt at this decision, Ecbert agrees to Ragnar’s request to speak alone with his son before Ecbert sends Ivar back to Kattegat. Ecbert’s distress about Ragnar’s coming death makes him a more sympathetic character in these last two episodes than the sly, devious king we have seen in the past. His decision to trust Ragnar alone with Ivar, though, is a big mistake.
Elsewhere in the palace, Alfred (Isaac O’Sullivan) and Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen) are playing chess. Given that this is the 9th century, a game of taefl is far more likely, but chess pieces are more photogenic.
It appears that young Alfred unexpectedly outmanoeuvres Ivar in the game, and this might very well be a portent of a future battle of wits between these two. Stay tuned.
When Ivar and Ragnar have their private meeting, Ragnar urges his son to “Take revenge for my death on King Ecbert, not on King Aelle” – despite Ragnar’s assurance to Ecbert that he would tell Ivar to do the exact opposite. Ragnar, you see, has an entire wiped-out settlement to avenge – a blood feud, if you will. Revenge was an important concept in Dark Age society, and Ragnar remains true to his Viking nature (and to his gods) in urging vengeance against Ecbert.
Before Ragnar is sent away he gives Alfred the cross that belonged to the monk Athelstan. “It was your father’s,” Ragnar says, and Alfred doesn’t even blink. Apparently this Alfred, whose parentage is purely an invention of series creator Michael Hirst, knows that Æthelwulf is not his father and King Ecbert is not his grandfather, which means that he has NOT A SINGLE DROP OF WEST-SAXON ROYAL BLOOD IN HIS VEINS. But it doesn’t seem to bother him or anybody else. He is SPECIAL, apparently by royal decree.
At this point we are given just the merest glimpse of Alfred’s older brother, Æthelred, who is a composite of all four of the historical Alfred’s older brothers. As the other three were named Æthelstan, Æthelbald, and Æthelberht, you should be grateful for this.
At this point we know what absolutely has to happen next because the sagas tell us that Ragnar will die in King Aella’s snake pit. But the road leading to Ragnar’s End is dark, pitiless and grim.
He is beaten, stabbed, and burned, and his right eye badly injured before he is dropped into the pit. The scenes are horrific, but the script is excellent and gripping, with fine acting by Roache and Fimmel (who did all his own stunt work, by the way; this show is tough on its actors). The only bright moments of this episode are Ragnar’s memories of his family, his youthful exploits, and his friendship with Athelstan.
The conflict between the Christian and Norse religions – a theme that runs through this entire series – permeates this episode. King Aella (Ivan Kaye) sees himself as God’s instrument. “I thank God and all his angels that I am still alive to witness this day,” he says, and lucky Ragnar is given the opportunity, through torture, to atone for his crimes. Three times (that mystical number) Aella demands that Ragnar ask for absolution, but Ragnar never yields. In reality, Aella wants to break Ragnar, not redeem him. He wants vengeance – as important to an Anglo-Saxon as it was to a Scandinavian; Aella has simply put a Christian spin on it. While he prays for deliverance from evil and violent men, Aella is himself evil and violent, and he relishes his violence. Brutality and cruelty were the norm in the Dark Ages, not the exception, no matter which god you followed.
King Ecbert, though, is driven to self-imposed penance because of his guilt about Ragnar. Dressed in the robes of a monk he walks to Mercia to witness Ragnar’s death – a hike that had to be at least fifty miles and possibly more, depending on where in Mercia Aella was staying. Ecbert seems to be searching for something as he watches Ragnar’s dying face. Forgiveness, perhaps. His expression, though, implies that he does not find it.
Throughout this episode Ragnar seems to be torn between belief in his Norse gods and an utter denial of the existence of any god. On the road, he imagines a conversation with the spamaðr, and he boasts to him that he, Ragnar, has been the master of his own fate; that the gods are man’s creation. Or does he protest too much? His final words are what he has told Ecbert they would be – he speaks of Odin’s Hall, where he will await the arrival of his sons, and he welcomes the Valkyries to summon him home. Perhaps this is nothing more than bravado tossed in Aella’s face; perhaps it is meant to be repeated to Ragnar’s sons and his people. But even if Ragnar does not believe his own words, he dies a pagan, true to his Viking nature.
Our blue-eyed boy is gone, although Hirst claims that we have not seen the last of Ragnar. And we have Ragnar’s own blue-eyed boy to replace him. Has anyone else noticed the blue cast to Ivar’s eyes in every scene?
When Ivar arrives in Kattegat he tells Ubbe and Sigurd of their father’s fate and they in turn tell him that Lagertha murdered their mum. Vengeance, Ivar says, is what matters. That merciless Dark Age concept will continue to drive this story forward.
Meantime, we are given an additional mystery: who is the one-eyed man we see sailing into Kattegat beneath a flock of Odin’s ravens?
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