“Are you a god?”
Little Ivar the Boneless is crying. His shrieks of unfathomable pain haunt wintry Kattegat. No wonder half the city took off for England: Better to die in battle in the land of the Christ-God than try to sleep through the screams of that little broken child. But now here is Harbard the Wanderer, bringing peace to this sad little boy. Harbard is not a great man like Ivar’s father: Not a conqueror, not a king. But when he calms Ivar’s soul—when he brings Ivar’s pain into his own being—Aslaug gazes at Harbard the way she wishes Ragnar would gaze at her.
“Are you a god?”
That’s what Siggy asks Harbard. Siggy is no fool. You don’t survive what’s she’s survived—the death of your husband, the death of all your children, the death of your entire way of life—without gaining a little bit of wisdom. But the Northmen know that the gods exist. Not in some unearthly heaven; not high on some mountaintop. Their gods walk the Earth—like the Christ-God, except they preach with a sword. Could this mysterious wanderer be a god? Could he be the god? Vikings began with Ragnar, in battle, seeing a vision of Odin the Allfather. Has he returned? Or is Barnard just a confidence man—a talented Mr. Ripley for an age when there weren’t even signatures to forge?
Across the water, the alliance between Ragnar’s men and Wessex has successfully squashed the Mercians. The wounded are tended to: Poor Thorunn lays wounded in her tent, one side of her face missing. Some men are blood sick, mourning the dead. But others are ebullient. See stalwart Aethelwulf, always so skeptical of his Viking allies, attempting to make peace. “Friends!” he declares to Rollo and Floki, speaking their pagan tongue. “No more enemies, but friends.” They fight together; they win. Rollo agrees.
Floki is disgusted, as always. For all his eccentricity, Floki is fundamentally a conservative soul. We raid; we fight; we die; the gods reward us. Rollo believes in the new way, the Ragnar way: “We cannot fight everyone. There must be cooperation, alliance.” The central paradox of Vikings is how it establishes a civilization built on warfare and then imagines how some of those great warriors might yearn for a better world. This is human history—from hunter-gatherer to farmer. But to Floki, it is heresy. He remembers when Rollo accepted his Christian baptism; he sees now how this demon Christ has infected his brothers. How do you solve a problem like Floki? For whenever Ragnar takes a step forward, Floki can only see it as a step backward. To raid, to fight, to die: Is there anything else?
In the woods, Ragnar nurses his wound. He hasn’t sought care for it; perhaps he embraces the pain. Kwenthrith finds him, says that she can help him. “Lie back,” she says. Ragnar obeys…and she urinates on his wound. Surprise! One recalls another forest, another princess. When Ragnar first met Aslaug, she was an ethereal figure, somehow more than human. Their first meeting was the stuff of legend, complete with a riddle. How far Ragnar has come since then; now he lies wounded along a river bank, another princess from another kingdom sterilizing his wound in the least expected way possible.
“I suppose I should thank you,” says Ragnar. He thanks her with advice: Kwenthrith’s brother will be her downfall. Kwenthrith’s no fool. She knows that Ecbert wants power over herself, over Mercia. (She wonders if Ragnar knows Ecbert half as well as she does.) “Lie back,” she tells him. She promised him a reward.
NEXT: The cuckoldry is mutual.[pagebreak]
Queen Aslaug can see things. Maybe it’s mystical—the blood of heroes pumps in her veins. Maybe she just knows men. Or maybe she’s just tired. When we met Aslaug, she was a beauty in the forest, protected by her woman warriors, the very picture of a Bright Young Thing with impossible possibilities ahead of her. Years have passed; she’s married, a mother four times over, a Queen left behind to run the store while her King traipses to far-off places with faraway princesses. Understandable, perhaps, that she would seek some escape from time to time.
Siggy begs her to get serious. She has responsibilities; there are people who have to see her, things that have to be decided. “I will accept the responsibility,” Siggy says—almost a threat, but Siggy makes it sound more like a desperate plea for attention.
Aslaug doesn’t bite. She strolls with Harbard through town, listening to his stories. How far he has traveled! How much he’s experienced! (Is any of it true?) Perhaps Harbard is just a wanderer—in an era when half of humanity will live and die in the same stretch of square mileage. Perhaps that’s why Harbard can see things other people can’t. She knows Aslaug is suffering. He knows she’s worried about Ragnar: That he no longer loves her, or desires her. He knows that Aslaug wants to come into his little house. “Remove your clothes,” he commands. She complies. She doesn’t want to be with her children; she doesn’t want to think of her husband.
Long years ago, Aslaug and Ragnar met, and it was like a dream. Now, Ragnar lays with another woman on a dank gray English riverbank, and Aslaug lays with another man in the shadows of lower Kattegat. Long years ago, Siggy sat on a throne next to Earl Haraldson, draped in fur, clean like only the wealthy can be clean. Now she sits in that same throne, alone, in an empty room, serving at the pleasure of the man who killed her husband. In last week’s episode, Ragnar won a great victory; how notable, then, that this episode is so suffused with dread and melancholy.
But it’s not all bleak. For at long last’s, Athelstan has shed his accursed virginity! “It’s done,” says Judith, Athelstan’s Band Camp Girl. “Are you glad?” He’s glad, all right. Judith loves our priest, and our priest loves Judith. The first four episodes of Vikings season 3 have separated nicely into a complete story-sequence—The Tale of Ragnar and the Mercians—and I like how writer Michael Hirst has carefully shown how the short-term status quo (the Northmen in England) has created a kind of second life for a few characters. With Aethelwulf gone, Judith could focus her attention on Athelstan; with Ragnar gone, Athelstan could briefly set aside the questions that torment him—God or Odin? Land of My Birth or Land of the Northmen?—and become just another man in love with a woman.
It can’t last. The army marches home. Floki says dark words about the man whose fault this all is—“who brought the Christ God into our lives”—and we remember that he has never had much love for Athelstan, not least because Athelstan seems to have usurped Floki’s role as Ragnar’s bestie. For Ragnar, this whole fight with Mercia has been a means to an end. His desires and ambitions for his people have grown—and after all, what limits did Odin put upon his curiosity?
Kwenthrith makes plans with her idiot brother. He’s not as dumb as he looks; he knows that, even if the siblings are co-rulers of Mercia, they’ll essentially be the prisoners of Wessex. “Better prisoners than dead,” says Kwenthrith. “Prisoners can always escape.” Some people fear the new status quo. But Kwenthrith—like Ragnar, like Ecbert—knows that the status quo can always change.
And not all change is permanent. Lagertha has had some fun with Ecbert. “I have enjoyed your company,” she tells the King. “And the sex.” Must it come to an end? Ecbert knows that Lagertha is an Earl; knows that she must return to her own people. But what if he asked her, personally, to stay? Coming from Ecbert, this practically sounds like an outright declaration of love. But it isn’t. And Lagertha can see Ecbert, all too well. “The only person you truly care for is yourself,” she tells him. He makes a face, like a child caught in a lie. So many couplings on this week’s episode, and yet so many lonely people. (“Together, Alone” could be the subtitle for this whole season so far.)
And who knows loneliness better than Siggy? Happily married to a powerful man, she was made widow by Ragnar Lothbrok; the mother of three, she lost them all to plague or worse. “Someday you will understand what a mother has to sacrifice for her children,” she tells the Sons of Ragnar Lothbrok—talking about their Aslaug but not only talking about Aslaug.
Siggy’s role in Vikings has always been in flux. She was the wife of an earl…and then that earl was killed. She was friends with Lagertha… and then Lagertha left. She was Rollo’s lover—she nursed him back from oblivion, rediscovering the hero who spent years in the mud. And she was a close confidante to King Horik. But she betrayed Horik to save Ragnar’s family. For all that, Rollo seemed to lose interest in her; Aslaug treated her as a friend, but also as a maid. Siggy’s path seemed to be toward reclamation: Of her throne, or at least of some measure of power.
That was not to be. Whatever Siggy’s destiny may have been, her story is over now. As actress Jessalyn Gilsig told me, she decided to leave Vikings for personal reasons. So Siggy’s story ends in this week’s episode. It’s a strange exit: Siggy chases after Ragnar’s sons, watches them fall into the ice, then jumps into save them. It’s not quite stepping into an open elevator shaft, but you can feel the seams showing just a little bit. Though there is a nice bit of biographical symmetry: Siggy’s two sons died young, murdered; she dies rescuing two of Ragnar’s sons.
When Siggy rescues Ragnar’s sons, she has a vision of her dead daughter, smiling at her. We see that this figure is actually Harbard the Wanderer, with a not-quite-legible expression on her face. The first time I watched this episode, I assumed there was something insidious in his presence—that he had somehow planned Siggy’s death. Gilsig has a different interpretation: That, having seen her daughter, Siggy chose to stop fighting to reclaim what she once had, and instead opted to join her family in whatever afterlife there may be.
It’s a bummer, because I always liked the idea of Siggy. So much of Vikings is about rising: The rise of Ragnar’s family, the expansion of Viking land. Siggy represented something different, and arguably more modern: The struggle of a fallen power to hold on to what little it can. Siggy gets a graceful, quiet personal finale—numb at last to all life’s pain, frozen underwater until springtime—but the characters journey ultimately ends with a question mark.
Then again, on a pure numbers level, one can understand why Vikings needs to start killing people: This cast just keeps swelling. Just look at the incredible setpiece that concludes this episode: A long, boozy celebratory dinner featuring the collective forces of Wessex, Mercia, Kattegat, and Hedeby get together in Ecbert’s great hall. See! Old lovers reunited. Ragnar and Lagertha continue to look like the hottest ex-marrieds this side of Luscious and Cookie Lyon. Lagertha notices that Ragnar’s wounded. He teases her: “Kwenthrith gave me some of her medicine.” I’m sure she did. Ragnar notices something pass between Lagertha and Ecbert. “You two got on well then?” he asks. “For the sake of all of us.” I’m sure it was. Once long ago they were farmers; now they’re in bed with royalty.
Upstairs, Bummer Bjorn checks in on Thorunn, who is rocking the kind of scar that’s usually reserved for alternate-reality versions of superheroes. “Poor Bjorn,” says Thorunn. “You won’t want to marry me now, will you?” Bjorn doesn’t say anything; why must life always be so hard for our little princeling?
Downstairs, the party is getting into full swing. Ecbert hugs Lagertha and Athelstan, begging them to stay. If not the lady, then surely the priest? Ecbert knows how much Judith will miss her confessor. Athelstan goes to talk things over with Ragnar, who’s half in the bag and is playfully rocking a Saxon helmet. Ragnar cottons to the problem—his Priest’s got a little crush!—and reminds Athelstan that “we’re all free to do as we pleace.” This conversation is shot in a manner that suggests a Catholic confession, with Ragnar in close-up talking through a wooden banister:
Judith, at least, has cast her vote: She begs Athelstan to stay. “I gave myself to you,” she says. “Please don’t leave me.”
“He is like you.”
That was how Athelstan first introduced King Ecbert to not-King-yet Ragnar way back at the start of season 2. Ecbert was like Ragnar: But what did that mean? At the time, you might’ve thought that meant Ecbert was a violent warrior, or an unflinching conqueror.
But that’s not true at all. Instead, Ecbert represents Ragnar’s cerebral side: His curiosity, his wit, his strategy, his fascination with other cultures, his ability to take the long view while all other men merely want to satisfy their basest desires.
They understand each other, these two men. They aren’t quite enemies; nor are they friends. It’s more like they’re the same person in two very different worlds.
In the best scene of this great episode, they share the frame as equals, in a careful medium shot.
(Extra credit this week to director Jeff Woolnough and director of photography PJ Dillon: “Scarred” is one of the least action-y episodes of Vikings ever, but they shoot this party sequence with enough verve and wit for 10 battle sequences.) They talk to each other, these great men. First about their policies: How Ecbert will secretly rule Mercia, how the Viking settlement is bearing fruit. But that’s mere prologue to more important matters:
“Do you think you’re a good man?” asks Ragnar.
Ecbert considers the question.
“Yes, I think so,” he says. “Are you good man?”
“Yes,” Ragnar echoes. “I think so.”
A moment passes.
“Are you corrupt?”
“Oh, yes,” Ecbert says, not even needing to think about that one. “Are you?”
What does it mean, to be a good corrupt man? Ragnar and Ecbert aren’t troubled by the paradox: They might seem like modern men, in that regard. Floki is more old-fashioned. He goes outside to talk to the gods; as he tells Rollo, “I’m so afraid that we must one day choose between them and your brother.” And perhaps Athelstan, for all his philosophy, is more old-fashioned, too. Ecbert begs him to stay—and you imagine that Athelstan would have a high place in the court of Wessex, the King’s aide-de-camp and friend, sneaking away to meet his lover the princess.
Could they keep up such an affair? Someday, Aethelwulf will be King, and he’ll be too busy to notice his great love the Queen spending so much time in confession, late into the evening after all other congregants have gone home. Perhaps Judith could bear Athelstan’s child; perhaps someday that child could sit on the throne of Wessex; perhaps Athelstans blood could flow through all future rulers of England. You have to figure Ecbert likes that idea—that somehow the future Kings and Queens of Essex could be officially his descendants and unofficially Athelstan’s. Ecbert has a raging libido when it comes to ladies, but his relationship to Athelstan feels positively spiritual.
But no; Athelstan wants to return with Ragnar. “I think that is the wrong decision,” says Ecbert. How happy this King has been with his new friends from far away; you wonder what will happen now, when those friends leave, and King Ecbert has no one left to talk to.
(Back in Hedeby, Kalf meets with some new friends. Call them the Season 2 Big Bad Henchman Alliance: The son of Horik and his lady wife, the widow of Jarl Borg. It is to Ragnar’s credit that he doesn’t kill the family of his enemies; unfortunately, the family of his enemies can really hold a grudge.)
The party is breaking up. The hall is emptied of everyone except for the couple dozen characters we know: Kings Ecbert and Aelle and Ragnar; Ragnar’s ex-wife, Lagertha, though best to refer to her as Earl Ingstad unless you want to lose that head; Prince Aethelwulf; his lady wife, Princess Judith; her lover, the fallen priest Athelstan; sundry warriors from the North. Kwenthrith calls all her friends together for a toast. She is happy. She has self-actualized. “I am free from my anger, safe from my nightmares,” she says. I know how I am.”
She thanks her brother; her brother thanks her. They cheers; he drinks; she doesn’t. There is much clapping. Her poor stupid brother begins to choke, to vomit out blood. Kwenthrith holds onto her brother as he expires. She almost says sorry.
“My lords,” says Kwenthrith as her brother starts to go cold on the floor. “Ladies and gentlemen. Please rise and raise your cups to the sole and only ruler of Mercia.” In one final two-shot, Ragnar and Ecbert share the screen looking—Surprised? Impressed? Scared? Totally turned on? Perhaps Ragnar is wondering if Kwenthrith took his advice; perhaps Ecbert is wondering if he made himself a new powerful enemy. Maybe they’re just happy to know that they’re not the only ruthless people in the building. “To the Queen of Mercia!” Ragnar says. “To the Queen!”
Everyone holds up their cups. Then everyone empties their cups, throwing them at her feet. The Queen of Mercia stands over her dead brother: Avenged, and damned.
Across the sea, things are returning to normal in Kattegat. The Wanderer is leaving; he never stays anywhere too long. It’s been a good stay, here in Kattegat. He’s taken some of little Ivar’s pain unto himself. And isn’t Siggy better off now—with her husband and children in Valhalla?
Aslaug asks him: “Who are you?”
Harbard turns, his face half in shadow: “Just a wanderer.”
And then—god or man—he is gone.