And so the warriors prepare for battle. The allied forces of King Ragnar Lothbrok and Earl Kalf the Usurper and Horik’s Annoying Son are set to attack Paris, from land and from sea. Floki the Boatbuilder climbs atop one of his fresh ladders, dancing with joy. Victory is assured: Has he not given the gods a holy sacrifice?
Ragnar watches. Ragnar is always watching; so much of the thrill of Vikings comes from watching Travis Fimmel’s blue eyes, which can look sad and joyful and murderous all at once. Ragnar watches the shieldmaidens grab their shields, the swordsmen grab their swords. Helga loads the boats up with extra arrows. Rollo leads a war chant. Bjorn Ironsides, first son of Ragnar, is ready for battle—not his first, perhaps his last. As the boats row away, another force of Northmen approaches the gates of Paris. The citizens outside race through the giant doors; some of them don’t make it.
“To The Gates” is The Big Episode of this season—maybe the Big Episode of the whole series so far. There is a bare minimum of dialogue during the battle scene, most of it coming from the Parisians. “Whatever happens,” says Count Odo, “they must not get through the gates.” The future of two civilizations depends on gates, walls, the simple geometry of keeping the people outside from coming inside. The Princess of Paris races to the window, and sees approaching doom.
On one side of town, Lagertha and Kalf start their attack. A command echoes in the silence: “Bring the cage and the ram!” From a watchtower, the guards fire arrows. The Vikings raise a shieldwall, but some of the warriors fall. The Parisians are not natural warriors like the Northmen—but they are the more technologically advanced civilization. The Vikings are playing strong offense, but the Parisians only need to play defense.
While Count Odo commands his men to brace the gates, the sea battle begins. Rollo leaps into the water, watching as Floki’s great ladders get pressed up against the walls of Paris. It’s madness: A warrior behind Rollo takes an arrow in the shoulder, laughs it off, then takes another arrow in the middle of his face. “I tell you, the gods are with us!” says Floki. It is Floki’s first command, and he is overjoyed. The halls of Valhalla will echo with tales of this day. He will be Floki the Conqueror; he will sit next to Thor, will share a beer with Allfather Odin himself.
Inside, the Princess of Paris plans a curious counter-attack. A man of the Christ-God shows her the sacred banner of St. Denis, the bishop of Paris in the third century AD. (ASIDE: Paris has been around for a long, long, long time, guys. END OF ASIDE.) St. Denis is the patron saint of France; according to Christian myth, he was decapitated, picked up his own head, and walked six miles preaching the word of God. (Ragnar would love St. Denis.)
The Princess begs the holy man to bless the Oriflamme. Her Lord Father the King may be a coward—there’s an incredible shot of the King on his throne, frozen in terror, his eyes darting madly behind his mask. But the Princess is smart. She might not be a warrior, but she knows how a battle works. It’s all about momentum. The Parisians are scared. Vikings creator Michael Hirst has said that one of the Vikings’ main weapons was the ability to strike terror in their opponents. They traveled in small packs, with relatively few warriors: Even the massive force arrayed against Paris is measly compared to the armies of the Holy Roman Empire. But they had shock and awe on their side. You can feel it in Paris, with the bells ringing and the people panicking.
The Princess turns the tide. She ascends to the gates, with the oriflamme waving in the wind. “Behold, soldiers of Christ!” she declares. “Show no mercy! Fight on! Fight to the death!”
NEXT: To the death, indeed[pagebreak]
Floki is starting to get nervous. Men are falling from the ladders; there is a pile of dead Vikings; the blue waters of the Seine are red with the blood of swordsmen and shieldmaidens. Rollo sees one warrior refuse to climb the ladder; he kills him for such cowardice. But can you blame him? The Parisians throw a cauldron of hot oil on one ladder; a bowman fires a flaming arrow, and the whole war machine lights up with flame. The deathscreams echo through Valhalla. Dead men and women meet their ancestors, and have to explain why they’ll have no further descendants.
Lagertha and Kalf’s forces break through the massive door, and race across the bridge. But Kalf has a bad feeling; he tries to stop Lagertha, and then simply knocks her out, carrying her away from the battle. Just in time, too: Rows of spears appear, firing through several rows of warriors. They never had a chance.
Ragnar watches. He can sense the tide turning. Perhaps he expected this; the way he looks at Floki calls to mind the one-armed man from Arrested Development, always teaching the Bluth children lessons in the most horrifying way possible. (Pause to imagine Ragnar, declaiming stern wisdom toward Floki: “This is what happens when you kill Athelstan.”) But Ragnar springs into action when he sees Bjorn make for the ladder. They look at each other, and smile—it’s their Butch and Sundance moment—and then up they climb.
Floki has lost all hope. He cowers under a burning ladder, raving at the gods. “Athelstan has done this!” he says, and “Ragnar is betrayed!” He blames the gods: “I gave you half of all my best goods! And still you have betrayed me!” For a brief moment, Floki even seems to blame himself: “Your mouth is filled with lies, Floki. You poor fool. You’re insane. I will be flayed by fire.” Blood rains down upon him, and ash. He is a ruin.
Rollo fights atop the wall. He sees the Princess—and they share a lingering glance. But it is just a glance: A gang of Parisians push Rollo over, and he sinks into the water. (Visually, didn’t this resemble the death of Siggy?) You may recall the prophecy that Rollo received from the seer: That the bear will marry the princess, and that Rollo will be present at the wedding. He ain’t a princess, but he’s bigger than some bears: Could this mean that happy days really are ahead for Rollo?
Ragnar battles like a man possessed. He is King, but he is also Viking. But above all, he is always curious. And so when he is knocked around by a Frenchman, he cannot help but marvel at his first up-close sight of Paris. The world goes silent and slow: He is seeing a world that he has only dreamed about. I wonder if, more than anything, Ragnar admires the Parisians: They have built a safe city, with a social ecosystem that doesn’t require an annual hunter-gatherer raid. They don’t need to be warriors; they have machines that practically do all the fighting for him. (Of course, you could argue that Ragnar’s tragedy is that he can only touch his dream by trying to destroy it; he admires the gates, but only because he wants to tear them down.)
The moment does not last; Ragnar is thrown over, and lands in a pile of his own men. Nearby, he finds Bjorn Ironside, two arrows in his back.
NEXT: They appear almost human[pagebreak]
The battle is lost. The Vikings retreat. The King and Count Odo survey the human wreckage. “They appear almost human,” the King says. (Easy to be confident when someone else wins the battle for you.) Back at the Viking encampment, the survivors assemble. Bjorn isn’t dead, but he doesn’t look too good; waves lap up against the ground, more blood than water.
“To the Gates” is a Paris-centric episode, but we do get one brief cut back to Kattegat. A robed figure walks along the hillside, turning back just once to stare at the village by moonlight. Scarred Thorunn will not stay; she will not be a husband to Bjorn, nor a mother to Siggy. Vikings‘ third season has put a special focus on wanderers: Those strange people who belong nowhere. There was Harbard, who may have been a god; there was Sinric, the mysterious wanderer who first told Ragnar about England. Wanderers hold an interesting place in Viking society: Their lives are hard, but they are honored for their wisdom. This appears to be Siggy’s future: A warrior woman haunting the countryside, the she-wolf that could have been Queen.
“Is he alive?” begs Lagertha, racing into the tent. “Is my son alive?” Bjorn is. His mother and his uncle pester Ragnar: He should have never been climbing the ladder. Ragnar disagrees. “He is a man,” says the King. “Let him be one.”
Rollo is optimistic about the next battle: “Next time, we will not make the same mistakes.” Not so Floki, who bathes in the red waters of the Seine. Ironic: It wasn’t so long ago that Athelstan was baptizing himself in the waters outside Kattegat, immersing himself in the warmth of his Christ-God’s love. These waters are cold. Floki’s wife, Helga, appears. “What are you doing?” she inquires. Floki cannot face the others; this disaster is all his fault. “This is not all about you!” Helga tells him, furious. “You don’t think of anyone but yourself!” Floki begs her, tells her she is wrong: “I think about every human being in Midgard.” That may be true—but Floki also believes, selfishly, that his actions effect every human being. He killed Athelstan for the good of his kin; perhaps he now wonders if he killed Athelstan for nothing.
Lagertha recovers from battle. She is wounded, but unbroken—thanks to Kalf, the hateful usurper who even more hatefully saved her life. Kalf gives it to her straight: He desires her with all his heart. “What if I accept what you have to say?” Lagertha asks. She could go with him, be with him—but there is a catch. “I will never forgive you for usurpsing my earldom. And one day, I will kill you.” She moves in closer. “If you accept that condition, then let us be together and enjoy each other.” Kalf considers it. Lagertha moves closer. Kalf accepts!
Bjorn awakes to find his father, relieving himself in the tent. Ragnar is beaten up—maybe more than he is letting on. But he is proud of his son. Bjorn is becoming a leader—he will be a good King someday, perhaps.
Ragnar walks outside, to speak with his old friend Athelstan. Or perhaps he is speaking to no one; just talking to himself, like Al Swearengen and the Chief. Ragnar reveals that he had an agenda all along with Floki—the implication seems to be that he set up his boatbuilding friend to fail. (It’s a savvy strategy, to some extent: This first battle was essentially a fact-finding mission for Ragnar, and now Floki can be blamed for its failure.) “If I was him, I’d worry less about the gods, and more about the fury of a patient man. And as you well know, I can be very patient.”
Ragnar coughs a couple times, blood pouring down his mouth. He is not invincible, not immortal; someday, sooner or later but probably sooner, he will be a dead man. “I wish you were here,” he tells his friend. “Paris is everything you told me it would be.” He looks into the sky, dreaming of tall spires and buildings that stretch to the horizon. “I am bound and determined to conquer it,” he says, one dead man to another.