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'Vikings' recap: 'The Dead'

Posted on

History Channel


TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
run date:
Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen
History Channel

See King Ragnar Lothbrok, lord of the Northmen, descended from the line of Odin, follower of the Christ-God. He is ill, brought low by battle and the Frankian air. The soldiers of Paris arrive in his camp, bearing untold riches of gold and silver. Everyone meets them. But not Ragnar, who is half-dead inside his tent. Sweating, coughing, bleeding: The King has looked better. His brother, Rollo, brings him news: “They brought the payment.” Ragnar hears him: “It makes no difference to me.” He is dying; his great ambitions are fading. “At least I know I will see Athelstan again,” says the King.

Season 3 of Vikings began with Ragnar at the height of his powers: King of all he could see, he dreamed of further expansion, colonization, alliance, conquest. Here is a man who loves his family, and loves his people. And now here he is, in a faraway country, surrounded by his family—son, brother, dear friend, soulmate—and his greatest dream is to walk away into a distant afterlife, far from Valhalla, to spend eternity with his Christian friend.

Perhaps this was always destiny. Floki warned them, did he not? The priest poisoned Ragnar’s mind. Rollo agrees with Floki. Lagertha tells Rollo she cannot believe it; he can’t truly be a Christian. (Notice how everyone comes to speak with Rollo now. He has become the leading authority, already a legendary warrior in the land of Frankia. Rollo’s arc this season has been the inversion of Ragnar’s: from despair to fame.) Wasn’t Rollo baptized? Sure, but he didn’t mean it. In Rollo’s mind, the gods protected him; they will not protect Ragnar.

Ragnar can barely trust the people closest to him. What about those people who have every reason to hate him? Erlendur, son of Horik, plots with Kalf the Usurper. They agree that, surely, no Christian could ever rule as King. Maybe it’s better if Ragnar dies now. The dream of a Christian-Northman alliance—which shone so brightly in those happier days, back in Wessex—looks all but dead now.

Within the walls of Paris, Emperor Charles congratulates himself on a job well done. He has triumphed over the Northmen with the oldest trick in the book: He made it rain. Princess Gisla is disappointed, of course. Ragnar’s opposite number among the English has always been Ecbert; it’s clear that, here in Paris, his chief antagonist is Gisla, a fierce nationalist and proud Christian who knows the difference between a genuine victory and a moral defeat. Her father insists that, next time, they will be better prepared. “God bless Paris!” he says, visions of Charlemagne dancing in his eyes.

The Vikings are dancing, with glee and joy. They came; they saw; they made some serious skrilla. Alas, poor Floki, who cannot rejoice with his friends. Floki arrived at the walls of Paris at his moment of triumph: Sure that the gods were with him, sure that his cause was just. What does he have left now? His reputation has suffered: Floki the Boatbuilder saw all his great machines burned before his eyes. His wife, Helga, can barely stand to look him in the eyes. His lord Ragnar is dying—and worse, Christian.

Ragnar speaks to his trusted son, Bjorn. There will come a time when Bjorn is in charge, he says. “You must lead with your head,” says Ragnar, “Not with your heart.” This is Ragnar’s entire governing philosophy, in a nutshell—and it sets him apart from his fellow Vikings, who are so often guided by ambition above all else. He has a mission for Bjorn; he can trust no one else. (The celebrations in Paris are quieter. Count Odo welcomes a lady of the court into his chambers, where she learns that Count Odo has some 50 Shades of Grey-esque inclinations.)

A month passes. The Vikings do not leave. The Parisians visit the camp, inquiring. King Ragnar is too weak to travel. In Ragnar’s camp, Bjorn reveals a secret: If Ragnar dies, he wants a Christian burial. Otherwise, the Vikings will not leave. Count Odo agrees, with conditions: The men who bring Ragnar’s body must be unarmed. Ragnar coughs, says nothing. In the woods, Floki makes Ragnar one final ship. It is a small boat. It will never touch the sea, yet it will carry Ragnar farther than ever.

NEXT: Resurrection[pagebreak]

Was Vikings really going to kill Ragnar Lothbrok? Maybe; maybe not. The historical record on Ragnar is clear but also uncertain—plenty of room for season-finale twists. (Writer Michael Hirst has long said that he could see Vikings outlasting Ragnar; the man has many sons, each with their own quite elaborate destiny.) Still, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who cottoned to Ragnar’s scheme before everyone else did; this show takes risks, but letting its main character die offscreen would’ve been a Sopranos-cut-to-black moment of pure anti-narrative insanity.

Still, it was moving to see Ragnar’s family say goodbye to him. Lagertha got the best lines, as usual: “If you’ve gone to heaven, then we will never meet again. And yet, I think Odin will ride like the wind and rescue you, and take you to Valhalla where you belong. And there we shall meet again, and fight, and drink, and love one another.”

Rollo told his brother the truth. How he has always resented him. “I’m sorry you’re dead, but it happens to all of us sooner or later. It’s just funny that the gods took you first.” Floki has the longest goodbye. “I made the boat that took you to fame,” he spits. “Now I make the boat that will take you to heaven.” Floki sounds like a betrayed friend, a spurned lover. Did he not love Ragnar more than anyone? And didn’t Ragnar treat him like a fool? “I hate you Ragnar Lothbrok!” Floki exclaims. “And I love you with all my heart.” Floki has truly become the show’s vision of his almost-namesake; like the mythic Loki, he seems to flit between all sides, belonging to everyone and yet no one.

A squad of Viking pallbearers bring Ragnar’s final boat to Paris. All of Frankia awaits him, in the cathedral. The Bishop leads him through the streets, to the base of the altar. Princess Gisla watches, unhappy. Emperor Charles watches, glowing. This is his moment of triumph, is it not? His grandfather, Charlemagne, was a great advocate for Christianization as a weapon—and now, here is the Lord of the attacking Northmen, dead before Charles’ feet, a Christian.

Or perhaps not so dead: For Ragnar emerges from his coffin. The symbolism is unmissable: Some of the Christians faint at the sight of such a resurrection. Ragnar is still sick—his illness was not faked—but he is stronger than he looked. He holds a knife up to the Emperor, while his men grab swords out of his coffin. Ragnar notices the bishop looking at him funny; Ragnar is the last thing that bishop will ever see.

Princess Gisla assaults Ragnar. But she’s no match for him. He grasps the young royal, and whispers a message to the Emperor: “I win.” The Emperor falls, unconscious; his reputation will never recover from such shame. The Vikings run through the streets of Paris. There are only a few of them, but the people are terrified. They cross the bridge. For reasons only he can explain, Ragnar frees the Princess. Perhaps he doesn’t want the Franks to be in a vengeful mood; perhaps he’s just blood-sick, after long months of warfare. He lets her go. Then Bjorn sends the Northmen into Paris.

Notably, the camera does not immediately follow the men into the city. Instead, we see Ragnar Lothbrok. While his men run past him into the city, he walks in the opposite direction. It’s an intriguing visual; it speaks to how different Ragnar is from his fellow Vikings, even though he is their ruler. He collapses into his son’s arms; his family and friends appear. They don’t look happy to see him alive. Perhaps they see this as yet another betrayal by the man they love.

The best shot in this sequence is a lingering image of Ragnar, fallen into Bjorn’s arms, while Lagertha silently walks away. It’s a vision loaded with symbolism. Ragnar and Bjorn vaguely resemble the iconic Christian pieta, with Jesus fallen into Mary’s arms. (Like Jesus, Ragnar has been “resurrected”; like Jesus, he has a beard.) You could also tease out some Holy Trinity subversions in this image: Ragnar the Father, Bjorn the Son, Lagertha the floating Holy Spirit.

Or perhaps the ultimate meaning of this image is simpler. Once upon a time, these three people were a close, loving family. They have changed very much over the years. Lagertha was never a housewife, but once upon a time she was a devoted mother. Now, she’s a famed warrior and was, for some time, a powerful earl in her own right. She’s gained much and lost much—like Ragnar, who has never been more powerful and never seemed less happy. His son Bjorn, once upon a time, chose his mother over his father; now, it would appear he has made a very different choice.

NEXT: Duke Rollo of Frankia[pagebreak]

The Vikings raided the city, took what they wanted, and left. The bishop still bleeds on the cathedral floor. The Emperor is awake, but almost comatose: “All the angels in heaven are weeping.” Princess Gisla demands that he rise. The heathens are gone; they have done their worst.

The other Vikings lords are not happy with Ragnar’s deceit. But he is still King. And he speaks through Bjorn: They will leave tomorrow. But they will return in the springtime. So someone must remain behind. Floki offers to stay, but Rollo refuses that: “You have no reason to stay here, Floki.” Rollo has a reason, although he refuses to share it. Bjorn makes the decision: Rollo will remain and winter here in Frankia.

So Rollo watches as the ships sail away. He sees his famous brother, Ragnar Lothbrok. They exchange a glance. It is impossible to read. Ragnar is still ill: Perhaps this is the last time they will see each other. They have been brothers and allies, friends and enemies. Who knows what they will be to each other, if they ever meet again?

Time passes. The Emperor rejoices over a fine meal. They have fine snails and wine. He talks to his daughter. The great warrior, Rollo, has remained in a camp. It’s obvious that the Northmen are returning. “Surely, one of your brothers will come to your aid,” spits Gisla. The Emperor is beyond shame now. He has sent messages to his brethren; they will not help him. “Their hatred for me turns out to be the supreme and guiding principle of their lives.”

He demands more wine. He has a plan. “I will not be known to history as the French Emperor who presided over the destruction of Paris. I cannot, and will not allow, such an intolerable fate to befall our city.” Gisla has a recommendation: more money. The Emperor has a counter-offer: He weeps openly. “I must offer your hand in marriage.”

Gisla would do almost anything for the sake of Paris. She would kill herself. She would cut off her hand. She would spend two minutes with Aethelwulf. But she will not be tied in holy matrimony to a pagan. Twist: Her father has already made the offer. “You will obey the Emperor!” says the Emperor. “Marry that bear!”

The envoy brings the Emperor’s tidings. They will give Rollo a large tract of land. They will make him a Duke. He will be very rich, very important. “The Emperor also offers the hand in marriage of his beautiful daughter, Princess Gisla.” All he has to do is defend Paris against Ragnar, if and when he should return.

Would Rollo betray his brother… again? After his brother allowed him to live, to redeem himself? Apparently so: Rollo enters the throne room of the Emperor. He meets his bride-to-be, who refuses to marry him. “I would rather be burned alive!” she declares. “He is a pagan! He has no soul! He disgusts me. He makes me want to vomit.” Rollo is charmed. Perhaps he likes her spirit; she can’t help but remind him of Lagertha. “Hello,” he says, in the language of the Franks. He smiles. His grand destiny is assured now.

On the boat back to Kattegat, the Vikings sleep. All but Floki, who ponders his deepest thoughts. Ragnar calls him over, in a whisper. The King is still sick. He has a message for his old friend. “You killed Athelstan,” he says. Is that hate in his eyes? Or something worse? The season ends with a shot of Floki’s face, clearly wondering the same thing.

It’s a tense way to end the season. The finale appears to set up a return trip to Paris—and, as I discuss with Vikings writer Michael Hirst, it also tees up what could be a final reckoning between Ragnar and Rollo. This season was so packed with incident that there wasn’t even room for a finale visit to Wessex—but presumably Ecbert continues plotting his method for total conquest of England. Will season 4 carry Ragnar’s forces back to the land of the Saxons? Or further out to new adventures? For now, only the gods know.