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.