See Ragnar Lothbrok, the great King and the wandering ghost. Once he was a young Earl, and he sat on the shores of Kattegat, and spoke words of sorrow to his dead daughter. Now he is an old man — old in experience, old in beard length, old in the measure of friends still alive against friends long dead — and he stands on the water’s edge.
What awaits him, this revenant soul, returned now after long years spent away? His sons do not kill him; that counts as a blessing, I suppose. “I came back because I wanted to see what has become of my sons,” he tells them, the fruit of his loins. One thing that has happened: “It would appear you have another son.” Across the sea in Wessex, there is a boy named Magnus, the product of a coupling with Queen Kwenthrith. Magnus is in Wessex, and surely Ragnar’s destiny lies there, also.
Times have changed. “Kattegat has changed since you went away,” says Ragnar’s son, Ubbe. “It is a major trading center in the region.” His sons have made plans. Bjorn wants to sail for the Mediterranean; Hvitserk wants to sail with him. (They will be joined by King Harald, whose fame seems to have only increased since the failed raid on Paris. Harald arrives in Kattegat with his brother, and it’s clear their ambition has not dimmed with the passing of years.
The sons of Ragnar Lothbrok share ambitions. That’s not all they share. An attractive slave girl serves them dinner before serving them in another way. One after another they seduce her: Ubbe and Hvitserk and Sigurd. Though she is a slave, the brothers clearly view this intercourse as mutually beneficial and consensual: “She’s a human being,” says Ubbe. “We have to ask her.” Young Ivar the Boneless wants to share the girl, too; they ask her.
And meanwhile, Ragnar Lothbrok is asking. He is asking for men to travel with him. He is asking his old friends to… well, forgiveness is a strong word. He goes to visit Floki, his oldest friend still remaining, the man who built him the ship that brought him such fame. Will Floki come with him on his new journey? “I have a feeling if you don’t come with me, I will never see you again,” Ragnar says.
Floki is fervent in his belief, as always. “We’re sure to meet again in Valhalla,” he says. “All the old friends we shall meet again, and fight with in true fellowship! You and I, we shall sit among the gods!” Floki believes in the old teachings and has never deviated from them; he killed the monk Athelstan because the gods told him to. That action could have irrevocably sundered him from Ragnar. And perhaps it did: It was the death of Athelstan that led Ragnar to seek baptism, to become a Christian in the eyes of the Church, so he could see his friend again in heaven.
Recall, at the start of season 4, how we saw Ragnar dreaming through his illness. He saw the doors of Valhalla close to him. Surely he is self-aware enough to know a Christian heaven will be closed to him, too. (He has sinned, and he doesn’t appear to be seeking confession.) “I don’t know if I shall see you in Valhalla,” Ragnar tells Floki. And he says: “I love you.”
It is the moment Floki has been waiting for his whole life. “I love you too, Ragnar Lothbrok!” he says. “I love you too, Ragnar!” The old friends part; whether they shall meet again, only the gods know.
NEXT: Old loves
“You must be King Ragnar,” says the strange woman. She is young, and she looks impressed but also unimpressed, as if she has seen gods walk into the hall before. Her name is Astrid, and she knows Ragnar from the stories. “My wet nurse told me many tales of your journeys west,” she tells Ragnar. “I think my wet nurse was a little in love with you.”
“I’m old enough to be your father,” says Ragnar.
But once upon a time, Ragnar was young enough to be someone’s husband. And that someone walks into the hall, joining Ragnar and Astrid. The years have been much kinder to Lagertha. She is still beautiful. More importantly, she is still powerful: An Earl in her own right, rising in power just as Ragnar has fallen. There was a time, long ago, when they were lovers. And a time when, as partners, they traveled to a far-away country and created a colony.
“I regret what happened with the settlement,” says Ragnar. “And I regret what happened between us. I have made many bad choices.”
“We all approved of your ideas,” says Lagertha. “But they didn’t work. Ragnar Lothbrok didn’t succeed.” She is being cruel to be kind. Ragnar has such ambition, ambition far beyond what any other Viking lord had conceived. He wanted to move past an era of raiding into an era of building. He imagined a joined world where cultures could work together, where Northmen could farm in lands not their own. Lagertha believed strongly in that world. And they have both been let down.
More than that, there was a time when they had no power and were in love. “In my mind, I wish I’d never left our farm,” says Ragnar. He has been a great man, and she has been a great woman. No regrets. “And yet, every regret,” says Lagertha. Would they have been happier on that farm, dreaming of a more ambitious life? Ragnar leaves and Lagertha remains behind with her lover, Astrid. She has her own destiny.
Back in Kattegat, Ivar sleeps with the girl. Or tries to. Things take a turn. “I have to kill you,” says Ivar, “So you cannot tell my brothers I’m not able to satisfy a woman.” What seems to be a brutal scene becomes something much trickier. “So your prick doesn’t work,” says the girl. “Does that make you less of a man? No, it doesn’t. Lots of men can have sex. Lots of men can have children. Those things are easy. To be a son of Ragnar Lothbrok, and to find greatness…”
Ivar starts crying, and here we notice just how different father and son are. Ragnar remembers a time when he had a simple life, with the simple things every person can want: A house, a family, children. Ivar, it seems, won’t have those things. For him, in this society, at this time in history, there is no other choice but greatness.
For Ragnar, perhaps, there is no choice, period. He finds a tree — perhaps it is a signifier of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Certainly, Ragnar has never looked more like Allfather Odin, the great god who was known to wander across the Earth, a great king best remembered now as a lonely traveler. (If Vikings were a different sort of show, we might wonder if Ragnar will somehow become Harbard, and travel as a stranger to his own village and make himself a cuckold with his own wife.) Ragnar thinks, considers, and decides. We see a rope thrown across a branch. We see a horse run away. And we see Ragnar, hanging, a crow on his shoulder.
The rope breaks; his story is not yet finished. Back in his old great hall, he finds Ivar. Once, long ago, he tried to leave this boy out in the wilderness to die. And now, amazingly, it is Ivar who is his truest supporter. “Of course I’ll come,” says Ivar. Destiny beckons, for old men and young alike.