“Don’t waste your time looking back,” says King Ragnar Lothbrok. “We’re not going that way.”
Ragnar and his allies sail southward, to Frankia and the riches of Paris. Ragnar brings Ubbe and Hvitserk, his two eldest children by Aslaug. They have received their sacred arm rings, symbolizing that they have come of age, binding them in loyalty and fealty to the King their father. Aslaug believes the boys are too young to fight. “They are not too young to watch,” says her husband. Perhaps he wants his boys to see the raid, learn battle strategy, start to become the great warriors Ragnar hopes they will be. Perhaps Ragnar just wants the boys far away from their mother. Suspicion lingers in their marriage, and rage. Their coupling is a battlefield, their sons spoils.
These aren’t the times for children. Youth must grow up fast. Across the sea, Ecbert calls his people together. He has an exciting pronouncement. His grandson, Prince Alfred — born of Judith and the monk Athelstan — will take pilgrimage to Rome. Father Prudentius will act as his guide. Aethelwulf, his legal father, shall be his protector. Like Ragnar, Ecbert sees this as a fine strategy for raising a new generation — young Alfred will meet the Pope, see the Vatican, feel what it means to be at the center of the world. But this action will also take Aethelwulf far from his lover, Kwenthrith. The long walk to Rome will take months. Who knows how long they’ll linger there? Who knows, too, what will happen to Kwenthrith — and her renegade kingdom Mercia – without her advocate Aethelwulf to protect her.
Will Ragnar have a protector on his own journey? Perhaps Yidu, his lover and designated Dr. Feelgood. Yidu wants to go with Ragnar to Frankia. She promises to supply him with medicine — and although there is not yet a word for “addiction” in the vocabulary of the Northmen, there is something wild in Ragnar’s eyes when she suggests that, without her, the medicine will disappear from his life. (Yidu speaks Frankish, too. You learn a few languages, when you’re enslaved halfway around the world from your home.)
These first six episodes of season 4 have formed a striking interlude — an epilogue to one Paris invasion, a prologue to another. Ragnar has returned from the edge of death a changed man. Perhaps not for the better. His own death torments him, or perhaps fascinates him. “I want to know the day that I will die,” he asks the Seer. “You will die on the day that the blind man sees you,” says the Seer. Is he correct? (The Seer said Lagertha would have no more children, and she told Kalf she was pregnant — before she killed him.)
On the boats sail, away from Kattegat. Ivar Boneless and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye watch their father leave. Their father does not look back. Nor his son Bjorn, who regards the ring on his finger — the ring of Erlendur, given to an assassin. Erlendur, who regards Bjorn from another boat, always plotting vengeance for his dead father the old King. And Floki doesn’t look back, either. He has new friends now, King Harald and his brother.
Back home in Kattegat, Sigurd seeks a new playmate. His mother insists he play with Siggy, his niece. But she is dirty, only just barely walking. Sigurd goes inside his mother’s room, and sees her breastfeeding his little brother Ivar. If the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok must choose one parent over another, fair to say that Ragnar has already lost Ivar to his lady wife.
NEXT: Sail away
The Northmen sail on open sea, past even the setting of the moonlight. Yidu sings a song in her native tongue. Then comes thunder, lightning, wind from all sides. In the morning, Ragnar’s boat has been blown far off course. They find two other boats: One carrying Lagertha and Erlendur, the other carrying King Harald and his men.
The sail toward the coastline — and find a couple Frankish boats. A Frankish search party laughs and drinks by a campfire. Soon, they laugh and drink no more. The Northmen take them captive. They tie one Frank to a piece of driftwood and send him into the water — a signal to their kinsmen.
After the fight is over, a moment of quiet for some old lovers. Erlendur taunts Torvi by threatening her son. If Erlendur asks Torvi to kill Bjorn, she will have to — otherwise, her son will die. Elsewhere, Helga continues to watch in fearful awe as Floki continues down his spiral, refuting Ragnar’s friendship. And Ragnar himself receives a pointed refutation from Lagertha, his long-ago love. Why, Ragnar ponders, is she here with this war party instead of keeping her baby safe? She won’t say. Ragnar tries to comfort her, saying how broken her heart must be now that Kalf is gone. “My heart was broken a long time ago,” says Lagertha. Some wounds do not heal.
Signal fires light up the hillside. A Frank must have escaped, lighting an alarm that will travel all the way back to Paris. King Harald responds violently, burning all the captured Franks on the signal fire. Harald is so different from Ragnar. The farmer King has killed his enemies, but he is curious about other cultures. Harald and his men would rather watch it all burn: Paris and Frankia and lands beyond. Perhaps Harald is the better Viking. Perhaps Ragnar is just another old man.
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In Paris, the alert runs through the city. The Emperor begs Duke Rollo to save his fine city. “I will not betray you,” says Rollo. “I will not betray Paris. And I will not betray my life.” Here, in this strange new civilization, Rollo has become his best self — and all he had to do was betray everyone he ever knew, everything he ever believed in. Count Odo doesn’t trust him, nor the Emperor, who confides in his mistress that he has made plans for a coup. The mistress is happy to hear this — for she has been plotting against Odo with Roland. Paris is already a tinderbox — what happens when the Vikings arrive to light it afire?
The Northmen approach the Frankish city. There is no sign of Rollo’s camp — no surprise to Ragnar. He demands some medicine from Yidu. Another remote Viking village decimated. Perhaps Rollo is thinking of his colony in Wessex. Perhaps all those deaths weigh on him still; perhaps that is why he seeks Yidu’s medicine, an escape from his sad fatal responsibility. Or perhaps he seeks something else. In the throes of her curious medication, Ragnar sees a white horse racing along the shoreline. And there, further up the shore: a farm, a wife with eyes full of love, two young innocent children, a good true friend. Athelstan and Lagertha, Gyda and little Bjorn. A family. How long has it been since Ragnar had such a family? How long since he was truly at peace?
He shakes away the vision, a dreamy look on his face. Don’t waste time looking back. Greater terrors await ahead. For there, on the hillside, is the man who once was Ragnar’s brother. Duke Rollo of Frankia: a Northman, now nemesis.
And at home, in Kattegat, the wanderer Harbard returns. “I will put an end to your suffering,” he promises Aslaug. “Heal you. Make you free.” Men keep on promising their women freedom: Think of Ecbert and Judith’s education, Ragnar and Yidu’s home. What is this freedom Harbard brings? Is he indeed Odin, as Floki believes? But what does little Ivar know of gods? He is just happy to see his healer back. Ponder Ivar’s terrifying smile, and ponder what awaits Ragnar Lothbrok when he once again returns to this home he never wanted.