'Vikings' recap: 'Mercenary'
King Ragnar just wants to farm. But an expedition to England turns bloody fast. Darn Mercians!
King Ragnar sits, pondering his world. And the world is his—if Vikings were Scarface, this is the moment when Tony Montana takes over the whole operation, kills his boss, sees his fortune in a neon blimp. (Pause to imagine a Vikings conquest montage set to “Push It To The Limit.”) “When the ice finally breaks, we will go back to Wessex,” he promises his son. “And we will claim the land that King Ecbert promised us.” That was always his dream. To find a new land, a place where the crops can grow.
“What do you see?” he asks his son. Bjorn, standing on the mountaintop, staring down at the kingdom his father won: “Power.” Bjorn is getting restless. He wants to fight. He wants to raid. He’s a man now, but he’s still a young man. He’s not too far away from where Ragnar was back in season 1: A young warrior, excited to plunder new worlds. But King Ragnar is older, and wiser. “Power is always dangerous,” he says. “It attracts the worst and corrupts the best. I never asked for power.” And yet he took it. Is Ragnar saying that he only ever wanted to be a farmer? Or is he trying to convince himself of that—trying to prove that he is a different kind of ruler from vain King Horik? (Travis Fimmel’s deadpan Ragnar gaze is a running Rorschach test: You can never quite figure out whether Ragnar is telling the truth or lying, and whether he’s lying to us or himself.)
“Power is only given to those who are prepared to lower themselves to pick it up,” he concludes. (Put that on the coffee mug you keep at your desk.) A dark warning. Dark warnings are everywhere, here at the dawn of Vikings‘ third season. Lagertha visits the Seer, seeking something like hope. Will she ever bear another child? “I cannot see another child,” rasps the seer, “No matter how far I look.” But he can see a few things, our favorite fortune teller, this half-man half-rash who looks like what happens when Jim Henson makes a muppet out of gonorrhea.
I see a harvest celebrated in blood.
I see a trickster whose weapon cleaves you.
I see a city made of marble, and a burning broiling ocean.
“It is the way of prophecy only to be understood when it has happened,” declares the Seer, “And it is too late to change it.” Lagertha asks when she will die. But only the wife of Odin knows—and she’s not telling.
So Lagertha might not have another child; so she might have some trickster-cleaving to look forward to. She’s too busy for premonitions. The Earl of Hedeby returns to her land for one last check-in before her adventure westward. She’s leaving her best man in charge: Kalf, who looks like what would happen if Jesus were the Cute One in a Boy Band. Lagertha and Kalf have a little Sherman-Palladino banter. “I have received another offer of marriage,” says Lagertha. The offer comes from a man whose name, if I heard correctly, is Jurgl Sørgülssérn. “He has a good turf cutting business,” says Kalf, and Lagertha responds, “At least I’ll be warm all winter,” and they laugh and laugh and laugh and you can just feel how they’re both wondering why all their clothes are still on.
“Why don’t you offer to marry me, Kalf?” asks Lagertha, never the shy nor retiring type.
“People would assume that I’d sought the marriage out of ambition,” explains Kalf. “It would do neither of us any good.” And now’s not the time for messy marriages. There’s a fellow by the name of Einar, who looks like Jeremy Davies with a Wario-stache. Einar isn’t happy with Lagertha’s administration; he’d prefer to restore the old dynasty. “What to do,” asks Lagertha, except she’s not asking, and she knows what to do.
All of Kattegat is preparing for the journey to England. Thorunn has been training in the fine badass art of shieldmaidenry. (ASIDE: I am generally opting for the least confusing spelling of peoples’ names—according to at least one reputable website, Thorunn’s name could also be spelled Þórunn, which looks like at least two languages I don’t speak. Let me know if any of this become confusing, and I’ll just start referring to characters by the musical genre their spiritual essence resembles. Ragnar is Gangsta Rap. Bjorn is Grunge. Lagertha is BritPunk. Floki is whatever Devo was. END OF ASIDE.) Thorunn is excited to go raiding. Bjorn isn’t so sure he wants her in Wessex. He suspects that she’s already with child. “If I lost you,” he says, “Then I would also lose my child.”
Ragnar could stand to lose a few children, at this point. He plays with his three young sons, “I’m going to cook you, little piggies!” he says. They all giggle. Then they stop giggling. Like a phantom, their mother appears, holding poor little Ivar in her hand. “How is Boneless?” asks Ragnar, dismissive. (You can feel already how Ragnar’s elder sons view their little brother as some kind of unknowable Other; you wonder how that will reverberate later in their sure-to-be-fraught lives.) “Do you love him?” asks Aslaug. “Of course I love him,” says Ragnar. Aslaug keeps going: “Do you love me?” Ragnar has no comment at this juncture.
“Name me one family that is happy,” says Floki. Maybe his? How Helga dotes upon him! How his beautiful little daughter has grown! “I feel trapped in all this happiness,” says Floki. “Trapped, Helga!” Inaction doesn’t suit Floki; it turns him into Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, an anhedonic miser frustrated by his own joy. Best case scenario, he dies in Wessex; worst case scenario, he returns home, to all this miserable happiness.
Floki’s not the only one who’s running away from his problems. Look at poor Torstein, the blond bearded dude who’s sort of the Hawkeye of Ragnar’s Avengers. By which I mean: An everyguy who’s not one of the big guns, but who clearly has his own intriguing small-scale adventures. Or not so small-scale: Seems that, in this long cold winter, Torstein shacked up with two different women, and now they’re both pregnant. “Why don’t you marry both of them?” his friends suggest. “They hate each other!” responds Torstein. “They want to kill each other. Or me!”
Athelstan, meanwhile, is looking forward to exciting new developments in his ongoing existential crisis. Ragnar can see his friend’s torment. “You can neither hide from your god, or ours,” says Ragnar. “I suffer from that same dilemma.” Ragnar wants his old friend to travel with him. “You will be my John the Baptist,” he declares. “Wherever you go, I will follow.” I always like how Athelstan’s character arc seems to combine certain narratives from Christian and pagan myth. Last season, we saw him crucified, in the manner of the Christ. In season 1, his arc followed the rough outline of a Hebrew leader: A man plucked from obscurity, shown a new religion, becoming a warrior. Now Ragnar is reconceiving his beloved priest as his emissary: The man who will prepare the way for some greater glory.
The day arrives; the warriors board their boats; their families stay behind, watching. Aslaug sees Ragnar talking to Lagertha: Her eyes are like daggers irradiated by a nuclear explosion. Helga watches Floki leave; Siggy watches Rollo leave; Torstein’s baby mamas watch Torstein leave. A triumphant departure… but back in Hedeby, a betrayal! Kalf takes Evil Jeremy Davies out into the middle of the water, seems to be about to kill him… but then asks for his support as Earl. “Ragnar and Lagertha talk only of farming. Farming,” he says, like the word is poison on his tongue. “Who wants to go places and farm? Where is the glory in that, Einar?” You could compare Ragnar to Stringer Bell on The Wire. All Stringer wanted to do was go legit; all Ragnar wants to do is convert his plunder-based society into an agricultural economy. But there’s always some Kalf somewhere, who thinks farming sounds exactly as boring as farming is; there’s always somebody waiting to stab you in the front.
NEXT: Back to Wessex.
King Ecbert welcomes his favorite Northmen back to Wessex, though he’s mildly amused to discover that Ragnar is a king now. “What happened to King Horik?” he asks, already knowing the answer. This is all happy news, as far as Ecbert’s concerned. “Then we are truly equal,” he tells Ragnar, though “truly equal” would require Ecbert gaining a couple inches of beard, a couple feet of height, and a couple kilotons of muscle.
A grand dinner is thrown, to celebrate Ragnar’s arrival. But it’s not just a celebration. Ebert has a little problem, and her name is Kwenthrith. The princess of Mercia would like her throne back. And Ecbert would like to help her. Ebert is also in a bit of a jam back here on the home front. Some of his nobles aren’t happy with the whole give-the-marauding-superhuman-killers-some-of-our-farmland policy. Ecbert wants to honor his treaty with Ragnar. But that means Ragnar and his men need to fight.
Ragnar will fight. But he won’t speak for his fellows. Rollo agrees: “If my brother goes, so do I.” Bjorn’s blood is running hot, and he just wants to fight fight fight. Floki joins in, too: “The fly always follows the dead meat.” Before Lagertha can speak, Ecbert offers a different path. He needs one of the Northmen to stay behind, lead the colonists in the farm community; a northwoman would do just fine, too. “My parents were farmers,” says Lagertha. “Ragnar and I were farmers. I will help my people to plow and sow and harvest and make a place to live.”
Athelstan will stay behind, too: He will speak for everyone. Athelstan understands everyone; he’s like the last man left in the Tower of Babel. (He’s also a lot like Cypher, a little-known but awesome character from X-Men mythology whose mutant superpower was the ability to speak every language, which is less cool than “control the weather” but arguably cooler than “fire red plasma out of your eyeballs.” Check back next week when I compare all the characters on Vikings to their closest X-Men analogues. Lagertha = Storm.)
The warriors prepare to set off for Mercia. Ecbert’s son Aethelwulf—a nice and responsible and totally boring dude who is just such a Cyclops—is going with Ragnar’s people. He’s leaving his wife behind. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that his wife, Judith, has taken a special notice of Athelstan. “May I touch your hand?” she asks. “They told me you were crucified, that you still bare the stigmata of Christ.” Indeed he does—and when she kisses his hand, your mind may turn to how the citizens of Kattegat lick the Seer’s hand after he reads their fortune, or you may just wonder if Judith’s a desperate housewife who doesn’t mind her husband setting off on an open-ended business trip.
Speaking of husbands and wives: Bjorn thinks Thorunn is pregnant. And she is! They hug, so happy; Ragnar watches them, his expression unreadable. (I love how many scenes of Vikings cut to Ragnar, watching. He’s a strong warrior, but his superpower is curiosity: He doesn’t miss a thing.) Lagertha and Athelstan are about to set off for the farmlands, when King Ecbert hops on their little trolley. “Why is he coming with us? He is a king,” says Lagertha. “Yes, I am a king,” says Ecbert. “So what?” That line made me think of something Vikings creator/writer Michael Hirst said when I interviewed him about the new season: “What does it mean to be King? Why do you want power? How do you use it?” For Ecbert and for Ragnar, being King more than anything means a license to indulge your curiosity: To hop onboard a cart next to a warrior woman from a foreign country and just stare at her for a while.
Does Ragnar see this? Does he see Kwenthrith, a vision in seductive red, joining his expedition? Rollo asks him: “Are you happy about doing this, brother?” “Since when does any of this have anything to do with my happiness?” responds Ragnar, smiling his sad smile, a smile that makes you think he forgot what smiling was for.
NEXT: Tell me about your uncle.Kwenthrith sits on the Viking ship. She watches Ragnar; Ragnar watches her, watching. “Tell me about your uncle,” he says. (You’ll recall: Her uncle seized power in Mercia, alongside her little brother.) “His name is Brihtwulf,” she says, “Though he calls himself King Brihtwulf.” How she hates her uncle, but how she loves her little brother. “My uncle has poisoned his mind, or used some magic against him.” Ragnar dismisses this as foolishness. “Has no one ever used magic against you, Ragnar Lothbrok? A wife? A brother? A friend?” Oh, she’s clocked him, has our gal Kwenthrith; she knows what it looks like when someone’s been betrayed.
Back on the farming cart, Ecbert is doing some inquiring of his own. He stares at Lagertha. “Ask him what he is staring at,” she tells Athelstan. “I’m staring at her,” says Ecbert. “She is unlike any woman I have ever met. There are no Saxon women like her. I am infatuated with her. A shieldmaiden, a warrior, a farmer, a mother. She is incredible!” To his fellow Saxons, Lagertha is a fearsome vision of some horror culture. But one of the core tenets of Vikings is how history is made by people who are unafraid of The New—how the great leaps forward in human history happened because of women and men who were excited by, not scared of, the unknown.
“He likes you,” says Athelstan. Lagertha has no comment, but she doesn’t cut Ecbert’s head off, either. Ecbert welcomes them to their new home: A wide-open farming utopia, a veritable Eden, the kind of place that the Northmen don’t even have a myth for yet.
As a counter-example to Ecbert’s arms-wide-open international policy, consider Aethelwulf, a good Christian man who has lived a right and noble life. He’s not a bad guy. But he sits with the Bishop, looking at their Northmen allies, and finds them despicable. “It is not possible to imagine a world in which there are one god and several,” he fusses. “One of us must be right.” Aethelwulf is a good man cursed with an utter lack of curiosity: He looks at Ragnar’s men and sees only savages.
It’s telling that, as he dismisses them, Ragnar and his pals are quoting what sound like old aphorisms— “A creaking bow, a burning flame…” “The hearts of women were turned on a whirling wheel”—echoes of a rich culture. “They’re like the creatures of the field,” says the bishop. Ignorant, primitive. And yet there they all sit together, in the forest, Saxon and Northman; Kwenthrith dances for them all.
Until the dancing stops. Brihtwulf’s army lingers nearby. Back to the boats, off to war. “If you are victorious,” says Kwenthrith, “I promise I will give you something worth more than land or riches.” Ragnar’s unreadable glance back at her betrays nothing. Another country, another princess: Is this what it means to be a King?
Any further thought must be held for later: Arrows start flying in from all sides, as if the Northman just sailed onto the set of Aguirre, The Wrath of God. (If you’re looking for essential viewing to pass the time between Vikings episodes, I would highly recommend Aguirre, which is about a bunch of German-speaking Spanish conquistadors going crazy in the rain forest. Additionally, if you enjoy Vikings and you haven’t seen Valhalla Rising yet, then you should watch Valhalla Rising immediately.) Ragnar throws his shield in front of Kwenthrith’s face—and an arrow pokes through. “Was that your god, or mine?” asks Ragnar.
The Mercian forces have split asunder, on either side of the river: Kwenthrith’s brother on one side, her uncle on the other. Apparently the Mercians thought this was a brilliant strategy, but the Northmen quickly notice a few things:
1. The forces on the right bank are much smaller than the forces on the left.
2. There is no bridge, and no way for the armies to rejoin.
3. Actually, the Mercian strategy is one of the worst ideas in the history of battlefield strategy.
“STEEERBOARD!” screams Rollo, which I assume is how you say “starboard” if you’re an eight-foot-tall battle-hipster. Kwenthrith’s brother watches in slowly dawning horror as the Northmen attack Brihtwulf’s forces. This battle scene is filled with Vikings‘ usual eye for detail—I especially loved the moment when one of Brihtwulf’s archers shot a Wessex man, and without missing a beat, a nearby Northman tossed the Wessex man off the ship. (No room for wounded on this boat, son!)
So the battle is joined; so Ragnar Lothbrok and Bjorn Ironsides and Rollo Beardopolis and Floki Shadoweyes and Thorunn Ke$ha-Hair did battle the Mercians that day; and so the Mercians did fall, though not before Thorstein the Impregnatorious took an arrow in the arm and snapped it off. So did Brihtwulf, Self-Declared King of Mercia, fall in battle; so did Kwenthrith watch as her uncle beg for mercy, breathless, until Floki brought his blade down on her uncle’s traitorous head, and the cry Kwenthrith let out was one of terror and ecstasy. So did Ragnar Lothbrok sit down in the field of battle, the grass red with Mercian blood.
His eyes met Kwenthrith’s. What passed between them, only the gods know.