Limbs are removed. A head, too.

By Darren Franich
February 27, 2015 at 02:06 AM EST
Credit: Jonathan Hession/History Channel
S3 E2
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Waves of blood crash upon these Mercian shores. Ragnar Lothbrok and his men have traveled a great distance—farther than their fathers or their fathers’ fathers. But blood is the same, Saxon or Northmen. In the aftermath of the battle with Brihtwulf’s army, the unified forces of Kattegat and Wessex celebrate in the forest. Torstein looks rather sickly—he took an arrow in the arm, and now he’s not hungry for the first time in his life. “May Frejya lie with you tonight,” says Ragnar. Just try not to get her pregnant too, Torstein, or that’s a hat trick.

Princess Kwenthrith may hail from Mercia, but she drinks like a Viking. “I’m so happy that my uncle is dead,” she says. So happy that she doesn’t quite believe it. “Fetch the King’s head,” commands Ragnar. While Floki obligingly splits Brihtwulf’s neck, Ragnar asks the question on everyone’s mind: Why does Kwenthrith hate Uncle Wulfy so? “Do you think that my older brother was the only member of my family who raped me when I was a child?” asks the Princess. “Since I was 6 years old, my uncle abused me. He violated my body and soul.” Brihtwulf brought men into Kwenthrith’s chamber when she was but a child; he shared the young girl with her older brother.

The threat of physical and sexual abuse has popped up before on Vikings, usually right before Lagertha stabs out the eye of the potential abuser. Kwenthrith’s story is less hopeful, more old-world mythic: A young girl abused by her own family for essentially her entire life. Not for Kwenthrith the catharsis of fighting back against her tormentor. The Mercian Princess has to settle for the next best thing: Cradling her uncle’s head in her hands, stabbing it over and over again. She spits in his face, throws the empty head away, and throws her hands up. Vengeance is hers. Floki giggles like a schoolboy; Ragnar watches, perhaps wondering if Christian ghosts can feel any pain.

Thorunn celebrates her first battle as a shieldmaiden. She’s drinking some grog, which I’m tempted to say is dangerous for a pregnant woman, but I’m pretty sure most doctors also recommend not fighting any Mercians during a pregnancy. Bjorn isn’t happy about her battle form. She was sloppy. She shouldn’t fight tomorrow. “I only do this because I care about you.” “Or because I’m a woman?” All this talk! Bjorn gets down to brass tacks: He asks Thorunn to marry him. “Yes,” she says. “Good,” Bjorn responds, walking away, the matter settled.

Roundabout now is when Rollo stares, a bit confused, at a Mercian prisoner. Apropos of nothing—maybe he ate some bad mushroom?—Rollo picks up his axe and has a frank exchange of ideas with the prisoner. It’s a rather in-depth conversation, which I’ve reproduced here in its entirety:

Having hacked off the Mercian’s limb, Rollo has no real explanation for his actions. “It was just the angle of the leg,” he explains to Torstein. “I couldn’t help myself.” Right about now is when Kwenthrith appears, deep into a just-stabbed-my-uncle’s-decapitated-head bender. She playfully flirts with the Northmen, until handsy Rollo grabs her breasts. Which earns him a slap and a stern talking-to; given Rollo’s romantic history, this counts as a great success.

Soon enough, the Northmen are sailing across the river, scaring off Burgred’s army with the old “Row of Human Heads” diplomacy method. Kwenthrith begs her brother to stick around; she’ll make sure the eight-foot-tall monster men with indie-rock facial hair don’t hurt him. But Burgred runs off; perhaps because he wants to be King, perhaps because he doesn’t trust his sister, perhaps because some cowards are only brave when they shouldn’t be.

But enough of miserable Mercia and its bloody battlefields! Back in Wessex, the Northman agri-colony is coming together faster than you can say “SimCity 2000.” Lagertha is overjoyed: All the old dreams are coming true, the ones she and Ragnar had, in the long-ago days when they were farmers happy together and not powerful warlords separated by old sins and new marriages. King Ecbert is positively infatuated; he asks Lagertha if she is a free woman; he picks up some dirt and hands it to her, saying “Here is my gift to you.” “Oh, great, dirt,” is what most boring ol’ Saxon women might say. Not so Lagertha, who knows the power of fertile land: “This gift is worth more to me than a necklace of precious stones,” she says. They don’t understand each other; they understand each other.

NEXT: Blood in the Burning Snow

The words of the Seer come back to Lagertha. “A harvest celebrated in blood,” he told her. (Could this mean war with the citizens of Wessex, unhappy about being pushed off their farm?) “A trickster whose weapon cleaves you.” (Could this be a reference to Ecbert, a tricky customer who’s clearly interested in a bit of cleaving?) “The marriage of plow and sword will sustain you, until you become a virgin once more.” Plow and sword, farming and battle. A mother who is a virgin—the mind goes to Christianity, to Mary the Virgin Mother; or perhaps the reference point is Gefjon, Norse Goddess of the Plow, a virgin.

Unbeknownst to Lagertha, things aren’t going too well back in Hedeby. Kalf, the Jesus-looking shyster she left in charge, has staged a coup against “the Earl who has nothing between his legs but a goat’s beard.” (Could the “Trickster” be Earl Kalf?) But beknownst to Lagertha, things are going just fine here in Wessex. The King asks her to return to his capitol city. She says yes; she could use a bath.

What’s a gal to do while her fella is off raiding? If you’re the Real Housewives of Kattegat, you start having some really wild dreams. Helfa tells Aslaug and Siggy about a vision haunting her evenings. A stranger, a man with no face. Snow on the ground, footsteps therein. The stranger’s arms outstretched: Flaming snow in one hand, his other hand covered in blood. Behind him, the drops of blood smoke in the ground. Aslaug’s had that same dream; so too, Siggy. They don’t seem too worried about the dream. Maybe they’re just excited for something to happen; all the good stuff is going down over in England.

Don’t believe me? Just scope out the torrential tornadoes of tension swirling around a simple dinner at King Ecbert’s throne room. Daughter-in-law Judith has some questions for our boy Athelstan. “You lived amongst the pagans,” she says. Won’t he describe what that was like? “You are a good Christian woman,” says Athelstan. “How could I describe such things to you?”

“Imagine that the sun shone at night,” says Athelstan. “Imagine that everything you knew about Jesus Christ was not true. And the true God was a living man, with a single eye, a cloak, a wide-brimmed hat.” I love the way Athelstan describes his time with the Northmen in purely philosophical terms. He doesn’t talk about their culture—the hedonistic sexual practices, the boozy evenings, the violence, the passion. He talks about the idea that everything you’ve ever known to be true isn’t. And he makes that idea sound exciting. This cuts to the core of Vikings, I think: A show which imagines the clash of civilizations as a melting pot, a show which argues that the most interesting people are the ones who partake freely of every culture’s philosophy.

Does Athelstan believe in Odin? Does he believe in Jesus? “I’ve had to ask myself what is belief, my lady,” Athelstan admits. He loves Odin. He loves Jesus Christ. He loves the monastic life, buried in books, researching old cultures; he loves the warrior life, fighting alongside his friends, the glory and terror. I have a sneaking suspicion that Athelstan is, to a certain extent, the onscreen surrogate for Vikings creator/writer/allfather Michael Hirst, a man who can write an episode of television where one character ruminates upon an existential crisis and another character cuts off somebody’s leg because the leg looked funny.

Judith has a look on her face like she’ll buy whatever Athelstan is selling. Ecbert’s on the prowl, too. “Stones are much easier to wear than Earth,” he tells Lagertha. He bought her a necklace of precious stones. Feel free to interpret this one of two ways: As Ecbert not quite understanding Lagertha, because she’d prefer the farmland; or as Ecbert understanding all too well how Lagertha’s life has changed. Here’s a woman who spent her life in struggle, who saw one child die, saw her family broken up, spent years under the thumb of a miserable new husband before stabbing his eyes out. Now she’s royalty, wined and dined in distant Kingdoms by bright-eyed Kings. Must she go back to Hedeby?

NEXT: We’re not all savages

Ecbert’s son Aethelwulf captures a Mercian. The man swears he doesn’t know where Burgred is. Aethelwulf doesn’t believe him. His men hold a hot poker up to the captured Mercian’s face. Would he prefer to lose an eye, or some teeth? The Mercian gives in… and Aethelwulf frees him. “I have no argument with you, my friend,” says the king’s son. “Let’s sup together. We are not all like the Northmen.” Perhaps we’ve been too hard on Aethelwulf. A dutiful son, a doting husband, a warrior with honor, a man trying to be a good Christian: Aethelwulf seems most of all like a man who was happy with How Things Were, and is suspicious of How Things Are Going To Be.

Can you blame him? Back home, his Lady Judith asks Aethelstan to hear her confession. She has sinned in thought, but not in deed. “I have dreamed of lying naked,” she says, “beside a man who is not my husband.” She made love with this man; she enjoyed it, in her dream. Much of the thrill of Vikings is watching how people struggle with very modern concepts without our modern psychological language. In the Christendom of her long-ago century, the mere fact that Lady Judith is imagining such a thing is a sin. Never mind who this man was. Or maybe do mind that a bit: “It was you, Aethelstan.”

Judith’s not the only one haunted by dreams. The Real Housewives of Kattegat all have the same nightmare: The Seer, bloody and dying on the floor of his hut. And Kalf has his own premonition nightmare: Ragnar Lothbrok, tearing the liver from Kalf’s body and eating it. Kalf wants to be like Ragnar. He wants to be famous. He wants the poets to sing of his exploits. To a certain extent, Kalf in season 3 is equivalent to Ragnar in season 1: a young and excitable little lord who wants the gods to know his name. Ragnar achieved fame when he killed an earl. Perhaps Kalf should follow suit. “He is still human,” Kalf says. “You cut him, he will bleed.”

All men will bleed, if you cut them. Some men will beg for such a thing. Look at poor Torstein. Bathing in the river of blood did nothing for his arm; no doubt gangrene has set in, though “gangrene” is a word nobody will say for a few centuries yet. “You bastards!” Torstein yells, getting his friends’ attention. “I want you to cut off my arm. It’s no good to me anymore. I don’t want it. In fact, I’ve always hated this arm.” Better not to fuss over it. Don’t cry over spilled milk; don’t moan over infected arms.

Bjorn volunteers to hack it off; Torstein asks Floki to do it. Maybe because Floki has those steady shipbuilder’s hands; maybe because Torstein knows that, deep down, Floki might just enjoy removing body parts from the body. “Too bad it’s not your drinking arm,” says Floki. “You could’ve saved some money.” HACK. HACK. HACK. BURN. BURN. BURN. Ragnar holds his friend while Bjorn pulls the arm out of the socket; Rollo cauterizes the wound with a burnt-red axe.

Lagertha departs Wessex, saying farewell to Ecbert. They’re vibing, no doubt. So, too, with Aethelstan and Judith. “So you love our young monk, do you?” says Ecbert. “The more complicated a person is, the more interesting he is. But at the same time, the more dangerous he is.” It’s a warning, but Judith clocks that Ecbert’s not just talking about the monk. Just what is Ecbert’s long game, anyhow? Does he seek alliance with Lagertha—a way to drive a wedge between her and Ragnar? Or is he genuine—just a King looking for a high-ranking foreign noble to settle down with?

Meanwhile, there’s a new arrival in Kattegat. Helga sees a man, a wanderer, his left hand bloody and bandaged. He injured himself, he says; could she help him? This new arrival is played by the great Kevin Durand, the nine-foot-tall demi-god who played the gloriously malicious Martin Keamy on Lost, more recently, he was a Ukrainian vampire exterminator on The Strain. So it seems unlikely that he’s playing someone nice and normal, is what I’m saying.

What to make of all these bloody hands? Back in Lagertha’s Agricultural Commune, Aethelstan starts bleeding out of his old crucifixion wounds: Straight-up stigmata, the kind of thing that pretty much symbolizes everything. At least in Mercia, there are waves to wash the blood away.

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