Reunited and it feels so bad.

By Darren Franich
March 20, 2015 at 03:00 AM EDT
Credit: History Channel
S3 E5
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  • History

Ragnar Lothbrok arrives back in Kattegat, ready to leave.

The young King is restless. His adventures in England have been prosperous. He has made new allies: Ecbert of Wessex, Kwenthrith of Mercia. Their alliance was sealed with blood and earth.

And more: For Ragnar’s ex-wife lay with Ecbert, and Ragnar lay with Kwenthrith, and Athelstan broke his vow of celibacy to lie with Judith, wife of Ecbert’s son.

Yet Ragnar’s mood is dark. He dreams of more adventures. “Tell me about Paris,” he asks Athelstan, man of many gods.

Athelstan tells a tale of his younger days, when he was a servant of the Christ-God. “It was like a dream. It has huge walls. I remember the clamor of bells calling the faithful to prayer.” Ragnar, intrigued, leans forward.

“What I remember more,” says Athelstan, “is the beautiful women.”

“You are lucky,” Ragnar tells the once-priest. “You have never been married. I would not come back here, if it weren’t for my children.”

There is a darkness over Ragnar and his kin, on this day of unhappy reunion. His old friend Floki watches Athelstan the way a bird of prey watches everything. Thorunn lays wounded, face half torn away, not thirsty and not hungry and not really alive. When Ragnar’s boats land on the beach, there are two pregnant women waiting for Torstein; he’s in Valhalla now, of course. And so is Siggy: Good people lost at home, and abroad.

“This is my fault,” says Rollo the Unlucky. ” I did not treat her well. It’s the truth. You all know it.” They do. Rollo has a cursed destiny, or perhaps he curses his own destiny. He is strong, but always weak. So he drowns himself in drink while the warriors celebrate. The skies open up and the rain pours down onto Kattegat; as if the gods refuse to let these men walk upon dry land.

The other warriors laugh at Rollo. Haven’t they all lost someone? Brothers, cousins, friends: All fell under sword or bow, in that faraway land of murdered gods and coward Kings. “What is so special about you?” they ask Rollo. In the rage of mourning, he tries to fight them all. His nephew Bjorn Ironsides appears, trying to help him. But fury doesn’t recognize family: So soon enough Rollo is fighting Bjorn, the rain pouring down upon them, the mud and blood mixing all together. “Hit me!” begs Rollo. “Hit me!” Bjorn obliges him. The audience cheers: “Kill him! Kill him!” they say. (Any “him” will do.)

When a man returns from a long season of raiding, he might look forward to a reunion: With his loving wife, his growing children, the land that bore him. Not so Ragnar, who returns to deception and mystery. Why was Siggy watching his children? Why were his children out racing on the ice? Aslaug is not telling him something. She comes to him, still a vision of beauty after so many years of marriage and hardship. She kisses him. He stands up; he walks away. “What is it?” his wife asks. “You had so much sex in England you don’t need it?”

The rain continues to fall outside. Inside Ragnar’s hall, Lagertha talks about their distant colony. She is proud of her work; she wonders if more people will go join the farmers. Floki laughs. “They can go work for a Christian king, in a Christian country. Perhaps they’ve convert to Christianity.” Athelstan reminds him that, after all, a man is free to do what he will.

Is that true? The first few episodes of Vikings season 3 let our characters inhabit a kind of in-between place: A nexus moment for Viking and English culture, a place and time wherein Viking farmers could plow English country and Viking warriors could fight against Saxons alongside other Saxons. It was far from utopia: heads rolled, sister killed brother. But surely it is progress when Ragnar Lothbrok and Ecbert of Wessex could sit together, drinking as fellow men, speaking each other’s language.

NEXT: An Earl Usurped

Floki is not so sure. His ears perk when Helga tells the tale of Harbard the Wanderer, seducer of Aslaug, healer of Ivar, Harbard the Premonitioned.

“Harbard is not a human being,” says Floki. “Harbard is a god. Such a visit must always be celebrated.”

But his visit led to death—surely that is not worthy of celebration? “If it leads to death, it also leads to life,” says Floki. “That is the way of the gods.”

A messenger arrives in Kattegat, bearing poor tidings. Earl Ingstad is Earl no longer: Kalf has usurped her.

(Perhaps it was Odin himself who spoke to Kalf, commanding: “Usurp her, usurper!”)

Lagertha goes to Ragnar. She supported him in Wessex; time now for him to support her. Ragnar has no taste for a Civil War. Or perhaps he is just bored with these matters of domestic policy: In times of great strife, many leaders look outward from their troubled countries, seeking someplace to conquer or flee to.

Ragnar has much to flee from. He sits alone with his wife. They do not look at each other. The camera captures them perfectly: We see them both framed in focus, their partner far across the room out of focus. “Who is Harbard?” Ragnar asks. “He was a good man,” says Aslaug. He cured Ivar of his pain. Ragnar smiles: One of those smiles where you can’t tell if he’s amused or angry or going mad. He picks up his son, Ivar Boneless; the child cries.

Children: They’re the future, and the future is often a problem for the present. Across the sea in Wessex, Judith has a problem. She is with child. “That’s impossible,” says Aethelwulf. “We have not slept together as man and wife since our son was born. ” Poor Aethelwulf. He is not a malevolent man; he is too noble to be a brute and too dumb to be evil. Yet he’s also not imaginative enough to be forgiving. His wife is pregnant, and not by him: He is furious. What a moment for his lord father to call him into the throne room—to demand that he go up to the Viking colony, and solve a dispute between the Northmen and the Wessex farmers.

King Ragnar goes to see the Seer, to ask him about Paris. The seer has seen its gates. He knows that Paris will be conquered: Not by the living, but by the dead. “I also see that the bear will be crowned by a princess,” says the Seer. “Which does not bode too well for you, King Ragnar.” The Seer laughs and the King laughs. Perhaps the Seer knows more, but he must withhold it. “Human beings cannot bear too much reality,” he says, and if History doesn’t put out T-shirts with that slogan then they’re leaving money on the table.

Speaking of T-shirt slogans! “I’ve made up my mind,” says Ragnar. “And this year, we shall attack Paris.” He’s in his great hall, surrounded by his subjects. They’ve been back nary a week from their last raid; already, Ragnar is looking ahead. No one’s even heard of Paris, but Ragnar spins a tale: Of a huge wall, a well-protected city; of achieving something that our people have never dreamt of before. Floki is happy about this—but less happy when Ragnar explains that Athelstan of the Christ-God told him all about Paris.

Ragnar declares his intention to find another knowledgeable source: The Wanderer who first told him about England. “It is good to travel with hope and courage,” says Ragnar. “But is it better to travel… with knowledge!” How his subjects cheer at this! “Praise knowledge!” they sing. “All hail mighty knowledge!”

But Ragnar promised Lagertha to visit Kalf the Usurper. So he does: Just long enough to disrespect his ex-wife by making a deal with the new Earl of Hedeby. Ragnar speaks softly, carries a big stick: He demands Kalf sail with Kattegat to Paris, or else lose everything. Kalf agrees; does he not seek glory, too? Which leaves Lagertha, no longer an earl, unmarried and unbeholden, forced to listen to her former protégé explain how he desires her. Rollo was right: You can’t trust a man.

NEXT: Rollo, Sweet Rollo

Poor Rollo. Rollo the Unlucky, Rollo the Unloved, Rollo the Fredo. Rollo goes to see the Seer, perhaps because he has no one else to talk to. “Ragnar was always chosen over me,” he says. “By my father, my mother, my Lagertha.” He continues:

Being alive is nothing. Doesn’t matter what I do. Ragnar is my father, he is Lagertha, he is Siggy—he is everything I cannot do. Everything I cannot be. I love him. He is my brother. He has taken be back. But I am so angry. Why am I still so angry? It is because I am useless. Hollowed out by failed ambitions, by failed loves. Nothing good can ever come out of my life now.

Clive Standen’s mostly been in the background so far this season. But he nails this showcase monologue. There is something fundamentally tragic about Rollo—tragic in a way that feels much more modern than the other characters. Rollo could be a great man, but he lives in his brother’s shadow—or perhaps that is the easy explanation for how his life has come to ruin. (Ragnar didn’t make Rollo a bad boyfriend; Ragnar didn’t make Rollo a traitor, or a miserable drunk.) Rollo is the Pete Campbell to Ragnar’s Don Draper, the Luigi to his brother’s Mario.

The Seer laughs at him. But not just because Rollo is pitiful. “Oh Rollo,” says the old monster, “If you truly knew what the gods had in store for you, you would go down and dance naked on the beach.” He tells Rollo the same premonition he told his brother: A bear will marry a princess. Rollo gets one extra tidbit: “You will be present at the ceremony.”

The sagas sing of the day in far-off England, the land across the sea. The Northmen awake and plow the land—land that was theirs by writ of alliance, land that King Ragnar Lothbrok of Kattegat earned in blood. But on this day Aethelwulf of Wessex rides upon the settlement, hacking and hewing and slashing throats of man and woman, mother and child.

Two children hide from the English. But the elder child, whose name is lost, emerges. The men of Wessex have taken his mother; the child hacks at the English with an ax; soon the child is dead, and the mother, too. The young child runs up the hillside, looking back for just a moment at Aethelwulf the Uncurious. The child turns. Perhaps he walks toward the coastline; perhaps he is too young to know where home lies, and seeks only escape. The gods alone know: An English arrow sends him aground.

Later, after the slaughter, Aethelwulf brings his men together at the foot of a giant cross. “It was all for our Lord!” he declares, and his men set the cross afire, and the English kneel down and pray. Why do they burn this symbol of their devotion? Who can say with these Christians?

NEXT: Odin, that old dog

Back in Kattegat, Lagertha considers leaving.

She has no destination, no purpose. She was the wife of an earl; she divorced one and attacked another. She bore a good strong child, Bjorn Ironsides; she sailed to England with her once-husband Ragnar; now, what does she have? Bjorn has dreamed of his parents going with him to Paris; he is still a child.

Ragnar sits on a boat in the harbor. He is home; he wants to leave.

Floki appears over his shoulder, telling him all the things he does not know. This Harbard, he slept with Aslaug. This Harbard, he was Odin. “Odin slept with your wife,” Floki says. Ragnar slouches, falls backward off the ship’s sail. He is annoyed, more than anything: By his wife, by Floki, by all these miserable problems. Perhaps Ragnar’s tragedy is that, or all his curiosity, for all his hope for a more peaceful future, he is a warrior first and foremost. Much easier to fight a battle than win peace.

Perhaps that is why Ragnar’s equal is also his perfect nemesis. For King Ecbert is not a warrior; he’s too smart for that. Ecbert is angry with his son, with his nobles: They have violated a treaty he signed in good faith. He has the nobles arrested; he makes a big speech about how his word will mean nothing now.

It never did. When they are alone in his chambers, Ecbert thanks his son. “You did the business so well,” he says. How could they ever let the Northmen establish themselves, here on English shores? It was all a ruse, all of it: Now Ecbert can blame the demise of the colony on his traitorous nobles, and legally eliminate them—he consolidates his power and kicks the Northmen out of England once again. “Even Charlemagne would’ve approved,” he tells his loyal, dumb son.

A question to ponder: Was this Ecbert’s plan all along? For a moment, I thought that Ecbert was just using this sad turn of events to his advantage. And I wonder if, perhaps, Ecbert developed this plan gradually—if he was serious about the Viking colony, before it became clear that his subjects would never live in peace with the pagans.

But perhaps not: Perhaps, from the very beginning, Ecbert was using the Vikings. He dangled the carrot in front of them—land to farm!—used their fighting force to defeat the Mercians, waited until Ragnar was far away, and then eliminated the colonists. Ecbert is curious, like Ragnar: Interested in other cultures, intrigued by the possibility of merging different societies together. But Ecbert is a vicious ruler: He will do whatever is necessary to increase his power.

Was Floki right all along? Was Ragnar’s dream of an agricultural future just a dream—just the mist of the morning? What really happened in Wessex? What was it all for?

And what will happen in Paris?

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