Another day, another spiritual crisis.

By Darren Franich
April 17, 2015 at 03:00 AM EDT
Credit: History
S3 E9
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See Ragnar Lothbrok. See him brought low. King Ragnar is sick. He coughs gore. His urine stinks of blood. All the ambition of the gods—and yet, he is still a man. All the victories a great hero can have: The farmer who became an earl, the earl who became a king, the king who sailed across the sea to England, who led his people down the river to Paris. Here, at the walls, Ragnar has never looked more defeated. His Vikings bicker, angry and hungry and tired.

“I don’t understand why we failed, Ragnar,” says Floki. How far Floki has fallen, too. Once, he was the great shipbuilder. He was to be Floki the conqueror. But his ships burned; his battle was lost. “The others will try again tonight,” Ragnar promises.

And so they do. The Vikings have a new strategy. Call of Duty failed; time now for Metal Gear Solid. Lagertha leads a crack team of stealth shieldmaidens. They swim across the river; they climb up the outside of the bridge. The archers of Frankia look for an attacking army; they don’t see seven tough women. Their tactics are sound: Lagertha hacks a man’s neck; a shieldmaiden steps forward to grab his corpse, setting it down gracefully in the shadows. But the men of Paris are alerted; burning oil splashes down on one shieldmaiden burning her into Valhalla.

There are tough women on all sides of this battle; within the walls of Paris, Princess Gisla hands a knife to her maidens. (“Make sure they do not capture you alive,” she warns.) But behind the great door, Lagertha sees an opportunity: She throws a flame on the burning oil, using the enemies’ weapon against them. The door ignites in flames. And an army of Northmen race through. Earl Siegfried grabs the wanderer, Sinric: “You are our map of the city.”

Once again, the Parisians outmatch the Vikings in their battle technology. Count Odo releases a gigantic spiked wheel, which rolls across the bridge, picking up Northmen. In a truly ghoulish site, some of the warriors are still alive, gigantic spikes poking through their bodies—it’s an image worthy of Hellraiser. But the wheel can only roll so far—at which point Rollo leaps over it, propping it up with a few spears. Once again, Parisian battle technology is outmatched by old-fashioned Viking ingenuity.

Odo sends his man to fight the Vikings hand-to-hand. The Parisians still have the upper hand; once again, all they need to do is keep playing a strong defense. But the men of Paris are weakening. Odo goes to Emperor Charles, begging him to walk among the troops. “What can I do to stop them,” says the coward Emperor, “that Holy Mother cannot?”

Count Odo is fed up. From the Viking perspective, Odo is a bad guy—but here, in the throne room of Paris, he is a fundamentally good man trying to protect his city, frustrated with the ludicrous little man who wears the crown. “I thought you would come,” says Odo. “I know what your grandfather would have done.” But Emperor Charles is not Charlemagne. He was not prepared for this.

Even without their Emperor, the Parisians fight the Vikings off. In the process, they capture two men: Sinric the Wanderer, and Siegfried the Earl. It’s Sinric who saves them, yelling in the language of Franki: “Don’t kill me! I’m different!” He reveals Siegfried’s status as Earl; he convinces Odo to take them both prisoner, Sinric as the translator, Siegfried as the valuable cargo.

On a hilltop across the river, Ragnar crawls. He coughs; he vomits; his whole body rebels against him. He has a vision: His old friend Athelstan, emerging from the mist, holding out his hand. But the visions don’t stop there. There is an image of Allfather Odin—Ragnar’s first sight of the deity in quite some time:

And there is someone else, too: Athelstan’s Christ-God, staring at Ragnar expressionless:

At one point, there is a third figure in the shadows:

And at one point, Ragnar sees himself staring at himself—an out-of-body experience, or perhaps a dramatization of the war within himself.

What’s happening in this scene, besides Ragnar’s obvious internal raging chaos? Vikings season 3 has focused on the clash of two very different civilizations—the far-flung denizens of what was once the Holy Roman Empire, remnant kingdoms built on Christian worship; and our far-traveling Northmen, with their living gods who push them to plunder and conquest. Is Ragnar himself feeling the physical toll of this struggle? Does he need to choose a side? Athelstan seemed to be welcoming him to the beyond—but then he pulled away his hand, and smiled, and disappeared. “Don’t abandon me!” says Ragnar—to his friend, to his gods, to everyone who can’t hear him.

Fire around him, and blood; or perhaps that’s just the fever.

NEXT: A beheading

In the throne room of Emperor Charles of Paris, two societies meet for the first time. Two and a half, really—for Sinric represents the Society That Has No Society. “I belong to no country. I belong to no people. I just belong to the wide, wide world.” Vikings season 3 has also been the Season of Wanderers: Harbard the maybe-god, Thorunn the scarred. Perhaps the Wanderers have the right idea. There’s a certain trust granted to them; the Parisians immediately treat Sinric like a scholar in all things Viking.

Count Odo has a question. That man, that great warrior who fought on the bridge; who was he? “His name is Rollo,” says Sinric. “He is the brother of King Ragnar, leader of the Northmen. He is a famous warrior. He fights like a crazy bear.” (SEER ALERT: A bear will marry a princess.) How ironic. In his own country, Rollo has ever been the inferior of Ragnar: A traitor, a failed suitor, Mister Second Best. Here in Frankia, Rollo’s legend is already spreading through the halls.

Odo considers bartering Siegfried. Princess Gisla won’t hear of it. “If you care for me at all, Count Odo, you will bring me his head.” CUT TO: A Parisian street corner, the next day. An execution is planned. Siegfried doesn’t mind dying. But he would like someone to hold his hair out of the way, so they can make a clean cut. A Parisian soldier holds the warrior’s hair back. The ax swings down… and Siegfried moves his head back just slightly… and the ax swings through the man’s hands. The people scream, and laugh, and Siegfried releases a final victorious guffaw. The gods will welcome him.

Back in Kattegat, Aslaug has taken her place on the throne. A Christian missionary has been preaching his Christ-God in the town square and denouncing the gods of Valhalla. “I may admit that your Christ is a god,” says Aslaug. “But even so, our gods are greater. Our signs and wonders mightier. Is it not true?” The missionary proclaims her words false; he agrees to stand up to the judgment of the gods.

It’s an interesting little sequence, this Kattegat interlude. It doesn’t have much to do with the reigning dramas of this season—it’s mainly an example of how Aslaug rules, while Ragnar is away. But in the context of the greater Christian-Viking divide, it’s an interesting moment. The missionary picks up a burning rock, and walks untouched by the heat down the lane, smiling at the dumbfounded queen.

Except he doesn’t—that was just his vision, what he hoped would happen. The rock burns his hands bloody and charred; he screams, and screams, and screams. King Ragnar has always been interested in the Christians, has always inquired about the nature of their Christ-God. But Ragnar isn’t here; a bit later, Aslaug casually orders the missionary’s death.

Across the sea, in Wessex, Ecbert has good news for Judith. Her husband returns from Mercia, his mission a success. But he has more important things to tell her. He promises to keep her safe, to keep her young son Alfred safe. But there must be recompense; a reward. Ecbert wants her to be his mistress. In his chamber, he tells her something—words she cannot quite understand, or doesn’t wish to:

What might have been is an abstraction, remaining a perpetual possibility only in the realm of speculation. What might of been, and what has been, point to one end. Which is always present. Footsteps echo in the memory down the passage we did not take towards the door that never opened.

“Somehow, we are always here at this moment, you and I,” says Ecbert, inventing a couple dozen philosophical concepts a millennium early. Judith disagrees. They have not always been here; the universe did not force them here. Now is just now. Ecbert is a man who takes the macro view—he sees how history turns in cycles, how the great deeds of the Old Empires are all lost now. Perhaps Judith has no time for that; perhaps she sees how a man who looks at humanity from afar might think himself a god, might perform horrible deeds and justify them with pretty words. “Get into bed,” Ecbert commands, done talking for the moment.

NEXT: A baptism

In Paris, the straits are dire. People are sick—ill, perhaps, with whatever virus plagues Ragnar Lothbrok. (A clash of civilizations is a duel between two immune systems.) They are running low of fresh vegetables, of fresh food. The starvation has begun. “We must attempt to come to terms,” says Count Odo. “There is no other way.”

The Princess refuses: They must not lower themselves to the pagans’ level. The Emperor promises that he will pray upon this matter; no doubt he’ll choose the path of least resistance.

In Wessex, Ecbert and his son and his daughter-in-law/mistress celebrate an old-fashioned family dinner. It’s been quite a couple of years, eh? The arrival of the Northmen; the creation of a Viking colony; the battle to gain Mercia as a puppet ally; the presence of Athelstan, friend to Ecbert, lover of Judith; the destruction of the Viking colony; Ecbert’s promise that, sooner or later, Judith’s father will bend the knee.

But here they are, having some nice family chatter. “Queen Kwenthrith tried to use her feminine wiles upon me,” says Aethelwulf, like he had a tough day at the office. “But with God’s help, I managed to resist the devil’s snares.”

Aethelwulf seems a changed man. He’s turning over a new leaf. He’s done hating his wife for everything that happened between her and Athelstan. “However painful it was for me,” he says, “What happened between you and Athelstan was God’s work.” (“However painful it was for me” < getting an ear chopped off.) And Aethelwulf has a question for his father. Was Ecbert prepared to sacrifice his son—his only son—for the conquest of Mercia?

Ecbert is shocked. He gives another speech—what a showcase episode for Linus Roache, an actor who was great as neo-Waterston on Law & Order and great as Batman’s dad in Batman Begins. “No Saxon king has ever managed to hand over their kingdom peacefully and successful to their son and heir,” Ecbert says. “But I intend to be the first.” And not just any old kingdom—the kingdom of England. When Ecbert says this, you can tell he himself thinks he’s telling the truth. He’s one of the great politicians—he has that Bill Clinton-esque quality of always believing everything he says.

(ASIDE: Departed Vikings star Jessalyn Gilsig compared the initial Vikings divide between Earl Haraldson and Ragnar to the Bushes and the Obamas; Ragnar’s interactions with Ecbert feel a little bit like Obama’s interactions with the Clintons, enemies-turned-friends-turned-uneasy-allies. In this metaphor, I think the Franks are The Kennedys. END OF ASIDE.)

Aethelwulf hears what Ecbert says. “To the most loving, loyal, and true father in the world!” he says, holding up his glass. But for once, Aethelwulf doesn’t seem like a dummy. He has Ecbert’s number.

The Parisians come to the Viking camp. They want to end the siege; they think a peaceful resolution is best for both sides. The Vikings discuss their strategy. They’ve lost close to a thousand men; the city is unbreachable; #WinterIsComing. But surely, the Parisians would only seek peace if they were on their last legs. But if the Vikings let them starve, the people will hate them; and if they keep attacking, the people will hate them more.

Ragnar has been quiet these past few episodes. He is not quiet now: “I did not become Earl because I aspired to be one,” he says. “It came about because of other people’s actions. I did not become King out of ambition, but once again, I had no choice. As a result of other people’s actions. But nonetheless, I am King. King Ragnar. That is my name. King Ragnar. What does a King do, Bjorn?”

“He rules.”

“Yes! Good! He rules! And as a ruler, I have the last say!” All other plans have failed; Ragnar’s plan will not. They shall meet the Franks tomorrow, he declares.

Tomorrow comes—and Ragnar has already left. While his family rides to the meeting, Ragnar discusses the situation with Count Odo. The Parisians will give the Vikings treasure: Five thousand, seven hundred, and sixty pounds in gold and silver. They ought to accept; reinforcements are on their way. Ragnar has a counter-off. He knows nobody is coming. What he seeks has no tangible worth: He wants to be baptized. “I am a dying man,” he says. “And when I die, I want to be reunited with my Christian friend, who happens to be in your heaven.” The bishop tells Ragnar he will go to hell. “That is not your decision to make,” says Ragnar.

Arrangements will be made. Or not: For Ragnar prefers things simply. He gets into the water with the Bishop; the Bishop says words in a language older than Kattegat, older than Frankia, older than any of the kingdoms these men represent. Ragnar’s people arrive just in time to see him become a Christian. They are horrified, betrayed. The men of Frankia cross themselves, welcoming a new warrior to their cause.

That’s a lot to take in, with just one week to go before the season finale. Is this all part of Ragnar’s plan? Does he really think he’s dying? Hell, is he dying? (Creator Michael Hirst has always talked about how Vikings could continue long after Ragnar’s death: The benefit of having so many active sons.) Presuming that the Seer saw the future, we know that a bear will marry a princess; we know that the dead will conquer Paris, not the living. Will that all happen in the season finale? We’ll find out in one week.

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