Ragnar gives a speech and Ivar plays chess.
Credit: Bernard Walsh
S4 E15
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Little Ivar and Little Alfred play chess. They don’t speak each other’s language, but they speak the universal language: Call it gameplay or call it war. Someday history will know these two boys as men — one Boneless, one Great — but for now, they sit in the shadows and wait patiently for old men to finish playing their own games.

One game moves toward an inevitable conclusion. Ragnar asks Ecbert if he can speak to his son. He knows this will be their final moment together. He tells his son Ivar, “It is you who I believe is the most important to the future of our people.” He tells him anger is a gift and he is unpredictable. “Use your anger intelligently,” says Ragnar. “And I promise you, my son, one day the whole world will know and fear Ivar the Boneless.”

“I wish I wasn’t so angry all the time,” says Ivar.

“Then you would be nothing,” says his father.

“I might have been happy.”

Happiness is nothing.”

Final wisdom and a final message. Ragnar whispers in his son’s ear, revealing a final twist in his strategem. It is Aelle who will kill Ragnar, but that is not the subject of Ragnar’s final vengeance. “You must seek revenge,” he tells his son. “But not on Aelle. On Ecbert.”

And so, Ivar the Boneless leaves Wessex with a final gift from Alfred. The heir gives Ivar a chess piece: A memory of happy times, or perhaps an artifact from their first battle.

Soon enough, Ecbert has also sent Ragnar away. Ragnar gives Alfred his own personal totem: The crucifix worn by Athelstan, Alfred’s true father and Ragnar’s beloved friend. “I will never forget you,” says young Alfred.

Nor will Alfred’s grandfather. Struggling with guilt, Ecbert confides in Judith. “Am I to wash my hands of him?” asks Ecbert. “Like Pontius Pilate?” Ecbert sets off on walkabout, dressing as a monk or a beggar, following Ragnar to his final destiny. In the sagas, the great god Odin would often set off wandering, his head cloaked, his affect that of a humble everyman. (Surely, Ecbert’s long beard would practically rival any gods’.)

It makes sense Ecbert would assume the affects of both Pontius Pilate and of Odin, of a low figure in Christendom and a great figure of the pagan religion. Ecbert, like Ragnar, has always been curious about other cultures. Their lives have reflected the clash of nations; perhaps, as old men, their own lives are becoming decoupled from nationhood. Or perhaps it makes sense Ragnar, who thought he saw Odin on battlefields in his youth, would now see Odin one final time: Personified in the man who was his close friend and his final nemesis.

NEXT: Ragnar sees

The seer told Ragnar there would come a day when the blind man would see him. And on that day, Ragnar would be no more. As it happens, the man who drives Ragnar’s final carriage is blind. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” the man jokes. “Eight foot tall. Killed thousands of my countrymen. Eats children.” The blind man assures Ragnar his eyesight is perfect in one regard. “I can see you, Ragnar Lothbrok. I can see you.”

But they will not arrive at their destination for another day. Thus, Ragnar declares his victory over the gods. “I guided my fate,” he says. “I fashioned the course of my life and my death. Me! Not you, not the gods, me!” He is talking, now, to the Seer: Another cloaked man, somehow speaking to Ragnar though miles separate them. To this imaginary seer does Ragnar make his final statement. “Man is a master of his own fate, not the gods,” he says. “The gods are man’s creation to give answers that they are too afraid to give themselves.”

The Seer responds, serene and disappointed as always. “I have walked among the lowest of the dead, and I have groped for meaning. And I may have been wrong.” Is it, somehow, truly the Seer admitting his religion is a farce? Or is this Ragnar speaking to himself? Hasn’t the great King Ragnar Lothbrok walked among the lowest of the dead? Hasn’t he groped for meaning? Could he have been wrong?

King Aelle does not struggle with his belief. He thanks his God for keeping him alive to see Ragnar brought low, and he promises he shall make the pagan atone. They beat Ragnar, burn him; Aelle cuts a cross into his head. Still, Ragnar will not repent. Still, he walks back into his cage, satisfied in his final act. He sleeps his final sleep and remembers Athelstan, teaching him to pray to “Our Father.” He awakens on his final day to see the assembled citizens of Northumbria praying him towards death.

“It gladdens me to know!” Ragnar declares, “that Odin prepares for a feast! Soon I shall be drinking ale from curved horns. This hero that comes into Valhalla does not lament his death. I shall not enter Odin’s hall with fear. There, I shall wait for my sons to join me. And when they do, I will bask in their tales of triumph. The Aesir will welcome me. My death comes without apology. And I welcome the Valkyries to summon me home!”

It is a fine speech, and it is not much Ragnar truly believes. Earlier, he told King Ecbert of his plans to talk about the gods, about his joy of entering Valhalla. He told Ecbert it was just for his sons. We remember season 4 of Vikings began with Ragnar, abed and practically half-dead, seeing the doors of Valhalla close to him. Or perhaps he closed them himself.

What goes through Ragnar’s mind as Aelle drops him into the snake pit, as he looks up the long, dark walls at his final sight of the world? Does he see King Ecbert, the wanderer, staring over the rim of his final resting place? And when he sees Ecbert, does he have two simultaneous final gifts: The sight of an old friend, come to send him along; and the sight of the man who will be the subject of his final vengeance? As Ecbert stares down at Ragnar, he stares at a friend; does Ragnar relish Ecbert’s enthusiasm, recognizing he has finally outsmarted his greatest and most well-matched nemesis?

No one can say; not even the gods, if Ragnar was correct. As the snakes fill his body with poison, Ragnar’s eyes close. And the doors of the pit close over him, like the slamming doors of Valhalla.

At home in Kattegat, Ragnar’s son, Ivar, meets his brothers. He tells them their father is dead; they tell him their mother is dead. Ivar holds Alfred’s chess piece in his hand, holds it tight, until it is covered in blood. Blood, blood, blood.

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