The Viking army descends on the coast of Northumbria.
Credit: Bernard Walsh/History
S4 E18
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The Great Army assembles in Kattegat, kings and earls and heroes and monsters. A great sacrifice must be made, says Lagertha, the heroic Queen. “If the army fails,” she says, “if they are defeated by the Saxons, our peoples might never recover.” The gods call for a special sacrifice at times like this. The question is not what, but who?

All must sacrifice in times like this. The sons of Ragnar Lothbrok must sacrifice their pride, perhaps, or perhaps much more. Ivar Boneless must sacrifice his ambition, for the moment. Some of his brothers think the army doesn’t need a leader at all. They are willing, for the moment, to let Bjorn Ironside lead them, for Bjorn has the experience: He sailed with his father to the walls of Paris and sailed beyond his father’s wildest imagination to the Mediterranean. “What battles have you won?” Bjorn asks his brother, Ivar. “What battles have you lost?” Ivar doesn’t answer him; it is the future, not the past, that interests the youngest son of Ragnar.

They’re a curious lot, these sons of Ragnar: Selfish and self-regarding, noble and proud. Ivar jealously covets greatness, but Ubbe and Hvitserk believe in sharing. Ubbe marries Margrethe, the former slave. But he knows his younger brother covets Margrethe — loves her, even. “I don’t think it’s fair that I should keep Margrethe to myself,” says Ubbe.

“How can you not be jealous?” his bride asks. She loves them, both of them, of course, but there is still much she doesn’t understand about these strange men. “We are Vikings,” Ubbe says, as if that explains everything. They spend the wedding night together in bed, all three of them.

What tangled lives they lead, the great and tragic Lothbroks! Queen Lagertha takes on her ceremonial duty, sacrificing an Earl for the army’s cause. The Earl is not afraid. Tonight, he dines with the gods; he shall meet Odin, and perhaps he shall meet Ragnar Lothbrok. He is a believer, and when Lagertha stabs him with her sword, he pulls her in closer. Lagertha’s lover, Astrid, is not watching by then; she is pulling Bjorn Ironside closer, another tangled affair for a family not one generation removed from its little farm. The gods greet the sacrifice with shooting stars overhead, a good omen if you believe in such things.

Love, or something like it, is all around in Kattegat these days. King Harald sees a specter of his past and a vision of his glorious future: A princess he once knew, who would not take his hand in marriage. He has worked his whole life since to deserve her; he still seeks to be King of all Norway. Yet she is already married to an Earl in Denmark. “I was a King,” Harald tells her, “And I was not good enough for you. In the meantime, you marry a nobody?”

It’s a side of Harald we have not seen before. For years now, Harald has seemed like a new sort of Viking, or an older sort given new license in these days of high adventure. A man like Ragnar or a woman like Lagertha seeks power for complex reasons — for protection of the family, for the advancement of society, for curiosity. Harald has always sought power, with great violence and little curiosity about the cultures he plunders.

Yet Harald is only human, after all. “I have built my entire life around you,” he says, madly, half-considering killing his old love. He does not kill her; perhaps, in his strange heart, he still believes she will choose him, if only he conquers more, if only his power increases.

NEXT: Tangled webs woven in Wessex

King Ecbert’s friends never grew old. Think of Athelstan and Ragnar, dead and buried in lands so far from where they were born. But Ecbert is old now, no denying it. “You’re not behaving like a King anymore,” says Aethelwulf. “You’re distracted, you’re withdrawn, you seem unsure and hesitant.” Aethelwulf has heard of the arrival of the Great Heathen Army, and he is angry at his father. Angry because Ecbert let Ragnar’s son, Ivar, go free. And angry because… Well, where to start? “Most of my life, you’ve either manipulated or humiliated me,” says Aethelwulf. “You used me to fulfill your ambition, while at the same time, taking my wife as your mistress, and forcing me to adopt her bastard son. What kind of a father are you?”

Ecbert has no easy answer for him. Perhaps he does not believe in easy answers anymore. “I am filled with doubts,” says Ecbert, “And I’ve come to believe that being firm and strong was the illusion, and that I am unsure now because it is the most honest way to be.” He trusts Aethelwulf completely; that is why he always used him. But that’s not the answer Aethelwulf is looking for. Ecbert loved Athelstan and Ragnar, and he loves Judith. “Do you love me, father?” asks Aethelwulf. “Because if you do, I want you to say so, I need you to say so. Please.”

Ecbert is silent. Perhaps he doesn’t love his son. And perhaps his son is wrong, and he never really loved anybody. (That’s one interpretation put forward by Vikings writer Michael Hirst in our latest postmortem conversation.)

King Aelle is not the kind of ruler who doubts. He doesn’t doubt himself, nor his fate, nor his moral rightness. An army has arrived, you say? A Great Heathen Army? Impossible, no such thing. Heathens are not great; they are piddling little monsters, less human than vermin. He rides out to battle knowing God is on his side. And then he sees the army, sees the great turbulent mass of Vikings, their swords, their shields, their eyes, their rage, and he knows even God cannot help him.

We do not see the battle; it is inevitable, perhaps, that Aelle will find himself brought low, pulled behind Ivar’s carriage, to the place where Ragnar Lothbrok died. Ragnar isn’t there, his body disappeared or decomposed or taken in the night by thieves who would spit upon him or admirers who honor him. King Aelle offers his captors whatever they want, anything at all. “I’ve been taught your god is a carpenter,” says Floki. “Guess what? So am I!”

And so again to the blood eagle, that most monstrous and vengeful and violent execution of Viking society. So ends King Aelle, who waited years for vengeance upon Ragnar and mere months for the vengeance of his enemy’s sons. Does he feel the skin leave his back forever? Does he feel his blood fly onto the faces of Ragnar’s sons? Does he hear Ragnar Lothbrok’s voice, one last time?

Vikings has always excelled at surprising the audience, dropping season-finale moments into episodes throughout the season. “Revenge” was no different. The vengeance of Ragnar’s sons was swift and immediate: It was only last episode Ivar declared war on the whole world, and now that war has arrived. And even with such an impressive scope in the buildup to the battle, the episode found time for grace notes with characters like Harald and Aethelwulf, who both revealed depths of pain behind their violent exteriors.

Best of all, “Revenge” set up Vikings for a truly epic final act, with only two episodes left to go in season 4. Be sure to check out my postmortem with Vikings writer Michael Hirst, who offers some thoughts about the episode and where the Great Heathen Army will go from here.

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