This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
History Channel’s Vikings returns on Dec. 4 after almost a year-long hiatus, and after five (or seven, depending on how you count) seasons of family drama, political maneuvering, and musical thrones, a newcomer to the series would—no doubt—be lost trying to unravel all the narrative threads now in play. Hell, even a true fan might appreciate a refresher. But that sort of unravelling is exactly the type of thing we here at Den Of Geek love doing for our readers, so here’s a collection of episodes you might want to review, or recommend to an interested (or soon-to-be-interested) friend, to gear up for the season premiere.
Let me preface this by saying: these are not the best episodes of the series. We could spend all evening going round and round about those (they’re almost all in the first two seasons), but that’s another article for another time. Instead, these are episodes that reveal who our characters are (even some of the dead ones), why they matter, and what has gone before. (I’ve even had a chance to preview the first bit of next season and so there might be one or two clues to what’s going to happen buried in these episodes.)
Wrath Of The Northmen (season 1, episode 2)
We need to start with a foundational episode, and while those on each side of “Wrath Of The Northmen” have much to offer in terms of plot points, this one is better in terms of revealing in more subtle but important ways who the primary characters began this journey as. Here, we get to see both Ragnar’s response to Jarl Haraldson’s refusal to allow him to sail West and Haraldson’s well-honed paranoia, as well as the literally cut-throat political atmosphere that serves as the background for much of the action in Kattegat in future episodes.
The place of women in the culture is also highlighted both in the way that Siggy actively weighs in on Haraldson’s decisions and the violence with which Lagertha responds to being locked out of Ragnar’s—also making it clear that she is not a woman to be trifled with (Bjorn’s insertion between his parents is some important foreshadowing as well). Rollo’s casual rape of a slave girl reminds us that not all women have access to power in Viking culture, and that Rollo was originally a far uglier character before defeating his brother than after, something also reinforced when he later attempts to kill Aethelstan just because.
The raid also exhibits the type of attacks on which the Vikings will depend, and which lead to the acquisitions of slaves like Aethelstan whom Ragnar instead saves from Rollo, beginning possibly the most defining relationship in Ragnar’s life. It is also the first time we get a hint of the particular disregard Floki has for religions other than his own, setting up a tension that will eventually end—as they all do with Floki—in violence.
Brother’s War (season 2, episode 1)
This, on the other hand, is an episode where a great deal happens and so much of it matters. Rollo, ever the envious sibling, has joined forces with Jarl Borg, and together they march against Jarl Ragnar and his ally King Horik. Rollo is every bit the warrior his brother is and decimates the enemy, killing old friends, including Floki—almost. When faced with the prospect of taking Ragnar on directly, however, Rollo crumbles and eventually faces the judgement of Kattegat.
The tenuous and shifting alliances common in the Viking world are obvious as Ragnar and Horik pick up the pieces from the recent attack, working out an alliance with Jarl Borg. Unfortunately, this temporary arrangement will end in a minor betrayal on Horik’s end, a major one on Borg’s, and with Rollo’s former ally being blood-eagled for his trouble later this season.
But as important as Rollo’s betrayal (and failure is) for future storylines, the most pivotal plot point is the arrival of Princess Aslaug to Kattegat, pregnant with Ragnar’s (correctly) assumed son. Ragnar’s reluctance to turn Aslaug away and insistence that Lagertha accept her as a “sister-wife” leads Lagertha to leave him, with Bjorn eventually choosing to accompany her rather than stay with his already legendary father. Ragnar’s choice, and the division it causes in his family, is the driving force behind much of the action in seasons four and five and looks to continue well into season six.
Born Again (season 3, episode 6)
This episode is aptly named in that we see several characters experience, if not a re-birth, then at least world-altering change. Aethelstan himself does experience a legitimate religious epiphany, rededicating himself to Christianity. Unfortunately, he does so in sight of Floki who, after pushing Bjorn, Rollo, and Ragnar on the point—and not getting the response he wishes—kills the former slave. His death, coupled with the break-up of his family, are two of the three things that will ultimately leave Ragnar in tatters in season four.
The third thing is learning of the destruction of the settlement that he and Lagertha left behind in Wessex. It is this farming community—and the opportunity for he and his fellow Northmen to leave behind raiding for the more settled and sustainable life of agriculture that has driven the couple from the start. So when the last survivor of the settlement arrives in Kattegat to deliver the news of Aethelwulf’s (or rather, Ecbert’s) treachery, it sets Ragnar on a path away from building a better life for his people and toward revenge and ultimately the destruction of precisely what he has wanted for his people.
Not that things have been all that great back in Wessex. Aethelwulf’s estranged wife Judith has given birth to the son she was carrying, and she is immediately taken to be tried and punished for adultery, since Aethelwulf knows the child is not his. On the scaffold, she admits that the child’s is Aethelstan’s, and her father-in-law intervenes, declaring the child to be holy, naming him Alfred, and sparing Judith any more torture. His calculation around this—and Judith and Alfred in general—will become more important as Alfred grows up, displacing both his step-father and half-brother Aethelred.
The Last Ship (season 4, episode 10)
If we were putting together a list of the best of Vikings, this episode would be near the top. The long-awaited face-off between Ragnar and Rollo finally comes, and it is brutal and surprising, like all that is best about this show. We have never doubted Rollo’s gifts were near or equal to his brother’s as a warrior, but here we see that he is also gifted as a leader of men, easily leading his forces to a victory so decisive that Ragnar has to be physically removed from the battlefield by Floki, Bjorn, and Lagertha before Rollo can kill him. Paris receives their victor with all the adoration that Rollo has spent his entire life pursuing, making it plausible for him to remain there (and effectively out of the picture for most of the rest of seasons four, all of five, and likely all of six) as a Frank, rather than returning to his Viking roots.
Oddly enough, however, it’s not Rollo’s triumph that lands this episode on this list.
After the battle for Paris, Ragnar disappears for years—long enough for all of his sons by Aslaug to have grown up, and for word of the massacred settlement in Wessex to have reached the rest of Kattegat through other means (since Ragnar killed the last messenger). Despite the enmity between Lagertha and Aslaug, Bjorn and Ragnar’s remaining sons are on good terms, and there is a scene where they discuss the news of the settlement. There is no better scene in the entire series for clearly laying out who each of these young men essentially are, and since, once Ragnar dies (not much later this season), the series becomes about which among them will take his place, this is an especially useful insight. Their response to the return of the “old boar” is also quite revealing, especially Ubbe’s.
In The Uncertain Hour Before Morning (season four, episode 14)
This is an episode in which one might be forgiven for thinking that there’s not a great deal happening. But what action does occur is vital to the story going forward, and what doesn’t happen is more important that what might have.
In the first case, Lagertha and her forces have taken Kattegat from Aslaug, and she seems ready to send her usurper packing. But the shieldmaiden is not the forgiving type, and Aslaug takes only a few steps toward leaving the village before Lagertha’s arrow dispatches her, earning the burning and permanent hatred of Aslaug’s son Ivar (and the more passing wrath of her other sons).
But what rightly dominates the episode is the last conversation between old frenemies Ragnar and Ecbert. The reasons to watch this tête-à-tête are many: it’s even more revealing than the earlier discussion between Ragnar’s sons, it’s seriously well-acted (because there are layers on layers here), it’s the culmination of a relationship that has been fascinating from the start and only grown more so, etc. But the best reason for our purposes: this is an excellent manipulation on Ragnar’s part where he uses everything he’s learned about being a Viking, a Christian, a king, a father, a warrior, and an utter bastard to bring down the man and the kingdom that destroyed his dream. There are those who might balk at the fact that I left out the following episode (“All His Angels”) in which Ragnar actually dies. I do recommend watching the first few minutes of that episode so you can see Ragnar’s last words and advice to Ivar, but in the end, we don’t need to see Ragnar die to understand the impact of that death. Although seeing the impact of it on Ecbert’s face is enough to give it an Honorable Mention.
On The Eve and The Reckoning (season 4 episodes 19 & 20)
In this two-fer, we get a parallel between Lagertha and Ivar, foreshadowing their conflict in season five as they fight for the soul of Kattegat. Lagertha defends that town from Egil and (indirectly) King Harald, while Ivar gets a chance to show himself his father’s son by suggesting what turns out to be a successful strategy in fighting Aethelwulf’s forces back in Wessex. However, he soon reveals that he has none of his father’s restraint when he kills his own brother Sigurd over a bad joke, effectively splitting the remainder of his male siblings, and eventually scattering them.
But before they take off in different directions, they must finish their revenge for their father’s death, which brings them to Ecbert’s door. However, Ecbert is no less wily than their father was and ensures not only that his death is not the Blood Eagle that Ivar has envisioned, but that they will allow him to die peacefully by his own hand in exchange for an utterly worthless concession.
A small but emotional plot point in this episode is the death of Maude, the long-suffering wife of Floki, at the hands of a kidnapped would-be replacement child for the one they lost during his disgrace. This and his encounter with praying Muslims in the Spanish Caliphate will launch the shipbuilder on a spiritual journey that will take him on his ill-fated mission to Iceland in season five.
Finally, ignore the introduction of Heahmund. He will amount to nothing.
The Most Terrible Thing (season 5, episode 17)
This is another episode to watch less because of any one thing that happens in it and more because of what is says about our characters, especially leading up to the end of the season five and into season six. The episode begins with Ivar basically setting aside centuries of Viking proto-democratic rule and cementing himself as a despot. In this, we see again that he is less like his father and, perhaps, more like I once suggested his brother Bjorn is: a great general but a poor politician (though for entirely different reasons than Bjorn would be). He threatens Hvitserk, the one ally he had left in his family, by promising to burn his girlfriend Thora alive if he does not go on a trumped-up diplomatic mission. This will serve as the final lynchpin to drive Hvitserk away from him.
Ivar isn’t the only one alienating allies. Bjorn’s attentions to Gunnhild mean that King Harald’s love life is frustrated again, and yet, where Harald may legitimately be accused of falling in love at the drop of a hat (or helmet, as the case may be), in each case, the love seems real, whereas Bjorn’s interest in any woman, including Gunnhild, seems part-and-parcel of a larger problem he has in deciding what he wants out of this life.
And yet, the greatest heartbreak in this episode isn’t romantic. Instead, it is spiritual and takes place in Iceland where the last vestiges of hope for Floki’s missions come to a brutal and bloody end as Kjetill kills Eyvind’s entire family. This is then followed by the suicide of Kjetill’s daughter, and Floki is at the breaking point. His discovery in the cave in the next episode seems only to add insult to an already grave (pun intended) injury.
Ragnarok (season 5, episode 20)
To be completely fair, this one is a bit of a gimme. It’s the last episode before where season six will pick up, and that’s more than enough reason to watch it to prepare for the upcoming season. However, if you aren’t going to rewatch all of the back half of season five (where the way in which Ivar would eventually lose Kattegat was being telegraphed pretty loudly), then seeing how Ivar engineered his own downfall is both useful and satisfying.
His murder of Freydis, possibly the only one other than his own mother whom he ever felt loved by (I suppose Floki is also a possibility, though I doubt it would have been talked about as love) is both tragic and provides potentially fertile narrative ground for the future. His mother was a ruthless woman who died as a result of that ruthlessness. And yet Ivar was unflinching in his hatred of the person who killed her in vengeance. Will he see himself as justified for killing her for her betrayal? Or will this one more of the many psychic wounds that he carries with him. Time will tell.
The final scene, of Bjorn looking down on his new kingdom, contemplating his fate as well as the fate of his people, reminded by the seer that the “The war is not over,” as we catch glimpses of Ivar somewhere in the East, promises another season of the brothers and their allies fighting over Kattegat and the rest of northern and western Europe.