Vikings: Scarred review

Vikings' complex portrayal of its women characters continues to fascinate and inspire in season three episode four, Scarred...

This review contains spoilers.

3.4 Scarred

This week is a prime example of why I love Vikings.

As I discussed elsewhere, a series that depicts a warrior culture sets up the expectation that the focus will be on fighting rather than on the other aspects of that culture—a trap that Vikings has avoided quite nicely. Of course, in such cultures (and especially in a series which includes first contact between two warrior cultures: those of medieval Scandinavia and Britain), the main business of life is the struggle for power. But as this week’s episode of Vikings makes clear, the most dangerous of skirmishes need not be fought on the battlefield.

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Power isn’t, after all, about force. It’s about control. Almost everyone in “Scarred” is trying to exercise or extend their control. And we get to see this done in a wide variety of ways.

For Floki, the key to control is the appeal to the gods. Not directly, of course. For all his talk of the gods, we have never actually seen him in worship or even communion with them. Oh, certainly he claims to be, as he did when Rollo encountered him outside the victory celebration. But the framing of the shot suggests that Ragnar’s brother did not catch him in meditation but perhaps pouting. We all have that one friend who likes to sit outside the party and wait for someone to ask what’s wrong—even in Viking society, I suppose.

However, the fact that it’s Rollo who discovers him is suspicious. Floki, disturbed at Ragnar’s perceived collusion with the Christians of Wessex and Mercia, has already taken a run at his king, trying to get him to give up the fight for Mercia for Ecbert’s benefit by appealing to him on religious grounds. Ragnar, pragmatist that he is, cannot be so easily dissuaded, nor does he buy into Floki’s perception of the Norse gods (which is likely the reason Floki gets nowhere with him by appealing to him in those terms). Floki responds to Ragnar’s rebuffing not be making a broad appeal to the larger group of Vikings (who, as part of a democratic culture, could insist that Ragnar abandon the alliance with Ecbert) but by trying to take advantage of the temporary weakness in two links of the Viking chain: Bjorn and Rollo.

Bjorn’s close call with losing Þorunn is both clumsy and heartless. And ultimately unsuccessful because he initially tries to play the son against his father. Perhaps this is why he feels that Rollo is worth a second attempt outside the celebration: Rollo has already turned on his brother once. It seems logical for Floki to conclude that he might, especially adrift as he currently is, be convinced to once again try to displace Ragnar.

Ecbert uses a very different tack with Lagertha: sex and the possibility, perhaps, of something deeper. The two have obviously been enjoying each other a great deal while Ragnar and company have been off securing Mercia for the king. And it’s nice seeing Lagertha enjoy this aspect of herself. But Ecbert clearly hopes for more than a bedmate in her. He wants personal allies in the Viking camp. We have to wonder if this was his primary reason for paying court to her in the first place. Certainly the fact that, when he fails, he instead tries to move Aethelstan into his corner would suggest it.

But Ecbert, for the first time in our experience of him, misjudges his opponent. It’s readily apparent that he believes that, in seducing and sleeping with Lagertha, she will follow her heart into his column. His ploy is clever: he pretends to appeal to her in her role as leader, asking her to stay to look after the new settlement. That he does this while tenderly helping her back into her dress intentionally sends a very different message. However, unlike the Christian women of his experience, Norse women are quite good at separating sex from love. Lagertha is fooled neither in her own emotions nor in his. Even when he comes out and expressly suggests she stay for reasons of the heart rather than the state, she sees right through him: “Although you have made me happy and fulfilled, I have come to understand that the only person you truly care for is yourself.” Katheryn Winnick’s turn of emotion in delivering the line and Linus Roache’s expression as Ecbert realizes how badly he’s overplayed his hand make this a great moment.

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But Ecbert is not, as I said, entirely daunted. He instead turns his attention to Aethelstan and argues that he should stay. He needs whoever is going to be in charge of the Viking settlement in Ragnar’s upcoming absence to be someone he can control as easily as he controls Princess Kwenthrith. Here he cannot use his personal relationship to bait the hook, so he instead dangles his own son’s wife Judith in front of the ex-monk (that sex is his go-to in both cases says a lot about the man). But while Aethelstan obviously cares for Judith, he is no more eager to bite than Lagertha was.

It must be particularly painful to Ecbert to see a loyalty in a man’s ex-wife and ex-slave that he cannot inspire even in his current nobles.

And if he thought he had Kwenthrith, at least, firmly under his thumb, “Scarred” suggests that he’d best not count on it. For weeks, Amy Bailey has played (quite convincingly) the princess as unhinged, which would hardly be surprising considering what she’s been through. Her murder of her own brother certainly seems more than a little crazy at first glance. Who poisons their own sibling in front of a crowd of powerful people? Only a madwoman, right?

Maybe not. Consider her situation. She is already under what largely amounts to house arrest under a man who seems determined to give her the appearance of deference, rather than any respect or latitude as a member of the royal family of Mercia. The juxtaposition of Ragnar’s relationship with Ecbert must be particularly galling to her. Despite Ecbert contracting the Northmen in her name, she clearly understands (as Ragnar does) that he means to rule Mercia through her.

She needs to establish that she is someone to be reckoned with, and poison is a particularly effective way to do this. She has no army to call her own, so she cannot win her freedom on the battlefield. She has no wealth (or at least access to wealth) to buy her any support. While she can and does use her personal charms (such as they are—that’s the oddest foreplay ever seen on television, I’d wager) to try to win Ragnar to her side, she must realize that he’s hardly the type to prioritize a woman over his role as leader. The moment the needs of the Vikings were at odds with hers, Ragnar would make those priorities clear. She needs some other tool in order to establish her own power.

The nice thing about poison (and the reason it’s the go-to murder weapon of women even today) is that it requires no strength or force. More importantly, it requires no confrontation of any kind. And thus, there is no warning that it’s coming. It can be deployed at little risk to the poisoner and only in Hamlet can its threat be turned back on the attacker. For a woman in captivity, it’s hard to imagine a better weapon. And by using it against her brother, she shows precisely the lengths to which she will go to avenge herself on those who wrong her. She begs the man who fights for her to spare her brother, reassures a whiny Burgred that he will be well-received by the king, presents him at court and has him pardoned, all so she can make an example of him. The shocked respect (and slight fear) that suddenly appears in the faces of those present says it all: they now understand that, regardless of whether her mental illness is real or a ruse, she has made it clear that, whoever you are, you cross her at your peril.

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And in this, she takes the place of the now departed Siggy.

From the beginning, I have loved that Siggy was exactly who women are told they should never be: someone who uses sex to secure her place in society. In the less hypocritical culture of the Vikings, however, there seems little problem with Siggy’s habit of seducing and using men to accomplish her goals (after all, Ecbert seems to have no problem doing the same but turns around and all but trades on the fact that Judith would be condemned if her own liaison were discovered—Christian have different rules for men than for women). That she was able to pair behavior we would think of as so wrong with the kind of compassion that not only pulled Rollo back from the edge but saved Aslaug’s children made us rethink what it means to be a “good” woman. She will be missed.