Vikings season 3 episode 5 review: The Usurper

Are Ecbert and Ragnar good men? Vikings continues to explore the moral ramifications of ruling in this week's episode, The Ursurper...

This review contains spoilers.

3.5 The Usurper

When you write a review, there’s always some line, some look, some scene that you regret that you could not give proper attention to in that review. For me, last week, it was scene between Ecbert and Ragnar at the feast: “Are you a good man?”

Luckily, this week’s The Usurper was so much about who’s good and who’s bad that I get to return to it.

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In that scene, Ragnar is looking for a little reassurance, likely, in part, because Floki has been undermining his confidence by telling him he’s turned his back on the gods, and because he’s now cheated on his second wife (as he did on his first wife) with a woman of dubious morality and even more dubious sanity.

In that episode, the scene plays so beautifully because it gives us two men who share the experience that generally isolates them: ruling. Every decision they make has ripple effects which can reach their most distant subjects. And so, for a man of ethics, the question, “Am I a good man?” must never be far afield. The two kings, sitting quietly amid the revelry, reach out to each other, asking the question and then waiting as the other carefully considers and then answers: “Yes.” Qualifying: “I think so.” Having each bolstered the other’s confidence, they subtly shift positions and we see them sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a way that suggests solidarity. The alliance is solid.

Mais non…

Ecbert, it seems, not only is not a good man; he is an unbelievably calculating one. It’s hard to tell to what extent he set up his daughter-in-law’s infidelity (the scene a couple of weeks ago in the bath becomes suspicious in the extreme) to spur his son on to such butchery, or just took advantage of it. His entreaties to first Lagertha and then Athelstan to stay in Wessex now look more like him trying to confirm that they had no intention of remaining behind (and thus foiling his murderous plans for the Viking colony). But regardless of how long a game he’s been playing, there’s certainly little question of how good a man he is.

Back in Kattegat, on the other hand, things are not exactly morally pristine with Ragnar (or much of anyone else, really).

The welcome home scene at the dock is the first indication of trouble, and in more way than one. When Ragnar catches sight of Aslaug, he immediately demands to know where his sons are, becoming a great deal angrier than seems called for. Aslaug is slow to answer, ostensibly because she has the terrible news of Siggy’s death to deliver.

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And for the first time, I have a real problem with the execution of a scene on the show, for two reasons. As Aslaug begins to tell Rollo the news, she says that Ubbe and Hvitserk fell through the ice and we see Ragnar’s anger escalate. Her next line confirms that Siggy rescued the boys but died in the process. We’d expect to see some relief in Ragnar’s face. After all, if the very idea that his sons are not there to meet him at the dock is enough to get him mad, then surely the news that they’ve been saved from what is exactly the kind of accident we’d expect boys of the age to fall victim to in such an environment should have been cause for, if not joy, at least some change in expression. It’s not like the loss of Siggy—considering her former connection—should be particularly meaningful for Ragnar.

The second inexplicable thing in this scene is Rollo’s response to the news of Siggy’s death. When she tells him, “And we could not find the body,” he responds, “The gods are mistaken” (giving Floki the opportunity to insist that the gods are never wrong). In this context, Rollo’s line doesn’t make a lot of sense. Mistaken about what? According to Norse mythology, the gods, unlike the Christian one, don’t just know the day on which you will die; they actively set that day. There is no mistake to be made because the choice is entirely theirs and as arbitrary as their whim. You might rail that they are unfair in their decision, but “mistaken” makes little sense. The scene reads likes there’s an editing problem here: something vital’s been left out.

Something else is missing, but I doubt we’ll find it on the cutting room floor: Ragnar’s sense of loyalty and justice. His anger at Aslaug at not being with the children every moment seems hypocritical, especially considering he’s all but ignored the existence of his youngest child for who knows how long—as evidenced by Ivar’s reaction when his father finally picks him up. But that pales in comparison to the hypocrisy in his seething at the news that Aslaug’s been less-than-faithful in his absence considering not only his own infidelity (to both his wives) but his lack of interest in her as a sexual partner in the first place.

Of course, all this pales in comparison to his larger betrayal of his first wife. It’s bad enough that Lagertha has to actually ask him to help her regain her position as Jarl. His hesitation must be galling to her, but nowhere near as much as his response to her reminding him that she supported his mission to Wessex: “You came to Wessex of your own volition.” She also came when he sent out the call for allies last season and led the colony that was his dream. His answer is disingenuous to say the least. And his further question—“Is your Jarldom really that important to you?”—must be positively infuriating.

None of which holds a candle to what looks like outright treachery when, rather than support her, it looks as though Ragnar is set to enter an alliance with the man who deposed her. Of course, it’s always possible that this is a ruse. But if it is, his attitude toward her when she applied to him hardly makes sense. And it certainly doesn’t help us that Travis Fimmel plays Ragnar as nearly impossible to read in many cases (the weird smiles do begin to grate at times).

So while Ecbert, who must know he’s not really a good man, is successfully consolidating power in Wessex, Ragnar—who at least aspires to some modicum of ethical behaviour—seems to be losing his way both morally and strategically. With his ex-wife apparently abandoning him again over his lack of loyalty and Rollo no longer able to hold it together while living in his brother’s shadow, Ragnar may find himself unable to achieve either his dream of a colony in England or the conquest of Paris. Machiavelli’s dictums on wielding power, we must remember, weren’t written about rulers in semi-democratic societies like Ragnar’s. Unlike Ecbert, he needs the good will of those he rules, and he needs to be good to get that will. Or at least better than he’s been lately.

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Perhaps hanging out with Ecbert’s a bad idea. For more reasons than one.

Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, Scarred, here.

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