This review contains spoilers.
Publicity surrounding Vikings this season has been almost entirely about the Northmen’s move on the city on the Seine, and in this week’s episode, we finally got our first look at the city of (eventual) light. Ironically, despite all the build-up about how amazing the town would be, it was actually just about the least interesting thing in this episode which bears its name: Paris.
And that is largely because it is the most modern of the settings that we’ve seen so far on Vikings, and thus, it looks like a dozen other medieval sets we’ve seen. There’s nothing particularly foreign or new about the architecture the inhabitants live in or the clothes they wear. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing interesting here, of course. Count Odo seems the usual sort of officious but probably effective enough lieutenant under normal circumstances, but it’s the relationship between the king, Charles the Bald, and his daughter that are the most intriguing.
Hirst’s script alludes to Charles’ historical problem: He received one-third of his grandfather Charlemagne’s realm, but at the time he was born, his brothers had already been ruling theirs and his was yet to be determined. As a result, he spent his young life playing catch-up. Just a few years prior to our meeting him in Paris, he had allied himself with one brother against another in war, but signed a treaty which left him much of modern-day France. While he was the weakest of the three monarchs, he eventually outlasted them to become Holy Roman Emperor. This weakness is evident in him and it will be interesting to see what part Gisla plays in shoring him up.
But all of the truly fascinating stuff in the episode is happening elsewhere.
Back in Wessex, Ecbert continues to be an exceedingly cunning bastard. And one who understands the importance of performance. Last week, we saw him stage Judith’s torture and eventual redemption in order to legitimize the heir he needs. This not only served that purpose but is obviously part of his continuing education of his son in the Machiavellian ways of leadership—he wants Aethelwulf to understand that his marriage to Judith is not what we would think of as a relationship; it is instead a tool that may be cultivated and used when the time is right. Much as he has done with Judith’s father King Aelle, who he may or may not be planning to assassinate.
So while Judith suffered for Aethelwulf’s benefit last episode, this week, Ecbert turns the tables and all but rubs his son’s nose in her infidelity in an attempt to get him to let go of a petty emotion like jealousy in favour of more kingly calculation.
It is a lesson that Aethelwulf not only takes to heart but has the opportunity to use rather quickly when he is sent to deal with Princess Kwenthrith, who has killed the nobles Ecbert sent to oversee her rule of Mercia. The Princess first defaults to her usual tool of seduction, perhaps in order to drive a wedge between the prince and his father. And we suspect, at first, that his anger over Judith’s dalliance with Aethelstan might make him weak, but he resists her. When she later has him dragged before her and presents him with a child she claims is hers by Ragnar (implying that Ragnar would be her defender), we finally see some small bit of the father in the son as Aethelwulf calls her bluff. It was hard not to cheer—Ecbert and Ragnar will come to it at some point and a worthy Aethelwulf will only make it more delicious when they do.
But Ecbert is still the master, as his performance with Aethelwulf was as much for Judith’s benefit as his son’s. When the king later comes to her and uses allusions to her lover Aethelstan to woo her himself, it becomes clear that he defended her earlier precisely to soften the ground for just this attempt. Whether he has any real interest in the princess is impossible to know given his perfidy, but he certainly seems intent on making her believe that her safety depends entirely on him—perhaps because he needs her not to take his plans for her father too hard when they come to fruition.
But Ecbert is not the only one using deception to get what he wants. While Ecbert uses violent emotion and brutal spectacle in order to carry out his cold-blooded ends, Ragnar is doing precisely the opposite. It’s clear he’s sussed out who is responsible for Aethelstan’s death (not that it took a huge leap in logic), and inside, it’s just as clear that a murderous rage lies just below the cool surface. Floki, despite his own long subterfuge against King Horik and many years of friendship, seems unable to see the writing on the wall, and thus allows Ragnar to set him for failure as leader of the strike against the city of Paris.
The scene where the Vikings plan the assault on the city is a telling one, with Floki asserting his supposed authority, only to be shown up by the true leaders at the table: Lagertha and Rollo. This bodes no better for him than the snake and mouse imagery earlier. But Ragnar is clearly as sharp as his English counterpart here: not only is he setting Floki up for a fall, but he is removing himself from the tenuous position between Lagertha and Kalf, at least for the moment. He will be better able to keep an eye not only on the back-stabbing Jarl from that distance, but also Erlendur.
But most fascinating to me is a very short scene in this episode between Bjorn and Torvi. Torvi, played by Michael Hirst’s daughter Georgia, is slight and extremely unassuming among the huge bodies and personalities who surround her. But it would be a mistake–given her history and the maturity we see in her when Bjorn tries to take all responsibility for their dalliance—to underestimate her. So far, she has been treated as the child she firmly tells Bjorn she is not by both her husbands, neither of whom seem to have (or have had) any feeling for her. The bit of succour she found in Bjorn’s arms appears the only tenderness she’s experienced in the entire scope of the story.
So when Erlendur sees her encounter with Ragnar’s son and rips the bracelet from her, calling her a whore—less out of any jealousy and more out of what seems a longstanding disgust for her—I think we have to wonder if he hasn’t just made a huge error. The Vikings have only come together in order to raid Paris. We already know that once the joint venture is over, more than words will be exchanged between those following Ragnar and those who look to Kalf and Erlendur. The latter may assume that Torvi is firmly in their camp and not even register her presence, listening as they make their plans against Ragnar’s family. But Bjorn and Rollo (last season) are the ones who have treated her as something more than a political pawn or piece of furniture.
It would not be the first time a slip of a girl changed the course of history.
Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, Born Again, here.
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