Vikings season 4 episode 1 review: A Good Treason

Vikings season 4 promises political intrigue, cultural clashes, fascinating characters and kickass battles. Welcome back!

This review contains spoilers.

4.1 A Good Treason

Vikings is back, and oh, what a joy!

Generally, before a new season of a show I’m reviewing starts, I go back and rewatch the previous season to prepare… to get myself back into the story. I admit that I didn’t do that with Vikings this time. The little one who had the good sense to be born last year just in time to give me maternity leave to write about last season’s Vikings is now a ravaging Viking himself, leaving Mummy little time to do more than is strictly necessary. As a result, it’s been months since I’ve seen an episode and got to experience the season premiere with new(ish) eyes.

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Ciarán Donnelly’s establishing shot, then, following Ragnar Lothbrok as he travels overland in search of destiny reminded me of part of why I have enjoyed the show so much: because of how much it is not what we expect.

That shot of Ragnar on his way to the gates of Valhalla—intercut with others of Ragnar’s current Queen, Aslaug, visiting the Seer to assure herself that she will rule once her husband crosses the threshold of that portal—not only raises it technically above the level of a great deal of what’s available on telly, but also reminds us that, great battles aside, the true struggles on the show are always the personal ones.

Since its premiere in 2013, the production values of the show have continually gotten better—not that they’ve never been bad. Michael Hirst and his directors have always been smart about where they spent their money, forgoing all but tightly shot minor skirmishes in that first season in favour of those that take advantage of the gorgeous terrain and more intimate spaces. And the focus on those smaller spaces have largely shaped what the show is: characters’ constant contest to balance their often conflicting desires for Viking glory, familial loyalty, and personal happiness. Thus the opening shots show both how far the show has come, and how true it has remained to its roots: the expensive-looking camera work that’s now in the show’s budget laying out in sweeping cinematographic gestures of the countryside the journeys of husband and wife—the first believing he has finally found that perfect balance and has earned his ultimate reward, and the second, salivating over her chance to finally be free of the man who brought her so close to her own goals, only to become her final obstacle.

On any other show, we might also be comfortable is sizing this up to be the major conflict around which the season will revolve, especially once Ragnar, denied Valhalla (at least in his own mind), wakes up. Certainly Travis Fimmel’s portrayal makes it abundantly clear that whatever charms Aslaug once held for Ragnar, they are now gone. But another of Vikings’ charms is that things are never that simple: there’s never just one enemy or one challenge and this is something that becomes clear in the confrontation between Bjorn and his father.

There’s an interesting gender reversal in Bjorn’s parents—subtle but very real. Traditionally, we think of men as bolder and more straightforward, especially when it comes to exerting power, while women tend to be thought of as given to deception or guile, largely because they have not been allowed to wield power directly until relatively recently, historically speaking. But when we look at Ragnar and Lagertha, this has not been the case. Kathryn Winnick’s Lagertha has always been far more direct in her approach, whether it comes to telling King Ecbert that she will share his bed but not be his puppet, murdering her abusive second spouse in front of everyone and taking his Jarldom, or emasculating her enemy Einar and sending a not-at-all subtle message to her new ally Kalf about how she deals with those who cross her.

Ragnar, on the other hand, is the one who lies in wait. One of the criticisms I heard early on of Travis Fimmel was how his Ragnar seemed to smile or look amused at everything; this was read as him being one-note and portraying the character as lacking any seriousness as depth. After three seasons, this appraisal has been shown to be wildly off: Ragnar’s trademark sly humour hides a top-notch political mind, one which has largely mastered a landscape that most around him aren’t even aware exists until he turns it against them. And it is this landscape that he is so disappointed that Bjorn seems oblivious to. When he learns that Bjorn has had Floki arrested for killing Aethelstan—and did it very publicly—he chides his son for lacking the political insight necessary to be as successful as Jarl as Ragnar has been: “If I wanted him arrested I would have done it a long time ago. Now you have made it public and left me with no options. Now I am forced to deal with my errant friend.” Bjorn has obviously forgotten not only Floki’s rather impressive skillset but that his religious ideals (or at least the ones he professes) are not unique among the residents of Kattegat. Mistreating Floki over the death of a Christian might bring rebellion.

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It is this lack of faith from his father that ostensibly sends Bjorn packing. But there may be more of Ragnar in the son than he is given credit for. What looks like a winter proving that he can survive on his own may very well shape up to be a trip south scouting lands for his own conquests. Whether he would return from such a triumph as an ally or a threat is an interesting question. In the meantime, his mother and Kalf consolidate power in Hedeby, and the Seer’s hint to Aslaug that a woman will one day rule Kattegat seems far more likely to suggest Lagertha as a possible ascendant to that throne than its current queen.

After spending the first half of the episode in the rough but gorgeous wilds of Kattegat and Hedeby, it is jarring to be swept away to the halls of dark and dank Paris for the wedding that gives Rollo precisely the powerful leverage that Ragnar worries aloud about to Bjorn. The ceremony between the unpredictable brother and Gisli is one of black humour, with Rollo clearly not knowing or caring about the supposed solemnity of the situation, and the kneeler rocking and groaning to hold up the bulk of the Viking. The scene which follows in the bedchamber is less so, as we wait to see how Rollo will deal with his recalcitrant bride.

The answer should not be a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention, however, as sex between equals on the show has been shown to be consensual (slaves are a different category altogether). And even if this weren’t the case, Rollo, we are told by Eirik later, is intent on being a Frankish noble (and has already decided to hold Paris against his brother). To do so, he must have friends among the Franks, so sexually brutalizing the princess would be unwise. Still, the way Rollo shows appreciation for her contempt for the man who forcibly carries her to the bedchamber and then the fact that he playfully feigns sleep when she makes it clear she is uninterested in his advances seems to suggest a man more driven by a belief in how spouses should interact with each other (and a man who has the time to play a long game with his) than one working a political angle.

Which is probably for the best, if Rollo’s reaction to Eirik’s warning is anything to go by. The brutal scene at the end of A Good Treason, where Rollo has the entire Viking force garrisoned outside Paris ambushed by Frankish crossbows, shows us a man who does not trust his own political/diplomatic skills to win over warriors he has fought alongside for years.

But that scene sets a yet another piece of this season’s game board in place. A few more may still wait off-screen in England, but for now, there’s more than enough to keep even a veteran player like Ragnar busy. While Vikings may continually surprise us in one way or another, it should be a shock to no one who’s been watching that it looks like we’re in for another great season of political intrigue, cultural clashes, fascinating characters, and, yes, even some kickass battles.