This review contains spoilers.
4.10 The Last Ship
In the mid-season finale, the battle was finally closed between Rollo and Ragnar, and honestly, it was surprisingly compelling, even for a series that I already expect to be particularly good at this.
As usual, Michael Hirst and, for The Last Ship, director Jeff Woolnough, stick to Vikings’ battle-filming strategy of using long shots primarily as establishing shots and fades and pulling in very tightly to emphasize the confusion and unpredictability of battle. This keeps distracting special-effects work to a minimum, and nicely captures the meat-grinder of violence that was medieval warfare.
The chaos, however, is not allowed to overpower us (as often happens in contemporary fight scenes, where we are so close to the action, it’s almost impossible to make out—see the Bourne films). Instead, the writer and director give us a visual narrative thread: for Rollo and Ragnar, this battle is really just the background of the true conflict between them (and is thus largely filmed this way), and while they literally slug it out, Ragnar’s family try to come to his defence and are, as a result, wounded.
There are several things about this which surprise us. While it’s been made clear that Ragnar’s real goal in the attack on Paris is to defeat and punish his brother, the last few episodes have not made it clear that Rollo is also looking to square accounts in hand-to-hand combat with Ragnar. So the two charging at each other with equal venom and force makes for a great set of shots, it also seems a bit out of character for the younger brother. Sure, he’s got an axe to grind (even though he’s abandoned the Viking axe as a weapon, for the Frankish sword) with his brother, but there was much to suggest that he wanted to defeat Ragnar not as a warrior, but as a leader. After all, Rollo’s proven himself a fierce fighter time and again. The more vital question was whether he was equally as gifted as a general. The Last Ship proved, at least at this point, that Rollo does have what it takes to lead, riling up his men with a Viking-style St. Crispin’s Day speech.
That Ragnar could hold his own against Rollo was a bit shocking, considering what the drugs have done to him physically and mentally. What should be a fair beating by Rollo instead turns out to look a lot more like the bout between Rocky and Apollo Creed in Rocky—both men landing blow after blow until the only thing allowing them to stand is their grip on each other. That no one should expect Ragnar to hold his own is made explicit by Floki, Bjorn, and Lagertha fighting to get to Lothbrok. The ones closest to him know he’s in no condition to fight; his condition is so obvious that his own men throw him into the ship with the wounded to get him away from his brother.
That the wounded included both Lagertha and Floki, both of whom have seemed almost untouchable in previous battles (am I the only one who loves watching skinny, habitually weird Floki turn into a fearsome berserker in combat?) catches us off guard and really brings home just how complete Rollo’s victory really is.
While all this is going on, Woolnough and Hirst also show Gisla in a chapel, praying not so much for the Paris that she herself defended, but for her beloved husband. In what seems like the first instance in a long time of a primary characters showing unadulterated Christian devotion, we also—with an irony I’m sure was not accidental—are shown the statue of the Virgin Mother weeping. There is a long history of such events, most of them proven to be a hoax in one way or another—during the middle ages, it was not uncommon for individual Catholic churches to make themselves more marketable by making a statue weep or claiming to possess a broken metatarsal bone from the Savior himself. Pilgrimages were good business.
Court intrigue, on the other hand, seems to be a business worth avoiding as we also get to watch two of the most cold-blooded murders on a show that is already rife with brutality. If there was any doubt that Emperor Charles is not as nervous and flighty as we have sometimes seen him, his demeanour as he watches Roland and Therese garroted on his orders should clear that up. That he slept with Roland only hours or days before makes the encounter that much more chilling.
Once the storm has passed and Paris is safe, Rollo finally gets the victor’s welcome he has long wanted. And it’s not often that being historically accurate also keeps filming less expensive—the cramped and narrow street required fewer adoring extras than might have been necessary in a modern version of this scene. That Rollo is almost as badly beaten as his brother is made clear by his stumbling approach, but the acclaim—enough to rival his brother’s—obviously keeps him going until he reaches his wife, who presents him as the “savior of Paris.” At least for now, anyway.
We may have expected the episode to end with scenes depicting the fallout of the great battle. So to instead jump forward eight years was a bit of a jolt. I, for one, was really looking forward to Ragnar and Bjorn, based on Sigurd’s report, confronting Aslaug.
Instead, somehow, Aslaug is still on her throne, minus the man who put her there. While it’s not difficult to imagine why Ragnar might have left after such a defeat, what is surprising is that the people of a tremendously expanded Kattegat would continue to accept her as leader after the disappearance of her husband. It’s been made obvious that a husband’s fall from grace (or his death) largely takes the wife down with him—Ragnar’s compassion towards Helga during Floki’s disgrace making the point precisely because it was so unexpected, based on Helga’s own reaction. So on what authority does Aslaug still rule? She’s not the warrior that Lagertha, the only other female ruler we’ve seen be so accepted, is. So why, in Ragnar’s absence, has Bjorn or even Harald not taken over?
We may get our answer from the scene in which Bjorn takes the news of his father’s lie of omission about the Wessex colony to his brothers. All grown up physically, the boys each take Bjorn’s intelligence differently: Sigurd and Hvitserk’s devotion to their father has wiped out by his abandonment to the point of swearing to kill him should he return. Ubbe’s angry, but has not let that entirely wash away his respect for Ragnar. And shockingly, Ivar is the one who defends their father, pointing out the futility of the king sharing the fate of the colonists with his people. Floki and his mother’s influence has apparently turned the young man into a model of the Viking man devoted to the ideal of Midgardian glory on the way to Valhalla. None of them, though are ready to lead.
And Bjorn, who should be prepared to step up, obviously has eschewed the throne out of respect for Ragnar, expressing that painful milestone of adulthood—that their father was, after all, just a man, but no less deserving of that respect despite his failings.
So Ragnar’s return at the end at first seems an odd choice: why jump so far ahead in time—obscuring how and why Ragnar left—only to bring him back into the fold? Wouldn’t it have been better to end the episode with the immediate consequences of the Viking defeat at Paris, and show the king slinking off to lick his wounds far from the eyes of his disappointed people? That way, we could come back eight years later after the mid-season break.
But that would have left us on a considerable down-note before the break—not always the best way to motivate people to tune in after the hiatus. Instead, with Ragnar’s reappearance and his confrontation of his own sons, we are left with a sense of anticipation—not initially ours, but that which we see gathering as Ragnar’s people watch him make his way through his home and follow him to see what he intends. Fimmel’s (who continues to find new ways to impress) physicality broadcasts that the drugs and Paris even are well behind the character now. But the disappointment in himself and his awareness that his story is waning are equally clear. He knows that these are his last days, but he does not intend to go quietly. His challenge to the boys to kill him not only sets him up to regain his throne, but to use it to, in the last act of his life, accomplish something he feels meaningful. A recent interview with Hirst (warning, spoilers) as well as the legend of Ragnar—and his death—give us some insight into his next step, and it promises to be an exciting one which will give season five (the announcement of the renewal made last month by an enthusiastic History Channel) a compelling jumping-off place.
For now, though, it looks like it will be autumn before we find out exactly how Ragnar spends his final days. The History Channel has not released an exact airdate for the start of the second half of this season, though they have said that season five will begin airing in summer of 2017. There are plenty of Viking adventures still ahead, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers joining the cast next season, and for that and so many other reasons, I cannot wait for the show to return.
Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, Death All Round, here.