This Vikings review contains spoilers.
Vikings Season 4 Episode 11
“Who wants to be king?”
Vikings has always been a show that promotes strong family ties, but when Ragnar returns after a long absence, his village and his family are thrown into turmoil, and none more so than youngest Ivar the Boneless. In a stunning follow up to April’s mid-season finale, “The Outsider” wisely moves away from violence, mayhem, and political intrigue to show a more introspective side of Kattegat’s First Family as each makes plans for the future.
Viewers are now asked to cope with the aftermath of a seven year time jump, and it’s obvious that some sort of course correction has taken place. Of course, the big question revolves around what has happened in the interim, and while we’ve known for some time that Ragnar’s struggle to maintain his leadership persona may have broken him, he again throws us for a loop with his impassioned speech in the village square. We now have to ask ourselves whether or not he wants to reclaim his throne or simply return to the simple life of a farmer and perhaps revisit his relationship with Lagertha.
The opening scene’s power resonates on a number of levels and is given the opportunity to develop as Ragnar challenges his four youngest sons, all now adults. Hvitserk claimed earlier that he would kill his father should he ever return, but now faced with the reality of carrying out that threat, he forces his seething anger to remain in check. Eldest Ubbe steps forward, seemingly prepared to kill his father and become king, but Ragnar defuses the tense situation and embraces his son, undoubtedly relieved he doesn’t have to commit patricide. However, two details vie for our attention in a scene that Michael Hirst allows room to breathe — Ragnar’s subtle touch of Ivar’s hair as his father walks past and the noticeable absence of Bjorn in light of the king’s challenge.
Because he abandoned his family and people, Ragnar has not witnessed the cold, calculating brutality of a young Ivar, who callously murders another child over a ball game despite being confined to a wheeled cart. Now a young man, Ivar only wants to earn his father’s respect. Bjorn’s emergence from the crowd, arms defiantly folded across his chest, establishes the top dog status he continues to hold even though he doesn’t seem interested in leading his people after all. Regardless, he recognizes that only he can challenge Ragnar and compel the king to explain and atone for the past seven years. But as we soon see, this is Ivar’s story, and it’s now fairly obvious which brother will succeed Ragnar.
Despite all of the conniving, back stabbing, and generally duplicitous behavior, “The Outsider” is about love. Aside from his relationship with Lagertha, Ragnar’s love affair with Floki has been one of the series’ high points, and their reconnection after this lengthy absence does not disappoint. The two aging companions reestablish their friendship, but the spirit of Athelstan continues to haunt both as Ragnar endures a crisis of faith and doubts the veracity of Valhalla. Helga tells Ragnar that Floki kept silent about the destruction of the Wessex settlement because he loves him, and Ragnar is finally able reciprocate in what could turn out to be the last time the two see each other. This stark reality is not lost on either.
“The Outsider” follows two storylines broken down into three sections. Hirst establishes tension after we realize that choices will have to be made not only among the villagers but among Ragnar’s sons and inner circle. Who will go with Ragnar to avenge the Viking deaths at the Wessex settlement, and who will accompany Bjorn on a voyage of discovery and adventure to the Mediterranean?
However, eldest son Bjorn quickly takes a back seat to the youngest, Ivar, in a powerfully illuminating character study in which Alex Høgh Andersen dominates each and every scene in which he appears. Most obvious is the manner in which Andersen employs upper body strength to display how “The Boneless” confronts his physical handicap, refusing to allow it to stand in the way of leading as normal a Viking life as possible. Nonetheless, it’s the emotionally charged scene with the slave girl set to relieve Ivar of his virginity that exposes a vulnerability not unlike his father’s. In fact, the parallel of Ivar as the outsider brother serves to drive the narrative which by the end of the night finds father and son, sitting side by side on the kingdom’s thrones.
The introduction of Margrethe (Ida Marie Nielsen) to the mix sets the stage for a cross-class relationship that has already paid a hefty dividend. Nielsen is wonderful as the slave girl working as a servant in the Lothbrok home and sexually satisfies each of the brothers in turn leading viewers to question her motives. When Ivar finally has his turn and is unable to satisfy the young girl, he threatens to kill her to keep her from revealing his inadequacies as a lover. Fortunately, she invokes the gods and gives an impassioned speech that seems to be from the heart about greatness coming from within that provokes an emotional response from Ivar. Is this a turning point in his quest for power and perhaps in their relationship?
It’s not surprising that Ragnar first meets with his sons after the incident in the village square, and it’s likewise not unexpected that their reception is icy at best. Much has happened in his absence, and his desire to finally exact revenge on the English and King Ecbert (Linus Roache) is met with an indignation that even Ragnar finds surprising. That none agree to accompany their father, coupled with Ivar’s absence, lead viewers to begin putting two and two together. As the four brothers sit at dinner w/ their mother, the irony is not lost that Ivar sits at the head of the table and implies that his brothers know to fear him despite his handicap.
Having already made his peace, such as it is, with his sons and Floki, it’s certainly telling that Ragnar visits Lagertha at Hedeby before making time for Aslaug. Several themes emerge from this heartfelt, yet complicated scene, not the least of which is Ragnar’s recognition that his ex-wife is in a relationship with a woman. It doesn’t seem to bother him and when Lagertha asks Astrid (Josefin Asplund) to leave them, it sets the stage for a scene we’ve anticipated for three seasons. Much of “The Outsider” examines Ragnar coming to terms with the fact that many, including himself, view his life and rule as failures, so when he’s able to finally open up to Lagertha in an honest dialogue, we feel some of the pressure relieve itself. Or at least we think that’s what we see.
“We all approved of your ideas, but they didn’t work,” Lagertha tells him. Despite that, he asks her to accompany him to Wessex, but in the same breath admits “I wish I’d never left the farm.” Rather than weakness, what comes out of this exchange is the realization that this is a man who was ill prepared to be king, gave it everything he had, and now in his later years, seeks nothing more than to atone for his self-perceived sins. The confusion these two lovers, and make no mistake, they love each other, must feel is underscored when Lagertha explains to Ragnar how she views their life together and apart. “No regrets and yet every regret,” she tells him. “I’m never totally sure about my feelings for Ragnar,” Lagertha later tells Astrid as he rides away and clearly has second thoughts about not going with him.
As soon as we experience the camera shot from high in the tree, we’re painfully aware of what’s about to transpire. But why does Ragnar suddenly feel the need to end his life? Each interaction has gone as smoothly as he could have hoped. Bjorn is now his own man, his sons have taken on responsibilities, and Lagertha as plainly as she could, lets him know that she still cares for him. Does his malaise come back to his crisis of faith or does his simply see himself as a failure? A man ill prepared for greatness can no longer pretend to be something he’s not, so then why does he insist on returning to England? Or does the suicide attempt indicate he really isn’t serious about exacting revenge himself. Does he hope Bjorn will take up his cause? Is he really despondent, or is he testing the gods? And then there’s Rollo.
On the one hand, it’s fitting that Aslaug must wait for her audience with Ragnar, but seeing her with her four boys throws much of what we think we know about her into question. We’ve always viewed her as a conniver inserting herself into situations she didn’t belong, but when Ivar tells his father that mother never let anyone sit on his throne, we can’t help but suspect this act comprises one detail of a longer con. That said, Ivar continues to push Aslaug into the background, and when he admits to his father that in the night he would crawl to the throne and sit in it seething with anger and abandonment, Ragnar seems pleased. He now knows which son will succeed him and invites him to come to England with him. Throw in the scene in which he hurls an axe at Sigurd, who had he not ducked, would have been hit in the face, Ivar’s cold, icy stare belies a young man not only ready to lead, but one who will not be denied. Ivar possesses what Ragnar has always lacked.
And finally, though it doesn’t occupy that much screen time, Bjorn’s meeting with the Seer lays out a fitting future. He claims Ragnar’s return brings with it great calamity, tragedy and death; the gods are not pleased. Will knowing this alter Bjorn’s path, or will he continue to divorce himself from his father’s past and the path that many assumed he would follow?
After the long hiatus, Vikings’ return does not disappoint. Now that we’re here, splitting the twenty episode season appears to be a brilliant strategic move with plenty of time to revisit a number of storylines, not the least of which is the status of Parisian exile Rollo, and with nine hours remaining, there’s no need to hurry.