This Vikings review contains spoilers.
Vikings Season 4 Episode 12
When Ragnar tells Ivar to “Hurry up; we have a tide to catch,” this message to his youngest son mirrors much of the sublime narrative of “The Vision,” the latest episode of Vikings. The best laid plans often go awry, and what Michael Hirst lays out so neatly are the roots of a sequence of events destined to shape the futures of Kattegat and the Lothbrok clan. Though it would have been nice to see Rollo, if even for a moment, his political successes are mentioned, and we have only to wait for an eventual confrontation. The question, of course, remains, who will demand that Rollo atone for his sin of betrayal, and who will become king.
No sooner do we revel in Ragnar’s return to Kattegat in the midseason premiere, than we’re now filled with pity for the once great man, reputation in tatters, forced to beg men to accompany him on his vengeance voyage to Wessex. It’s difficult to watch Ragnar walk through the village, now bustling with activity, but this is only one of many indignities he faces as he reorders his life. Ragnar certainly understands the changes that have taken place in his absence, but he’s clearly out of his element and feels uncomfortable in the village he once helped build. The encounter with the brother of a farmer who died at Wessex reinforces the feelings people have for the disgraced King Ragnar. How the mighty have fallen.
As the viewer and Ivar watch Ragnar dig up hidden treasures from previous raids, his intentions slowly come into focus. Ragnar distributes coins, precious metals, and other valuables hoping to entice men to join his crew, but only the old and infirm line up, leading us to wonder whether they accept they’ll be sailing to their deaths and only want to provide for their families. In fact, that may be Ragnar’s motive as well. And it has to be somewhat demeaning to have to ask Bjorn for ships, though to his credit, Bjorn surprises his father by readily agreeing.
It’s here we must reflect on the Ragnar Lothbrok we see before us because he no longer resembles the warrior king we’ve watched viciously attack and pillage distant lands, all in the name of the gods. Life has dealt him some brutal blows, and though it’s taken seven years for him to come to terms with decisions he’s made, he’s not only prepared to accept the consequences but also to make what may be one final stand. What he truly hopes to accomplish by raiding England remains known only to him.
They say one way to judge a man is to examine the sons he raises, and while it can be argued that his lengthy absences left that role to others, no one can deny that Bjorn Ironside has grown to be a fine man in his own right. The poignant scene between Bjorn and Ragnar as the two discuss Bjorn’s plans illuminates the unbreakable bond between the two, but his suggestion to make contact with Rollo who is apparently expanding his kingdom meets with an expected reaction. Ragnar sees no purpose in talk, while Bjorn takes a more forward thinking, open stance, arguing that diplomacy benefits everyone. Still, what courses through this scene is the recognition of the natural evolution of life as the parent now needs the child to provide care for him in his later years.
Nevertheless, Bjorn’s relationship with his father marks only the tip of the iceberg destined to crash into the Lothbrok clan as we witness Ragnar’s other family begin disintegrating during dinner. Sigurd continues to mock Ivar going so far as to say their mother should have left him to the wolves. It’s painful to watch Ivar struggle emotionally and physically to confront Sigurd, and in the end he crawls toward the door as Sigurd leaves. Interestingly, his literal and Ragnar’s figurative crawling recur throughout.
Obviously, the ominous episode ending implies that neither Ivar nor Ragnar will survive to complete the voyage. Ragnar’s an old man, and Ivar’s a cripple, but we sense they both have the gods behind them despite Ragnar’s continued crisis of faith. Assuming that Ivar returns to Kattegat, will Sigurd, who stays safely at home with his mother, push his youngest brother to the edge leaving Ivar no choice but to kill his brother? The contrast between the two brothers couldn’t be any more pronounced, and SIgurd’s attitude is difficult to explain. He certainly seems angry enough, and when Aslaug tells the boys they need to find wives, that love is not important, Sigurd even mocks his mother demanding to know whether she ever loved anyone other than Harbard.
It is with mixed feelings that we watch King Harald and his brother Halfdan sail into the harbor to join Bjorn on his voyage of exploration because we know of Harald’s long standing ambition. In a scene filled with serious undertones, Ragnar watches the flotilla from a nearby hillside while Bjorn and his family await on the dock, and the celebration that night to see Bjorn and his warriors off provides room for several subplots to develop. Does Ragnar fear his son will be manipulated or worse by Harald?
It’s unclear why Bjorn seems somewhat surprised when his mother and Astrid arrive, but she wants to see her son off on his destiny even though we suspect there might be more to her attendance than immediately meets the eye. We learn that Harald has been conquering area kings on his quest to rule all of Norway, and the fact that Bjorn appears unconcerned about that seems puzzling. The intrigue within the walls of the hall permeates every inch of the room, and it’s comforting to know that our confidence in Bjorn is well founded. Bjorn seems wary of Floki’s warm greeting of Harald and Halfdan, so that relationship is one to keep an eye on even though it seems impossible to believe Floki would ever consciously betray Bjorn.
I’m not sure there’s any scene that fans of Vikings have longed for more than the confrontation between Lagertha and Aslaug. The celebration delivers the perfect opportunity, and we don’t have to wait long to see who makes the first move. On the one hand, it’s disappointing that Lagertha doesn’t take the initiative, but when she suggests they officiate a sacrifice together since Aslaug’s son Hvitserk is going with Bjorn, she seizes the upper hand.
“You forget, Lagertha, that I am the queen,” Aslaug tells her, clearly forgetting with whom she’s conversing. “I never forget anything,” Lagertha tells her and walks away. The scene is pregnant with with intrigue as Bjorn doesn’t trust Harald, and Aslaug knows that Lagertha’s intentions are at best unclear.
The sacrificial ceremony intended to send Bjorn off with the gods’ blessings reminds viewers of the religious mysticism surrounding the Norsemen. The incessant beat of the drums produces a trancelike state as we watch Aslaug, face completely covered in blood and paint, sacrifice the animal drawing its blood into a bowl. Clearly, she takes control leaving Lagertha among the crowd. Using what appears to be a sort of aspergillum, she sprays the blood on the others as a form of consecration, but that’s only the beginning.
Caught up in the religious fervor, Ivar paints his face with blood and then not that shockingly drinks from the bowl. Is this an attempt vitalize himself, perhaps praying for a miracle from above? And then in the midst of this Viking rave, Lagertha approaches Aslaug and tells her she knows she can hear her despite her hypnotic state, lets her know she’ll never forgive her for stealing her husband and world, and that Aslaug will never be queen of Kattegat. It has to grate Lagertha on so many levels to look around at the fruit of Aslaug’s power leading her to her final admonishing words. “Look what you’ve done with it.” I think we all know a showdown is coming if only Aslaug will cooperate.
It was beginning to appear that Ragnar would delay facing his wife Aslaug for as long as possible, and it’s not until Ivar tells his mother that he plans to accompany his father on the voyage to England that she’s reached the end of her patience. What comes next might be the most surprising gesture in the episode as Alyssa Sutherland gives one of her most powerfully emotional performances. Coming on the heels of her encounter with Lagertha and her participation in the sacrificial rites, this unexpected tender scene between husband and wife almost makes us feel sorry for her. We’re not sure where this is headed when Ragnar tells her that, “We both know that love was not what brought us together.” But then in the next breath, as he gently releases the braids of her hair, he gratefully acknowledges that she never poisoned the boys against him despite how terribly he treated her.
I think it’s fair to say that the level of complexity among the major players on Vikings is one of the most important elements that drives the narrative, and even though she’s certainly one of the least likable characters, it would be a mistake to overlook the importance of the mystical side of Aslaug. Her vision of Ivar floating above the water as a waterspout moves his body clearly represents more than a simple fever dream. She sees him drowning as she runs to him but doesn’t go in the water in a call back to the incident when Bjorn’s daughter dies due to Aslaug’s neglect. Can she see the future or does she simply have a symbiotic relationship with her youngest son? Regardless, their relationship is complicated at best. “One day with my father is better than a lifetime of pity,” Ivar tells his mother after admitting she’s suffocated him his entire life.
In an episode of contrasts, there’s a sense of calm as Bjorn prepares to sail off to Rome unlike the days when Ragnar set off to raid neighboring lands. Bjorn has to know that Harald and Halfdan can’t be trusted, however, when Bjorn’s wife tells him not to come back unless he’s done great things, her statement muddies the waters since we haven’t seen enough of her to understand the subtext. She may simply be frightened for his safety as he ventures out on his way to Rome with an ominous overtone hanging overhead. Despite his bravado, even he has to wonder into what he’s sailing?
As the episode winds down it’s difficult to decide which is more shocking. That Ragnar sails out with only three ships or Aslaug’s vision of the approaching storm that seemingly drowns her son. The compelling scene cuts back and forth between Ragnar’s floundering fleet and Aslaug suffering as if she knows what’s simultaneously taking place. Through all of the chaos, Ragnar ties Ivar to a mast just before the boat capsizes and then desperately attempts to free him while both are underwater. Nevertheless, it’s Aslaug who now has blood all over the front of her dress that presents the most confounding plot point. Has she been stabbing herself, and if so, why?
Because of Vikings‘ narrative breadth, it’s difficult to know for certain where we’re headed next, but of course that’s part of the show’s appeal. “The Vision” shuffles the deck and provides an arresting look at the Lothbrok family’s loss of prestige not only in Kattegat, but throughout the kingdoms as well. Deftly employing a parallel between Ivar and Ragnar as both are forced to crawl because of perceived helplessness, Hirst sets the stage for father to make perhaps his last heroic stand and son to stake his claim as the next Lothbrok to be feared and respected.