This Vikings review contains spoilers.
Vikings Season 4 Episode 14
“I cannot kill you, yet you must die.”
It’s been an amazing four-year run. As we’ve watched Ragnar Lothbrok regretfully age, both physically and emotionally, we always knew the time would come when we’d be forced to accept his death whatever the circumstances and decide whether or not Vikings could survive without him.
However, “In the Uncertain Hour Before the Morning,” we’re not asked to come to terms with that quite yet, and instead this chapter resolves some long standing issues that require other deaths before Ragnar finally meets his own. Michael Hirst’s propensity of late to allow individual stories an opportunity to develop before moving on to the next scene continues to be a strength, and the decision to focus on Lagertha and Ragnar tonight gives us the best of all worlds.
At the forefront though stands the long awaited reunion of two complex rulers.
“We have a lot to talk about, you and I,” King Ecbert tells a chained Ragnar, a statement that crystallizes the stirring relationship that emerges during one of the finest character studies this series has presented thus far. The emotions surrounding their shared experiences exposes a connection that manifests itself in a number of surprising scenes. That this connection centers around a man they both loved and continue to mourn to this day only makes the eventualities sadder to bear.
While it may be overstated in many shows to talk of characters as being enigmatic, Vikings is not one of those shows. And while the questions surrounding Athelstan may not have been as mystical as those of The Seer, Floki, and Harbard, his return tonight, if only in thought, reminds us of the impact his life and death have had on Ragnar. What we didn’t realize was that the power he held over both kings would be enough to draw them together, perhaps even as friends. Of course, by the end of the episode, we’re back to acknowledging the very real possibility that Ragnar and Ecbert find themselves in the middle of an elaborately orchestrated confidence game in which Ragnar may not be around to see the fruits of his plan.
What makes the scenes between the two kings so incredibly engaging is that even though each pours his heart out to the other, seeds of doubt remain. We really don’t know which of the two to trust or to doubt. Watching the two men sit on the floor like children as they discuss whether or not God and the gods exist perfectly leads into what haunts them both, the death of Athelstan. Admittedly, we’ve seen much more of Ragnar and have a better sense of when he might be hatching a scheme, but this is about as emotionally genuine as it gets. Both men loved Athelstan, yet neither wants to deprive the other of his feelings while at the same time acknowledging guilt over his death. That neither really wants to blame the other speaks to the influence the priest still holds, but it’s also telling as they discuss whether Athelstan now resides with the gods or with God.
It would certainly be a mistake to dismiss the fact that Ragnar essentially mocks Ecbert, parroting the Wessex king’s statement that his order to slaughter the Viking farming settlement was part of a “larger, bolder strategy,” an act that makes Ragnar’s final request make perfect sense. Nonetheless, does Ecbert not see that delivering Ragnar to King Aelle will still implicate him in the Viking king’s death ultimately sealing his own? Is this more about killing Ragnar’s guilty conscience over Athelstan’s death than avenging the lives of the Viking farmers?
Juxtaposed against the tale of Lagertha and the sorceress Aslaug, Ragnar’s admission that The Seer foretold his own death on the day that the blind man sees him, forms the basis of this brilliantly constructed setup episode. Is Ragnar referring to Ecbert here, implying that Wessex’s kind doesn’t see what’s taking place right before his eyes? Once news of Ragnar’s death reaches Kattegat, will Ubbe feel compelled to abandon his desire to avenge his mother’s death?
All of this leads us to the culmination of the series of events that enables Lagertha to reclaim her “hearth and home,” but now having heard her actually articulate her desires, does she hope to rejoin her ex-husband sitting side by side on their thrones? Lagertha’s intelligence and resolve remain two of her strongest assets, so it’s fascinating to contemplate the genesis of her return to power. Did she plan from the moment she left Ragnar and Kattegat to one day return to take back her village and her husband?
Even though Hirst focuses more on the emotional journeys of Ragnar and Ecbert in this chapter, the final exchange between the sorceress queen Aslaug and Lagertha sets into motion the first step toward bringing Kattegat’s true first family back to power. In retrospect, it’s difficult to see Aslaug’s throwing down her sword in surrender to Lagertha rather than handing it to her as her final act of defiance before the death she surely knows is coming. She doesn’t need to be blessed with foresight to know that the safe passage she requests will likely never come to fruition.
Even so, killing Aslaug in broad daylight in front of the entire town re-establishes Lagertha as the queen, but despite the celebrating and sacrificing that ensues before setting into motion Aslaug’s Viking funeral, we sense that Ragnar will not return to sit beside his true love which makes this sequence so bittersweet. Aslaug’s revelation of her dream that Ragnar and Ivar drown may be meant as one final swipe at the woman whose husband she bewitched, but either way, we know in our heart of hearts that it’s more likely we’ll see Ivar on the throne next to his mother soon enough.
By the end of the night we’re left with a number of interesting narrative developments most notably the impending rift between Ubbe and his younger brother Sigurd whose acknowledgement regarding their mother’s preference for Ivar over the other three will seemingly estrange him from Ubbe. And while this may have been something he’s been harboring for a long time, how Lagertha handles both men remains to be seen. Ubbe’s ill fated, yet somewhat valiant attempt to so quickly avenge his mother’s death must resonate with Lagertha, so it seems unlikely she’ll allow him to roam about unfettered which may explain Astrid’s appearance as she delivers her not so subtle message.
In some circles setup episodes are viewed with less regard than those filled with more overt action, but when we return to my initial concern for Vikings post-Ragnar Lothbrok, “In the Uncertain Hour Before the Morning” assuages any doubts we may have had regarding the viability of the show moving forward. Michael Hirst continues to craft compelling characters, inserting them subtly into the narrative and setting into motion the next stages of his Nordic sage.