And so it begins. LIke any good father, Ragnar Lothbrok has set his youngest son Ivar on a path to greatness, and in the latest episode of Vikings the Northman transcends the somber mood as he faces a horrible death at the hands of King Aelle. Even though “All His Angels” once again produces powerful character studies of King Ecbert and Ragnar Lothbrok as they face their respective moments of truth, we also get a pointed glimpse of Aelle via the emotionally charged scenes of Ragnar’s final hours. In the end though, tonight features the sublime swan song of Ragnar Lothbrok.
On the one hand, “All His Angels” articulates the struggle each of the three great men wrestles with, but it’s so much more than that. We’ve anticipated Ragnar’s death for some time now, and though he faces his earthly trials unflinchingly, it’s his spirituality that causes him the most pain. He understands the importance of faith even though he’s lost his, and it’s particularly poignant when he presents Alfred with the crucifix Athelstan had given him many years prior. Later, as his life flashes before his eyes, we look on with mixed feelings knowing the man he once was and the many sins for which he must atone.
Does Ragnar Lothbrok deserve the treatment he receives at the hands of Aelle? Many would say yes, and they wouldn’t be wrong. It would be nice to be able to say that Ragnar makes peace with his God and with himself before he dies, but it’s not that simple. Still, what’s most troubling in tonight’s episode involves his directive to Ivar that it should be Ecbert who bears the brunt of his sons’ revenge and not Aelle.
Watching and listening to these two kings, naked and vulnerable, discuss the meaning of life and faith, produces an undercurrent which we perceive as mutual trust and respect, and to have Ragnar undercut that trust is difficult to accept. And when Ecbert, disguising himself in monk’s robes, makes the difficult journey to Aelle’s kingdom simply to be with his friend at his moment of death, we wonder whether or not Ragnar regrets his decision. In one of the episode’s most moving scenes, it appears that the two acknowledge each other’s presence, but it’s unclear whether that knowledge alters the impact of Ragnar’s death.
However, if we’ve learned anything during the past four seasons, it’s to never underestimate Ragnar Lothbrok, and despite being chained, caged, and guarded by dozens of armed soldiers, somehow we still fear for their safety. But today there are no miracles. Interestingly though, Ragnar is taunted by a number of Christian references including Aelle’s desire to have Ragnar ask for Absolution and the king’s men reciting “The Lord’s Prayer” as he regains consciousness before his execution begins. Ironically, even though he boldly proclaims Valhalla and Odin await him, we suspect that he does now find the concept of polytheism ridiculous. The question remains – does Ragnar Lothbrok believe in anything or does he truly accept that man is the master of his own fate?
Though much of “All His Angels” focuses on the three older kings, Ragnar continues to prepare Ivar for the coming storm even though neither knows the details about what transpired in Kattegat. What once seemed so simple, now has become much more complex for Ivar, and despite the discussion he has with his father regarding his anger and how best to utilize it, the news of his mother’s death at the hands of Lagertha complicates what should have been a fairly straightforward situation.
Having returned home to Kattegat courtesy of Ecbert’s ship, Ivar must now decide how to proceed, and it will be fascinating to watch whether he pushes Ubbe and Sigurd’s wishes to the side and makes decisions for all of them. Of course, the most pressing question facing him is whether or not to seek revenge for his mother’s death, and if he does, will he have his brothers’ backing. We watched last week as Ubbe bravely went after Lagertha only to be stopped by one of her guards, but in single combat, it seems difficult to fathom that any of the boys could survive a bout with Kattegat’s new queen.
And what of Ragnar’s request – will Ivar take it a step further and kill both kings and their subjects, or might there be another option. Does the game of chess he plays with Alfred have meaning? It appears that Ivar is setting up Alfred when he’s called away before the game’s conclusion, but as Ivar prepares to return home, the young noble places a chess piece in his opponent’s hand. Just as Ragnar has apparently set up Ecbert on several levels, so too has Ivar with Alfred; the question though is whether or not any connection the two boys formed will have an impact when Ivar returns in force.
Ordinarily, I’d be disappointed that an episode followed only one story arc, but Ragnar Lothbrok’s final days demand to be examined not only in their totality, but also in isolation. That he sacrifices himself so that Ivar might have a purpose comes as no surprise; he is emotionally dead already. However, what continues to puzzle me is his desire to bring down Ecbert, seemingly over the murder of the Viking farmers at Wessex. It can’t be that simple.
Though we hadn’t heard his name for quite some time, Athelstan’s influence continues to resonate with both Ecbert and Ragnar, and it’s here we may have our answer to what motivates Ragnar. Watching him give Alfred his father’s cross seems to indicate that he has come to terms with the complicated relationship the three men had with each other, but whether or not he truly believes that the priest “chose your God” confuses perhaps the most important issue of the episode. In whom does Ragnar Lothbrok have faith? Does he remain jealous of Ecbert’s relationship with Athelstan?
“All My Angels” continues to build the platform upon which Ivar will stand as he takes up the mantle left behind by his father. Michael Hirst has planted the seeds for what promises to yield a wealth of political intrigue both at home and abroad. How will Ragnar’s sons approach avenging their father’s death at the hands of Aelle and Ecbert, but more importantly, how will they deal with Lagertha? And so it begins.