This Vikings review contains spoilers.
Vikings Season 4 Episode 16
Rarely does a television show lose its main character and do anything more than tread water before being pulled down into the morass of has beens and never weres. Not only has Vikings clearly managed to avoid that seemingly inevitable track, but Michael Hirst deftly points his series in a different, yet still recognizable direction.
In its first post-Ragnar episode, “Crossings” convincingly dispels any concerns fans might have for the series’ viability moving forward as viewers now take on the show’s new course. While we mourn the loss of Ragnar Lothbrok, embracing his sons Bjorn and Ivar as they answer their father’s pointed question upon his return from self-exile makes for a smooth transition of power. “Who wants to be king?”
That said, what comes across loud and clear in tonight’s episode are the personal, spiritual and political vacuums that grow daily as the principals bide their time and plot their courses. And despite the fact that Hirst immediately reminds us of Ragnar’s death with the haunting image of Aelle’s empty cage still suspended high in the tree above the pit, the former king’s presence continues to resonate with the audience and his fellow Norsemen.
Even though we watched with a certain measure of delight as Lagertha put down Aslaug and reclaimed her throne, tonight’s chapter provides a more vulnerable perspective of the woman who realizes that not only has she likely lost the love of her life but must also now contend with four young men who want her dead. Nonetheless, Katheryn Winnick’s poignant character study of a woman able to put her grief aside because she “must pick up the burden of ruling,” a burden she acknowledges Ragnar hated, is absolutely heart wrenching.
The contrast between the distraught Lagertha of the opening scene and the stunning queen who walks into the great hall to the resounding applause of her people articulates the emotional journey she continues to traverse. Despite having Astrid by her side, we fear for her future, and Hirst makes the wise decision to have Ivar confront her immediately. Crawling to the front of the hall to challenge his mother’s killer highlights the struggles Ragnar’s youngest son now faces as he feels compelled to avenge the deaths of both his parents. What makes this pair so fascinating, however, is that though the two are diametrically opposed, the trials each faces are more similar than not.
When Ivar challenges Lagertha to single combat, he stands alone, facing off against a woman who must be reconsidering her decision to keep Ubbe and Sigurd alive. But what’s interesting here is that he refers to Ubbe as a coward prompting Lagertha to defend the older brother even though she knows he’s already tried once to exact his revenge on her for Aslaug’s death.
However, must Ivar stand alone or does he make the conscious decision to exclude his brothers whom he undoubtedly views as less than worthy? Though no one doubts Lagertha’s abilities or prerogative to assume the throne in Kattegat, Ivar’s attempt to bait her into a fight reinforces the majestic facade she continues to exhibit. His desire to avenge his mother’s death is understandable as is Lagertha’s refusal to meet him in combat. What’s confusing, though, are the reasons behind each decision.
Lagertha’s past with Ragnar continues to haunt her, and likely a day doesn’t go by that she regrets her decision to leave him. And now, faced with the stark reality that her ex-husband’s sons have vowed to kill her, she must decide how to proceed. Supernatural elements rarely appear in Vikings, but tonight we encounter multiple instances that strongly suggest Ragnar’s psychic connections with his loved ones. Lagertha pleads with her vision to not “leave me,” and at the same time to “enjoy Valhalla,” an incident that ultimately leads her to seek the wisdom of The Seer.
Not surprisingly, The Seer informs her that he too saw Ragnar on his way to Valhalla, and that “he was happy” which raises the question of Ragnar’s spiritual crisis. Heretofore, it’s been reasonable to refer to Ragnar as an atheist or at least agnostic, but enough details drop tonight that may require an adjustment to that line of thinking. Most telling of all occurs when we hear his voiceover indicate that he will wait for his sons to join him before entering Valhalla which does not sound like a man who has abandoned his gods. Did he, like many before and after, experience an epiphany as he lay in the pit amidst the poisonous snakes?
However, Ragnar’s death is one thing, while Lagertha’s is quite another, so when she asks The Seer point blank “Will the sons of Ragnar kill me?” his answer, while not unexpected, does come as somewhat of a surprise.
Though Lagertha certainly agonizes over choices she’s made and decisions that currently face her, it’s difficult to ignore Ivar’s pain as he appears overwhelmed by the expectations his father places on him during their final encounter. It’s one thing to feel the burden to avenge his father’s death, but to learn of his mother’s demise upon returning to Kattegat seems a lot to handle. Nevertheless, if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Ivar during the past season, to underestimate him is a mistake. When others’ expectations of him remained low, he ignored each and every one of them and developed into a highly capable, yet dangerous young man whose intensity now shines best through his piercing blue eyes.
And then there’s the one-eyed man who seemingly appears to both Ivar and Bjorn, to inform the brothers that their father is dead and must be avenged. Named as Black Cloaked Figure (Andre Eriksen) on IMDB, the obvious assumption is that Odin has turned up in Kattegat, but to what end remains a mystery. Since Ragnar always felt he was descended from Odin, has the god arrived to oversee the vengeance that must take place? And if so, how will he view Lagertha’s actions? Euripides’ Medea murders her ex-husband’s fiancee and her own two sons to exact revenge against Jason after he leaves her for a younger bride. Despite her horrific acts, the gods rescue her giving their tacit approval for her deeds. Do we expect Lagertha to be perceived the same way, or is The Seer correct?
Most contemporary serialized television episodes feature multiple storylines each week, and “Crossings” is no different. While Lagertha’s arc obviously continues to be important, it’s how Hirst weaves the theme of loss so many of the characters experience both at home and abroad that makes tonight so special. Faced with the reality that she’ll never physically reconcile with Ragnar, Lagertha must now move on to the next stage of her life, trying to fill the hole in her heart by becoming the queen she was always destined to be. Has she lost her only child? That remains to be seen, but it would be interesting to see Bjorn stand up to Ivar and his brothers should it come to that.
It’s a nice touch that our first encounter with Bjorn finds him and his fleet floundering, short on food and water, and no land in sight. Clearly, Harald and Halfdan begin to question his leadership, though to be fair, Harald has never backed away from his desire to preside over all of Norway, so it’s only a matter of time before the brothers make their move. At this point we’re supposed to question, along with the crew, whether or not Bjorn Ironside is lost? Not only nautically, but in his search for a path, but like his father before him, his visionary approach pays initial dividends.
However, of all the narrative surprises, Floki’s feelings of emptiness may be the most mystifying, and at this point we really don’t know what’s happened to make him question his belief in the gods. On the other hand, it’s possible he’s referring to an emotional emptiness resulting from the death of his child Angrboda, an emptiness that also impacts Helga though in a completely different manner. Does he blame the gods for the loss of their child? Perhaps, but her desire to try again to have a child may push her enigmatic husband further away leading him to become even more disconnected.
Nevertheless, as precarious as Floki and Helga’s relationship might be, it’s his reaction to the mosque and its Muslim worshippers after they land in Spain that strikes at the heart of his internal conflict. Carrying his ax into this holy place of worship, he’s immediately struck by the intensity of the supplicants who barely recognize the pagan invaders. Though he doesn’t understand how they can worship without iconography, we have to wonder whether he’s softened in his theological approach. Whatever the reason, he takes a risk forcing Harald to back down from killing the men who continue to pray despite the chaos all around.
Still, we’re not quite finished with the Viking intrusion into the Muslim world. Further complicating their already tenuous situation, Helga locks onto a young girl she wants to adopt, clearly a reaction to the earlier fruitless discussion she has with Floki. His view of the world in flux, Floki’s reticence to even consider taking on a child may be due in part to residual grief, but as he witnesses the inevitable clashing of world religions, he may sense a coming battle and refuses to bring another child into the unavoidable calamity.
And finally there’s Bjorn Ironside who it appears faces a stiff challenge from his youngest brother as the centerpiece of Vikings. Though it’s unclear whether or not he understands the number of wolves at his door, his first opportunity to explore and plunder as leader goes as well as can be expected, but even he has to know that the limited resistance they face will likely change moving forward. But here’s the problem. I expected more out of Bjorn, so it’s a bit disappointing to watch him endorse the enslavement of the young women of the harem they encounter. Cultural differences aside, he knows better.
While Rollo reacquaints himself with Viking warfare, and Hvitserk receives his baptism by fire, the blissful ignorance of the Lothbrok clan regarding events back home can hold only so long. Michael Hirst has assembled the perfect transitional episode with “Crossings” and set up so many engaging storylines that some will receive only scant treatment by the end of the season. And that’s okay, because with season five right around the corner, there’s plenty of time to address them all.