This Vikings review contains spoilers.
Vikings Season 4 Episode 17
“You need to be a teacher to your people.”
I’m not sure what else fans of History’s Vikings can reasonably expect from creator/writer/showrunner Michael Hirst as the historical drama approaches the end of its fourth season. On the one hand, it becomes redundant to continually praise the acting and writing on Vikings, since the strength of the series relies not on a retelling of history, but on the examination of the human condition during this burgeoning cross continent expansion. But here we are with a show that displays absolutely no signs of slowing down and actors that week after week reveal levels of charisma most can only hope to achieve.
In light of the fact that its cast has grown so vast, it’s especially remarkable that Hirst’s steady hand is able to sustain our interest even as we now face the harsh reality that more of our favorites, in whom we’ve become emotionally invested, might not make it through the series’ run. Tonight’s episode “The Great Army” both comforts and unnerves viewers as we take stock of a landscape littered with dead bodies and now must make our choices of who to support moving forward.
Though we don’t see much of King Ecbert in tonight’s episode, his lesson to Alfred resonates across each of the kingdoms as Ragnar’s sons assemble an army to exact revenge for their father’s death. “The Great Army” continues to build on the conflicting motivations each of Ragnar’s sons faces as they reunite in Kattegat, but lost in the proceedings seems to be the impact their actions will have on those left behind. What comes across loud and clear in tonight’s episode, however, is that the complexities of leadership require a studied approach, and while patience and urgency each has its place, the great leader recognizes the appropriate application of each.
At this point in Vikings, not surprisingly, Lagertha enjoys the support of the people of Kattegat as together they fortify the rapidly expanding trading hub against inevitable invaders. The queen has not forgotten her humble beginnings, and while working side by side with the villagers, Ubbe approaches her about accompanying them on their journey to England. Of course, we know what transpires later in the episode, but at this point, we take him at his word that they need all the help they can get. Lagertha, on the other hand, is far too experienced, and while she acknowledges her presence is needed in Kattegat, she knows too that trusting Aslaug’s sons would constitute foolhardy behavior. And Lagertha is nobody’s fool.
One of the highlights of Vikings continues to be the competitive interplay among the five brothers as they jostle for position despite their individual limitations. It’s been clear for some time now that even though he’s the youngest, Ivar’s alpha dog status becomes stronger by the day, and while Ubbe makes a valiant attempt at playing the big brother, there’s something missing that doesn’t allow him to clear that final hurdle towards manhood and greatness. Granted, he confronts Lagertha on several occasions, but he lacks the killer instinct that Ivar possesses and seems to know that unless pushed beyond all reasonable bounds, Lagertha will let him live.
For all the bluster he displays while taking every opportunity to demean his youngest brother, at least Sigurd (David Lindstrom) admits the truth about his feelings and rationally explains his stance when it comes to their mother’s killer. This is not the first time Sigurd admits the resentment he feels as a result of his mother’s emotional neglect and her attraction to Harbard. He doesn’t feel the anger toward Lagertha that Ubbe and Ivar do, an indication perhaps that he’s a man who not only recognizes his own limitations, but can also be honest with himself about how he perceives who his mother really was and how he views Lagertha’s response. Interestingly, this scene also features the second time that Ivar nearly kills Sigurd leading us to wonder whether or not the two can reconcile their differences.
It’s understandable that as the eldest Ubbe feels the need to step forward and take charge, but his decision to remain at home with his mother leaves him at a distinct disadvantage. While Ivar fought with his father and Hvitserk with Bjorn, Ubbe still has not faced the challenges many men his age have taken on by this time. His decision to free Kattegat’s slaves arises out of a need to do something relatively non-threatening while still getting the attention of Lagertha and the villagers. In the end though, it seems a hollow gesture. and whether he or one of his other brothers marries Margrethe lacks purpose.
And what of Hvitserk who has returned triumphant with his half-brother Bjorn after their successful Mediterranean campaign? While Ivar and Ubbe want to charge ahead to avenge both parents’ deaths, Hvitserk, perhaps because of what he’s learned while fighting with his brother and uncle, calls for patience when it comes to Lagertha. Does he feel the same abandonment as Sigurd? Perhaps, but it also appears that he sees a bigger picture as it relates to Lagertha’s death.
Nonetheless, when Bjorn crashes through the bolted door of the great room as Ivar and Ubbe are about to kill Lagertha, there’s no longer any question as to who commands the most respect. No longer merely Ragnar Lothbrok’s son, Bjorn Ironside has carved out a niche for himself, and it will be interesting to see how Ivar responds now that Lagertha’s son has returned. Will the brothers continue to plot Lagertha’s assassination knowing they’ll ultimately face her son?
In addition to the imposing figure Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) now cuts, whether or not he’s that happy to be back in Kattegat remains unclear. Ludwig’s portrayal lacks the subtleties his father exuded, but that’s the point. Bjorn is not his father, and though he’s still finding his own path, there’s no denying his genetics. He’s learned a lot from his father and mother regarding the acquisition and deployment of power, but with the changing dynamics in Kattegat, his desires might have to be tempered should he choose to become king. Certainly the villagers respect Bjorn Ironside, but the days may be over when the king can venture off on raiding parties leaving the homeland virtually unprotected. The world is changing.
And a significant aspect of this change revolves around the brothers Harald and Halfdan who appear to be biding their time watching whether or not the Lothbrok clan will implode leaving Kattegat vulnerable. With so many characters and multiple story arcs, the potential for any one individual to become lost in the mix stands as a distinct possibility. However, Michael Hirst’s measured approach maintains this external conflict of which Ivar and Ubbe appear to be unaware. Bjorn, on the other hand, having sailed, fought, and lived with the brothers, surely understands the danger they pose but appears willing to continue this uneasy alliance as long as it benefits both families. Again, Hirst introduces and maintains these secondary characters with splendid skill, setting up unavoidable conflicts down the road.
However, there’s a reason this episode is titled “The Great Army.” Ragnar’s death appears to have had a deleterious effect on King Ecbert who no longer appears interested in ruling, leaving his kingdom in flux as Aethelwulf does his best to maintain Wessex’s stature and prepare for the inevitable Viking siege. Meanwhile, Alfred falls under his grandfather’s tutelage while nearby King Aelle’s hubris may only be mitigated by another of the series’ more complex characters. Though it shouldn’t be necessary, Judith attempts to convince her father to prepare for the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok and their unavoidable invasion, but it’s her insistence to see the snakepit that creates the most interest. Lack of intuition has never been Judith’s problem, and it raises the question of why she deems it a sacred place – does she anticipate its importance once Ragnar’s sons arrive with an army that appears to dwarf anything we’ve previously seen?
Having witnessed Ragnar’s degeneration in his later years and the manner with which he was treated upon his return to the village after his disappearance, I’m not sure what to make of the scale and scope of the flotilla that has been assembled to avenge his death. Regardless, Lagertha’s concern about the size of the growing army raises another set of issues should she fail to accompany it to England. Once Ragnar is avenged, what will become of this army?
It’s always a joy to see Rollo, and Clive Standen’s stoic performance as Bjorn drops his uncle off at Frankia on the return home belies a man whose intellectual confidence seems to now blend perfectly with the unapologetic warrior of his past. Rollo’s apprehension about how he’ll be received is played perfectly, and Gisla’s reaction displays a visceral nature to which we can all relate. But it’s Rollo’s exchange with Floki and Bjorn before debarking that speaks to the visionary attitude the once boorish man now possesses.
When Rollo tells Bjorn that “I know what I have to do,” part of what he offers is an opportunity for broken fences to be mended. Though the Viking farming settlement in Wessex did not end well, do we take Rollo at his word when he offers a similar proposal to Bjorn and Floki? However, wounds run deep – “Too much bad blood, Rollo,” but it’s Rollo who envisions the changing world, and we have to wonder whether he sees a Norse/Frankian alliance as a means of expanding his reach. Or is it merely a peace offering meant to repair the damage left by his defection? Either way, as expected, Floki rejects the offer stating that there is no “us” any long, still, Rollo’s recognition that “What is us, Floki, is changing,” speaks to how far Ragnar’s older brother has come.
Whether we refer to “The Great Army” as another transitional episode is irrelevant; the interlocking themes of power and responsibility that have run throughout Vikings still appear though a changing of the guard stands poised ready to engage. Having been a trusted adviser of both Ragnar and Bjorn, Floki’s connection with Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen) embodies one of the most intriguing scenes in this chapter as we watch Ivar test the chariot Floki has constructed for him, impacting how “the Boneless” approaches his role in battle. Andersen continues to develop his character, who driven by his physical challenges, refuses to allow anything or anyone to stand in his way. The physicality required to make Ivar believable stands out as another of the cast’s greatest triumphs.
So now we’re at a crossroads as the Viking army prepares to sail to England. Surely, a leader will emerge from this fray, and with so many viable candidates, it will be interesting to observe how each navigates the oncoming upheaval. Who does want to be king? It’s truly fascinating that this simple question continues to reverberate throughout the region. Only time will tell.