This Vikings review contains spoilers.
Vikings Season 4 Episode 19
“Now is the time for hate.”
“On The Eve” should rightly be viewed as the second part of a season ending trilogy, and coming on the heels of last week’s horrific conclusion, nobody could blame Michael Hirst if he chose to go heavy on the exposition to set up what will undoubtedly will be a spectacular finish. But this is Vikings, and that’s not how it rolls.
“On the Eve” provides significant insight into the minds of a number of the major players as the history of western Europe continues to evolve, but make no mistake, the Lothbrok clan continues to be a force with which to be reckoned. While the defenses put into place at Kattegat by Lagertha and those in Wessex by Aethelwulf are finally put to the test, it’s the relationships that drive this narrative.
The dynamics among the Lothbrok brothers have always been tenuous at best, but it’s Ivar’s relentless pursuit of power that finally gets put to the test. Watching Bjorn as they sail into Wessex, the seething anger he holds inside could not be any more evident, but we have to wonder how much of that results from his desire to explore. Does he feel the revenge expedition holds him back from what he’d really like to be doing? Nonetheless, it’s his willingness to listen to his baby brother’s battle plan that cements his standing a leader on the rise. Again, that might not be what he wants, but at this moment in time, he understands he’s the right man for the job.
To this point, the Norsemen have followed the same approach – shock and awe, and this method has proven successful more often than not. But Ivar has other ideas. That Bjorn is willing to listen to the brother that has, of late, tried to usurp his older brother’s rightful place at the head of the family and the army, speaks to Bjorn’s ever growing wisdom. Because Bjorn’s physical presence can overwhelm those around him, it’s easy to forget that he’s not as transparent as his brothers. and we don’t always know what he’s thinking.
Nonetheless, even though the Ivar we’ve seen to date has been one of intense bloodlust and borderline psychopathic behavior, tonight he reveals himself as a brilliant battlefield tactician supremely confident in his ability to conquer an enemy that thinks it knows what to expect. The fascinating aspect here revolves around how complicated this situation has become since Bjorn has never felt threatened by Ivar. Ubbe, Hvitserk, and Sigurd, on the other hand, can only stand by and watch as Ivar climbs to heights no one thought possible. Will jealousy eventually rear its ugly head?
As the great heathen army employs what essentially amounts to Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope approach, Aethelwulf does exactly what Ivar predicted he would do. Watching Floki’s reaction to their success and the growing bond he’s developed with Ragnar’s youngest is one of the episode’s highlights. Nonetheless, it’s Bjorn’s willingness to take a huge risk that’s most impressive. We now await Aethelwulf and ultimately King Ecbert’s fates at the hands of Bjorn and his brothers.
One of the things Michael Hirst does so well with this narrative is explore the human frailties of these larger than life figures, and the disconnect between Ecbert and Aethelwulf may be the strongest aspect of “On the Eve.” For whatever reason, Ecbert refuses to tell his son he loves him despite Aethelwulf’s heartfelt request. Vikings continues to examine a number of complex and complicated characters, and while Ecbert occupies one of the top slots, his treatment of the son with whom he has entrusted the lives and safety of his kingdom remains difficult to explain. When he tells Aethelwulf that the time to hate has arrived, he unwittingly presents his son with permission to do the very thing most father’s dread.
However, the exchange between Aethelwulf and his wife’s bastard son Alfred may be the most tender scene of the entire series. That Aethelwulf can tell Alfred how proud he is of the boy he’s raised acknowledges a side of the man we’ve not seen, but it’s Alfred’s response that is absolutely heartbreaking. Old enough to know what’s transpired to this point, he gives Aethelwulf what Ecbert can’t or won’t. And then, as if the situation isn’t complicated enough, the king asks Judith to return to her husband leading to the awkward encounter as the troops prepare to leave for war.
Speaking of awkward, I can’t wait to eavesdrop on the conversation Lagertha will have with Astrid if her lover becomes pregnant by her son. As intriguing as that situation has become, the attack of Kattegat led by Egil raises the political stakes to a higher level. While Ivar’s strategic acumen shines in the fight against the Saxons, Lagertha’s foresight to fortify the growing village also bears fruit. With the men away avenging Ragnar’s death, Kattegat stands relatively helpless. Or so King Harald Finehair thinks. It’s one thing to strategize a battle plan before the fact, and while that’s no small feat, the ability to adapt and make changes midstream speaks to a higher level of generalship. Clearly, Lagertha has trained her shieldmaidens well, but it’s the extraordinary confidence that she has in herself and her warriors that dominates this conflict.
We often hear of “the Viking way,” and once the dust settles and Lagertha has Egil under control, her enhanced interrogation technique gives her an answer that’s not totally unexpected. While it’s not surprising that King Harald Finehair has bankrolled this attack, it will be interesting to see how Lagertha plays it when the men return from England. News travels painfully slowly in the 9th century, so it’s likely Harald’s plan for Nordic domination includes murdering the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, but we know that Bjorn’s on top of that possible scenario. Once the great heathen army vanquishes Aethelwulf, all bets will be off. Who will get off the first shot.
Another aspect of Viking culture that comes across in “On the Eve” relates to a virtual nonchalant acceptance of extreme violence in situations that don’t really call for that kind of reaction. There’s not much humor in Vikings, but the scene in which Harald and Halfdan commiserate about their inability to understand women, while funny, misleads us into thinking Harald’s over Ellisif. When Harald approaches Ellisif and her husband, the tension immediately ratchets up to ten as the poor husband rightly fears for his safety. Nevertheless, an ax to the forehead seems like something Ivar would do, and while we know of Harald’s ruthlessness, to kill the man in the middle of the square to no perceptible reaction from the onlookers, shows that while the Vikings advance in a number of areas, this is not one of them.
Fortunately for Harald, Halfdan knows women a bit better than he does, so when Ellisif throws herself on Harald, the first thought is that she’s merely attempting to save her own skin. But this scene also speaks to the strength of Viking women, and coming on the heels of Lagertha, Torvi, and Astrid’s defense of Kattegat, her resolve has to be applauded. Her timing, not so much.
So as we head into the season finale, “On the Eve” impressively resolves most of the revenge chapter of this story while deftly setting up a conclusion sure to be rife with intrigue. Will Harald make a move on Bjorn and his brothers? Has Lagertha restored order in Kattegat, and does she have to worry about a second wave? Now that Ivar has proven himself capable, will Bjorn be prone to turn the reins over to his brother enabling him to return to the exploration he craves? Fasten your chariot belts; we’re in for quite a ride.