This review contains spoilers.
This week’s Vikings peaked in, if not a shared vision, at least what appeared to be simultaneous ones, as the figure of the dearly departed Aethelstan appeared to both Ragnar and Ecbert with very different messages.
For Ragnar, that message was summed up in a single word, “Mercy.” And this communication might initially have seemed to us the clearer of the two: a plea from the Christian monk for his friend to grant clemency to the man who murdered him. Whether it is that Lothbrok is unable to forgive the boat-maker who deprived him of his English friend and therefore only shows compassion in the name of Helga or he knew Aethelstan well enough to know that that’s actually who the monk sought forgiveness for in the first place is not entirely clear. But in either case, Floki is now free and thanks to Gustaf Skarsgård’s haunted look, we cannot tell whether there’s contrition or vengeance to come.
Ecbert seems to take a simpler message from the appearance—that his friend Aethelstan is, indeed, dead. But Aethelstan’s figure was not the only illusion in Mercy (or in Vikings) and this is where the first of the others starts to call. Until now, most of what we know have seen of Ecbert has taught us that this is not a man to be trusted. A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the political insight of Ragnar. Ecbert may not have the same scope of vision, but his cunning is every bit what Ragnar’s is, and his morals are considerably less “Christian.” Until his vision, his protestations of love for Aethelstan have always taken place in front of witnesses, and as a result, have been suspect. What better way to keep his daughter-in-law under his control than to acknowledge not only the familial tie to her husband but a shared affection for her lover (and thus a desire to protect their mutual child). But when the spectre of Aethelstan dissolves and Ecbert is left alone, he breaks down in genuine despair, and with him, the illusion that he has been playing Judith.
Or at least playing her in that manner. But for now at least, he appears to truly want to protect her and her child. Which is good news, especially if Aethelwulf is about to fall under the spell of a woman like Kwenthrith.
Another illusion may be Ragnar’s physical infirmity. The man has been hobbling around Kattegat for a while now, having come out of a coma that seemed sure to be the end of him. After the vision, however, he takes up his axe and walks to the cave to free Floki with a stride that obviously concerns Aslaug: the man she had hoped would slip away into death is now, it appears, back to his hearty and hale self. Is this a sudden alteration brought about by his vision of Aethelstan? Or has he been actively misleading those who might be watching (we know he knows those who do not have his best interests at heart in Kattegat, but could he also suspect those moving against him at Hedeby?)?
Then, of course, there’s the illusory nature of propaganda we got to see in action. Judith’s Frankish tutor may be sharing what he says is common knowledge all over the continent about the attack on Paris, but as we in the audience are quite aware, his version of the events is hardly accurate. The religious righteousness written into claims of wholesale sickness visited on the Vikings who stormed Notre Dame is bad enough, but to hear Prudentius tell it, you’d think the Parisians won the conflict, rather than existing as a borderline tributary vassal to Ragnar’s Jarldom (at least from Ragnar’s point of view). The irony is, of course, that while the monk is wrong about the events, since Rollo has killed the resident Viking force, he’s correct about the current state of affairs.
What’s wrong is a very different kind of illusion, this one perpetrated by writer/creator Michael Hirst and director Ciaran Donnelly to the audience. Thus far, this season, I’ve steered clear of the historical accuracy issue, but this week it’s particularly thorny in the Parisian dining scene for a couple of reasons and the historian in me can’t help it. One of the tropes the series uses is the idea that, compared to the more “sophisticated” Parisians, Norse Rollo looks like a savage, especially while eating. The tables of the Franks are set with both forks and cloth napkins, and they exhibit modern Western dining etiquette while he gnaws meat from the bone and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. But the fork and cloth napkin would not be introduced to French tables until centuries after Vikings is set and while the French of William the Conqueror’s time absolutely looked down on “Northman” after whom Normandy would be called, at this point, there was a lot less difference between their table manners than this scene would suggest.
One place where there is likely to have been more difference culturally is the reaction that Gisla’s outburst would have actually caused. Her very public repudiation of her politically important husband would have been a tremendous and widely reported humiliation not just for her father but the entire court. Where there is some evidence that Viking women may have had more freedom in choosing their mates, Frankish princesses would have had virtually none, and such an incident would likely have been met with a public or possibly corporal punishment. It was not unusual for recalcitrant brides-to-be to be beaten into submission.
But if those two things got my historian hackles up, the last illusion, a metaphorical one, made me forgive all. This week, we got to watch Bjorn fight a bear. Ragnar’s son left Kattegat for the mountains ostensibly to prove to his father that he could survive. And honestly, not even for a second, have we doubted it. After all, he’s got that nice little cabin and he’s a big strapping boy. But let’s be real. That’s never what these trips into the heart of nature are ever really about, right? They aren’t about proving to someone else that you can do it, or even proving it to yourself, really. They are about moments of epiphany. About facing something in yourself and overcoming a self-imposed obstacle, whatever it is. And what better way for someone whose name means “bear” to do this than to get hopped up on some fermented, possibly hallucingenic, beverage and go a couple of rounds with an actual bear?
I’m sure we’ll learn whatever insights he gleaned from this in upcoming weeks, but if we were wondering if Bjorn was a warrior ready to join his father in the Nordic sagas, that image of he and the bear roaring at each other with equal ferocity forever quashed them. Considering the sad state of Rollo’s affairs and the lack of movement at Hedeby, Bjorn now seems to hold the greatest promise for this season. There seems little doubt now that he will survive the berserker. Whether he traces him back to Hedeby and reasserts his mother’s right there or rejoins his father, it seems clear that he will become a son worthy of two such parents. I can’t wait to see it unfold.