Vikings season 4 episode 4 review: Yol

Women, power and ownership are recurring themes in Vikings season 4 episode 4, Yol. Here's our review...

This review contains spoilers.

4.4 Yol

This season has been a bit of a disappointment thus far for me, in a certain way. If you’ve been following my reviews, you know I’m a tremendous fan of Lagertha’s—primarily of her take-no-shit way of dealing with a world which insists that she is a second-class citizen. And we’ve had little chance to enjoy that aspect of her this season.

What I have loved about the show’s depiction of her is that it doesn’t pull punches about what the price of being that kind of woman is. She’s paid a heavy price for being female and living her life with honour as she defines it (rather than how others might define it for her). It’s meant leaving behind likely the only man she’s ever loved, being separated from her child, and finding herself constantly plotted against by men like Erlendur and Einar. All while being a better warrior than most of the male Vikings around her.

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But not every woman can be Lagertha. Historically, women have largely been defined by their relationships with the men around them, and while last week’s Yol might seem to focus on the breakthroughs of some of the male characters on the show, it also highlights the ways in which the women are affected by what happens to those characters—sometimes by simple relation and sometimes because those women have made explicit choices (some more informed than others).  In a strange way, Yol highlights the precarious but not powerless position that women occupy in the Vikings world.

Bjorn’s defeat of the Berserker, for example, was narratively satisfying and appropriately Viking. It was particularly telling, I think, that he essentially brought such a beast down with something as seemingly delicate as string and hooks, considering what comes next. When Bjorn shows up at Hedeby with a very good idea of who is responsible for sending the Berserker after him, we assume that it’s to kill Erlendur and possibly Kalf (that it never occurs to him or us that his mother might need rescuing from this den of vipers is a testament to his awareness that his mother is the last person who needs his protection—though she’s still every inch his proud mother from the look she gives him). Instead, he has come seeking vengeance, but of a different kind. He’s come to take Torvi, Erlendur’s wife and Bjorn’s one-time lover, with him to Kattegat.

It’s tempting to read this scene as romantic: Bjorn saving the woman he cares for from the brutality of Erlendur. And there may be a touch of that underlying it, but mostly it’s about humiliating Erlendur by taking his wife away with said wife’s approval. The choice is Torvi’s—she, in the end, has the power to decide whether it will be Bjorn or her husband who will lose face—but either way, she pays a heavy price for having that power. That Erlendur cannot hope to hold her based on anything positive he can offer is clear by the terrible bargaining chip he uses: separating her from her young child. But to stay, as Lagertha rightly points out, would mean throwing away her life on a man everyone knows treats her as a slave. But Torvi’s decision does more than decide her destiny. She has now branded Erlendur as a man who could not keep a wife—even one he threatened in such a way. It will be that much harder for him to inspire loyalty in his efforts to bring down the ruling family of Kattegat.

Of course, that family may be self-destructing. Certainly Aslaug has turned traitor, as she has taken her youngest, the son of the Wanderer, to Floki to be trained up in the ways of the old gods and pitted against her husband. Floki and Aslaug are an odd coalition simply because it’s hard to tell with both of them exactly how much they are driven by their Viking beliefs and how much those beliefs are a smokescreen for their more personal agendas: in Floki’s case, revenge over his fall from grace as Ragnar’s closest confidante, and in Aslaug’s, her desire to be a great Viking queen (with all the perks that brings).  

Until this season, though, much of what we’ve seen from Aslaug could be mistaken for the simple blindness of the kind of self-centeredness that comes from being a princess. Her affair with Ragnar led to an unintended pregnancy and she showed up on his doorstep merely looking for a father for her child. Lagertha’s divorce from her husband (leaving Aslaug as Ragnar’s only wife) wasn’t something we ever saw the latter actively try to accomplish. Aslaug’s own affair with Harbard seemed to be motivated by loneliness rather than malice.

But what we’ve seen this season has revealed a different Aslaug, and perhaps made us rethink the Aslaug we have seen before. Her visit to the Seer to determine if she might ever rule in Ragnar’s place, setting young Ivar up against his father, actively distracting Ragnar from her machinations with the slave Yidu, and her warm welcome for former suitor and Ragnar’s all-but-declared rival King Harald clearly broadcasts that any allegiance she ever felt for her husband was only ever conditional on his ability to ensure her state.

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And since his vision of being shut out of Valhalla, it is certain that Ragnar has been adrift. Aslaug chose well, however, as Yidu has all the markings of exactly the kind of companion to keep her husband’s attentions elsewhere. Where Ragnar’s initial yearnings westward might have been in search of more fertile raids and farmland, it’s now clear that there is a part of him that simply longs to understand a larger world. Of course, for now, he’s trapped by the winter weather in Kattegat, but a foreign slave girl seems perfect for taking the edge off that particular hunger. I doubt that Aslaug foresaw the hallucinogenics, the two of them shacking up, or Ragnar freeing Yidu, however.

Yidu’s freedom is interesting. As is her decision to stay with him. Logistically, of course, it makes sense, since, while he says that she can leave, where could she actually go? The live and very mobile snake in Ragnar’s initially unheated hut might make us forget for a moment that it’s the middle of a Scandinavian winter, but we’d surely remember if we were to see her head off into the wilds that Ragnar initially doubted even his own Norse son would return from. That she chooses to stay with him in particular might also be a matter of survival: after all, she may be free, but she has no resources: no house and stores carefully set up against the long winter. Or perhaps, it’s another kind of self-preservation: she recognizes that she is an outsider and Ragnar actually likes outsiders. I’m looking forward to learning more about what motivates Yidu and whether Ragnar is simply avoiding an unhappy reality on her drug-induced trips or, like his son, finding himself. I suspect Aslaug will find herself regretting the purchase of this slave.

Back in Paris, Rollo has finally managed to connect with his own wife by learning Frankish in a week. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m the exactly the kind of girl to be swept off my feet by that sort of thing, but not by a guy I thought of as a troglodyte only a week earlier. It makes the whole thing appear laughable, which may be why writer Hirst and director Helen Shaver play everything after their initial reconciliation for the humour, with the two of them sneaking off at various times to shag each other rotten.

But it should be clear that there’s a lot at stake in Rollo’s ploy, because, as I pointed out last week, Hirst has given Gisla an anachronistic power she would not normally have held. While it is very true that lack of consummation was grounds for annulment, the only way that a princess would have had her manage annulled on such grounds is if the marriage was no longer politically desirable for her family or that of her husband. She would not have had any say in it. The idea that a papal legate would be dispatched over a noble girl’s emotional fits is ludicrous.

However, that doesn’t mean that, once married, she would be powerless, and Gisla clearly will not be for the same reason many such women were not historically: because of their relationships with the men around them—in this case, with her husband Rollo. On her own, there’s little she can do to save her city or to affect her own destiny. However, with the knowledge Rollo has of the Vikings (which the Franks need to keep themselves safe) and that which Gisla possesses of the internal workings of the Frankish court, they will make a formidable and powerful couple, now that they are together. It’s an alliance that benefits them both.

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On the other side of the channel, however, there’s Judith and Ecbert, and as much as we might hate Ivan Kaye’s King Aelle for pointing a glaring finger at it, this is a relationship with disaster written all over it. One of Linus Roache’s particular talents is that of persuasion. There’s something about that cool gaze and silky voice that makes whatever he’s saying sound credible. Which is why he’s perfect to play a snake like Ecbert. But the truth is that he’s sold Judith a bill of gender goods. He’s all but told her that she’s free to ignore the strictures of Christian womanhood, to pursue illumination and a sexual relationship outside her marriage without his judgement or coercion. Sounds great, right?

Maybe he means it. Maybe he was so taken with Lagertha’s free womanhood that he’s trying to grow his own free woman. Or maybe this is just a longer game of seduction and manipulation that will allow him to keep control of his son, Judith and the piece of propaganda that Judith’s child represents. Either way, what Ecbert has done, and what Aelle has pointed, is create an illusion for Judith. While her father-in-law has enabled her to study art and given her leave to be his lover or not, these are things which his power has granted her. And they are temporary grants at best. Without his protection, she is no more than a “bad wife and a bad mother” who can be beaten into submission at the whim of a father and a husband. When she claims that “You don’t own, Father, nor does any man own me,” these are the words that Ecbert has put in her mouth. The simple truth is that the king absolutely owns her, and that, at a word from him, she would be back in front of the crowds being disfigured for infidelity.

And thus, Judith becomes symbolic for a lot of the women in Vikings. They may wield power of different sorts—over others or themselves—but they do it through the auspices or with the blessings of the men around them. Until last season, Lagertha was an exception to this rule, but at least for now, even she seems to need Kalf to maintain her position. One of the sad truths is that whatever freedoms Viking women had over Christian women when the two cultures made contact, Norse women lost those liberties are Christianity spread through the Viking world. I’m wondering if Michael Hirst is foreshadowing that cultural change as he has others with his series.

While I would admire his dedication to historicity, I dearly hope not. At this point, nothing would please me more than watching Lagertha die a true Viking death—on her feet and on her own terms. I guess we’ll see what the gods have in store.