This review contains spoilers.
One of the things that it’s toughest for us to grasp about medieval societies is the lack of privacy. Our conception of the nuclear family as the building block of society naturally assumes fewer people living in a household than would have been true of early modern households. And the reality of our culture—that more money means access to greater levels of privacy (bigger homes with fewer people for the rich, smaller ones with more people packed in among the poor)—was precisely inverted in the Middle Ages: while the rich may have had more space, there were more people in that space, especially for royalty and the high nobility. The curtains we are so used to seeing on beds of the period were often the only privacy such people enjoyed, even in their own bedrooms—attendants generally slept in the same room on pallets or trundles just on the other side of those curtains.
So what I found particularly interesting this week about Promised was how Vikings played with public and private spaces, using them to conceal and reveal interesting things about the characters.
Of course, the show doesn’t model this lack of privacy. We constantly see our various monarchs anachronistically alone in their bedrooms and other rooms, but that privacy allows them to reveal things that might otherwise be difficult to communicate. For example, after her performance in the defense of Paris, we’ve known that Gisla is brave and a little too forthright in her wishes for the comfort of some. But aside from a couple of moments alone with Rollo where sex—the having of it or not—was on the menu, we’ve not really seen what she’s like when she’s not in the public eye. And it would seem, based on her private conversation with her husband in Promised, that Gisla is not above outright treachery in service of her cause. And asking your husband stab an ally in the back because you don’t trust him is a bit much.
That’s not to say that Odo is trustworthy—far from it. But something else that gets revealed to us in a private moment suggests that Odo may have picked the wrong victim. Lothaire Bluteau’s Emperor Charles may be an amalgamation of Charles the Bald and Charles the Simple of France, but he has acted, especially publically, much more like his successors, Charles the Stammerer or Charles the Mad. His apparent weakness is likely why his daughter tells Rollo, “He needs a strong man to support and guide him.”
When Roland tells the Emperor during a private audience that Odo is an ambitious man who seeks the Emperor’s crown, we see Charles stutter, stumble, and eventually, fall to the floor in his apparent distress, almost weeping. Eventually, however, he rises and tells Roland and his sister to report back on Odo’s plans. But once they leave the room, we see a transformation: instead of pacing around his throne as though it is the last place he belongs, Charles sit in the chair and we see, as the doors close behind his visitors, a sly smile creep onto his face. While I suppose one could read this as madness, it looks far too much like one of Ragnar’s knowing grins for that to be credible. Perhaps Charles has never been as weak as he has led others to believe.
Ragnar, on the other hand, is acting less sly than usual, seeming practically uninterested in the interlopers into his kingdom and almost unwilling to appear in public as its king, insisting he won’t be missed. But he has also carved out his own private space with Yidu. But despite the fact that Yidu shares that space, it almost feels like the Viking is alone, even in her presence. At first, this might have been the result of his being alienated from everyone. But Hirst creates a sort of litmus test of intimacy between the two: that Ragnar has a secret he is harbouring and she is equally secretive about the identity of her father. The assumption seems to be that once they share those secrets, the walls will finally come down between them.
The strange thing is that while we do learn the answers, this thaw doesn’t really happen. He turns to her as though to kiss her and instead looks over her at what’s going on at the party. And though we see them sort of having sex, it’s very fetishized—her hair and feet getting more attention that the rest of her, and not a single embrace or feeling of joy anywhere in sight. The scene in the bathtub has many of the markers of intimacy, but somehow, the chemistry to make it work is missing. It’s almost like Yidu is simply another escape—like the drugs she provides.
Ragnar tells us that a big part of what he’s trying to escape from is the knowledge that he alone has had: that the Vikings left in England to set up a colony were slaughtered by the forces of Ecbert (which, interestingly, Ecbert gave private orders to his son to carry out so that he, as king, could have public deniability). In one of the quieter but more surprising revelations of the series, we see that Ecbert is not quite the sociopath that he sometimes seems to be.
Until Promised, there was much reason to suspect that Ecbert was something of an oddity: an early medieval atheist. We’ve certainly seen him give a lot of lip service to Christianity, but his adherence to the faith of his people has been on a par with Ragnar’s: it has seemed to be a tool that could be used to motivate and move others without touching their own hearts. But then, this season started out with Ragnar imagining himself turned away from the doors to Valhalla, something that has seemingly haunted him ever since. So perhaps we should not be so very surprised to find Ecbert in a chapel, prostrate before the altar.
Not that he’s come ready to confess his sins and be forgiven them. That would be too much to ask us to swallow. Still the idea that he believes in God, the promise of heaven and the threat of eternal damnation, and is still willing to accept an eternity of torture in order to get what he wants in and for his earthly kingdom isn’t something we’re used to seeing—or at least hearing expressed so clearly. Generally, we expect our bad guys to either be so tied up in their faith that they are blinded by it or so devoid of an essential belief system that any sin seems attributable to them (a prejudiced but common view of atheists). That one can believe, pray one way in public and another in private—all to the same God—and yet eschew all the teachings attached to the worship of that deity in one’s daily dealings and do it without the self-delusion that allows some to pull such a contradiction off? Ecbert grow more interesting with every episode.
But it is Lagertha who uses the private/public divide most brilliantly in Promised. Early in the episode, we see her publicly training the shieldmaidens—this work probably falling to her to spare a man from such a task. It is only when we see what happens at the end of the episode in private that we understand the significance: that she is publicly training her own bodyguards right under the nose of her soon-to-be-dead bridegroom. The fact that she privately shares her good news with him (and is she really pregnant? Hard to tell, but she did ask the Seer about a child) and immediately signals to him to keep it secret (“it’s still early days”) allows her to set up the wedding she wants as her coming out party.
And what a party! You have to love the thought she put into what she was doing. Had she slain Kalf publically, there’s good reason to believe that at least some of the people at Hedeby would, in pure shock, if nothing else, have attacked her in return. Instead, she sets up a situation that all but ensures her the privacy she wants to kill him. And you have to love Kalf’s reaction. Whatever you may think of the usurper, it does seem that he actually came to love Lagertha, probably for the very qualities that led him to take her throne—her ambition as a woman went beyond what he and others initially felt were acceptable levels. But the way he chuckles after she drives the knife home signals that he gets the irony. Of course she was always going to kill him. He stood in her way. That she kisses him in return seems to indicate that her actions weren’t personal. Maybe she cared for him in return. But there can be only one Jarl in Hedeby. To then wear her bloodstained dress out into the centre of her people, surrounded by her shieldmaidens, turns her into a public display and an iconically Viking one at that: she clearly understands the necessity of imagery in ruling. If you take what is mine, her actions illustrate, this will be your fate, and I will rule on.
All of this may have made for a slow episode on the whole, I think that can be forgiven since Promised sets up a lot of possible directions for the story and its characters to go in the second half of the season. In fact, there are so many possibilities, it’s hard to imagine that Hirst and company will be able to tie everything together by the end of the season. But luckily, The History Channel just renewed the show for a fifth season. So Lagertha, Ragnar, and Bjorn still have plenty of pillaging ahead.
Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, Yol, here.