Vikings season 4 episode 6 review: What Might Have Been

Vikings season 4 continues to deliver rich, dramatically complex TV drama...

This review contains spoilers.

4.6 What Might Have Been

What Might Have Been continued the preparation for the Viking raid on Paris, as the last of the necessary business is concluded in Hedeby and Kattegat, and the Norse men and women take to the sea.

The episode begins with Lagertha performing a ritual over the grave of the man she murdered on their wedding day, a ritual reminiscent of the one she performed in Wessex to ensure fertile soils. I’m at odds at how to read that similarity simply because it cuts in so very many ways. Is it an allusion to her own fertility—a strange thank you for the longed-for child he helped her conceive? Or a more symbolic sowing of seeds for the upcoming venture in Paris? Does she see it as tying the Jarldom she rules in Hedeby to the settlement she established and believes awaits her return in Wessex? Or is it simply acknowledging that that Jarldom has and will continue to grow out of Kalf’s spilt blood?

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Whatever the reason, Erlendur seems a bit puzzled by it, which is good considering he remains the only perceivable threat to her power. And if it were not enough that she answers his question about why she killed Kalf with a simple “I promised I’d kill him for taking my Jarldom,” she also more coyly reminds him that she knows Elendur’s own machinations by alluding to the motivations of one of his now-dead co-conspirators, Einar: “If you’re willing to share a boat with a lot of women, then you’re welcome to come with me to Paris.” We can only imagine how Einar would react to Hedeby being represent in the battle against Paris by a contingent of women warriors led by a female Jarl.

And whatever we thought of Kalf and Einar (and I admit to coming to quite like the former, especially his appreciation of her keeping that promise), it is good that, if Erlendur must go on Ragnar’s expedition, he’ll do it under Lagertha’s watchful eye—less for her safety than for that of his own child Guthrum. When he later gets Torvi alone and tells her that he doesn’t care if she has feelings for Bjorn because he knows she will kill her love or else Erlendur will kill their mutual child, we get an example of something that is fairly rare on Vikings: a true black hat. The show is quite good at dealing in shades of grey—men and women who make bad choices for good reasons at times. Erlendur may tell himself that he is seeking revenge for his father’s death, but it’s hard to imagine Horik would approve of his grandson and heir being the price for such vengeance, especially considering Horik’s own hand in his death.

Ecbert, like Lagertha, is indulging in some hard-to-interpret behaviour, choosing this moment to send his grandson Alfred on a pilgrimage to Rome under the protection of Prudentius and his non-father Aethelwulf. It has been suggested elsewhere that this is all part of a plan to allow Aethelwulf to murder Alfred, but this shows a lack of understanding of history: Alfred lives to become not just a king of Wessex but the widely acknowledged first king of the English: Alfred the Great. It’s not only that Ecbert doesn’t seem to want the boy dead; he actually seems dedicated to creating the cult of Alfred himself. So why send him off? Is it just odd timing in getting the papal seal of approval on the boy? Or does he anticipate the coming Viking attack and hope to have the boy cross paths with Ragnar at or near Paris? Is it simply a ruse to get Aethelwulf away from Wessex and the impending re-taking of Mercia? Does he worry that the romantic entanglement between Kwenthrith and his son would, should his son lead the Mercia expedition, turn into a political one? Or does he simply want his son out of the way to give himself and Judith more breathing room?

Then there’s the reappearance of Harbard. That he implies (again) supernatural powers, this time in the form of being able to sense, at a distance, Aslaug’s pain, comes off as less mystical this time in the absence of Siggy and Helga precisely because he shows up at precisely the moment when Ragnar has left for Paris. This isn’t the behaviour of an agent of the gods so much as that of a very human conman and player. He tells her to come to him and he will “put an end to your suffering and heal you.” What pain is Aslaug suffering from that is not largely of her own making on a daily basis? Is that what he will free her from? Making decisions that isolate her from her husband and all her children except the one she still nurses?

Even Rollo seems a bit enigmatic in this one. Surely, it is strategically much to his advantage to hide the fact of his betrayal as long as possible from Ragnar and the incoming Norse fleet. After all, they would be expecting the same Frankish tactics they ran into and defeated before and would be less on their guard, waiting for Rollo to join them in the fight, would they not? For Rollo to announce himself as having gone fully native, sitting astride a horse is what would seem to them garish and unmanly Frankish style might not have surprised Ragnar entirely (although as addicted as he is, he might not be sure he’s really seeing what’s before him), but the other Vikings, including his own nephew, are caught off-guard and are now forewarned. Was this an attempt by Rollo to psyche them out? To give them fair (and thus honorable) warning? Or something else entirely?

If only Ragnar’s behavior was as inexplicable to us as that of those around him.

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But we’ve seen it all too often. Ragnar is a man haunted in and by What Might Have Been. Ever since he saw himself barred from Valhalla, he’s been adrift, undergoing the Viking equivalent of a midlife crisis, slowly morphing into the old Viking who begged him early on in the young Jarl’s career to be allowed to come west for the sole purpose of dying in battle.

Ragnar is trapped between two lives now: it was his vision of fertile farmland which created the ambition to sail west, and that ambition made him more warrior than farmer. But now he cannot seem to achieve the warrior’s reward of Valhalla, nor can he go back to the simple pastoral life he glimpses on a Frankish coast in his drug-addled state. This is made clear to him in a conversation that has been a long time coming.

He approaches Lagertha and asks her why she is choosing to fight when she is pregnant, and in an almost humourously circuitous route whether she actually cared for Kalf. We’ve never seen them talk about their failed relationship, and normally, you’d expect this to be a discussion of some depth. If it were between two other people, perhaps. But one of the joys of Lagertha is that she’s never needed many words to get her point across. In an episode with so much ambiguity, she manages, in three sentences, to clear up any confusion about how she feels: Ragnar is the only man she has ever loved. He betrayed that love. And he has no right to pass judgement on any decisions she makes about her life since he betrayed the one they made together.

Would that we all had the self-awareness and clarity of Lagertha. The world would be a less confusing place.

But for now, Vikings is offering more questions than answers and that’s as it should be going into the back half of the first part of season 4 (the second ten episodes will air later in 2016). 

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