This review contains spoilers.
4.7 The Profit And The Loss
Whatever else we might say about this season of Vikings, it’s been one of surprises, even in an episode like The Profit And The Loss, where so much of the outcome of the primary action is known in advance.
For example, if you had asked me, in the hiatus between this season and the last, to describe both Ragnar and Ecbert’s attitudes towards the belief systems of their people, I would have sworn up and down that they were almost purely sociological: that is, they saw them as serving the purpose of binding the community together, but at their basest level, that their cultures’ religions are mostly hokum meant to pacify the masses.
But as we saw a couple of episodes ago, Ecbert really does believe in God and a Christian afterlife. And we learned at the beginning of this season that Ragnar evidently has corresponding beliefs about the Norse mythology. But it was not until this week that I think it became clear just how deeply embedded in his psyche those beliefs are.
Because what we saw in The Profit And The Loss was something new. This wasn’t Lothbrok taking a few weeks off to recover and do a little hallucinogenic wandering as we might have perceived his actions in Kattegat. No, it’s clear that Ragnar is in full-tilt meltdown. And that a part of it is due to the fact that, despite his apparent youth, he knows he has risen as far as fortune’s wheel (not that he believes in such a thing) will allow and that all that awaits him is a humiliating descent. In the same way that Lagertha has embraced the inference from the Seer’s words that the child she carries will never breathe air, Ragnar has taken his own vision to heart and believes that even death—at least one of glory—will be denied him.
And that knowledge has him coming apart at the seams.
What was surprising is not that Ragnar lost the battle on the river. Considering how long this season is and where we are in that season, it makes sense that he needs to lose this battle. What was shocking was how little of himself was evident in his plans in the first place. What has made Ragnar so successful as a warlord is not superior forces or technology. It’s pure cunning. And despite the mind-altering drugs, we are so used to seeing him pull a rabbit out when even the hat seemed to be absent, that the very idea that his only backup was to send a smaller force around behind the first fort seemed like a typical ruse; of course there had to be more to it. But the fact that that was not only the entire plan, but that he didn’t even have Lagertha send scouts ahead (who would have discovered the marsh that got her people trapped and ambushed) would have been unthinkable last year.
Worse yet was his reaction to the defeat. You cannot be a man of action if you fail to at least react to such a catastrophe, especially when you are surrounded both by rivals looking to displace you and followers looking for reassurance. You cannot spend three days talking to a severed head.
A more positive surprise was the actual battle itself. Last year’s attack on Paris was impressive in comparison to the smaller battles we’d seen up until then. But there had still been a lot of obvious special effects utilised to create the city of Paris. One of the joys of this first battle for Paris in the season was how very realistic it looked. There were a lot of ships and I’m sure some of them were CGI-ed in, but any such work was kept to a minimum in favour of closer shots of the actual combat. This worked well because it created a bit more confusion and immediacy and emphasised that such battles really were fought on a smaller scale than we generally imagine. Even the fort, which may have looked unbelievably tiny to modern eyes, would have been entirely appropriate. And certainly the almost claustrophobic feel among the Vikings struggling to stay alive was both accurate and intense.
What was also surprising was Harbard’s agenda back in Kattegat and Aslaug’s seeming complicity in it. Last week, I suggested that he was a conman, but now it appears that he may be a very specific sub-breed of conman: the cult leader. It was hard enough to believe that he had just stumbled back into town at precisely the moment when his former lover’s husband had left, but it is beyond the realm of all credulity to think that he has returned to spread his blessing of fertility to the women of Kattegat while almost all the men of virility were off fighting purely by accident. I’m even more surprised that he hasn’t specifically claimed outright that this moment was specifically chosen. If Aslaug is willing to share him with the rest of the women of her kingdom (as her smiles over the scenes of him deep kissing her female subjects seem to suggest, she’s likely to accept even that tale from him.
On the other hand, this may be, in fact, a weird form of providence. Considering the death not only of the Wessex colony and the Paris outpost but the casualties that the current Paris raiding party has already suffered and will continue to accrue, it might not be the worst thing for the Vikings who remain to return to a Kattegat filled with pregnant women—for population stability, if nothing else.
What I found most shocking, however, was the scene where Floki, after leaving Helga with healing runes, goes for a walk and suddenly finds himself having sex with Aslaug, who is, of course, hundreds of miles away. The scene is not an easy one to decipher at first. After all, the idea that this is some fantasy of Floki’s makes no sense. He’s never shown the slightest interest in any woman other than Helga, and while he can be a bit of a bastard to her, it’s hard to believe he’d wander away from his dying wife for a wank. The moment becomes only more disturbing once it starts cutting to what Aslaug is actually doing, which is shagging Harbard back in Kattegat.
But it may crystalise if we remember one thing from an earlier episode: the reaction of the Seer to Floki’s visit. Floki is, after all, seeing precisely what is really happening (perhaps not the actual details, but at least the general behaviour) back in Ragnar’s kingdom. Maybe this is exactly what the Seer meant that he had been waiting so long for: his replacement. After all, Floki fits the bill: he’s a bit mad, anti-social, and a religious zealot. This then would be Floki’s first vision. And Hirst is letting us see through a Seer’s eyes. If this is what the mouthpiece of the gods experiences, it’s no wonder that the current Seer acts the way he does. That would be a horrifying way to live.
Part of me hopes that this is not the answer for the simple reason that that would absolutely solidify the reality of the supernatural in this narrative and would give force to the Seer’s prediction that Lagertha will not be a mother again. It would be nice to see her with a daughter after the long-ago loss of Gyda. A large part of me would like nothing more than to see Floki, having been saved by Ragnar, tell his former friend of what’s going on back home, snapping him out of his drug-induced stupor and into one last gasp of glory at Paris’s expense, only to return to Kattegat, kick Aslaug to the curb, and beg a newly delivered Lagertha to take him back and help him carve out a new farm with his young sons while Bjorn rules their joint Jarldoms.
If he cannot have Valhalla, at least he might have the life he left behind. Blame the romantic in me.
But I know that’s not how the story ends (there are two variations on it, neither happy). It is Rollo’s time now. And Bjorn’s. And Ecbert’s. And unfortunately, the rise of great men all too often happens at the expense of men who were, in their own time, equally great.