This review contains spoilers.
It’s been difficult, these last few weeks, to watch the slow descent of Ragnar Lothbrok, not just for us, but as the first couple of scenes this week in Portage make clear, for his ex-wife and Bjorn. The former may defend him, but the latter is at his breaking point, actively calling his father out in a semi-public way by pointing out how weakened he is by the retreat from their first engagement with the Franks. Whether it is this or the temporary respite from the drugs that provokes Ragnar’s moment of clarity at the cliffs is far less important than the fact that he not only restores the spirit of his followers and allies, but apparently mends fences with Floki. We have rarely seen the troublesome man more sincere than when he tells his friend and recent savior, “Everything I do, Ragnar, is for you.”
What people will or will not do for the ones they care for was largely the theme of this week’s episode, as we moved from the Frankish countryside to its Parisian court and across the channel to Wessex and then back to Kattegat.
It looked for a moment as though Gisla’s love for both Rollo and her father might be tested, for example, when Odo sought to betray the Viking who had turned his brother back by trying to convince the Emperor that, while Rollo had served his purpose, he was untrustworthy and should be done away with. Had Roland and his sister (this is a relationship claimed, and if so is an incestuous one, but that familial tie may only exist to provide a foundation for veracity for Therese, since even the Emperor seemed unaware of it until told) not laid the groundwork for the Emperor to see Odo’s treachery for what it was, then it’s almost certain that he would have taken the Count’s advice to kill Rollo and forcibly remarry Gisla to someone more (said without a trace of the obvious irony) “civilized”—meaning him, of course.
Of course, none of this could have been accomplished had Therese not been willing to sacrifice herself to be Odo’s whipping girl in order to get the information necessary to lover Roland’s plans. So it was with more than a bit of schadenfreude that we watched her skillfully manipulate the count into trading places with her, only so Roland could lay into him with a cat-of-nine-tails. Nasty, but oh-so-delicious.
Ecbert’s return to Wessex is a triumph, though not for Kwenthrith, as she is a bit late to learn. Apparently Wigstan was telling the truth and helped Ecbert to consolidate power in Mercia before packing himself off on his promised pilgrimage to Rome. So we now have the beginnings of the first English nation with the joining of the Mercian and Wessex crowns.
But Kwenthrith isn’t the only woman put out by this announcement. Judith seems more than a little upset at her lover, and it’s not hard to see why. She understands that her position, like Kwenthrith’s rests solely on Ecbert’s good will. So she may see her own future in the Mercian’s fate. When she confronts him, however, he swears to her that he loves her, and damned if I didn’t believe him to be perfectly honest for the first time in the entire run of the show. Maybe he’s got both Judith and I fooled because when Kwenthrith appeals to her for help (and what kind of nerve do you have to have to go to your lover’s wife for aid?), Judith first sets her up to be caught sneaking out of the compound, and then, when a frustrated and largely imprisoned and dispossessed queen makes an attempt on Ecbert’s life, Judith kills her outright.
When she stands over the live body of her lover and the dead one of the queen, she tells the king, “Look what you have made me become.” There are a couple of ways to read this line. The first is that she is blaming him: You have made me into this—someone who kills. The second is an important variation: By encouraging me to be free, to be my own woman and free from the constraints of gendered expectation, I am now someone who does this. In the first, all blame lies with him. In the second, they share blame. And considering how he has, at every point, allowed her choice, I think we have to assume that the second is closer to her truth. With freedom come responsibility. And she, like him, has to carry the weight of her own sins on her now. What’s most disturbing is how tortured he looks… and yet never more admiring of her. It’s a beautiful and, despite its raw content, delicate moment between Linus Roache and Jennie Jacques.
But if one man’s “I love you” has all but bought one woman’s soul, another’s, it appears, cannot be purchased with those words.
I’ll be honest. I have never liked Aslaug. And yeah, we’re not supposed to. I’ve always thought the part was miscast (the woman is supposed to have a rather large brood of children, and yet has a physique that suggests she’d have not survived the first given the lack of understanding of basic obstetrics back in the day), and she’s never genuinely seemed even to like her husband. Never mind running off my favourite female character on TV period. But this week, I have to admit to a grudging respect for her in dealing with Harbard.
After Sigurd reveals the true nature of Harbard’s “ministrations” to the other women of Kattegat, Aslaug confronts him. Rarely have I felt more justified than when I called him a cult-leader last week. Every word of explanation for his behavior might have been ripped right out of the mouth of a David Koresh or a David Berg, How he is beyond conventional morality because he takes the sins of the world upon himself and other such nonsense. He loves them all, he explains but he loves her especially. After watching her stand by last week as he kissed her female subjects, I expected her to cave. Or to at least see the karmic justice in seeing herself displaced in the affections of a man she loved.
Instead, she slaps him and rejects his literal holier-the-thou appeal. And I started to like her a bit because I assumed she saw through it all and was calling him on it. But when she admits “I do not know if you are a god,” I have to admit I became a fan. It’s one thing to strike a man double your size. It’s quite another to strike someone you still believe might be a god. There may be just a touch of Lagertha in Aslaug after all.
But the latest of Ragnar’s women did not fare so well in Portage. Yidu’s death is hardly surprising when we think about it in a contemporary context: how often is domestic abuse, escalating into homicide, linked to addiction? If we had hoped that Lothbrok’s moment of clarity meant that he had come to his senses, Hirst and company made sure that we were disillusioned. But we were not the only ones. Ubbe and Hvitserk now have some idea just how far gone their father is. The fact that Ragnar doesn’t even bother to give them an explanation for what they’ve seen means they cannot escape into a convenient fantasy. Their father murdered his lover simply for insisting that he treat her as free—as he had told her she was. Undoubtedly, out of love, they will keep their father’s secret to everyone, I suspect, but Bjorn. But that’s probably for the best.
Bjorn’s willingness to confront his father is the best evidence–bear-butchery included—that the eldest son is quickly approaching the moment when he is ready to lead. And while Ragnar may still be capable of great strategic insights, he’s no longer the leader he once was. Perhaps Bjorn could be.