This review contains spoilers.
4.9 Death All Round
Death All ‘Round is an episode that certainly lives up to its title, and reminds us, to an extent, the degree to which, until now, we’ve largely been watching an early medieval Europe that has been cleaned up for our more delicate modern sensibilities.
For instance, Ragnar Lothbrok and his nuclear family have been a very sterilised version of what the stories we have about the Vikings (and we must remember that, for the most part, we have stories about how the Vikings acted, not reports from the Vikings themselves on their actions) depict. The Lothbroks are not given to savagery, at least not without a point (the inflicting of the Blood Eagle on Jarl Borg served a specific purpose as did the emasculation of Einar).
But this week, we were reminded, when King Harald and his brother Halfdan led the raid on the Frankish farm, of the kind of no-holds-barred violence and destruction we haven’t seen since the early raid on England. What might have been a bit of mischief under Ragnar becomes a bloodbath of rape and butchery when left to these two. If we weren’t already predisposed to dislike them for their obvious machinations against the Lothbroks, this would definitely take us over that edge. Instead, we are almost left wondering if Rollo’s betrayal of his own men or even Ragnar’s chaotic and drug-addled defeat at his brother’s hands isn’t a far better alternative to these two men let loose across western Europe.
Especially since Europe is already suffering. So much of what we have seen thus far on the show has been so clean because it has taken place either in the open air of the Viking villages or in the very centre of Christian courts. What Michael Hirst has shown us far less of is the conditions that were fairly common at that time: subsistence-level existence for those who could get it and worse for others. The scene where director Jeff Woolnough illustrates the last few steps of Alfred’s pilgrimage makes so much clear in so few frames: the extreme poverty, the desperation, and the spectre of death from disease and starvation. We get the sense that this has haunted the travellers the entire journey. And it now haunts us.
Still, all of those deaths are impersonal. Some strike far closer to home.
The death of Lagertha’s child seems a terrible blow. As sophisticated people in the 21st century, of course, we have never bought in to the nonsense of the Seer, and we stood, to an extent, for that part of Lagertha which also rebelled, which she admitted allowed her to hope she might “cheat fate.” Of course, all the heavy lifting she did in the meantime because she could not admit this hope even to herself and take precautions to help protect her child must have had some impact. As a new mother myself, I hurt to see her sobbing over her loss, though there was at least a temporary glimmer of some consolation in the tableau of her surrounded by her devoted son and the ex-husband who still loves her, cradling and comforting her. It was a sadder but more real version of the vision Ragnar earlier had on the bank of the Seine—the life that might have been.
In his real life, back home, things have gone completely off the rails and another innocent has paid dearly for it—possibly two. Aslaug now seems to regret (and there goes last week’s respect for her) having confronted Harbard, sending him packing, and has now given into drink and depression. Sigurd, seems the only one of the clan left behind with a clear head, and it is he that finds the worst part of the affair: the corpse of Bjorn’s little Siggy floating in the river. What a terrible little life for a child: abandoned by her mother, rejected by her father, left in the hands of the uncaring, and now, possibly murderous, step-grandmother. But given Ivar’s reaction when Sigurd confronts his mother, I think we also must feel sorry for him. How twisted must your rearing be if you don’t merely fail to understand the death of one of your former playmates, but seem a bit pleased by it? If you had any doubts that this was the intended result of her tutelage, Aslaug’s proud smile should end them.
Not all the deaths, however, seem as pointless and cruel as those of the children.
Torvi has largely been a bit of a cipher on the show, and I have to admit that I found Bjorn’s description of her as a rebel odd. She’s always struck me as the most submissive of the women from the Viking camp. Sure, she’s had two moments of standing out (when she first had sex with Bjorn, and then when she left Erlendur), but for the most part, his description didn’t seem to match what we’ve seen of her. And the whole bit around blackmail between Torvi and Erlendur never made sense to me. Surely the problem would be solved by simply telling Bjorn and Lagertha what was going on? After all, Erlendur’s not in a position to have their child killed while they are raiding, and certainly cannot reach the child before Bjorn would be able to. And more to the point, Erlendur owes fealty to Lagertha who has pledged to protect the child. One can only imagine the fate that would await Borg’s son if Lagertha knew what he was threatening to do to the child under her express protection.
Still, while the set-up is weak, there was something so satisfying about Torvi killing Erlendur herself and doing it in full view of everyone. If she hasn’t been the woman Bjorn described, perhaps she has now become that woman.
And if Torvi is becoming that woman, it appears that Ragnar may be returning to the man he used to be, even if it’s only for a brief time. When the Vikings are called to come look at some sight and it turns out to be Paris on the horizon, ripe for the taking, Ragnar, for the first time since his introduction to Yidu’s drugs, foregoes them, as though the sight—and the cheers of his followers acknowledging his leadership in getting them this far—has finally given him the necessary motivation to give them up. His meaningful glance at his son after the death of Erlendur seems, in some sense, to confirm his clearer head. He recognizes the threat Erlendur represented and his son’s handling of it.
The scene which follows, in Ragnar’s tent, as he fights off the hallucinations caused by the withdrawal, proves that this is not a mistake: he clearly elucidates to his son what he is facing: the medicine is not beneficial. Yidu deceived him about it because now, without it, he is helpless and in pain. He knows that taking the drugs offers only a brief respite and since he’s down to the last little bit, he’s saving it for his fight with Rollo.
There’s more than a little bit of irony that he approves of his son’s part in the death of Erlendur, who was avenging his father, while he himself is so fixed on punishing Rollo for his betrayal that little else seems to matter to him. Much like Erlendur’s son became just one more chip in his own quest, we have to wonder if Ragnar’s followers are, at this point, merely his conduit for getting to his brother.
This week’s episode promises to bring Ragnar and Rollo face-to-face finally. It will be interesting to see if the old Ragnar—the one who put his people first—will make a reappearance. Because that Ragnar, I feel, would deserve Valhalla. And it would be nice if our hero was more, in the end, than one more great man lost to drugs.
Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, Portage, here.