This review contains spoilers.
4.14 In The Uncertain Hour Before The Morning & 4.15 All His Angels
Of all the weeks to get ill, I—or the gods—picked the one that would require me to combine reviews on two episodes which are better talked about together than separately: In The Uncertain Hour Before The Morning and All His Angels.
This week and last week, we got to watch the last days of Ragnar Lothbrok. And if he did not die sword in hand, that does not mean that he not go out as a Viking should—especially this Viking. After all, Fimmel’s Ragnar has never lived like other Northmen, so it’s hardly surprising that he didn’t die like them—at least on the surface. Scratch that surface and it’s clear that while Ragnar may not have subscribed either to the Norse cosmology or the Christian one, he was the master of both and used them to construct a death which had the most Viking of aims: conquest.
After his failure to motivate his former subjects and his sons to follow him west to punish Ecbert for his treachery, it seemed that Ragnar had gone a little over the deep end, wasting all his resources to raise an expedition that—with nothing save paid but unseasoned farmers or elderly warriors in his retinue—had no chance of succeeding in wrecking vengeance on the man who destroyed his first hopes of a new prosperity for the people of Kattegat. It is hardly by accident that we don’t truly know whether Ragnar’s eventual plan against the king of Wessex formed after the shipwreck of the Viking party or was his intention as far back his recruitment in Kattegat. In Lothbrok, Hirst and Fimmel have created a character who cultivates a reputation for wild-eyed unpredictability that verges on insanity. In the same way that Ivar’s crippled body hides the danger he poses to others, so Ragnar’s apparently irrationality hides a mind that is sharper even than that of the master politician Ecbert.
In both Star Trek: Into Darkness and The Avengers, the very best performances—and arguably the best moments—come from the same set-up: the protagonist and antagonist facing off through the wall of a prison cell of some sort. There is something clarifying in such a scenario, largely because the power dynamic appears to be operating in favor of those outside the cell, while it is actually the one within it who is controlling the situation. Even when Joss Whedon writes the Black Widow as tricking Loki into revealing his plan, it doesn’t matter because his plan is already in action. But the careful manoeuvring, the ability of the prisoner to play on the sympathies of jailer, it works precisely because the latter has misjudged the true nature of that dynamic and his adversary.
Hirst recognises not just the narrative effectiveness of this scenario, but its draw on the audience, and gives it to us in abundance in Uncertain Hour and All His Angels, episodes dominated by precisely that type of confrontation. Ecbert appears to hold all the cards after all, having a beaten-down warrior in chains and his crippled son as collateral. But what we are reminded of in the large block of time devoted to their seeming communion is Ecbert’s essential weakness: he is so good at his own game, he has effectively cut himself off from everyone around him. When he prays, he evokes the Solomon of Ecclesiastes 1, arguing that while God gave him the wisdom he sought in order to rule well and that he now has all the trappings of such success, he is essentially unhappy and unfulfilled—it is not enough. He has no equals, and thus, no friends or compatriots. He may have awakened in Judith a certain level of spirit, but she can never—as a woman in a Christian court—truly be his peer. This has always been the basis of his attraction to Ragnar, and to a lesser and/or more confused extent, to Lagertha. In the Viking king, Ecbert recognizes a kindred soul and someone who might truly understand him.
The problem is that Ragnar does understand Ecbert, all too well. And while Lothbrok has learned the harsh lesson of the impossibility of sharing the burden of the responsibilities/compromises of ruling, Ecbert has spent the intervening time building up a world in which he never has to completely face that stark truth. He surrounds himself with the reminders of one man who he thought at least his equal on one level—he takes Athelstan’s son and his lover as his own—while remaining prepared for the return of the only other who made him feel truly seen and understood. Ragnar knows that leaders are essentially alone, so he is the perfect person to take advantage of Ecbert’s desire to believe that that is not the case.
Thus, they discuss the problems of ruling: the inability to be truly honest (except with each other, Ragnar allows Ecbert to believe), the need to use terrible means to accomplish a greater good, and an awareness of the constructed nature of religion and its necessity in keeping society running despite their knowledge that neither they or their subjects will enjoy any of the proposed rewards those belief systems offer. But underneath it all, the Viking lays his trap.
That Ragnar does this using their competing religions—ones neither of them believe in—is so deliciously ironic.
On his side, he recognises that his only chance of getting revenge is to give his sons—who have made it clear that they are not particularly enamoured of him—the motivation to carry out the punishment he cannot. He must give up seeing his enemy destroyed in order to be the reason that Ivar, Sigurd, and Ubbe will lead the Great Heathen Army. Thus he needs not just to die but to do it in such a way that his sons cannot think themselves Vikings unless they repay it in blood. He must secure a death worthy of a Valhalla he does not believe in so that they will know they cannot, as sons of the legendary Ragnar, attain that mythical goal without laying waste to Ecbert’s kingdom.
That he then uses Christian mythology to convince Ecbert to set all of this in motion is what makes it an epic tactical stroke. He manoeuvres the king of Wessex into playing the part of Pontius Pilate by suggesting that he will be able to accomplish what Pilate did: removing the guilt of his own government’s execution of Christ by shifting the blame elsewhere. The Roman precept did it by putting the decision in the hands of the Jews themselves. Ragnar promises Ecbert that his sons will not hold him and Wessex accountable if King Aelle is seen as ordering and carrying out his death. Ecbert’s desire to believe this blinds him to what he must actually know on some level: any execution of Ragnar at his own hands would likely have been too mild to raise the ire of the Viking’s sons, but Aelle will deliver on a spectacle so excruciating, so horrific to those who witness it, that his sons will have no choice.
But Lothbrok may want more than revenge if the title of last week’s episode, In The Uncertain Hour Before The Morning, is any indication. It is an allusion to a poem by T. S. Eliot written about the Battle of Britain and the need for humanity to be purged with fire and devastation in order to reach salvation. This suggests that Ragnar may also have moved beyond simple vengeance: his initial reason for travelling to England was to save his people. The Great Heathen Army will lay waste to Wessex, but that act will be the basis for an extended Norse presence in England. Ecbert’s folly may seem, to Ragnar, an opportunity to finally and definitively accomplish his original purpose: a Viking England.
And yet, beneath all this duplicity, the truth is that Ecbert’s Christian prayer does seem one that Ragnar himself might utter. The Viking may be laying the foundation for Ecbert’s destruction, but he still respects the English king and understands him for precisely the reasons that Ragnar turns against him; they have a shared experience that cannot be communicated to those around them: Floki may be Lothbrok’s friend but he can never understand the kinds of decisions leaders must make.
Which is why the final moments of Ragnar’s life are so compelling. We’ve seen him stand up to abuse before. What Aelle does to him is terrible, but when you consider that Lothbrok’s culture invented the Blood Eagle, Aelle’s attempt to get the Viking to cry out for mercy seems weak. It is not what he undergoes that makes the scene so heartbreaking. It is Ecbert’s role as witness, his connection with his friend in those final moments, as Ragnar talks up a Viking afterlife they both know he doesn’t believe in to secure his position as a sort of Norse Christ, that sells the scene. He does not let Ragnar die alone. He may not be able to save him, but he makes sure he is there with him at the end, as witness and friend.
Because they are friends and yet they must part understanding that friendship cannot survive kingship. Ecbert must see Ragnar dead. And Ragnar can only die knowing it will set Wessex aflame. It will be interesting going forward to see whether Ecbert knows how perfectly he has been set up by the only man to truly understand him.
Read Laura’s review of the previous episode, Two Journeys, here.