“All my brothers are against me. Now I know I’m the chosen one.”
Though “Ragnarok” spends most of its time on the battlefield in and around Kattegat, it’s the interpersonal intrigues that produce some level of resolution and set Vikings up nicely for its final season. Of course, the Lothbrok brothers throwdown highlights the episode, and in the end, we receive the hoped for outcome despite experiencing a few worrisome bumps along the road. Unreasonable expectations typically accompany season finales, and for a show that most recently asked fans to wait ten months for the next installment, the stakes were understandably high. And once again, creator/writer Michael Hirst delivers.
There’s no doubt that Ivar the Boneless has served as a magnificent antagonist, and Alex Høgh Andersen brings life to one of the most frighteningly complex characters of the series. But let’s be honest; no one wants Ivar to succeed. In Norse mythology the prophecy of Ragnarok recounts the story not only of the cataclysmic end of the world, but of the end of the universe and the gods themselves. King Olaf’s eloquent retelling of this tale establishes a somber mood that forces us to acknowledge that the battle for Kattegat may, in fact, destroy the community we’ve come to know and love.
Watching the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok during this campaign to topple Ivar from the throne provides keen insights into the strengths, weaknesses, and motivations of each. It’s not surprising that Magnus continues to struggle to find his place not only among his brothers but more importantly within the Viking community. Despite his protests to the contrary, he continues to call on the Christian God in times of stress even though he badly wants to understand and accept the gods of his brothers. Likewise, his struggles during battle speak to the sheltered life he led before connecting with Bjorn and how ill prepared he is for this life. “I didn’t know who I was until now,” he tells King Harald as if anticipating the arrow about to pierce his chest leaving him as the only son of Ragnar to die in the fray. Still, though Bjorn embraces him, he never truly carves out a niche with any of the others and remains an outsider at the time of his death.
Though he’s distinguished himself in battle before, Hvitserk really comes into his own here, and once the assault begins, he’s one of the first to scale the outer wall and make it over the top of the barrier. Even though it becomes evident fairly quickly that the armies of Bjorn and Olaf have badly miscalculated Ivar’s defenses, Hvitserk continues to fight until he has no choice but to retreat. Interestingly, on the eve of battle, we see Hvitserk fling onto the ground the carved Buddha figure he’s been carrying around, implying that perhaps he’s made his choice. However, despite his theological curiosity, it seems probable that like his older brother Ubbe, his faith in the gods of old never truly left him.
Yes, in actuality, the two attacking armies belong to Harald and Olaf, but make no mistake, this is Bjorn’s fight against the little brother that he sees as having defiled the town his parents worked so hard to nurture. On the heels of Ubbe’s successful peace negotiation in Wessex, it makes sense to at least explore that option here before sending so many good men and women to their deaths. And though he lacks Ivar’s battle strategy acumen, Bjorn knows it’s foolish to even consider this approach. “Never again will we negotiate with Ivar.” However, from the start, it’s clear that Ivar has the upper hand, and Bjorn’s decision to employ brute force fails against the measured, intricate preparations Ivar has lying in wait for his enemy. “You’ve come much too late,” Ivar boasts as his men pour flammable oil onto Bjorn’s soldiers and then light them on fire.
Nevertheless, what Bjorn lacks in game plan creation, he more than makes up for by knowing the hearts and minds of the people trapped inside the walls of Ivar’s Kattegat. His voice raw from the day’s skirmish, Bjorn’s impassioned speech to Ivar’s men sends the message loud and clear that a better life awaits them if they abandon their blind devotion to this madman. And when his archers defy Ivar’s order to kill Bjorn, the die has been cast. For all of his skill as a general, Ivar fails to see that hanging the men who refuse his kill order will have the opposite effect of what he intends. As Bjorn walks away speaking of the tyranny under which the people of Kattegat now live, we’re left with the knowledge that there is still hope.
As the two brothers reflect on the day’s events and ponder their moves going forward, the differences between the two couldn’t be more striking. “I am the only one who speaks for you,” Ivar tells a conflicted populus before demanding their absolute loyalty, a demand his father would have never made. Ragnar didn’t need to demand loyalty; he earned it, a lesson not lost on Bjorn. And when he returns with his army the next morning and calls out Ivar, the winds of change are in the air. “We are here to set you free,” Bjorn tells the people of Kattegat, and his use of the collective pronoun speaks volumes about his intentions for them.
Hirst has done well to avoid the potential salaciousness of the love triangle between Bjorn, Harald, and Gunnhild, and though Harald doesn’t come close to engendering the same level of distaste as Ivar, he always seems to be in the way of the narrative developing in a way that favors the Lothbrok clan. While his political and personal deference to Bjorn could be seen as weakness, time and again, Harald rises to the occasion and does the right thing out of respect for a man very much like himself. During the second assault, he’s faced with a moral choice that could forever change his life and the course of history. Bjorn is in trouble, and as the camera moves from Bjorn to Harald to Gunnhild, we understand that this is the turning point in the fight. Again, King Harald comes to Bjorn’s aid, securing Kattegat’s crown for his rival in love and in power. In spite of his shortcomings, Harald is fundamentally good, and after taking an arrow to the chest, his status remains unknown.
And while the combat is left to the shieldmaidens and soldiers, an unlikely candidate steps forward to tip the scales in Bjorn’s favor. Freydis has been the perfect companion for the mercurial Ivar with her tales of the gods and the divine child she promises to give a husband unable to father children. Whether Ivar harbored any suspicions about his wife’s pregnancy we don’t know, but now with the death of their infant son, the marriage quickly deteriorates. It doesn’t take Ivar long to figure out that Freydis betrayed him, and the chilling confrontation scene comes as no surprise given his reaction to those who challenge his authority.
What makes this couple’s relationship path so fascinating is whether either ever truly loved the other. Did Freydis’ attraction to Ivar stem from a desire for power, or did she see something in him that the rest of us fail to see? Clearly, the allure of her beauty and silken tongue promises captures his fancy, but not for a moment do we believe that he’d allow her to impede his pursuit of fame and power. At the crucial moment, he drops his crutch, kisses her and tells her he loves her, before brutally choking her to death ending one of the more confusing matches in the Vikings universe. She must know that her decision to aid Bjorn will result in a violent reaction from Ivar, and sadly may see this as her only way out of an emotionally suffocating marriage. Set against the courageous actions of strong women from Lagertha to Torvi to Judith to Aslaug, Freydis’ actions may pale in comparison, but her willingness to sacrifice herself for the good of the people of Kattegat should not be dismissed.
Ordinarily, we might now look to the victor and his spoils as the next phase of Ivar’s dethroning, but Bjorn and Hvitserk see this as their destiny. Free the people of Kattegat and remind them of what it’s like to be ruled by someone who truly is a man or woman of the people. Walking defiantly into Ivar’s main hall, they find the body of Freydis and immediately know what has occurred and the sacrifice she made. It’s a somber scene that runs the risk of putting a damper on the hard earned victory, but Hirst saves the best for last beginning with Olaf’s presentation of the flag to Bjorn. The symbolism is meaningful, but when Ubbe and Torvi appear unexpectedly followed by the sword bearing Lagertha, our expectations have been more than met. Does it get any better than this?
Lagertha’s poignant message to King Alfred regarding his mother’s efforts to raise him to become a great king reverberate loudly as she hands her son the sword. “Here is the sword of kings. All hail Bjorn,” she proclaims to the cheering throng, and though her warrior days may be behind her, the queen mother appears strong once again and ready to live out life under her son’s rule.
But the scene takes a quick turn as Bjorn holds the sword aloft, momentarily frozen in time as the realization of the immense responsibility he now bears begins to sink in. Does he experience doubt as he sees himself standing alone amidst a sea of dead bodies, his sword now covered in blood? Looking down on Kattegat, does he wonder whether he’ll be up to the task and whether he can stand apart from the heavy shadows cast by his parents? And while Vikings has, from time to time, played with supernatural elements, when Bjorn asks The Seer if “any of this is real,” the Oracle of Kattegat informs the new king that he will be greater than his father.
While it’s understandable that Bjorn might feel a bit emotionally overwhelmed with the unexpected arrival of his mother, Ivar’s escape and survival comes as no surprise and provides a compelling storyline moving into next season. The look on the deposed king’s face as he’s pulled down a village street in a rickety cart belies a man planning revenge no matter the cost. Of course, because of his deformity, Ivar will find it difficult to stay under the radar as he no doubt attempts to assemble a new group of followers willing to risk their lives to return him to power. It’s a fitting image for a man whose rise to power was primarily predicated by the desire to avenge his mother’s murder, and now that we’ve come full circle and Lagertha finds herself once again in Kattegat, Ivar’s fire has invariably been stoked.
Though it is certainly a welcome sight, the appearance in Kattegat of Torvi, Lagertha, and Ubbe raises a new set of questions. Now that Bjorn wears the crown, do they plan to stay as part of his inner circle or return to the farming community they established in Wessex? Can the farming community survive without Ubbe and Torvi’s leadership to address the inevitable clashes, however minor, between the English and Viking settlers?
Like any series that produces twenty serialized episodes per season, Vikings has its share of misfires, but the pace of “Ragnarok” and its focus on the fate of Kattegat and the sons of Ragnar makes this a winner. Heading into the series’ final season, the principal question now becomes how long we’ll have to wait to learn the fates of the Lothbrok family as its members further the legacy of its patriarch, Ragnar.