This Vikings review contains spoilers.
Vikings Season 6 Episode 6
“If I didn’t worship you before, Lagertha, I worship you now.”
We knew it was coming; we just didn’t know when. Quite predictably, Vikings does not tread lightly into the new year, and as Lagertha’s only son faces an uncertain future after a failed attempt to unify the kingdoms of Norway under his rule, Ragnar Lothbrok’s first wife and true love begins her journey to Valhalla and a long anticipated reunion with the man who put Kattegat on the map. In one of the series’ most emotionally charged and heart wrenching death scenes, Lagertha tastes victory one final time before succumbing to a fate that hardly seems just given the heroic life she led. But a prophecy is a prophecy, and who are we to tamper with fate.
There’s no question that Ragnar’s death left a gaping hole not only in the lives of those who loved and respected him, but also in the Vikings narrative. And while “Death and the Serpent” addresses the impact Norway’s most famous and revered shieldmaiden has on those around her, it’s the reality that the couple who initiated and nurtured profound political and sociological change in their corner of the world will no longer be part of this richly developed world that cuts to the core of this inevitable outcome.
The episode’s cold open picks up with the election to choose Norway’s first centralized king, and what seemed to be a foregone conclusion quickly evolves into an outcome that will have far reaching effects in Scandinavia. The visual editing of the first twenty minutes beautifully provides a counterpoint as Bjorn’s kingdom slips through his fingers at the same time his mother saves her village from the bandits her son earlier banished and branded. Lagertha’s combat skills have never been in question, and even though they appear on full display, it’s the complex strategic defense system she orchestrates, puts into place, and then executes that reminds us one last time of her indomitable spirit and keen intellect.
Once the attack begins, it’s clear that Lagertha has not only prepared her fighters to stave off the bandits, but she’s tapped into something that becomes immediately evident when one after another sacrifice themselves for the greater good. And fittingly, once the battle is won and the bandits retreat, we’re presented one of the most satisfying yet heartbreaking single combat sequences of the series. It’s been clear from the start that these bandits mean to exact revenge for Bjorn’s decision to banish them from the kingdom, and the fact that they choose to attack old men, women, and children rather than face Bjorn tells us everything we need to know about these cowards. Now, with the battle won, Lagertha and the bandit leader face off in an open area, and it’s clear that only one will walk away from this meeting.
Though still formidable in battle, Lagertha shows her age, and past injuries limit her somewhat during the fray. Taking on a man far bigger and stronger, the reality that this could be it for her hits home. In a wonderfully executed action sequence, Lagertha taunts the man even as she weakens and her wooden shield becomes reduced to a jagged stub in her hand. Swelling music enhances the scene’s power as Lagertha instructs her followers to stand down and then systematically loses her weapons and shield. Kneeling in resignation, arms outstretched seemingly beckoning the gods, Lagertha’s life appears to be at its end. We’ve witnessed numerous momentum shifts throughout Vikings’ run but none as poignantly dramatic as the moment when Lagertha plunges the jagged end of what’s left of her wooden shield into the bandit’s neck and then recovers a sword to finish the job by cutting his throat. The stunned Gunnhild speaks for all of us when she admits she’s never seen anything like this before.
Nevertheless, Lagertha’s trials are just beginning, and when she removes her armor revealing a deep gash in her side, the fear arises that her victory may also bring her death. Though we don’t see anyone clean and dress her wound, the pronouncement to Gunnhild that she needs to see her son leads implies she knows her time on earth is short. Lagertha has typically formed strong relationships with women, and her multi-level bond with Torvi remains a series highlight. Here, though, in a touching exchange, Lagertha acknowledges Gunnhild’s positive impact on Bjorn and asks her fellow shieldmaiden to watch over her granddaughter as well. It’s difficult to ignore this heroic figure putting her life in order before moving to life’s next stage.
Of course, it’s Lagertha’s death that proves the most vexing when we stop to analyze it within the overall context of the series and of Viking life. The painful irony that Bjorn is off with Olaf and the other noblemen foreshadows a death that promises to send Hvitserk even further into the depths of despair. As Ubbe and Torvi host an intimate dinner, the haunting music presages the tragic moments leading up to Lagertha’s death. After she falls off her horse and crawls through the mud in a driving rainstorm, it’s impossible to miss the visual connection with Ivar, but it’s not until Hvitserk feels his brother’s presence and decides to end his suffering once and for all that we realize the horrific end about to unfold.
It’s convenient to argue that Lagertha’s death doesn’t befit the remarkable woman she was in life, and while there’s certainly an element of truth to that assessment, the grace she displays at the end overshadows any other perceived narrative failings. Even though Lagertha murdered his mother, Hvisterk clearly believes he’s killing the monster that is Ivar, and once he realizes what he’s done and recoils in horror, it’s difficult to imagine him recovering from this twist. Yet even in death, Lagertha still possesses the dignity to accept this as the fulfillment of a prophecy. Perhaps not as heroic as saving a village from bandits, Lagertha holds no ill will towards Hvitserk and gives the young man a chance to move on from this terrible mistake.
Though it’s probably unfair to compare the two, at the same time his mother loses her life, Bjorn watches as the crown he comes to covet eludes his grasp and ends up on the head of Harald Finehair. But when we examine the broader scope of life in and around Kattegat, Bjorn really has no one to blame but himself for Harald’s final power play. Norway’s first centralized king, however, will make no such mistake. Harald’s decision to immediately assassinate the lone threat to his crown makes perfect sense, and Bjorn’s decision to time after time allow Harald off the hook comes back to haunt him. Harald has no intention of following through with promises made to those kings and earls that put him on the throne, and when Flatnose realizes that he backed the wrong man, he does what he can to give Bjorn time to escape with his life. Still, we can’t forget his role in the collapse of Floki’s attempt to build a community on Iceland.
Though we don’t see much of the Russian story, the marriage of Prince Oleg and Princess Katia sends Ivar the message that their friendship has significantly shifted. Ivar’s pensive posture during the ceremony and Katia’s subtle glances his way keep the mystery alive concerning her true identity. Whether or not Katia really is Freydis becomes irrelevant at this point because Oleg has taken the upper hand leaving Ivar to wonder whether the prince knows about his role in Dir’s escape. Needless to say, forcing Ivar to watch the newlyweds’ sexual act only complicates matters, and it won’t be surprising if Ivar takes this as his cue to leave Kiev and return to Norway.
And speaking of retreats, Bjorn manages to escape with his life after the introduction of the redheaded outlaw Erik (Eric Johnson). Given his present circumstances, Bjorn will do well to enter any new relationship with a healthy dose of skepticism even though Erik risks his life to save Bjorn’s. “I hope there is a future for both of us Bjorn Ironside,” he tells him, but at this point, Bjorn’s only concern is to return to Kattegat and regroup. Will he plot to take out Harald right away or bide his time and marshall his forces? Either way, Bjorn returns to a drastically changed world and must face the deaths of his son and his mother.
Vikings’ final season has spent significant narrative capital following Ivar’s scheming in Rus and Bjorn’s desire to become Norway’s first king, and while “Death and the Serpent” certainly advances those threads, it’s the end of a much treasured era that drives this powerful episode. While it’s certainly sad to witness the end of Lagertha’s journey, the tales of Bjorn Ironside and Ivar the Boneless remain in play and should offer enough compelling storytelling to carry viewers through to the end. Somewhere the gods are smiling.