This Vikings review contains spoilers.
Vikings Season 4 Episode 10
Not since Adam and Eve’s sons battled it out in the Garden of Eden has the residual resentment of one brother towards another reached such epic proportions. What’s so compelling in the Vikings mid-season finale “The Last Ship” is that the acrimony driving both Ragnar and Rollo spills across the continent impacting not only the lives of innocents, but the course of history as well.
The momentum has clearly shifted during this family feud, and we witness a fascinating transformation and role reversal take place. Once brimming with confidence and clarity, Ragnar has been reduced to a man holding on for dear life, unable or unwilling to acknowledge the havoc his decisions have on those around him as he proceeds with his resolute attempt to kill the brother who has now gained God’s favor.
Can it be this simple? Living in a Christian world, we’ve seen little evidence that Rollo has forsaken the Norse gods, and we’re left to wonder whether or not some of this has to do with Ragnar’s relationship with Athelstan and by extension, Christianity.
We receive our answer quickly when Rollo proclaims “May God be with us,” as the two forces advance toward each other. While much of this episode focuses on the Viking attack of Paris and its aftermath, that’s not to say that we don’t get bits and pieces of other ongoing story arcs. But the larger question, that while addressed, remains unanswered; who will prevail when the brothers finally clash?
I had my doubts that either brother would actually die in this episode, but given the current trend in genre television, killing off a major character is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. Do we feel cheated that both survived? A little. Nonetheless, the battle once again gives an inside view of just how brutal war was at this time as we watch the Vikings swing axes amidst the mayhem while the Franks try to take a more controlled approach.
Other than the Lothbrok brothers’ scene, “The Last Ship” is not a dialogue rich episode, but what we do hear and more importantly witness, provides insight not only into the characters but what may lie in store during the second half of the season. In many respects this is an examination of the burden of leadership, and though we’ve seen Ragnar agonize over decisions and dilemmas before, we’re presented the entire package tonight. When he and Rollo leap through the air at each other and clash swords, we’re reminded of the warrior Ragnar used to be. That he physically holds his own against his brother even when they’ve resorted to bare knuckles is somewhat surprising, but his message to Rollo just before they go at each other offers mountains of subtext. “Look at you. You look like a bitch.” Is he jealous or disgusted?
Before the fighting begins, we’re treated to another intimate scene as Lagertha asks Ragnar if the gods favor them in this fight, but when Bjorn answers “of course they do,” she admits she needs to hear Ragnar acknowledge it. Just as it appears Rollo might best Ragnar, both Bjorn and Lagertha notice, and she makes the first move to help. It’s here though that one of Rollo’s men plunges a sword into her shoulder leaving us unsure of the outcome we never see. It doesn’t appear to be a death blow, but it’s a plot point left hanging after Ragnar orders Bjorn to carry his mother off the boat. Despite everything that’s happened, it can only be love that continually pulls this family together.
Harald also witnesses his brother Halfdan suffer what does appear to be a fatal blow, though again, we don’t receive definite confirmation. But we do have to wonder whether Harald will somehow blame Ragnar for his brother’s demise.
Something that’s still puzzling is why the Northmen choose to retreat since, at worst, the battle seems to be a draw. They don’t appear to be outnumbered, and though Ragnar and Rollo have severely beaten each other, it’s been clear from the outset that Bjorn has risen to a position of significant influence as he barks orders during the early stages of the fight.
It would be a mistake, however, to become too enmeshed in the battle since it’s the battle’s aftermath that lays the groundwork for how history will unfold in Europe and Scandinavia. Years after the Paris defeat, we observe Bjorn, looking clean and healthy, spearing fish at home in Kattegat when Aslaug informs him there’s a stranger with a tale he must hear. We’ve known from the start that Ecbert slaughtered the Viking settlement as soon as Ragnar sailed away, and even though it was brought to his attention, Ragnar kept this knowledge from his people. Thorhall reveals this horror to Bjorn as well as the fact that Ragnar has a son from his dalliance with Kwenthrith. Sitting on her throne, smug look on her face, we know Aslaug’s plotting something to get Bjorn out of the way so her son’s can rise to power. This does beg the question though of who’s in power in Kattegat.
After the Paris defeat Ragnar disappears and hasn’t been seen in years, and judging by the growth of his sons, it would seem at least 6-8 years have elapsed. One of the delights of Vikings has always been the strong Lothbrok family ties, and when Bjorn seeks out his brothers who have gone to the cabin to hunt, the conversations that follow are truly illuminating. Yes, his sons feel abandoned, but Ivar’s vocal inflections leap off the screen as we realize that he’s grown into a younger version of Floki, defending anything Ragnar does. “You sound like a bunch of Christians,” he tells his brothers sealing the deal.
Set against the scene in which Rollo, the savior of Paris, stumbles through the city street amidst cheers as Charles and Gisla watch from their thrones, Ragnar’s return to Kattegat equally moves us and breaks our hearts. Conquering hero vs lying villain. Confronted by his sons, Ragnar tells them he knows he’s not welcome and wants to know which of them is going to kill him. “What kind of king abandons his people? What kind of father abandons his sons?” Here we see a man seemingly stripped of everything including his self-respect, not seeking forgiveness, but instead perhaps taking the first step towards rallying his people and even regaining the throne he left behind. What is he up to? Where has he been, and what has he been doing?
He baits Hvitserk to kill him. “Who wants to be king? If you want to be king, you must kill me.” Of course, this again begs the question as to whether or not Bjorn has risen to that position. Bjorn thinks his father will never return but understands that he wasn’t a god, just a man with human failings and despite that, “the greatest man I know.” In keeping with familial scenes, how great is it to see Bjorn’s relationship with Floki and Helga. But when we learn that Floki is in fact building Bjorn boats so that he can explore the Mediterranean Sea, it does appear that Ragnar’s son is the new leader. Watching Helga smile as Floki agrees to accompany Bjorn is priceless.
Our Frankian experiences are limited here, but what we do get furnishes significant insights. Gisla truly loves Rollo, and Charles is not the inept idiot he’s appeared to be. Charles, Roland, and Therese dine while the battle rages, and when Therese has the audacity to use the word stupid in conjunction with the Emperor, well, even though Charles had it already planned, the executions of brother and sister are nonetheless satisfying. But when Charles places the laurel wreath on Rollo’s head and announces “Hail, Caesar,” am I the only one thinking that Caesar too was assassinated? Does Charles fear Rollo now?
Mid-season finales have become de rigueur, and “The Last Ship” delivers leaving us with much to ponder as we head into what likely will be at least a four month wait for the next episode. What kind of transformation has Ragnar undergone, and how will his sons react now that their father has returned? How will Aslaug react to this latest development? Will the Vikings make a voyage to the Mediterranean Sea, and who will lead it? What will become of Rollo and Gisla once the baby is born? Is Charles threatened by his daughter and son-in-law? And finally, with the knowledge of King Ecbert’s slaughter of the Viking settlement, will he become the next target?