Vikings: Wanderer Review

This week's episode of The History Channel's Vikings cleverly sets the stage for conflict to come...

After Ragnar’s battle against Brihtwulf last week, this week’s episode, “The Wanderer,” seems almost overly sedate. There are no battles and not even a lot of personal conflict in this episode. It is clear, however, that this is only the lull before the storm.

And that lull is productive narratively, as we see much on the horizon.

Ragnar and his men (and women) are giving their weary limbs a rest—those limbs (and other body parts) that are not being removed, that is. The first to be freed from its trunk is the head of the fallen Brihtwulf, when his niece demands it of Ragnar. We can hardly blame her as she finally reveals not only the reason for that desire but also for her consistently bizarre behavior. Her uncle sexually abused her starting at age six and invited his men (including her eldest brother) to do so as well. As she hacks at his head with a dagger, we are horrified, Floki is amused, and Ragnar seems only a little satisfied to finally have some understanding of the woman he has promised to fight for. One wonders what treatment her younger brother has to look forward to, despite her insistence that she loves him.

This is not the only savagely crazy thing to go down in the camp, however. Rollo, who has been out of sorts since his brother forgave him his betrayal, attacks one of the wounded enemy soldiers, hacking away at one of his legs (because it was at an odd angle? he later indicates) and eventually, it seems, killing him outright. This is so nonsensical that even Torstein, who seems to be going mad from sepsis in his own limb, questions Rollo’s behavior. It’s clear that Ragnar’s brother is ramping up to some kind of breakdown or epiphany. I’m hoping it’s the latter because it’s frustrating watching Clive Standen just moping around.

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And Torstein’s limb too is hacked off, though this time at the request of its owner. Sensing that he is dying as a result of the wounded arm, Torstein asks Floki to cut it off. The incident is used with varying degrees of subtlety to portray Viking fierceness, priorities, and relationships when Bjorn offers to do it himself but Torstein insists that Floki do so since, as Floki points out, were the situation reversed, Torstein would do the same for Floki. The scene in which director Ken Girotti shows the ship builder removing the arm and cauterizing the limb is well executed, not only conveying the feeling of “there-but-for-the-grace-of-Odin-go-I” among the other Vikings, but the grim and ruthless determination of both patient and physician. There’s little doubt that Torstein will continue to harry the Mercians, even down one arm.

But it is back at the court of Ecbert that we are shown the greatest potential storms forming. Canny Lagertha questions the king about the origin of the lands he has given the Vikings, and he reveals that some of his own subjects were evicted from the farms she now overseas. While he informs her that he has every intention of defending her claim to them, we have to wonder how he intends to do so when he is in need of their foreign forces in order to do the same with Princess Kwenthrith’s to Mercia.

In fact, we are left to wonder if this is simply the hollow promise of a man who wishes to win a woman. If it was not clear before, Ecbert is more than a little taken with Lagertha, enough not only to follow her out to the farmland she now oversees, but to give her more personal gifts and learn a bit of her language. When he asked, last week, if she was “a free woman,” the answer was quite misleading. While she is technically free (and I love the fortitude and self-respect she showed in walking out when Ragnar took a second wife over her clear objection), that does not mean that a man set to woo her has a clear path to do so. Creator/writer Michael Hirst has down an excellent job of making clear that, despite the medieval setting, the Vikings did not perceive women the same way that Christians of the period did (as chattel who had little choice when it came to their destinies). So while Ragnar does not have any legal or moral claim to the shieldmaiden he wronged, that does not mean that he has no emotional attachment to her. It is clear that he is still in love with her, and despite the fact that, when Lagertha left him, she clearly shut the door on any future reconciliation—getting on with her life by taking another husband and all-but-proposing to another after she widowed herself—we just know that she still loves him.

So Ecbert may unintentionally be blithely walking into an explosive situation. Ragnar has obviously accepted that his ex-wife is only a political ally to him now, but it is difficult to imagine that he will be as understanding if he returns to Wessex to find Ecbert in bed with her.

And on the subject of returning warriors and strange bedfellows, there’s the budding interest between Princess Judith and Athelstan. Thus far, Hirst has used Athelstan to explore the difference in the religious beliefs of the English and the Vikings. But he’s gone a bit further in also looking at how those beliefs then affect the lifestyles of each. Athelstan, despite having been a monk, has learned to fight, without fear of death, like a Viking. However, we have yet to see if he has come to share their more open sexual ethics as well. Certainly, he was chaste enough when Ragnar and Lagertha invited him into their bed in the first season. But after years of living with the Vikings, he may very well have abandoned Christianity to the extent of giving in to Judith’s advances.

But while Ragnar might be kept at bay (at least on the surface) by his lack of official claim on Lagertha, Judith has no much legal protection. And Lord Edgar seems, based on last week’s episode, particularly keen on Christianity-underlined marital fidelity. One senses that these two sexual triangles will be the primary reason for an eventual breakdown of the Viking/Saxon alliance.

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We have been seeing the way these two belief system are at odds. But we saw something new this week in Wanderer referred to in the episode’s title. Until now, religious beliefs on the series have been seen as nothing more than that: what people believe to be true.  But back in Kattgart, Siggy, Helga, and Ragnar’s actual wife, Aslaug, have been having not just visions and prophetic dreams but the same visions and dreams, taking the series just over the edge into the paranormal (and quietly suggesting there may be more legitimacy to Odin’s cosmology than Christ’s. It is unclear that the arrival of the man from their dreams means to the story, but we are set up to sense that things back home (especially with the public acceptance of Kalf’s usurpation of Jarl-ship of the community Lagertha left in trust with him) are about to heat up.

The coming weeks should be particularly good.

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