Previously on Vikings, “The Great Army”
As we move closer to shared history between the Sagas and Anglo-Saxon chronicles, this season of Vikings crosses into top history junkie territory. This half season alone, the Northmen have set off for the Mediterranean, raided a Spanish port, held a Viking funeral for a queen, lost Ragnar to the snake pit, and gathered the Great Army, all chronicled events. Likewise, the mega-invasion of England made an impression on the Isles permanently, punctuated by the much-anticipated Ragnarssons’ blood eagle of King Aelle, although whether it actually happened is suspect.
Let’s look at the facts for a minute. Historically, the Great Heathen Army invaded about 866 AD, 76 years after the Vikings pilot title card of 793 AD. Between 5 and 15 years prior to the invasion, Aelle wrested Northumbria from Osbert, who was possibly his brother, and their weakened territories served as the perfect launching point for the Vikings. The two kings met at York to drive out the horde but died in the effort. Anglo-Saxon chronicles say they were killed in battle, while the Þáttr af Ragnars sonum says Ivar carved a blood eagle into Aelle to avenge Ragnar.
Ok Ellu bak,
And Ívarr, the one
The “Blood Eagle” ceremony of Jarl Borg in S2E7 is among the most powerful, darkly beautiful, and gruesome images of the entire series, but there is some debate on whether the blood eagle was an actual practice. Three Sagas refer to blood eagle executions: Einarr killing Harald Finehair’s son Halfdan in the Orkneyinga saga, Ivar killing Aelle in The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, and Aslaug’s father Sigurd killing his father’s murderers in Norna-Gests þáttr. The accounts could be purely symbolic, as eagles were associated with death, or even metaphoric, as in turning one’s enemies into carrion. After much scholarly debate, the reality of the practice is highly contested.
But not on Vikings, friends, because that’s what we’re here for.
In “Blood Eagle,” Ragnar’s white garments, the silent reverence, and the bright, clear torchlight as Jarl Borg boldly accepted his fate cast a searing image. In “Revenge,” those boxes are checked at the pre-raid sacrifice. Lagertha emphasizes to Torvi and Astrid that they need a suitable offering to honor this groundbreaking endeavor, but only Torvi picks up what she’s laying down: it’s not a what, it’s a who. In S1E7’s “Sacrifice” at Uppsala, a warrior volunteers to be sacrificed with honor in place of Athelstan, and, in this case, it’s the young Earl Jorgensen from last episode. Veritably transformed into a golden owl, harbinger of death, Lagertha accepts his assent. Jorgensen grasps the sword, pulling himself closer to Lagertha, and she gently lays him down to enter Valhalla. A meteor shoots through the sky. The crowd gasps in awe. From the knife’s gleam to the intimate emotions between them, Vikings truly shines in its admiration of a beautiful death.
The Ragnarssons’ revenge is quite the opposite. The army lands as King Aelle is mid-Mass, and he barks at the interrupting soldier that he was about to receive communion.
“You’re also about to receive the Great Heathen Army.”
Aelle smugly armors himself in his own righteousness, riding out to the coast with his bishop quoting scriptures to blight this scourge from the earth. They smile as a tiny group appears over the hillside, but that smile falters when they just keep coming… and coming… There’s the Hairdos with their savages, Floki stalking over the hills, and Ivar with his chariot. The fight is so uneven that it apparently isn’t worth the screen time; in a moment, Ivar is dragging Aelle through the muddy, dank forest behind his cart with Bjorn demanding Ragnar’s grave. At least “Father” is clear in Old Norse, and Aelle readily points it out, with a Middle English plea for his life (major language geekery). Floki saunters forward:
“I’ve been told your god is a carpenter. Guess what? So am I.”
That night by the pit, they nail Aelle’s hands down and Bjorn slices his back open with a hot knife. His scream shakes Lagertha awake in her bed with Astrid and Torvi as well as Ecbert with Judith. Then, the sound dulls in favor of chanting. With every ax strike in the dark, wet forest, blood spatters across the Ragnarssons’ grimly smiling faces. Aelle doesn’t last long, and, the next morning, they hoist his body into the trees with the very ropes that suspended their father, the rising sun shining through his flayed back. Judith warned him to raise a monument, but, instead, he becomes the monument. Ivan Kaye (Aelle) carries off his part perfectly, and a fond farewell to him after four seasons of “Muahahaha”-level villainy.
As the Horde Turns
Alas, we must also discuss the other third of the episode. Not everyone is here for the As the Horde Turns drama Vikings can sometimes be, and I’m sorry to say that there was a surprising amount in such a long-awaited episode, one of several clues that the budget must have been diverted to the season enders. The parallels in “Revenge” revolve primarily around familial relationships and their inevitable inequality. Hirst also plays with various facets of jealousy, turning it on its head at times, from the positive when Earl Jorgensen’s brother encourages him by saying he’s jealous that the earl will dine in Valhalla after his sacrifice, to the heartbreaking exchange between Ecbert and Aethelwulf, to the strangely absent.
While things are looking up for the Hairdos, thanks to Egil’s spy mission, the princess who dared Harald to conquer Norway for her hand appears in Kattegat. Halfdan pushes him to speak to her, and, for a grown Viking man, he seems reticent, but finally approaches her at the pre-raid party to recite his accomplishments, so close to cashing in his goals. She fearfully admits she’s already married, to a mere earl; any woman could guess the whole dare was a brush off, because, frankly, he is psychotic. Unsurprisingly, Harald loses his damn mind and nearly kills her on the spot, but refrains, despite the “dishonor” and Halfdan’s scoffing. In summary, Nice Guy Syndrome hasn’t changed in 1100 years.
Ivar and Ubbe haggle over who should lead the Army, with Ivar believing he has Ragnar’s blessing, but Bjorn vehemently puts the hammer down: firstly, the brothers will not share power with any other leader, and secondly, he’s the top dog. Given how ridiculous the younger Ragnarssons act at times, I can’t blame him for the rage lecture.
Case in point, Ubbe marries Margrethe, and, after the ceremony, he and Hvitserk do a “wedding race” to determine who must serve the marriage feast. Hvitserk loses but takes the opportunity to make goo-goo eyes at Margrethe, which develops into open flirting as the night goes on and the drink keeps flowing. Ubbe observes this and proposes sharing their wedding night as a threesome, claiming they can without jealousy because, “We’re Vikings.” Yeah, no. That’s not how Vikings were at all, and Hvitserk’s tag-along tendencies have crossed the line into ridiculousness. Does he have a single original thought? Can we get some definable characterization here, other than obnoxious and entitled?
Hey, what about some more near incest? What we can blame Bjorn for is dipping out on the sacrifice with Astrid for the ol’ “sex while someone dies” trope. Methinks Ragnar’s atheism must have passed on, because how sacrilegious is this?! They have strangled wall sex, and Lagertha notices their absences immediately, sharing a tight nod with Torvi. Astrid doesn’t even have the courtesy to come home before anyone notices and walks in with her dress half off while Lagertha is still awake. Lagertha only mutters that it better be enjoyable. Then when Bjorn leaves for England, he hugs Astrid right in front of both women, who seemingly have nothing to say. What. is. happening?!
Continuing with the bizarre, Helga insists that she and Tanaruz will accompany Floki to war as usual. Floki thinks this is the worst idea ever, considering that Tanaruz is still not eating, unsettled, unhappy, and a raid PTSD victim, but Helga will not even consider it. They are a family now, and they must stick together at all times. I really hate that this is feeling more and more like a march towards death for Helga, who has apparently lost her mind after a long off-screen illness and delayed grief from Angrboda’s death.
More positively, the final familial relationship explored is Ecbert and Aethelwulf. For so long, Ecbert kept Aethelwulf firmly under his thumb, unmanning him with his wife, cuckolding him by forcing him to raise Alfred, sending him out to near certain death annually while confiding in Ragnar, and on and on. But Ecbert is a changed man since Ragnar died. Judith is making him eat when Aethelwulf comes in to announce the Great Army’s arrival and, finally daring to accept her role, asks her politely if she is willing to leave them alone. He lays these facts out, not unkindly, to his father, who is shrouded mostly in darkness, saying Ecbert no longer behaves as a king. Ecbert has loved Alfred, Ragnar, and Judith; these he accepts, but Aethelwulf must know: did he ever love his own son? The shift in their dynamic is palpable; fantastic work from Linus Roache and Moe Dunford, with so few words. Touching and beautifully shot.
As you might guess, I would have preferred this episode have much less of this inexplicable interpersonal weirdness, which chewed up the majority of the episode, and much more carnage to feel whole. While one can understand that whipping Aelle’s Northumbrian army probably scarcely drew a sweat bead from their collective brows, the Vikings cresting that hill were intimidating as hell, so it was like jumping from foreplay to afterglow to suddenly have Aelle behind Ivar’s chariot. The brief fleet shot also seemed an obvious budgetary moment when the ships should have at least received the camera time of previous send-offs, seeing as it was the largest army ever. These issues are a shame, because Aelle’s death, Lagertha’s sacrifice, and Aethelwulf’s plea were certainly worth the admission price. By nature, “Revenge” will go down as one of the most important episodes of the series, so deserved a bit more oomph and a bit more logic than it got. At least we know that with such apparent tightened purse strings, the last two episodes, “On the Eve” and “The Reckoning,” will be savage in the best possible way.
Starring: Alexander Ludwig, Katheryn Winnick, Gustaf Skarsgård, Linus Roache, Moe Dunford, Peter Franzén, Jasper Pääkkönen, Josefin Asplund, Maude Hirst, Alex Høgh, Marco Ilsø, David Lindström, Jordan Patrick Smith, Ida Nielsen, Georgia Hirst, Jennie Jacques, Sinead Gormally, Ivan Kaye, Charlie Kelly, Josh Donaldson, Sophie Vavasseur, Noni Stapleton, Gary Buckley, Jack Nolan, Niall O’Sioradain, David Maine, Gary Murphy, Cathy White, and Caitlin Scott