“100% more evisceration talk than expected.”
“These chicks are machines!”
(CHECK THEM OUT FOR THEIR PODCASTED RECAPS AND FEEDBACK ‘CASTS! And Yes, we did one, too!)
Heillir! The Shieldmaidens of History (Protecting the Innocent from Anachronisms) welcome you back to our series on the History Channel show Vikings.
We—Lissa Bryan and Sandi Layne—are two historical fiction authors with a serious thing for Vikings.
Follow us on twitter, #ShieldGeeks, where and Lissa and I live-tweet during each episode, as has been our custom since Season One.
Lissa Bryan is a delightful historian as well as being a wonderful writer. Her latest book, Dominion, is a dystopian romance taking place at a time in the not-too-far-distant future.
Sandi: For reasons that will become obvious, I am half-inclined to add “In vino, veritas” to this week’s episode.
Lissa: This episode had a lot of… strange moments for me.
Sandi: Oh, it really did. On some of them I concur, even. Some humor, some pathos, some awkwardness, and some boot soles. It was a strange night.
Lissa: Lagertha is cheered as she walks through Kattegat’s main street toward Aslaug. Aslaug, adorned in her queenly robes, is standing there with the Shiny Sword on her palms. Even the Seer has come out to watch. Aslaug starts out by playing the victim. “How strange, Lagertha, that you should play the usurper. One woman against another.”
Sandi: Even from the initial words, it was plain that his was not the showdown that had been hinted at in previews. History Channel VIKINGS previews are, though, notoriously misleading. Seeing the Seer out of his ritual space was a surprise. He’s taller when he’s upright than one is accustomed to seeing.
Lissa: Lagertha sheathes her sword. “I was never the usurper. Always the usurped.”
Sandi: Now, that’s a lie, really. Lagertha could be said to have usurped her own demesne of Hedeby, back in the day. She provoked her husband into hurting her badly enough in public that she was able to strike him down and usurp his power and authority. This would be well known by each and every one of her listeners, as well. I think that here, she is laying a case for her vengeance in Kattegat alone, by saying she’d been wronged. In public. Which would be the right thing to do in terms of the law.
Lissa: Lagertha says that Aslaug stole her husband, her home, and her happiness. Aslaug retorts that Ragnar wanted to be with her, and Lagertha accuses Aslaug of bewitching him. Aslaug says that women have power over men sometimes, but she didn’t use any magic on him. Aslaug tells Lagertha that Ragnar is dead. Lagertha doesn’t want to believe it. Aslaug tells her she saw it in a dream. Lagertha retorts that she doesn’t KNOW for sure he’s dead. Aslaug doesn’t try to defend her völva powers. She smiles and says that Lagertha may be right. It was only a dream. In any case, Lagertha can have her home back. She will not fight. She’s not her mother, or her father. “I have fulfilled my destiny. The gods foretold Ragnar would have many sons. I have given him those sons. I am as much a part of his saga, Lagertha, as you are.” She tosses the sword at Lagertha’s feet. All she asks is that Lagertha give her safe passage to go wherever she wishes. Her sons, she says, will be grateful to Lagertha for it.
Sandi: I see in their exchange the equivalent of a courtroom proceeding, ending with an abrupt acceptance of the verdict as Aslaug tosses the sword at Lagertha’s feet. And then, we were expecting, perhaps, a cheer or a farewell scenario or something.
Lissa: Lagertha agrees and Aslaug struts away, her lips curved in a triumphant smile.
Lissa: She pauses at the end of the street, and her smile freezes. She starts to tilt forward and we see an arrow protruding from between her shoulder blades. As she falls, we see Lagertha standing behind her with a bow in hand.
Sandi: I confess I was startled that Lagertha had done this herself. When I saw the arrow, I assumed that Lagertha had set up someone on a rooftop as she had done in the battle prior, someone who was ready to handle things if the legal proceedings got ugly. But that’s clearly not how it went down.
Lissa: I was shocked by this. It honestly didn’t seem to be Lagertha’s “style” to give safe passage and then shoot an enemy in the back. Every revenge slaying she’s ever done has been face-to-face and she’s kept her word about it. I could see her killing Aslaug on the spot, or even hunting her down afterward and making her life a misery, but this just didn’t seem “Lagertha” to me.
Sandi: Though I was startled, I was not put off by Lagertha’s action, here. I don’t believe it was the wisest thing she could have done (LagerthAthena she isn’t, apparently, owl companion not withstanding), but I got it. She had waited. She had bided her time. She had arranged her people and provided an appropriate venue, and she took her revenge on the woman who had basically been the impetus for upending her entire life.
That Ragnar is the ultimate guilty party is a given, but Lagertha will always love that man so she took her vengeance on the other woman.
Lissa: Aslaug is given the cinematic version of a Viking funeral – the boats and flaming arrows thing. Here’s where I wish they would have inserted one of those little historical nods and had Aslaug’s interment be the Oseberg ship burial. The chanting was beautiful, though, as the Viking ladies add jewelry and other items to her pyre boat.
Sandi: Notice the absolute lack of horror at Aslaug’s public murder. Notice the apparent acceptance of Lagertha’s actions. This is, as Hirst is showing again, the 9th Century and the world was a different place back then.
Lissa: It was sort of an anti-climactic end to the queen people loved to hate. As I’d mentioned in our podcast, I was hoping they would continue with the Sagas, and Aslaug leading an army to avenge Ragnar’s death (in the Sagas, her sons, but since they didn’t die and Ragnar seems destined to…) I was hoping Aslaug and Lagertha could come to a truce and work together to avenge the man they both loved. What a journey that could have been! But, alas, it shall have to be explored only in fanfic now…
Sandi: Anti-climactic indeed, and a bit disappointing for that. But as you say, there’s always fan fiction! If History Channel had chosen to follow the female lines, this could have been an epic tale, but it is evident that the future story will follow the males and the legends and histories told of them. It is best that the show focus more tightly; exploring everything can be confusing.
Lissa: Ragnar tells the soldiers at the city gates to take him to Ecbert, and they will be rewarded for treating one of his friends well. He is soundly thrashed while Ivar watches. We next see him in a small iron cage, suspended off the ground a few inches. I couldn’t figure out why they’d bother with suspending the cage such a small distance off the ground, and Sandi swooped in to offer the answer:
Sandi: The imprisonment is clearly a petty (and effective) treatment, here. Ragnar’s entire demeanor is quiescent. The beating he received was vastly overdone under the circumstances and the imprisonment unnecessary except as a means to humiliate and unman him.
Lissa: Aethelwulf questions Ragnar, demanding to know where the rest of his men are. Ragnar says he killed them. He asks Aethelwulf to be kind to Ivar and appeals to Aethelwulf as a father himself. Aethelwulf snaps that Ragnar is an animal who deserves to be in a cage.
Sandi: Aethelwulf is suffering from an inferiority complex, and I can’t really blame him. Even beaten, filthy, locked up, and at the mercy of his captors, Ragnar exudes serenity and confidence as to his position. Aethelwulf has never had that kind of personal strength; he’s been held back for too long in his life.
Lissa: Ecbert has Ragnar, and his cage, brought into his hall. He wants to chat. Ragnar pleads to see Ivar, because he doesn’t know if his son is alive or dead. Ecbert nods, and two soldiers carry Ivar in and deposit him in a chair. He’s well-dressed and clean, and has no visible wounds. Ragnar asks him how he is, and Ivar tells him he’s fine. Ecbert offers Ivar some food and says that Ivar is his guest. He orders the soldiers to have Ivar treated well. Ivar is taken from the room. He calls over his shoulder to his father as he is carried away, “Don’t [mess] with them.” (The Viking wording might have been a little rougher, but both of our blogs are PG.) Ecbert asks what Ivar said and Ragnar replies that Ivar said “Thank you.”
Sandi: This was a nice little scene that did a few things. One, it reinforced Ragnar’s purposeful projection of his son being weak and unable to handle himself, which Ragnar is keen on making the public perception as we the viewers are aware. Ivar plays along, but only on the surface, as his native tongue conveys his true feelings. In a non-PG manner. 😉 This father and son are contrasted definitively with Ecbert and Aethelwulf. Ragnar might be the dominant figure, but he respects his son and works with him.
Lissa: Ecbert tells Ragnar that he’s sorry the Wessex settlement was destroyed by Aethelwulf, but it was, of course, done on Ecbert’s orders. He regrets it now. “Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.” But it was part of a much larger, long-term strategy.
Sandi: His sincerity is as ersatz as Splenda® in my coffee. Which is to say, not at all effective or believable in place of the genuine article. And Ecbert knows Ragnar will feel this way (with appropriate, 9th Century equivalents) but he says so regardless because he also knows that Ragnar is a self-confessed corrupt fellow. Just like Ecbert himself. They understand one another so the words can be said for form without belief and, somehow, this works for them as a means of communication.
Lissa: He has Magnus brought in to meet Ragnar. The boy’s eyes are full of wonderment. Magnus tells Ragnar that his mother told him stories of his amazing father, and he can see now that the stories are true. Ragnar tells Magnus that his birth was truly a miracle, since he never had sex with Kwenthrith. After the boy leaves, Ecbert says he always had his doubts about the boy’s paternity. He asks Ragnar why it took him so long to return, and why he’s here now. Ragnar replies with Ecbert’s own words from earlier: it’s part of a larger, long-term strategy. Ecbert cracks up.
Sandi: Well, Magnus certainly looked as if he could have been lo, another Ragnarsson, but no! I wonder if the wonderful Amy Bailey knew that Kwenthrith hadn’t had sex with Ragnar in that memorable, erm, healing scene? I felt dreadful for Magnus here, as he was confronted with a fat lie. Ecbert, unsurprisingly, appears to have not a care in the world for how his charge-to-date might be handling the abrupt disclosure.
Lissa: In Hedeby, Margrethe opens the door to Ubbe and Sigurd’s prison. She tells the boys they need to get back to Kattegat. The boys ride there and find Lagertha sitting in the great hall. She is wearing a red dress with a high black collar that immediately went into our “Boot Sole File” of anachronistic costumes. History Channel… There is just no excuse, man. No excuse.
Sandi: Yeah . . . No. The official title for this episode is An Uncertain Hour Before Morning, and I really feel the “uncertain” refers, in large part, to Lagertha. Or at least our perception of her. I wonder where her character’s arc is heading?
Lissa: They demand to know where their mother is and Lagertha is simple and direct: “I killed her. She took Kattegat from me. I wanted it back.” The boys ask why she didn’t kill them too, and she tells them that it’s not their fault their mother bewitched their father. Ubbe says it was a mistake not killing them. The enraged boys start fighting their way through Lagertha’s guards.
Sandi: One has to believe that Lagertha had known this confrontation was inevitable, hence her utterly calm demeanor as it went on. She had her defenses in place, as it were, from the implacable gaze to the bodyguard. Ubbe taking the lead in the attack, going so far as to shove his younger brother aside, did surprise me. Why not take the extra pair of arms? I think perhaps that Ubbe was just furious and he wanted to be uninhibited, not thinking about the defense of anyone else as he went on the attack.
Lissa: But they’re eventually taken down, and dragged out of the hall, unharmed except for some bruises. They lick their wounds with some mead by the fire. Ubbe wants to attack Lagertha. Go into the hall and finish her off. Sigurd scoffs. Aslaug wouldn’t have done the same for them. Her favorite was Ivar. And Harbard. He reminisces – or rather bitterly recollects – what a fool she made of herself over Harbard. Ubbe says that Lagertha should be made to pay for killing their mother, and Sigurd says Ivar will do it… If he’s still alive. They both heard what Aslaug said about the ship sinking and Ragnar and Ivar being killed. Sigurd laughs at that.
Sandi: This is part of the “in vino, veritas” theme that I found in this episode. Okay, so they’re drinking mead (have I mentioned before that it’s a favorite of mine?), but still. The young men are coming down off the adrenal rush of combat, imbibing alcohol, and they’ve a common enemy. Of course they’re talking rather more freely than usual and of course past experiences color everything. Sigurd carries a grudge against Ivar and his mother, having lived with the inequality of the various mother-son relationships in a more intense way than Ubbe did. He saw what Harbard did to Kattegat as a whole and in his own house in particular. Resentment will linger always, I think, though he knows that Ivar would be better at making anyone pay for wrongs against the family. Ivar has, after all, killed before. But he doesn’t believe his legendary father would die. And he likely believes that if Ragnar lives, so does Ivar.
Lissa: Back in Wessex, Ecbert is justifying himself. He says he’s united all of the small warring kingdoms in England. Which… he didn’t. And using “England” itself is kind of an anachronism, but we’ll just roll with it, because it’s that kind of episode. He tells Ragnar that he’s considered by the people to be the most dangerous man in the world. . He shares some food with the ravenous Ragnar, and some wine, and then unlocks the cage. Ragnar collapses to the floor when he tries to straighten up after several days in such cramped accommodations. It’s a reminder that they’re both older men, beset by bodily infirmity. Ecbert says he has to decide what to do with him. From his position on the floor, Ragnar says that the Seer prophesied he would die on the day that the blind man could see him. That means Ecbert must kill him.
Sandi: More of Ersatz Ecbert, here. Met by Realistic Ragnar. They are older, though, so there’s no invitation to bathe in the communal Roman pool. (Though I really wish Ragnar could get cleaned up a bit!) There’s merely the testing of weapons, verbal only, on the familiar foe.
Lissa: Aethelwulf escorts young Magnus out the gate of the city and hands him a small leather satchel. He tells Magnus it’s time for him to go off and learn to be a man.
Sandi: This scene, to me, is the most heartbreaking and troubling of the whole episode. The young man—boy, really—had been raised by a king, told he was the son of a legendary king, and he was innocent of harsh realities. Soft in feature and manner, his aspect also spoke of elegance of condition. He was a pampered scion. Until he wasn’t. And then he ws kicked out on his own without warning or any preparation whatsoever. This was deplorable, in my view, as the lad had done nothing wrong.
Lissa: Magnus is understandably bewildered. He asks where he’s supposed to go. Athelwulf essentially tells him that’s his job to figure out, and if anyone troubles him, to tell them that he’s Magnus, son of Ragnar Lothbrook, and everything will be fine.
Sandi: Really, I was speechless. My whole mind, as the mother of sons, was occupied with all the many ways in which Magnus could be hurt out there in the 9th Century.
Lissa: Magnus is like a dog dumped beside the road, with the owner blithely saying it will be fine, hunting rabbits and such, and driving away. He stands there sobbing in the rain, clutching his only earthly possessions, wearing clothes on his back worth more than the average highwayman will see in a lifetime.
Kid is frickin’ doomed.
Lissa: Aside from the cruelty of the situation, it doesn’t make much sense. He may not be the son of Ragnar, but he’s the son of Princess Kwenthrith of Mercia, and no one aside from Ecbert knows Ragnar disavowed his parentage. They can say whatever they like. And if they want the kid dead, why not kill him right there? After all, he could later return with an army at his back and press for his birthright from his mother’s line. Stranger things have happened throughout history. (Perkin Warbeck, anyone?)
Sandi: As you say, this makes no sense plot-wise (after all, Magnus was basically a non-entity before, so forgetting about him again in the show would work) or character development-wise unless it’s to show how heartless King Ecbert is. But we already knew that, right?
Lissa: Ragnar and Ecbert are drunk and having an existential debate about religious faith and our purpose here on earth. Ragnar says, in essence, that he’s come to Wessex to die. Ecbert throws up his hands. “You Vikings are incorrigible. You emerge from the womb with only one thing on your mind: How to die!”
Sandi: And here we have the beginning of another “in vino” scene!
Lissa: As we discussed last night, preparing for death was an important aspect of life in both cultures, especially in an era in which death was omnipresent, and could strike for seemingly no reason at all.
Sandi: Basically, it’s true. Ragnar made the point about the Christians being obsessed with death and the afterlife in this time as well, so the men are, once again, on par. Which they knew in advance of this part of the discussion. Their verbal fencing seems endless.
Lissa: The conversation turns to Athelstan, whom both of them loved. Ragnar says that Floki killed him for jealousy’s sake – because Ragnar loved Athelstan more. Ecbert says he, too, felt jealous, when Athelstan chose to leave with Ragnar instead of stay with Ecbert.
Lissa: Ecbert brings in someone special, and he doesn’t need to identify him, because Ragnar instantly recognizes Alfred. The scene is incredibly tender, a moment of genuine emotion so rarely found in movies and television. Ragnar embraces the boy. It was a wholly unexpected kindness that Ecbert would share Alfred with Ragnar, giving him a living glimpse of the man they both loved and lost.
Sandi: I loved this scene. I had real tears and everything. Casting for Alfred was well done; the lad could indeed have sprung from Athelstan and Judith. We don’t know what the future Great King might have thought, for this moment was—unlike Magnus’s—not for his benefit. It was all for Ragnar.
Lissa: That night, Ragnar sits at the foot of his bed sleepless and we see visions of the sunlight sparkling on waves. Ecbert, too, is sleepless, kneeling before an altar and quoting Ecclesiastes. The King James Version, I might add. History Channel… We need to talk.
Sandi: I am wondering if the intent was not to have him quoting the KJV but a Latin translation from the Greek—which would have come from the Hebrew, in all likelihood. It would have been far less of a History Channel faux pas if they had had Ecbert at least begin quoting in Latin, transitioning to English for those of us who watch VIKINGS in that language.
Lissa: Ubbe and Sigurd wake up, probably with severe hangovers, and see Joan Jett perched on the edge of the bed they didn’t sleep in. She’s perky and resplendent in a gorgeously woven tunic. She tells them if they harm a hair on Lagertha’s head, they’re dead men. Ubbe replies that if they don’t fear Lagertha, why would they fear her? Joan Jett smiles slightly and flounces out.
Sandi: I’m still trying to get a handle on Joan Jett, here. Lagertha certainly hasn’t demonstrated a need for a bodyguard, but it seems Joan Jett is thus appointed. Her woven garment was indeed intricate and well made, but I took exception to the extraneous fabric on her left arm. It served no purpose other than for show, unless Joan Jett was trying to make an impression on Ubbe and Sigurd beyond the threat of violence.
Lissa: Ecbert tells Ragnar that he can’t kill him. He can’t let him live, but he can’t kill him, either. He just can’t. Ragnar suggests that Ecbert hand him over to Aella, and “wash his hands” of Ragnar’s death. More Christian anachronisms in my Vikings. Ragnar tells Ecbert to send Ivar home with a message for Ragnar’s other sons: that Ecbert did everything he could to stop Aella from harming Ragnar. Then the boys will focus their vengeance on Aella. You can see the wheels turning in Ecbert’s brain. What a lovely, convenient way to destroy Aella, and get rid of Ragnar, too.
Sandi: There is also a reference to lung ripping, and I am reminded that in legend, Ivar performs a blood eagle on Aelle. We discussed it a bit on the podcast we did with the awesome folks at No Ship Network. And Ragnar did use what we see as a Christian reference but the washing of the hands would have been a Jewish phrase in its initial use and, it is possible that Athelstan had used the phrase in the time that Ragnar had known him, so I’m leaning toward Ragnar’s using the phrase on purpose. Part of a larger, long-term strategy.
Lissa: He leans forward and says to Ecbert, “Do not be afraid.”
Sandi: And if we’re thinking of Christian phrases used out of place, this might be another one. Almost whenever an angel appears to people in the Bible, the angel says, “Do not be afraid.” This is often a harbinger for news from on high, but here . . .why does Ragnar say this? His aspect as seen below is hardly angelic.
Season’s Greetings to all!
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Heill þú farir, heill þú aftr komir, heill þú á sinnum sér!
Hale go forth, hale return, hale on your ways! – Vafþrúðnismál 4