Heillir! And we're back! The Shieldmaidens of History—protecting the innocents from anachronisms—welcome you to our ongoing, avid, and sometimes snarky discussions of History Channel's VIKINGS.
Lissa Bryan is a noteworthy author and historian who takes a delight in finding the real truths of history. Check out her website at www.lissabryan.com.
“100% more evisceration talk than expected.”
“These chicks are machines!”
- Steve, No Ship Network
(CHECK THEM OUT FOR THEIR PODCASTED RECAPS AND FEEDBACK ‘CASTS! AND YES, WE DID ONE, TOO!)
Lissa: Aaaaaand we’re back! Tonight, Vikings had their two-hour premier and I started off the episode with painful technical difficulties, so Sandi will have to describe the first ten minutes or so.
Sandi: *takes the mic* Thanks, Lissa! There was also a recap before the episode in the form of a dialogue/flashback series called The Saga of Lagertha, for those who could use a refresher on what happened over the past seasons.
We opened with a funeral. In the final episode last season, Ivar murdered his brother Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye in a departure from history. It is entirely appropriate, I think, to begin with this link to that event. A somber gathering surrounded a burial site where the rough outline of a boat was made with rocks thrust into the earth. Such a site is discussed on DanishNet here. Such a burial—as compared to a pyre—indicated wealth or the status of the deceased. Weapons and goods were included in the notional boat as it was outlined on dry land, and Sigurd was treated with all honor. It was interesting to note the varying emotions displayed by those in attendance of the funeral. Ivar actually had a tear on his cheek.
It was, for the record, Lissa, a great relief when your technical difficulties resolved themselves!
Lissa: When I joined in, Heahmund was finishing a Latin funeral rite. Afterwards, it was discussed that Vikings don’t really have the land grant they thought they had – Ecbert had surrendered the throne to Aethelwulf before he signed the grant, making it effectively worthless. You can’t give away what you don’t own, after all. Ragnar would have been most amused by Ecbert’s final trick.
Sandi: King Ecbert (a.k.a. Cream of Wheat by the folks at No Ship Network)) had that all planned out before his chosen end last season. He may not have seemed to have faith in his son Aethelwulf, but he did a good thing, there, in safeguarding his kingdom under his successor. Ecbert never "gave" anything away save perhaps his breath—and that he drew back again.
Lissa: We next see Judith tending to a sickly Albert. She puts leeches on him in an effort to draw out the illness, but in a conversation with Aethelwulf, she reveals that she despairs of his life. They’re living in a sad little hut in a swamp.
Sandi: What I particularly liked about this was how they rallied, for the most part Aethelwulf kept up the business of being king, Judith of being a distraught mom, and Alfred—far from dying—is treated. Not that I am fan of leeches, but they are used even by some today to good effect for some conditions. And note that even in such circumstances, Judith's devotion to hiding her mutilated ear remains constant. (Yeah, I know it's all about how she actually doesn't have a mutilated anything, but go with it, right?)
Lissa: We rejoin our Heathen Army to find Floki packing up a ship to leave. He says he’s going to go wherever the gods lead him as he packs a raven in a crate aboard. As he rows down the river, people line the banks to chant his name.
Sandi: This was such an excellent scene, I think. We get to see Floki row, row, row his boat and all that is missing are the pompoms. The best shipwright in Scandinavia now is taking on the challenge of solo sea navigation. This speaks both to his confidence as well, perhaps, as to his state of mind. He has nothing, he's told Ivar. Without his beloved Helga, he feels as if there is no anchor for his spirit so he seeks to fly. Or, you know, row. His leave-takings are perfect, especially the moments with Ivar. They have had a special bond since they were introduced, really, and it's hard for both of them to be apart.
(In an aside, I recommend watching the IMDb featurette on Gustaf Skarsgård!)
Lissa: Heahmund prays, prostrate on the stone, his arms spread out for the Great Heathen Army to be driven back into the sea.
Sandi: A vastly uncomfortable position, as I said last night. It is interesting perhaps to note that Heahmund, while a man of God, is not entirely humble in this humbling posture. But, neither has he lived a life of entire self-abnegation, either, as we saw last season.
Lissa: The heathens, meanwhile, are discussing their next moves. Ubbe wants them to diversify. He says their dad would want them to be more than raiders, and he wants to farm a bit. His brothers, on the other hand, have more martial goals. Their next move is going to be to capture a town called York, where they can use its stone walls as a fortress.
Sandi: Ah, we do like our Domesticated Viking, Ubbe. His characterization in this show has been consistent. He's the eldest of Queen Aslaug's sons, and he has always rather watched over the others, and tried to do his best for their entire stability, not just military might. Even though it is not what he thinks might be ideal for his people, he goes along with the will of the majority. York it is. York will, of course, be a place of great contention over the next several centuries.
Lissa: In his ship, Floki looks down at a sunstone in his hand and then tosses it into the sea. He’s trusting his fate, and the direction of his vessel, to the gods entirely. He certainly didn’t pack much in the way of provisions.
Sandi: Tossing the sunstone does seem to be a bit overboard (sorry, sorry) for Floki, here. It is a connection, always, to his friend and leader, Ragnar Lo∂brok. And it is a useful device for what he is about. But he does consign himself to fate. Self-confidence? Fatalism? Both?
Lissa: Heahmund has a strange scene with a woman whom he finds praying in his church. He offers her communion, but the Latin he speaks over her did not seem to be the words of the mass. I’m still looking for a translation online. We see him a bit later in a thicket of thorns, praying aloud.
Sandi: Heahmund is tempted by many things. Putting himself in a thorny thicket has to be an act of penance, for he is also a man with a conscience. Mortification of the flesh is these days often more confined to fasting or praying on one's knees for extended periods of time. It is a highly individual thing.
Lissa: The Ragnarssons raid a chapel. They slaughter the worshippers, but Ubbe is very unenthusiastic about it. He encounters a nun (dressed in a very anachronistic habit, I must say) who has slit her wrists, rather than fall into Viking hands. He catches her as she falls and gently lowers her to the floor as she dies. On the other side of the room, Ivar takes a priest’s cross and melts it down to pour into the man’s mouth as two of his friends hold it open. He laughs with glee afterward.
Sandi: The nun's habit was, of course, a sign of her purity. Whether it was meant to be her own choice ("I'll choose this habit to show my status; perhaps they will have mercy on me!") or merely a directorial signpost for the moment, it. . .didn't work for the character.
Ivar's actions were appalling, frankly. Like horror-movie-esque for me. Now, an interesting note on what he did came from our twitter friend @SagaThingPod.
Lissa: You and I both noted that it would have been a very expensive death when there was plenty of pewter or other methods available that didn’t waste precious gold. I know that Floki taught him to hate Christians, but it seemed over-the-top.
Sandi: It really was. But we are also, as an audience, given a direct comparison between Ubbe's deathbedside manner and Ivar's gleeful vengeance. And it is Ivar whom history remembers.
Lissa: We see Torvi training swordfighting with a young man. It turns out to be Björn’s son, who’s in his late teens or early 20s. They hear a horn signaling boats, and it’s King Harald returned to Kattegat. When Harald enters the hall, he finds an ageless Lagertha lounging in her throne. She’s wearing an odd red dress over what seems like a skin-tight black leather under-dress, or somesuch combination. Her costumes have traveled far away from the absolutely wonderful outfits of the first season. I know they intend her costumes to portray her wealth and power and appear stylish to the modern eye, but I really miss the days when we drooled over period fabrics and beautiful weave patterns.
Sandi: Here we had a big Scene Shift. It is a much healthier and less horrifying prospect to watch warriors in training rather than committing atrocities. And then seeing Harald was . . . interesting. Initially confident, a proposal in one hand and a bit of condescension for garnish, he certainly made an entrance.
I do have problems with the costuming department and Lagertha and the Girls. Yeah. As you do. Katheryn Winnick looks amazing in homespun (really, she's gorgeous in basically anything) and her presence onscreen isn't disputed in the least. There are so many ways she could be shown as powerful and wealthy and confident without the anachronistic leatherwork.
Lissa: Harald admits to her that he thought The Bastard would have killed her and would now be keeping the throne warm for him. Lagertha has him arrested and chained to a post in a longhouse. She goes to visit him, and this time, her green dress is much more in tune with period designs, but you quickly forget what she’s wearing. She asks Harald what he wants and he tells her he had proposed to the woman he loved, and she’d told him she’d marry him if he was the King of All Norway. Once he was a king, he went back for her and found her already married to an earl. He killed her, and now he has nothing in this world to live for, save that ambition to be king of all. He proposes marriage to Lagertha.
Sandi: You know, you have to give the man credit for sheer chutzpah. Wounded, bound, at a definite disadvantage, he retains his aspirational arrogance here. "Yeah, so, you're not my first choice, babe, but you're a good substitute now that My One True Love is, like, dead."
Lissa: She doesn’t accept or refuse. She cuts open his pants, hikes up her skirt, and uses him for her pleasure, hopping off once she’s satisfied and leaving him groaning in frustration. Later, she tells Torvi and Astrid of his proposal, and when Astrid questions the wisdom of leaving him alive, Lagertha snaps at her that she can make her own decisions. Astrid gets up from the table and leaves… only to be captured by Harald’s men and carried on to his ship where he’s waiting for them to sail away. Don’t these people have guards? Or keep an eye on their only docks? You’d think a thriving trade port would, ya know, wanna keep an eye on that…
Sandi: Another series fan, @DeeDonuts, stated that this scene was really non-consensual.
And you, Lissa, reminded us that this is a very "Viking" kind of thing. "She took her pleasure from him and left him..."
Lissa: We return to Alfred, Judith, and Aethelwulf in the swamp. Judith says she doesn’t think the boy is long for this world, at which point both seem to notice he’s not in the room and go looking for him. Alfred is wading through the swamp in water up to his knees, wearing a white gown, following a vision of his father in a monk’s cowl. Alfred pitches headlong into the water, Frodo-style, and Aethelwulf jumps in to save him. When Alfred comes to, he says they need to go to York; his ghost-father told him to do so.
Sandi: We have here (once again) a dip into the Christological. Alfred is (to us, anyway) already a "Great" and his father is herein seen to be a vision to follow. Alfred's wearing white and is acting in obedience and, it might even be conjectured, subject to an immersive experience.
Lissa: Harald cuts Astrid’s gag and the ropes from her hands. He tells her that he doesn’t think Lagertha will survive long as queen. Dude… She’s been queen for, like 20 years at this point, but okay. He says he’s going to take Kattegat as part of his own kingdom and he will need sons. He proposes Astrid be his queen. She’s not impressed by the offer.
Sandi: This might be where we started discussing Lagertha's age . . . Granted, Michael Hirst has not followed a strict historical chronology, but Lagertha should be in her 50's, we think, at this point. A woman of power and substance, but not eternal youth, surely. Ragnar certainly aged, yeah? It isn't as if the Powers That Be don't know how to do a good job, here.
Lissa: Floki is drenched in a rainstorm on his ship. He opens the raven’s cage and tosses the bird up into the air, shouting for it not to return. He sings songs while he sips rain falling from the sky.
Sandi: This is kind of a throwback to Floki of the earlier seasons. A bit "tetched", perhaps, and communing with nature in all her forms.
Lissa: In Kattegat, Lagertha is looking out over the sea as they discuss Harald’s escape and kidnapping of Astrid. They pretty much write her off as gone. Lagertha knows Harald will return, but what part Astrid has to play, she does not know. Torvi says Astrid will be part of no man’s plans, but Lagertha counters that she’s old enough to know that plans change. The women later wonder if Lagertha is losing her edge.
Sandi: And here, we were all "Where do YOU get off, little girl?" The servant is getting far above her station, here. Torvi has experience and substance in comparison. She's been proven in many ways. Why is the younger woman in such an evident advisory place?
Lissa: When Harald talks to Astrid again, he proposes the idea that it might have been fate which brought her onto his vessel, and Astrid seems to consider the idea.
Sandi: So is he wanting to use Astrid in a hostile takeover bid or what? (Bonus points for those who catch that reference. Disney movies are apparently on my mind...)
Lissa: Judith and Aethelwulf and young Alfred the Gr- (wait, shouldn’t use that title yet. SPOILERS! SPOILERS) Alfred the Kid, meet up with Heahmund, who is planning an assault to take back York. They say the Vikings have shored up the city’s defenses but Heahmund knows of a weakness.
Sandi: The business dinner (what else do you call it?) with the House of Ecbert, er, ruling family of Wessex and the Bishop of Thorns, er, Bishop Heahmund, was big on conversation but not so much on filial respect.
Lissa: Floki wakes to find his ship has beached itself. He rolls out of the six inches of water on the floor of the ship onto the sand and crawls forward to sip water off a rock. Dude, you didn’t fill your kegs during the deluge? In any case, he wraps himself in a fur that is strangely dry, given how soaked the contents of his boat are, and wraps his shivering form in it as he lays down in front of a fire. We later see him explore the island, spotting a volcano in the distance, and coming upon a gorgeous waterfall. He whispers an Old Norse prayer of thankfulness, and falls to his knees in front of the waterfall. He has a vision of the water flowing up the falls in reverse and laughs with joy, saying he must be in Asgard.
Sandi: This was beautiful. Floki, all by himself, made it. Without a sunstone. In dire circumstances. His faith in Fate or his gods was, for him, justified with the green grass upon which he lay his head.
We end the episode with The Ivarnator. Ivar gets legs, after a fashion, and is able to look his brothers in the eye. What an experience for all of them. He is quite intimidating. I hope that, for actor Alex Høgh Andersen's sake anyway, he will get to move around in an upright manner from here on. His expression makes it clear that Ivar intends to be much more dangerous in the coming times.
If you’re looking for incisive comments, please check out ProjectFandom. @DeeDonuts on twitter is the Shield Maiden with the sword, there, and she always has sharp things to say!
Heill þú farir, heill þú aftr komir, heill þú á sinnum sér!
Hale go forth, hale return, hale on your ways!
– Vafþrúðnismál 4