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VIKINGS 3, Episode 1: Mercenary

The Vikings are back with a vengeance! There are new plots afoot in every part of the Viking-Saxon world, and writer Michael Hirst has promised that we’re going to France, so grab hold of the gunwale and get ready for a wild ride.

Although the title of this first episode is “Mercenary” the theme seems to be man’s struggle between his yearning for peace and his desire for adventure and excitement. First thing on the agenda is Ragnar’s determination to return to Wessex and take King Ecbert up on his offer of arable land for farming.

In Hedeby Lagertha, shield-maiden and earl, appears at first to be the very picture of Viking role reversal. There were no shield-maidens (that I know of) in the sagas. There were, though, women who managed farms and the people on them. There were also women who accompanied their men to distant lands (Iceland, Vinland) in search of better lives, and in this episode, at any rate, Lagertha is taking on that role. She is leaving her Hedeby steading in the hands of Kalf, a man she trusts. Of course, it is only a matter of time until he betrays her. (Betrayal must be Michael Hirst’s middle name.)

Meanwhile, in Kattegat, Bjorn has an awesome new hair-do and a pregnant, shield-maiden sweetheart who is every bit as stubborn and fierce as Lagertha. Like Lagertha, Porunn is eager to take ship for the planned voyage to Wessex, and he is unable to persuade her to stay behind. He, of course, is young, virile, eager for adventure, eager not for farming, but for battle. Why? His father asks him. For power, Bjorn replies, giving King Ragnar the opening for the best lines in the episode:

Power is always dangerous. It attracts the worst and corrupts the best. Power is only given to those who are prepared to lower themselves to pick it up.

Meantime, Ragnar’s passion for Aslaug seems to be cooling. I wonder if we are being set up. Is there a new love interest in Ragnar’s future? Or are these the seeds of some other kind of betrayal?

Floki – the trickster – is eager to return to Wessex as well. He is feeling trapped by fatherhood, and his poor wife, Helga, has no more luck at figuring out his mercurial moods than we have. Floki is a wild card. We never know what he’s going to do next.

It is at exactly 27 minutes into the episode when my man King Ecbert finally comes on the scene. What took you so long???? Be still my heart!

But wait! He is flanked by two dark-haired beauties, and it takes me a moment to determine that we’ve seen them before. One is Judith – his son’s wife who seems to be quite taken with Athelstan. (I smell a new plot line here.) The other is that she-wolf Kwenthryth who wore Ecbert out in bed last season and is still looking for an army to vanquish her uncle and brother. Apparently she’s lost the last batch of Vikings that Ragnar gave her. (See last year’s recap for background on the Real Kwenthryth and her family history).

There is a feast in Ecbert’s hall. There is a great deal of Old English bandied about which must make my friends in the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists giddy with delight. There is a plan agreed to between King Ecbert and King Ragnar, with Ragnar and company agreeing to fight Kwenthryth’s uncle and brother. So why do I feel as if nobody is happy about it, that there is enormous tension in that hall, and that nobody trusts anybody else? Because this script is written by Michael Betrayal Hirst, that’s why.

After the feast, Ragnar and his men take to their ships to go attack the Mercians while King Ecbert plays the role of realtor, attaching himself to Athelstan and Lagertha in order to show them the 5000 acres he’s promised them. (Actually, the Anglo-Saxons didn’t measure land in acres. They measured it in hides, the definition of which changed over time. A hide was, at first, equivalent to the land farmed by a single family. By the 11th century a hide might support 4 families. To be a thegn, one had to own at least 5 hides of land.) Right. To continue: As Lagertha, Athelstan and Ecbert are bouncing along on their wain, the king is speaking in Old English, Lagertha is speaking in Danish, Athelstan is translating for them, and we’re seeing the modern English on our screens. Ecbert, it seems, is smitten by Lagertha. “She is unlike any woman I have ever met. I’m infatuated by her! She is incredible!” There’s more, but you get the idea. He waxes eloquent. Athelstan’s translation in Danish to Lagertha is somewhat less inspired: “He likes you.”

And now we come to the only scene that stuck in my craw. I’m not going to gripe about the storyline, which is pretty much fictional. Hirst is using names of real Mercian rulers – Berhtwulf, Burgred – and a vaguely accurate time frame, but he’s telling a story, not recounting history. I’m okay with that. (History: Mercian king Beornwulf invaded Wessex, and in 825 King Ecbert vanquished him at the Battle of Ellandun.) No, what bothered me was the idiotic sight of the Anglo-Saxons splitting their forces on either side of a wide river and waiting for the Viking fleet to arrive. Really? We’re supposed to believe that the Mercians were so stupid that they expected the Vikings to split their force in half instead of simply ignoring the larger army on one side of the river and attacking the smaller one? It annoys me when the Anglo-Saxons are portrayed as dolts.

Okay, with that single gripe behind me, allow me to give a hearty two thumbs up to this first episode of Season 3. Bring on Episode 2 and please – more King Ecbert!

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