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Vikings 3, Episode IX: BREAKING POINT

A king is for glory, not for long life. Old Viking saying.

The final image of the previous episode, ‘TO THE GATE’, is of a badly injured Ragnar vowing to conquer Paris. In this episode, the first image is, again, of a badly injured Ragnar, one of many wounded among his shattered followers. The final image that we will see at the end of this episode will be of Ragnar yet again, as is often the case now that I think about it. This time his face is glowing with – what? Rapture? Expectation? As always, we are left with questions.

And I am reminded – thank you Michael Hirst – that, more than anything else, this is Ragnar’s Story. This is the tale of a warrior, of an ambitious man who sought to do spectacular things so that his name would be remembered after his death. And he accomplished this goal. His sons would be referred to in the histories as ‘the Sons of Ragnar Lothbrok’ probably more often than by their own names. So although Hirst has given us many intriguing characters pulled from the pages of history and saga, Ragnar has always, for good or ill, been the central figure. And he continues to be.

The title of this episode, ‘THE BREAKING POINT’, of course refers to Paris, the city under siege. But there is an underlying theme here, and another kind of breaking point specific to Ragnar: his inner turmoil regarding the gods comes to a head in this episode. More on that later.

The Vikings’ second attack on Paris this week displays the battle strategy used by Viking armies again and again.

The strategy was based on the actions of the wily Odin, god of deceit and trickery, and involved surprise, night-time assaults, cunning and deception. Viking armies avoided frontal attacks whenever possible and instead relied on rapid, strategic strikes. (Not always, of course. The siege of Paris in 886 lasted an entire year!) They used informers, spies and captives to get useful information about the enemy, and we see that this week as well. Supposedly, Ragnar had 120 ships when he attacked Paris in 845, and certainly the Viking numbers played a role here in bringing the Franks to the bargaining table.

Paddy Griffith, in his book The Viking Art of War, writes that Viking armies were made up of men who were strong, tough, well-armed and mean. That pretty much describes any 9th century warrior. And in this series the Frankish princess Gisela portrays a noble woman who, while she may not be armed, is just as strong, tough and mean as any of the men around her. Lest we forget, the 9th century was not a gentle time.

Meanwhile, over in Kattegat the theme of conflict between the gods is played out somewhat bizarrely between Queen Aslaug and a Christian missionary. An ordeal involving clutching an iron rod that’s been heated in a forge reflects similar trials carried out throughout the Middle Ages, and reminds us that Aslaug, too, is strong, tough and mean.

In Wessex King Ecbert is spouting gibberish to Judith who remains singularly unimpressed. She has his number now, and she is no longer a deer in the headlights. She accepts his quid pro quo, but only after she forces him to spell it out: I want you for my mistress. In return, she and Alfred will receive Ecbert’s protection from the self-righteous Aethelwulf.

I am not happy with how the character of Ecbert has evolved into a sexual predator, but thinking back over the earlier seasons I can see that Hirst has been hinting at this. It certainly adds some sexual titillation to the drama, and perhaps he is attempting to show the propensity of Anglo-Saxon kings (and their sons) to form sexual liaisons with any number of women. He may also be reinforcing the idea that marriage in this era was a political act. Romance, affection, passion had nothing to do with it, and a bed partner or wife could be cast aside with impunity.

Ecbert, though, has my vote for the best line in this episode. Addressing his son he says, What I intend to pass on to you is not only the kingship of Wessex, but the kingship of England.

Don’t forget that in his youth, Ecbert was forced to flee England, and he spent several years at Charlemagne’s court. No doubt that was where Hirst’s Ecbert formed his penchant for bathing and for multiple sexual partners (Charlemagne had a lavish bathing complex at Aachen and went through 5 wives). But Ecbert would also have witnessed the glamour of empire, and certainly, when he returned to England to claim the throne of Wessex, he set about establishing Wessex as the dominant power in southern Britain and himself as overlord of Mercia and East Anglia. Ecbert was, indeed, ambitious. I just wish Hirst hadn’t made him quite so smarmy in recent episodes.

And now, back to Ragnar. Ragnar is ailing all through this episode. In fevered dreams he sees Odin, Athelstan, and Christ. He begs, Don’t abandon me, and we do not know to whom he is speaking. He dreams that he is face down in a pool of blood not his own (no surprise there). But when a request for parley arrives from the Franks he asserts himself as war leader and king and, tricksy as Odin, he slips away to meet them with only an interpreter as companion. That leads us to the final scene, when Floki, Lagertha, and Rollo arrive in time to witness with distress and consternation a newly baptized Ragnar, his face glowing with we-are-not sure-what.

Note: If you have not yet done so, do take a look at some of the videos on the History Channel website. I highly recommend all of them, but in particular the 3 minute ‘Filming the Battle Scenes’ and the 7 minute ‘Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok’.

Until next week, and the final episode….

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