Near the end of the previous episode, Ragnar’s men were dragging their boats across country to circumvent Paris. At the beginning of this episode they’re still at it, and they will be at it for the next 55 minutes in our time. In 9th century time it would probably have taken weeks. And the sound of axes on wood permeates every Viking scene in this episode. That’s appropriate because “The close examination of the wood used in Viking ships indicates that the axe was by far the most important of the shipwright’s tools.” From Viking Longship by Keith Durham
Yet not everyone is swinging an axe. The sinister newcomers Harald and Halfdan lead a foray into a Frankish farmhold, murdering and raping to remind us that Vikings did those things. You may remember that Ragnar’s adventures back in Season One began with pillage and murder.
For me, the most significant scenes in this episode took place in Rome and were juxtaposed with scenes in Winchester: the crowning of Alfred and of Ecbert.
I loved how it was done, shifting back and forth between the two ceremonies while the satisfied smiles of Ecbert and Alfred mirrored each other.
The timeline, though – as I’ve pointed out many times – is skewed. Ecbert was long dead (d.839) by the time Alfred made his first journey to Rome in 853. Alfred went to Rome again in 855 when he was 7, this time with his dad. On the way home Æthelwulf married Judith, the daughter of the Frankish King Charles (NOT, as she is presented in this series, the daughter of Aella, or the one-time mistress of Athelstan, or the mother of Alfred, or the mistress of King Ecbert, or a ringer for Lady Macbeth. Sorry. I’m still a little sore about Judith.)
Here, Alfred’s two journeys to Rome have been combined into one. Rome itself is still something of a mess, having been plundered by Goths and Vandals centuries before, but although we see broken statues and beggars in the streets, the Vatican interiors look pretty impressive and the churchmen are well-heeled. And that’s probably a good approximation of 9th century Rome.
I did wonder just a wee bit about Æthelwulf, who gazes proudly at this child (and what an adorable child he is!). Perhaps Mr. Hirst is hoping that viewers will have forgotten that this boy who is getting so much attention from the pope is not Æthelwulf’s son; that Æthelwulf’s real son, the older boy Æthelred, has been left behind in Winchester. Hirst seems to be ignoring this little twitch in his made-up story line, hoping we’ll forget this Alfred’s illegitimacy, (I haven’t), and focusing instead on what Asser says about the historical Alfred, that Æthelwulf loved him more than his other sons.
In Winchester King Aelle is not happy about Ecbert’s new crown. Indeed, he looks like he’s been sucking lemons. He complains that Ecbert has betrayed him; that they were supposed to divide Mercia between them. Ecbert tells Aelle to stuff it, but he shouldn’t be too smug. Historically he only held Mercia for one year before Wiglaf (who handed Mercia to Ecbert a couple of episodes ago) won it back.
Over in Paris Hirst seems to be adding subtext to the already bizarre personality of the emperor via a lascivious relationship with Therese and Roland, and making a not very subtle commentary on the moral laxity of the Frankish court. He contrasts Charles’ sexual adventures with Gisla’s denial of conjugal rights to Rollo, now that she’s pregnant. Per strict Christian precepts, the sole purpose of intercourse was procreation, so once a woman was pregnant, intimacy between husband and wife was to be avoided. If Rollo knew what was happening in the emperor’s bed, he’d be even more annoyed than he already is.
In Kattegat Aslaug is drinking away her sorrow over Halbard’s defection and sinking further into her toxic relationship with her youngest son, Ivar. (And by the way, the child actors in this show are marvelous.) She waves away the drowning death of Bjorn’s little girl, and we have to wonder if there can be any redemption for Aslaug.
Back at the Viking camp, the portaging continues while Floki has another vision, the sub-plot of Bjorn/Torvi/Erlandur plays out to its logical conclusion, and Lagertha’s pregnancy comes to an abrupt end. As Lagertha mourns her loss, a look comes over her – something is happening behind her eyes. We don’t know what it means yet, but the tableau of Lagertha facing the camera with Ragnar and Bjorn on either side of her, facing away, is telling us something.
The episode ends with Ragnar still sick and hallucinatory, with Paris in sight, with the ships on the river at last, and with a mid-season finale just ahead.