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VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 14: THE UNCERTAIN HOUR BEFORE THE MORNING

Vikings4mThe action this week swings between Kattegat and Wessex, and the face-offs between Lagertha/Aslaug and Ragnar/Ecbert that we have all been eagerly anticipating. Kudos to the actors, whose expressions convey a wide range of emotions – doubt, fear, anxiety, understanding, astonishment, suspicion. For a show that glories in sweeping battle scenes, this episode is dialogue-rich and intimately emotional.

It begins with Ragnar’s wives – women whom he has loved, who have borne him children, and who have assumed, each in her own way, power over her followers. There is a great deal of uncertainty in their meeting, reflecting the title of the episode. Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland) claims that Ragnar is dead. Unsettled, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) questions her ‘sight’, and Aslaug confesses that she cannot be sure. The grievance between them revolves around Ragnar, and writer Hirst uses it to explore the limits of Viking age female power. Lagertha seems to be stepping into the role of the ruthless early medieval warlord; Aslaug, despite her heritage and mystical abilities, claims that her true destiny was to bear Ragnar’s sons. Their dialogue implies that it was not their own decisions that led them to this moment, but Ragnar’s decision to choose between them – which is too bad. I expected more from Hirst. He created two powerful women – probably more powerful than they could actually have been in that period – but he didn’t go deep enough into their minds in this scene to suit me. The resolution, when it came, was so unexpected and abrupt that I felt cheated. It was over and done in maybe five minutes, while the resolution of the conflict between Ragnar and Ecbert would go on for most of the episode. Lagertha and Aslaug deserved far better. In particular, I needed more exposition for Lagertha’s actions. Hirst, though, saved all the good stuff for the men.

And it was really good.

King Ecbert (Linus Roache) is not at Winchester when Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) and Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen) arrive so they are delivered into the hands of Æthelwulf (Moe Dunford) who gets more unlikable with every episode. This time around he gets to enjoy seeing Ragnar beaten and caged, and he gets to toss Magnus, the adolescent son of the woman he supposedly loved, out into the wilderness alone. Into the rain yet.

4-14-magnus1
Æthelwulf has no cunning. He’s simply a thug. And is this the last that we will see of Magnus (Cameron Hogan)? Or is he a character – purely fictional as far as I can tell – that Hirst intends to use later on?

But back to Ecbert and Ragnar. When they meet, Ragnar is caged like an animal, and Ecbert treats him warily, clearly afraid of what Ragnar might do if he is set free. Because we’ve actually seen Ragnar rise from the dead last season, we are as wary as Ecbert. But Ecbert sets about taming this wild monster – setting food before him, ordering that Ivar be brought in to assure Ragnar that his son is safe and well cared-for, even confessing that he ordered the massacre of Ragnar’s Danish settlement and apologizing for that act.

It was part of a larger and bolder strategy, he says. And we know that he means the conquest of Mercia, part of his effort to form a united ‘Englalond’. Their conversation is wide-ranging. To begin, Ragnar claims that Magnus is not his son. But is Ragnar lying to protect Magnus, as he will lie to protect Ivar? And is Magnus the real reason that Ragnar has returned to Wessex? We are uncertain. (See episode title.) But some truths are agreed upon. (Ecbert to Ragnar: You are the most dangerous man on earth; Ragnar to Ecbert: You like power don’t you). And even though it is Ragnar who is in the cage, it is Ecbert who seems trapped. What do you want me to say? he asks. And the answer comes back, The truth. Although we already know that both these men are kind of allergic to the truth.

But the king breaks out the wine because In vino veritas, and Linus Roache gives a fantastic performance here as he taunts Ragnar with the key to his cage, uncertain whether this monster is tame enough to let it lose. He approaches Ragnar, key in hand while the caged and cagey Ragnar toys with him – Are you sure? – and we don’t know which of them is the cat and which the mouse.

Ragnar, though, came to Wessex to die. I’m fated to die the day the blind man sees. Remember those words. First, though, they have much to talk about. They argue about life and death and the gods, and Ragnar even questions the existence of any god at all. Which is when Ecbert quietly says that Athelstan was a godly man. And now the conversation turns on love and guilt and Athelstan’s fate, which is the fate of all men, and why Ragnar has come to Wessex. Twice he says to Ecbert, You have to kill me.

Then we are in the hall and the two kings are seated on thrones where we have seen them before, equals, side by side.

4-14-ragnarecbert1Now they are old, and in what seems like a farewell gift from Ecbert to Ragnar, Judith enters with Alfred who looks like an adolescent Athelstan and Ragnar, moved, knows immediately who he is.

4-14-athelstan1In terms of historical impossibility, this scene is off the charts. But Hirst is tying up all the threads he’s left hanging from the first four seasons, clearing the decks for future story lines with the new generation.

This impossible scene is followed by Ecbert praying alone, not in Old English which is what he would have known, but in the beautiful language of the King James Bible: I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. It’s Ecclesiastes 1:14-18, and concludes with the line, For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. Meantime Ragnar is seated alone, thinking his Viking thoughts which Hirst expresses through images of the vast, eternal sea. What an eloquent way to portray the reflections of these two men as they contemplate the end of their days.

In the final scene, both men admit that Ragnar must die, but Ecbert is unwilling to kill him, not least because, as Ragnar points out, the sons of Ragnar will seek revenge. It’s Ragnar who suggests that he be turned over to Ælla, and that poor, crippled Ivar, who is no threat at all, (hah!) be sent to Kattegat with word that Ecbert is the good guy, and they must take out their vengeance further north, on Ælla.

How much of this is a ploy on Ragnar’s part? Do we trust him? Does Ecbert trust him? We are, as the title of this episode suggests, uncertain. Ecbert prays for guidance and Ragnar clasps his hand with the very unreassuring assurance, Don’t be afraid.

Photos of Vikings © The History Channel

 

 

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6 Responses to VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 14: THE UNCERTAIN HOUR BEFORE THE MORNING

  1. Patricia Mayhew says:

    Oh the parallels between the courts scenes and the Biblical story of the night trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and then Pilot! Ragnar even tells Ecbert he can was his hands of him and be innocent of his death! He wants the truth, as Pilot askedJesus “What is truth?” Amazing scene!
    The really anachronistic part is how Hirst writes his own cynical atheism into Ragnar. We know from some interviews that Hirst is a fan of John Lennon and I am angry he is using Ragnar, a Dark Age Pagan to espouse Hirst’s own view ala Imagine the son by Lennon, ” Imagine there’s no heaven, imagine there’s no Hel…that’s the attitude we hear coming from .Ragnar’s mouth! But in the new Trailer for next week we catch a quick glimpse of Athelstan’s cross. We don’t see who is holding it, has Ragnar kept it hidden away until now? I personally wish we get a sign from Saint Athelstan welcoming .RAGNAR with love as he dies next week. I hope Ragnar gives Athelstan’s cross to his son Alfred if he doesn’t believe anymore. Sad, because I did think Ragnar’s conversion was real. He says many Biblical references over the last years. I think Athelstan taught in in private and his faith is genuine. We will see in Episode 15 “All His Angels” in which Aelle kills him, probably in a vipers den.

    • Patricia says:

      Hi Patricia. These are fascinating theories. I watched the episode twice, but did not catch the allusions you mention to Jesus and Pilate – I cannot see Ragnar as a Christ figure in any way, and it did not feel like a trial to me. I am always intrigued, though, by what each watcher (or reader of a book, for that matter!) brings to a story to add to its depth. I look at this episode from the viewpoint of a writer and of a student of history. My own interpretation of Ragnar’s questioning the existence of the gods is that throughout the series Hirst has been juxtaposing the conflicts between these two religions, with Ragnar and Athelstan as men who are caught in the middle, as many men of that time must have been. But he is also trying, I think, to make the character relevant to a modern audience, and so Ragnar questions the existence of the gods – something that I believe, as I think you do, neither the historical Ragnar (if he did indeed exist) or Ecbert would have done. It’s a fine line that Hirst has to walk, and I am impressed by what he’s accomplished with this series.

  2. I I agree with your assessment of the confrontation between Aslaug and Lagertha. I found myself shouting at the screen “That’s it?” Lagertha deserved so much more vengeance than that. (In full disclosure, I’ve never been an Aslaug fan)

    • Patricia says:

      Hi Jennhy. I’m glad it wasn’t just me. I think he lost an opportunity for some terrific drama there, not to mention a chance for a great spin-off possibility. Imagine a series where Aslaug goes off on her own to attach herself to some king in Orkney or Iceland.

      In the sagas she outlives Ragnar, but I suspect Lagertha is taking over that role. And maybe Hirst decided to write Aslaug out of the series because he had made her so unlikable to fans that she wasn’t working anymore as a sympathetic character. I haven’t read anything about this, so it’s just a theory of mine based on absolutely nothing!

  3. Kirsten says:

    Amazing episode which I watched last night (a few days late, as Christmas got in the way) and will watch again as I’m sure there are so many subtle details I missed first time. I was shocked when Aslaug died, I didn’t see that coming but there seemed to be an understanding between the two women. Aslaug smiled at Lagertha before moving away and Lagertha said “I understand”. So… do you think Aslaug was really asking Lagertha to kill her, even though she had asked to be allowed to leave? She also smiled and looked almost content as she died. I don’t know whether it was intentional but there was a distinct difference between the physical appearances of the two women. Aslaug looked very regal and beautiful (I’ve never thought of her as being very beautiful before) whereas Lagertha was quite dirty and not at all attractive in this scene.
    On to Magnus. Do you think he was really Ragnar’s son or was his mother claiming this for her own reasons, I mean she was really quite free with her favours wasn’t she?
    I’m waiting for Ivar to get his revenge in future episodes. As you said they think he is no threat (hah!) The looks on his face told all and I think (hope) Aethelwulf will get his comeuppance at some point at the hands of Ivar.
    I now have the next episode to watch and I’m not really looking forward to it. I’ve really liked Ragnar and I think Travis Fimmel is excellent. I’m hoping Hirst doesn’t follow the legend but I have a nasty feeling he might. Trying to avoid spoilers until then…..

    • Patricia says:

      Hi Kirsten. I, too, was pretty shocked when Aslaug died, especially because, in the sagas, she outlives Ragnar. I think you are right that there was an understanding between the 2 women. Aslaug knew that Lagertha wanted her dead, and Aslaug wanted to die. She believed that Ivar was dead, her other sons were grown, and she had nothing to live for. In a way, she taunts Lagertha. “I’ve given him the sons the gods said he would have. I’ve fulfilled my destiny.” That’s thumbing her nose at Lagertha who could not give Ragnar any more sons way back when Bjorn was small. I was sorry, though, that we didn’t get more of an understanding about why Lagertha killed her, from Lagertha herself.

      The scene takes place immediately after battle, so it makes sense that Lagertha would be kind of a mess. And all during the battle, Aslaug was primping herself, preparing for what was coming. She was not a fighter, and had no intention of taking on Lagertha.

      The jury is out where Magnus is concerned. Some people think he was Ragnar’s son, and Ragnar denied him to save his life. I think he was not Ragnar’s son, but that’s just my guess. I’ve cheated a bit: the actor doesn’t appear again this year or next. If Magnus returns, he will be older.

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