“Paris,” Ragnar confides in a soliloquy to Athelstan near the end of this episode, “is everything you told me it would be.”
As he promised, Ragnar has taken his fleet — and us — to Paris. More precisely, as this title suggests, to the gates of Paris. There is an ominous, thundering sound track that accompanies the opening scenes of this episode as Ragnar and company prepare to throw themselves against the city’s high stone walls. We know that this battle is going to be big. It’s the most difficult challenge that the Vikings have met so far, but expressions on the faces of the leaders are set and determined — even enthusiastic.
This is in stark contrast to the face of the French king, who literally wears a mask so that no one can see his terror. My research indicates that Ragnar’s fleet (historically) was composed of 120 ships, and that being the case one can almost excuse the French king for being terrified at such a sight. I certainly would be! But the king’s right hand man Odo and the princess Gisela are made of sterner stuff. While Odo doesn’t look at all happy about the Vikings, he nevertheless rolls up his sleeves and responds to the threat like the commander that he is (and that he indeed was). It is the king’s daughter, Gisela, though, who shoulders the royal responsibility from which her father shrinks. Like a 9th century Jean d’Arc, she carries the Oriflamme to the battlements and uses it to rally her people.
The Oriflamme, by the way, was one of those medieval banners that armies carried into battle to inspire their comrades with courage and their enemies with dread. In this case, it was a red banner that had been dipped in the blood of the 3rd century martyr St. Denis. According to legend, Charlemagne had carried it to the Holy Land to drive out the Saracens. Gisela puts it to good use, and then remains on the battlements without armor or shield, as unafraid and confident as her father is frightened and cowering.
(The Vikings would eventually have a banner, too, made by the daughters of Ragnar Lothbrok and carried into battle by his sons and, much later, by Swein and his son Cnut. It was called The Raven, and like the Oriflamme, it had mystical qualities. The Encomium Emmae Reginae describes it this way: “For while it was woven of the plainest and whitest silk, and the representation of no figure was inserted into it, in time of war a raven was always seen as if embroidered on it, in the hour of its owners’ victory opening its beak, flapping its wings, and restive on its feet, but very subdued and drooping with its whole body when they were defeated.”)
But I digress. Back to the Battle of Paris. Can I just state right here that, comparing this set piece battle to the Battle of the Blackwater at the conclusion of Season 2 Game of Thrones, I’d have to give the prize to the Vikings? Quick camera cuts from one part of the battle to the other, and from a wide angle view of the river and walls to close-ups of the hand-to-hand fighting kept the tension high. Floki’s siege towers were stunning and, like the covered battering ram, authentic.
The hot oil, (wax, actually), fire, rocks and crossbows used by the defenders were authentic as well. Most impressive of all, though, were the actors’ faces: Ragnar as he follows the progress of the battle, Rollo when he sees Gisela on the wall, Floki as he watches siege towers go up in flames, Lagertha when her crew finally breaks through the bridge gate and they see – well, I’m not sayin’ what they see.
There were moments of portent, raising questions in the viewer’s mind: Ragnar clutching Athelstan’s golden cross like a talisman. What does he really believe? Floki undergoing baptisms of fire and water. How will he be changed as a result? Rollo’s face sinking beneath the Seine. Will he endure the same fate as Siggi?
And here’s the thing: we had no idea how it would end!!!
For a time, I was thinking that I’d have to award Michael Hirst the GRRM International Prize For Offing The Most Lead Actors In A Single Episode.
Today went badly.
And it wasn’t even the season finale. Oh my. What in the world does Michael Hirst have up his sleeve for that?
I have a pretty good idea, but I’m not telling.