EW – Vikings recap: ‘In the Uncertain Hour Before the Morning’
Season 4, Ep. 14 | Aired Dec 21
Queen Aslaug is queen no more. She knows this, she has no escape plan; she walks into the town square knowing her time has come to an end. There is a freedom to knowing you will never be free again. The Queen looks amused by her invader. “How strange, Lagertha, that you should play the usurper. One woman against another.” Aslaug knows Lagertha values herself as a powerful woman in this world of powerful men — knows that, at this moment of triumph, it will darken Lagertha’s soul just a little bit, the implication she has broken her own rule.
“I was never the usurper,” says Lagertha. “Always the usurped.” Aslaug took Lagertha’s husband, her world, her happiness. “You’re a witch,” Lagertha says. “You bewitched him.” Perhaps she believes that; perhaps it is an easy justification, a way to establish herself as the force of moral right. Aslaug smiles. She did not bewitch Ragnar, but she knows he is dead. “In my dream, his boats were sunk in a storm,” says Aslaug.
She will not fight. She knows she would not win. Aslaug has never been a warrior. Yet, she has raised warriors. “I have fulfilled my destiny,” she says. “The gods foretold Ragnar would have many sons. I have given him those sons. I am as much a part of his saga, Lagertha, as you are.” It is another gambit, a way of snatching some greater victories from the jaws of this mortal defeat. Lagertha may defeat Aslaug. But they will be history soon, are already history; the legends have already formed about Ragnar and Aslaug and Lagertha and their ilk. Aslaug asks only for safe passage. She promises Lagertha will have Kattegat and she promises she will not demand her sons seek vengeance. It will be a peaceful transition of power.
“I understand,” says Lagertha. What does that mean? What message is she receiving from Aslaug? Does she know that, in some strange way, this great day of victory has not been wholly victorious? Does she sense this woman whom she always doubted — this usurper, this alleged witch, this poor excuse for a monarch — has hidden depths to her personality? Does she suddenly recognize, in Aslaug, a warrior?
Aslaug turns her back and prepares to leave her life behind. And then her life is taken and a smile crosses her face. An arrow in the back and a great funeral pyre for the woman who made warriors, for she who never gave up the old faith. She is in the saga forever now, even if her time in this story has come to an end. What future has she cursed Lagertha, too?
The children of Aslaug are far scattered, one sailing to the Mediterranean, one imprisoned in England. But Ubbe and Sigurd remain, and they are furious. Ubbe has seemed, thus far, like the most patient of Ragnar’s sons, but he shows signs of his father’s blood rage. He attacks Lagertha’s warriors and is brutally beaten. Awakening, he and his brother are greeted by Astrid, who offers to change the way they look. She also offers to kill them if they harm Lagertha.
Sigurd seems a bit ambivalent about his own mother; he saw into her heart, saw she only loved Ivar over the rest of them. Ubbe shows no signs of forgetting, nor forgiving. The tale of Ragnar’s sons is just beginning.
King to King
Years ago, two Kings sat together in a throne room. They were different men, a warrior and a politician, but they had much in common. They were curious about the world around them. At a time of great fear and great conquest, they felt they had much to learn from other cultures. At a time of all-encompassing religious belief, they were fascinated by those who believed differently. Back then, Ragnar was a young man approaching the absolute peak of his heroic days; Ecbert had one kingdom among many but dreamed of bringing them all together — dreamed of a United Kingdom, if you will. Together, their armies had fought a great battle. Together, they were engaged in a social experiment: A colony from one civilization, farming land belonging to another.
They were optimistic. They were hopeful. They were ambitious. And their hopes descended into blood and brinksmanship. Ecbert does not mince words when he sees Ragnar again. He asks only what took Ragnar so long. They are old men now, their beards grown long, fewer days ahead than behind. Ecbert tells Ragnar he commanded his son Aethelwulf to destroy the colony. He is quick to note, however, that he believes in Ragnar’s dream: Two cultures working together, what you might call a very early form of globalization.
“I firmly and absolutely believe such accommodations will come to pass,” says Ecbert, already a bit woozy with booze. “Perhaps even in my grandson’s time.” Ecbert is a dreamer but also a realist, or maybe he is just a liar; the kind of man who says, “I believe the right thing will happen when I am no longer around to make the difficult decisions required to make the right thing happen.”
“It was the right idea at the wrong time,” says Ecbert. Perhaps that will be history’s final word on Ragnar. In innovation, it is bad to be too late but just as bad to be too early. Perhaps Ragnar was too early.
They have much to talk about, these men. Ecbert introduced Ragnar to his son, Magnus, born of Kwenthrith. Ragnar tells Magnus his birth was a miracle. “I never had sex with your mother,” he says. “All she ever did was piss on me.” It seemed, to all appearances, that Ragnar and Kwenthrith had sex after the battle all those years ago — and surely Magnus looks like a young Northman, with his blond hair and blue eyes. Yet Ragnar claims no ownership over him; the boy is immediately led outside the castle and held at knifepoint by Aethelwulf, doomed to a very different destiny than he ever imagined.
What destiny did Ragnar imagine? Death, always. “Death has been uppermost in my mind for a long time now.” He tells Ecbert to kill him and Ecbert almost laughs. “You Vikings are incorrigible,” says the King of Wessex. “You emerge from the womb with only one thing on your mind: How to die!”
But Ragnar has much on his mind, and perhaps he knows only King Ecbert could understand him. They are powerful men and they are curious men. They speak each other’s language. They have loved the same woman and they have loved the same man. “What if your god does not exist?” asks Ragnar. “Then nothing has meaning!” says Ecbert. “Or everything has meaning!” says Ragnar. How lovely, to imagine these two great rulers having the worlds’ first-ever 2 a.m. dorm conversation.
So they say heaven is ridiculous and Valhalla is ridiculous. And Ecbert says the gods are necessary, even if they don’t exist. And Ragnar says that is silly: If the gods don’t exist, then they don’t exist. Ecbert recalls Athelstan: Didn’t Ragnar love him? Where is he now? Ragnar once believed in Valhalla and believed he might see Athelstan again in heaven. Now, he only knows Athelstan’s death is on his conscience.
And yet, from death comes a new life. Ragnar meets Alfred, son of Athelstan, heir to the throne. As the old grow older, the young grow into maturity. The two kings look at young Alfred, and perhaps they find something new to believe in: Not the gods, but the future.
Or perhaps not. Ecbert prays and quotes Ecclesiastes: “He that increases knowledge increases sorrow.” Ecbert has spent his life seeking knowledge, just like Ragnar; just like Ragnar, that knowledge has not brought him happiness, whatever else it has brought him, whatever grandness his ambitions have achieved. He tells Ragnar he cannot kill him and Ragnar offers another plan: “Hand me over to King Aelle.” Aelle has always hated Ragnar and has never been his equal, like Ecbert. If Ecbert lets Ivar go free, Ragnar will tell Ivar to go home with a message: King Aelle was to blame; leave King Ecbert alone. It is a mirror of the offer Aslaug made to Lagertha: I will tell my sons to leave you alone.
Ecbert is unsure. Perhaps he is sad to lose another friend. Perhaps he feels trapped. Ragnar takes his hands and looks him in the face: “Don’t be afraid.”
In some ways, Vikings has spent the last two seasons building up to this episode. The showdown between Lagertha and Aslaug is perhaps unexpected — Lagertha’s ascent has largely played out in Hedeby, and her life has led her far afield of her days in Kattegat as the wife of Ragnar Lothbrok — but it was inevitable. The showdown between Ragnar and Ecbert was inevitable, but how it played out was unexpected. These men have never properly fought each other and it’s unclear if they are even properly enemies. Ecbert is an egomaniac but has used his power for what he perceives as a good cause, uniting the various kingdoms in defense against outside forces. He likes power and he likes what power lets him do. Born into royalty, he has somehow risen even higher in his society.
Ragnar has a different relationship to power. He was curious about the world and that curiosity led him into battle against powerful men. Yet he has never been happy with the duties of kingship; indeed, at his lowest point, he was a drug addict fleeing his village to a remote cottage with a woman from the other side of the world. Unlike Ecbert, he mourns for his lost past — recall his words to Lagertha, his dream of their happy family on their happy farm. And unlike Ecbert, he is a debased character in his own culture, a long-bearded lunatic bribing warriors to join him on a suicide mission.
To see these two such people talk to each other, get drunk with each other, talk about religion with each other… And all the while, one man is trying to convince the other man to kill him. What more do you want out of television?
Episode grade: A