What’s it all about
*Spoilers Ahead* Following the Paris siege where Ragnar Lothbrok engages his traitorous brother Rollo in a bloody confrontation, the King of Danes returns home to Kattegat, in a downward spiral which results in him losing control of his own mind. Addled by his addiction to an herbal medicine, given to him by former lover and slave girl Yidu, before he killed her, Ragnar frequently sees what is not there.
As his eldest son Bjorn and former wife Lagertha worry over the king’s mind, a slave revolt gains strength with villages-and their masters-fall, drenched in blood. Challenges rise to Ragnar’s leadership and he must, once and for all, prove himself worthy of the title of king.
The story begins with Ragnar narrating the battle in Paris, as his people and Rollo’s people engage in a bloody clash that leaves scores dead. His ex-wife Lagertha asks him a question before the battle, “Do the gods favor us?” Ragnar ponders the meaning behind the simple question, telling the audience that, “it was for the gods. All of it. We were the faithful. To bring down the bastard who betrayed them. The bastard who I once called brother. How could we lose? We were the brave. Of course the gods favored us. Victory would be ours.” It was victory, however, that came at a high cost. As the first panels are soaked in blood, we’re given a glimpse of exactly what Ragnar has started to lose-his own mind.
Meanwhile, back home in a village outside of Kattegat, Alicarl, a slave master pays his respects to the family of Lugead, a former slave who died a free man. When Alicarl gives his condolences by stating that “Lugead was a good slave,” Lugead’s son Broccan reacts violently, which results in Alicarl stabbing him to death.
His sister, Ita, flies at the master in a rage but Alicarl coldly states that “when a freed man dies, all of his property and possessions belong to his former master”; earning his slave Colum a beating when he tries to interject.
As this is happening in the village, Ragnar and his people including eldest son Bjorn make the journey home from Paris to Kattegat. Unfortunately, the spectre of the slave girl Yidu haunts Ragnar’s thoughts as he replays the moment he killed her in his mind, seemingly culminating in her ghostly spirit rising out of the water he drowned her in, to attack him. Bjorn rouses his father out of his hallucination just as they hear the horn, welcoming them home.
There is a tense confrontation between Ragnar and his second wife Aslaug, the latter of whom feels as though her husband took for granted the work she did ruling in his stead. When Lagertha steps up to defend her former spouse by telling Aslaug, “Let him go. He lost more than he could ever win.” Aslaug cuts her romantic rival down by saying “If I were you, I’d concentrate on your injuries. Opening old wounds is never wise.”
Lagertha is thrown by the barb and says to her son “can you blame her? I should take her advice.” Bjorn, however, shoots that suggestion down and stands firmly by his mother’s side. “No, you always have a voice in Kattegat. This is where you belong.”
Lagertha appears to appreciate her son’s loyalty but tells him that they both know that, that’s a lie. Later, we see Lagertha riding out of the village back to Hedeby, where she is Earl, when Floki (once Ragnar’s close friend), asks Bjorn why he isn’t stopping his mother from leaving. Bjorn retorts that it’s impossible to stop his mother from leaving once she puts her mind to it, even as Torvi, Bjorn’s wife, interjects that Ragnar needs her.
Suddenly, there is a commotion at the village as The Seer makes his appearance. Floki takes this to be a bad omen and warns Bjorn that no good can come out of The Seer going in to see Ragnar.
As Ragnar cowers on his bed, The Seer tells him that he’s there because Ragnar does not come to see him, so is he supposed to weep alone for those who rot under the Christian sun? Ragnar claims that The Seer doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
The Seer mockingly claims that the king wants their sorrow and pity, even desiring the pity of the gods and says that Ragnar wants them to believe that he is the one who is wronged, but The Seer claims that he is delusional. Ragnar responds by angrily lashing out at The Seer and demands that The Seer leave him be.
The Seer’s parting words are ominous, just as Floki predicted. “And then what will become of Ragnar Lothbrok? Anger stands ready to consume you, like a serpent devouring its own tail.”
Meanwhile, the slaves under Alicarl are subjected to more torturous manual labor. Alicarl claims that if the old slave Humbert dies, it would be disappointing but that there are always more slaves. As Maurice tends to the failing Humbert, the previously mentioned Colum slits the throat of Alicarl’s prized oxen in revenge.
From there, Colum, Maurice and the others concoct a story about a bear killing the oxen and ambush Alicarl and the rest of his men as they hunt for the bear. Now as free men, they make plans to free other slaves and make the masters who oppress them bleed.
Lagertha returns home to Hedeby, telling Kadri and the other villagers that the battle did not go well but that they must offer thanks to the gods at Uppsala. They’ll travel there to pray and speak with the gods face to face. At the same time, Floki undergoes a sacrificial ritual by splashing pig’s blood on himself and receives a horrifying vision. He tells his wife Helga that he saw the gods themselves burn.
As Lagertha makes the journey to Uppsala, she narrates the journey with her thoughts on the previous conversation with her former spouse. “Do the gods favor us? That’s what I asked Ragnar. He could not reply. Perhaps he already knew the answer. Perhaps he knew what the gods would say. Perhaps he knew we were on our own. Perhaps he knew we would fail.” Throughout this narration, Lagertha and her people are horrified to see the temple in Uppsala in ruins and smoldering remains with several dead priests inside the temple.
As Lagertha comforts a dying priest, he tells her that the god killers have killed them all.
Chapter two opens with Floki racing to the temple in Uppsala while narrating his previous vision. “I watched the gods burn. I asked for a vision. I asked for them to open my eyes and they answered. I saw them. I saw Odin, Thor and Freyr, writhing in their own shit, flames consuming what was left of their flesh. I saw what no man should see. I saw my gods die, sacrificed, betrayed. But it was a warning…a call to arms.” As Floki races into the temple with his axe raise, he realizes that it is Lagertha and her people inside the temple, comforting the dying priest.
The dying priest tells them that the group came out from the woods, slew everyone without mercy and then proceeded to burn everything in their path. After the priest’s passing, Floki and Lagertha discuss their next steps, with Floki claiming that this is sacrilege, not Ragnarök and that it must be avenged. When Lagertha questions whether her former husband will help, Floki scoffs that Ragnar can barely help himself.
Indeed, back in the Great Hall at Kattegat, Ragnar lies cowering on the bed, deeply immersed in his hallucination of Yidu. In fact, his mind is so entrenched that even when Bjorn attempts to wake him from his delusions, Ragnar lashes out at him. Aslaug tells her stepson to leave his father be, claiming that, “I sometimes wonder if you left your father on the battlefield.”
Back home, Bjorn continues to worry over his father’s mental health. He tells Torvi that Ragnar’s fever isn’t breaking and it’s as though his blood is boiling. While Torvi contends that Ragnar has survived worse, Bjorn tells his wife that the slave girl Yidu gave Ragnar herbal medicine as they approached Paris. His father killed Yidu for it and when Ragnar took the medicine, it poisoned him, poisoned his blood and his spirit.
“I used to believe Ragnar could do anything,” Bjorn tells his wife, “that not even the Jötnar could stand against him. But now..That’s just it. I’m afraid myself. Afraid that Aslaug is right. Afraid that I will never see that man again.” As Bjorn makes his heartbreaking confession, we see Ragnar slice open his own arm and watch as the blood spills onto a plate.
In a farm near Lagertha’s earldom of Hedeby, Maurice and the band of freed slaves torture a master inside his own home. They fit an iron collar around the master’s neck and proceed to choke him with a long chain. Colum intervenes, telling Maurice that this is not who they are.
Maurice retorts that Colum should remember all the slaves that are free now because of him. All the Northmen they killed, whom the gods couldn’t save. “You showed us the way,” Maurice tells Colum. “Showed you what? How to torture and maim. How to glory in bloodshed?” When Maurice replies that it’s what they deserve, Colum states simply, “Act like this and we’re no better ourselves.”
The master of the house calls them savages for burning crops and murdering innocent women and children and Colum kills him in retaliation. They then burn down the entire village.
As Colum and Ita watch, we see some of the first real doubts surface in Colum. He tells Ita that everything is moving so fast, that Maurice believes that they’re on a crusade. Ita counters with the fact that all the men they’ve freed love him and join his number even as Colum states that he never asked for an army. Ita tells him, “No, but you’ve been given one all the same. Don’t you see—you’ve been chosen, Colum. By a higher power. The highest.” When Colum despairs on when it will end, Ita tells him that he’s stronger and braver than he gives himself credit for being and that she needs him.
As court convenes in Kattegat for Ragnar to hear his people’s complaints, both Bjorn and Torvi are giving a glimpse into how far Ragnar has fallen. He doesn’t even appear to be listening to the complaints of his people and instead is immersed in a hallucination of Yidu. As Ragnar demands silence and actually shoves a villager out of his way while leaving the Great Hall, Bjorn tries to stop his father only to have the villagers tell him to leave him be, that his father’s gone mad.
One villager takes it too far by claiming that Ragnar runs from his own people the way he ran from his brother, to which Ragnar physically attacks him. In the resulting melee of the fight, Bjorn’s attempts at physically restraining his father and telling him that he has nothing to prove, leads to Ragnar attacking his own son. As Ragnar demands to know what Bjorn thinks he is doing, the chapter ends with Lagertha’s arrival, where she tells Ragnar to get his hands off their son.
In Chapter 3, a priestess and a guard grab several villagers for a sacrificial ritual and as the axe swings down on the first victim, Colum and his army arrive. As he and his men, along with Ita, lay waste to the village and the priestess, he narrates the situation. “I am so far from home. Back there, I would have run. Would have said this wasn’t my fight. Why should I care about these people? What are they to me? But now I have an army…whether I wanted one or not. I have enemies who want my head on a spike. I am no longer my own man. I am deliverance. I am justice.” As Colum knees for a prayer, he asks the Heavenly Father to heal the people they’ve saved, give them strength so that they may add to his numbers and send the pagan bastards to Hell.
Meanwhile back at Kattegat, Lagertha tells Ragnar of the massacre at the temple and asks him for aid. Ragnar responds simply that “one man’s sacrilege is another man’s crusade”, without knowing how prophetic his words were. Aslaug defends him when Lagertha asks about his arm, claiming he had a fever that recently broke. A commotion breaks the proceedings as a villager named Ingolf has come from Karup.
Ingolf tells Ragnar and Lagertha that the mob slaughtered everyone in his village and though he tried to fight back, he was unsuccessful and awoke amongst the dead. He tells them that there are stories of the gang of ex-slaves freeing their own and butchering everyone else before razing entire villages to the ground. Floki says that these are the god killers to which Lagertha responds that it is an uprising.
When Lagertha tells Ragnar that they must act, Aslaug for once, agrees with her romantic rival and tells her husband that these are his people that have been killed. Ragnar retorts with “I mourn that they couldn’t defend themselves against pox-ridden slaves. I mourn that they come bleating to me. I mourn that they have forgotten how to be men.” When Lagertha asks for men to go kill the rebelling slaves, Ragnar simply tells her to do what she will as he’ll have no part in it.
Aslaug approves of the request and the group turns to feasting to honor the dead of Karup and Uppsala. Bjorn pleads with his mother to let him join her, but she tells him that she wants him to stay by his father’s side. “He is turning the kingdom against himself. Enemies already hide in plain sight. Some more obvious than others.”
As the feast continues, Ingolf stews with two of the other villagers that previously challenged Ragnar. Ingolf tells him that he won’t stand for how Ragnar spoke to him even though the other two tell him to focus on riding out tomorrow with Lagertha to “teach those bastard slaves how to die.” Refusing to heed their advice, Ingolf confronts Ragnar. He tells Ragnar that even though he is no king, little riches and no wife, thanks to the slaves, he has eyes. “I see warriors out there, ready to go to their deaths. And I see a man who should be standing alongside them, hiding in the shadows. A man who has lost his way.” When Ragnar asks Ingolf if he’s there to help him find his way, Ingolf claims it’s his duty. Ragnar then breaks the man’s nose and tells him, ”You are no king. You are nothing! Now get out…before you join your wife.”
As Bjorn laments being left behind by his mother to Torvi, they both notice that Ragnar’s horse is gone. Ingolf has stolen the horse to be used in a sacrifice, cursing Ragnar. As he murders the horse, he states “What I do now, I do with Odin was my witness. May Thor guide my hand and Forsetti guard my resolve. I act so others will see, condemn…so others will know…the measure of their king!”
As Lagertha and Floki journey to intercept Colum’s band of rogue slaves, they share a heart-to-heart conversation about their fears for Ragnar. Floki correctly interprets the look on Lagertha’s face and correctly deduces that she fears for her former husband. “Do you remember when Bjorn and Gyda were young, Floki? How they begged to hear the same story over and over again?” Lagertha asks her long-time friend. You could almost hear the smile in Floki’s voice as he replied “How Ragnar fought both bear and hound just to prove his love for you? I may have head it once or twice.” Lagertha reminisces that Ragnar was spectacular.
And now, as Floki puts it, “he is in danger of losing everything.” Lagertha questions why Ragnar can’t see it for himself but Floki believes that his old friend can, in fact, see it coming and that all it would take would be one challenge.
Lagertha is hailed by one of her people and ends up falling into a trap set by Colum’s band. As she falls off her horse and Floki takes an arrow to the shoulder, Lagertha yells for her people to take cover. As they recover and overtake the former slaves responsible for the ambush, Lagertha demands answers from one of the slaves she overpowered. The slave tells her that Colum is marching on a settlement in Hedeby, which causes Lagertha to recoil in horror.
Lagertha, Floki and the others reach Hedeby and rendezvous with the remaining villagers and vow revenge against Colum’s group. Meanwhile, Bjorn takes his father up the mountain and they see the horrific curse levelled against Ragnar by Ingolf with the horse’s head on a stick. It reads, “And so I set a curse of two turns…I turn first on Ragnar Lothbrok and his kin that dwell within this land. I turn second to the guardian-spirits…they be driven from their home, their power lost, until the heart of the false king is torn from his craven chest. Until Ragnar Lothbrok is dead.” As Ragnar turns with a horrified look to Bjorn, the latter forces his father to confront what his leadership has led his people to.
Chapter 4 starts with Ragnar destroying the scorn pole while he narrates. “How did it come to this?” he asks. “When did it all begin? When I went with Yidu to the old farmhouse? When I took her damned medicine? When I felt alive for the first time in years? Or even before that? When I left Rollo in Paris? This time would be different, yes? This time Rollo wouldn’t betray me. He couldn’t. Every decision I’ve made, every road I’ve travelled, they’ve all led here. To a corn pole. To a curse carved into wood. Ragnar Lothbrok-False King. Ragnar Lothbrok-Coward. What of it? People have been wrong about me before. There is no land to the west. Wrong. No man will ever take Paris. Wrong. No one lives forever. All I wanted were songs sung in my name. But what songs will they be?”
Bjorn stops his father’s destruction of the scorn pole and tells him that they must focus on who created the curse. Ragnar tells his son to put his fears to rest as he knows exactly who did it. As they return to Kattegat, Bjorn confronts Ingolf, lambasting him for calling his father a coward when Ingolf didn’t go into battle himself. Ragnar takes over, calming his son before confronting Ingolf and telling him that he challenges him to Holmganga-a duel that will lift the curse on his name if he wins. Ingolf agrees to the duel and the two men shake on their agreement.
In the Resby village near Hedeby, Lagertha, Floki and their men track Colum’s group and silence the one slave they took alive when he tries to warn Colum. Lagertha devises a plan where Halfdan and his brothers use birds to smoke out the freed slaves.
As Bjorn, Aslaug and Ragnar sail towards the Island of Duels, Bjorn questions his father’s decision as he states that his father could have killed Ingolf outright for dishonoring the crown. Ragnar responds that he knows what he’s doing. Ragnar and Ingolf meet on a designated plain, with a cloak serving as their battlefield and wooden rods marking the perimeter. One foot outside the perimeter signifies defeat, as does significant injury. The fight between the two men starts fast and furiously.
Meanwhile, Lagertha has Halfdan and his brother attach kindling to birds and light the kindling aflame. The birds then take flight and land on the eaves of all the homes inside Resby village, lighting the homes on fire. The freed slaves rush out of their homes in an attempt to douse the flames, but it’s too late. Lagertha and her people have already arrived and they start killing the freed slaves. Meanwhile, the fight between Ingolf and Ragnar continues as Ingolf lands a solid blow with his axe that has Ragnar splitting blood. Ingolf then asks Ragnar if he submits. Bjorn flies into a rage & is prepared to leap to his father’s defense but Aslaug stops him.
As Lagertha, Floki and the others lay waste to the village, Lagertha comes into contact with Colum himself. As they fight, Ita rushes to Colum’s defence, pleading with Lagertha to spare them. As Colum lies defeated, Lagertha remarks that she expected more. “Does it even matter?” Colum asks. “Look around you, you’ve already won.” When Ita asks what they’ve done to deserve this, Lagertha states that they killed their masters. Colum heatedly replies with “You drag us from our families. You kill anyone too weak to plough your fields, or clean the shit from your shoes. You treat us like dogs. And then you’re surprised when the dog bites? We’re no one’s slaves, not anymore.” Lagertha responds by telling them both they deserve each other before running them through with her sword.
As Lagertha and her people let the village burn, Ragnar defeats Ingolf by amputating his foot with a swift stroke and then ends the man’s life, declaring to his people, “Behold your king.”
Lagertha, Floki and the others return victorious as Ragnar narrates the story’s conclusion with him leaving Kattegat. “Aslaug held a feast in my name. My honor had been restored. I wonder if she even smiled? Lagertha returned victorious, the uprising at an end. The curse on the land was lifted but my shame was no forgotten. Not by me. So I started to walk and never stopped. One day I will hear the songs of Ragnar Lothbrok. But not yet. Not until the time is right.”
One thing I really appreciate about this mini-series is that there is no attempt to sugar coat the characters and make them more positive or portray them in a more sympathetic light than they actually are. The characters from Ragnar to Lagertha to Colum and Maurice are driven by decisions, both good and bad and by desperation.
Ragnar is perhaps one of the most flawed protagonists I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a trade publication or short story in quite some time. Yes, it’s pretty clear he’s not entirely a good person, certainly not a hero. He killed a slave girl who was his former lover, became addicted to herbal medicine, neglected his family and had dissolved his first marriage to a woman who loved him only to take up with his second wife who seemed largely resentful and indifferent towards him after his return from Paris. And yet, even in this short mini-series, you can see that Ragnar still inspires loyalty in his former wife, Lagertha, his old friend Floki and most importantly in his eldest son, Bjorn.
You can’t help but feel some sympathy towards Ragnar for his deteriorating mental health and towards his family who undoubtedly love him very much and in the end, you’re given a glimpse into the man Ragnar used to be, the one who owns up to his mistakes and seeks atonement for them. Even if he’s not meant to be a good person, you can respect a man who wants to be better.
Ragnar’s story travels in similar veins to that of Colum, Maurice and their band of freed slaves. Are they entirely blameless and innocent of everything? No, of course not. Their group was oppressed into incredibly difficult circumstances for the time period and certainly by today’s standards and they chose to fight back. Even more than their freedom, we as readers are able to see how their religious differences (Christianity versus Norse religious beliefs) played a part into why they chose to slaughter their masters but also innocent farmers and civilians. And Lagertha, Floki and the other nobles of Kattegat chose to eradicate the freed slaves to preserve their way of life and obtain vengeance for the innocent. While it was reprehensible for Colum’s group to murder civilians, you could make the argument that it was equally reprehensible for Lagertha and Floki to murder them in turn to preserve slavery, though it was their way at the time.
Although all characters in this mini-series can be sympathetic and flawed in equal measure, I’d like to give special mention to Bjorn. His love and loyalty to his father and mother are insurmountable. He is easily the most sympathetic and heart breaking character in the mini-series as he struggles with how to deal with Ragnar’s mental health while desire to support Lagertha in battle. By contrast, his stepmother Aslaug is the one character that I find weak and judgemental and she didn’t seem suited for the position of queen of Kattegat. Yes, she ruled in Ragnar’s stead when he fought in Paris, but seemed not to care for her husband once he returned, only giving off resentment in waves. Instead, Lagertha was the one who seemed to back Ragnar, worry about his health and struggle to keep their family afloat. I’d be so bold to state that if there is a major mistake that Ragnar made, it was making Aslaug queen instead of staying with his first love, Lagertha. Aslaug to me was no more than a figurehead and really was unnecessary to the story and Ragnar’s life.