Warning: This contains spoilers.
“Why has it taken you so long to return?” “It’s part of a larger, bolder strategy.” That’s the sound of two of Vikings’ best characters locking horns: King Ecbert (Linus Roache) and Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel). After Ragnar and Ivar landed in England and slaughtered the rest of their party in their sleep, they rock up to Ecbert’s castle with a confident swagger – only for Aethelwulf to lock them up until Ecbert comes home. When he does, he and Ragnar sit (once Ragnar has been let out of his cage) and they talk. And they drink. And they talk some more. Their exchange covers all manner of subjects, from Ragnar’s desire get revenge and kill Ecbert (he’s too weak to do so) to Ecbert’s own plans, and why he destroyed the Vikings’ settlement to begin with. “It’s part of a larger, bolder strategy,” he smiles, with the cool arrogance of a villain you love to hate.
It takes up almost 30 minutes of Episode 14, the kind of scene that can only work if you have two actors at the top of their game, and two characters interesting enough to do a lot with just a room and a table. Vikings has both – it’s a treat just to see them interact, from their shared mutual respect for each other’s achievements and legacy, to their shared suspicion of each other’s ability to be ruthless beyond all else. There are laughs, but there are also heartfelt depths, from the way that Ragnar refuses to eat until he knows that Ivar (kept in another room) is alive and has been fed, to their joint recollections of Athelstan. (It’s a tribute to just how good George Blagden was back in the day that the mention of his name still has weight.)
“I think I’ve used my power rather well,” says Ecbert, and given the way he’s brought regions of the country together under his rule, you can’t really argue otherwise. You can already almost see Alfred (the bastard son of Judith and Athelstan) growing up to take over the reins in the future. As they reflect on their mutual beliefs in the gods, it becomes clear that this isn’t just an affectionate chin-wag: it’s a farewell party. And, sure enough, Ragnar asks Ecbert to send him to King Aelle to kill, so that his sons will journey to England and wreak revenge upon him, rather than Ecbert and co.
It’s this that raises the alarm bells, because that’s how Ragnar is killed in the old historical legends: by being thrown into a snake pit by the Northumbrian King. The trade off for Ragnar’s offer? Ecbert giving Ivar safe passage back to Kattegat.
Before you can say “poor Magnus”, as he’s booted out into exile by Aethelwulf, after Ragnar reveals that he didn’t have sex with the late Queen Kwenthrith after all, we’re in the cart with Ragnar, as he’s drawn towards his inescapable death. Even here, Travis Fimmel is incredible: the actor has always been a performer capable of milking the most from a glance or smirk, but in silence, with no smirk in sight, he delivers an astonishingly powerful turn. One moment sees the blind coach driver ferrying him along suddenly replaced by The Seer, a vision that reminds you Vikings can be as powerful as Game of Thrones when it wants to be.
The Seer suggests that he might have been wrong about something, but any intrigue around that curious tidbit is replaced by sadness, as Ragnar reveals he has no intention of escaping, with a tranquil sense of purpose we’ve never seen before. Just compare him now to him in Season 1 or Season 2 and the change is remarkable, his dishevelled beard and cracked skin as much a part of his transformation as Fimmel’s weary voice and uneven walk. If that tired, old king routine started to wear thin in Season 4’s first half, it pays off handsomely, as he finally gives up the ghost, still finding new sides of the character to show us as he goes.
Ragnar’s actual death is as gruesomely effective as you’d expect from Vikings, as Aelle cuts, brands and beats his prisoner, before the oddly peaceful pit-based demise; Fimmel just lays there, as snakes nip and dart at his face, occasionally flinching, but those blue eyes always staring. Not at Aelle, but at Ecbert, who secretly makes the journey in a cloak to see his friend’s final moments.
It’s tough to watch, partly because we knew that it was coming: ever since Michael Hirst’s latest time-jump, it was clear that the show was lining up its post-Ragnar game, ready for the ball to be passed down the line. Why did it take him so long to return to England? It’s part of the show’s larger, bolder strategy – and Episode 15 concludes this superb double-bill with a reminder of just how much that time has allowed Hirst to develop the rest of his cast.
There is, of course, the unassailable Lagertha, who completes her overthrow of Princess Aslaug with a further gripping skirmish. Negotiating to allow the woman who stole Ragnar from her to go free, she promptly spins around and shoots her in the back with an arrow – a sudden, sharp twist that is made all the more surprising by the show’s decision not to cut to a different shot. “These are my people,” Lagertha declares, with a cold, yet compassionate determination. And if we once were worried by this apparent sign of pettiness from the intimidating shield-maiden, it’s gone in an instant, after we see just how mercurial she has become.
Bjorn, too, has grown wonderfully in the last season to become the son that his father deserves – it’s telling that Hirst keeps him and Rollo out of sight for these two episodes, putting the focus firmly on Ragnar and Ivar. And yes, Ivar has become the other son who lives up to his father’s standards. Ubbe, Hvirtserk and Sigurd may not quite have become substantial characters yet, but Alex Hogh’s turn as Ivar is formidable indeed; his return to Kattegat, which closes out Episode 15 sees him inherit Fimmel’s gift for speaking to groups of people, complete with dramatic pauses and knowing looks.
“We will have to avenge him,” he whispers, with the kind of bloodthirsty conviction that makes him such a compelling, and unsettling, presence. Ivar, of course, has been told secretly by Ragnar that they should wreak revenge on Ecbert himself. And you believe Ivar will, just as you believe his shock at Aslaug being killed by Lagertha – an attempt at revenge is surely on the cards there too.
Halfway through the fourth season’s second half, the result is a touching departure for a fantastic character – if you thought that there were no more deaths to come in 2016, Vikings has the last laugh. But as Hirst’s longer, bolder strategy begins to unfold, these two episodes only reinforce the sheer ambition of Hirst’s programme. After a mildly disappointing Season 3, Season 4 is the best Vikings has ever been. This is a historical epic that has managed to grow, and successfully outgrow, its protagonist, turning the journey of one man’s rise and fall into a family saga with enough generations to keep going for another four seasons. How fitting that the episode should end with confirmation of Ivar’s growth into one of our new leads: he’s now a strong enough character to earn his own cliffhanger, as he stares angrily into the camera. A fourth-wall breaking look of intent that has you itching to see what happens next? Ragnar would be proud.
Vikings: Season 4 Part 2 is released every Thursday on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. Seasons 1 to 3, plus Season 4 Part 1, are also available.