Warning: This contains spoilers.
“How the little piggies will squeal, when they hear how the old boar suffered.” Those were Ragnar’s last words and, as Floki points out, there’s no question who those little piggies are: Ragnar’s sons. And their squealing hasn’t always been the most riveting television, since their father’s departure halfway through the season. But Season 4’s action-packed finale delivers a satisfying climax that holds reassuring promise for the looming Season 5.
The closing three episodes of the show make no bones about it: the whole of the season has been building to the showdown between the English kings who killed Ragnar and his bloodthirsty offspring. And, in typical Vikings fashion, the show spreads that pay-off over several hours. The programme, after all, is all about the long game.
Episode 8 takes its time allowing the troops to assemble in Kattegat, which also wisely gives Michael Hirst’s script a chance to develop Ragnar’s sons individually. Ubbe and Margretehe marry – Hvitserk agrees to share her – while Ivar and Bjorn disagree over who should take control of the army. Even Bjorn’s affair with Astrid, an unexplained misstep earlier in the season, is at least acknowledged as absurd by Lagertha, although it’s not referred to again.
Kathryn Winnick is on fine form as Lagertha, confidently leading a creepy ritual sacrifice to give their boys a safe passage to Britain, before seeing off her own attempted siege on home soil. But the focus is firmly on the raiding party – including, despite Floki being against it, both Helga and they dubiously adopted daughter, Tanaruz.
As the Lothbrok boys roll into battle, they end up working together for the sake of their father, and it’s Ivar’s brains that bring them success, devising a wonderful plan that tricks Aethelwulf and the defending hordes into running up and down a hill, with the Vikings picking them out from the woods.
And what of King Aelle? That’s the brilliance of Season 4’s conclusion, which takes the bold step of essentially skipping the skirmish with Aelle altogether – after a teasing line-up on the field, the show jumps straight to his torture at the ends of Ivar and co., because that’s the core of the invasion. Action is one thing – and director Ben Bolt nails it with an electric hammer – but emotion is the real treasure that Vikings likes to pillage. The fact that Episode 10 can then go all-out with an epic face-off is a bonus.
Speaking of heart, the other key players in this endgame are Eckbert and Aethelwulf, and they steal the show with their scenes. Fleeing from the battle after it finally happens, Aethelwulf finds himself back at Ecbert’s castle being handed the crown – and Judith – for safekeeping. Moe Dunford is the best he’s been in the series so far, seething with resentment and confusion, as well as loyalty and determination. Linus Roache, meanwhile, shines as the not-quite-king, swanning about his abandoned estate with a lightness that visibly shows how heavy the weight of rule was on his head.
The son of the man who gave us Ken Barlow, Linus more than lives up to Corrie’s legacy, managing to be dastardly and cunning, yet also sincere and strangely pathetic, as Ecbert holes up with his bishop and gets drunk on the wine, awaiting the arrival of Ragnar’s sons. Before then, he bids farewell to Judith, Aethelwulf and Alfred, as they head to safety, professing his love but also admitting that he’s a failure of a king and a father – a moment of realisation and honesty that reminds us why he’s been one of the most fascinating people in Vikings. (His final act, to trick Bjorn into signing a contract for the land of East Anglia, in exchange of choosing his method of death, is bizarre – they don’t need a contract, as they have an army, and he doesn’t seem to gain very much, but that oddly only makes any future ramifications more intriguing.)
How exactly will Vikings survive without both Ecbert and Ragnar? That, smartly, becomes the actual question left hanging in the air by Season 4: the sons of Ragnar, we learn, were only briefly united by their desire for revenge. The rest of Kattegat sees that too, as they all fall out in front of the town’s celebratory dinner. Bjorn announces his plan to go back to the Mediterranean, with Halfdan deciding that he’ll join him. Ivar, meanwhile, wants to stay in England and raid every other region they can, but the others won’t agree to follow him.
Bjorn and Ivar remain the best of the bunch, with Alexander Ludwig also delivering a series-best performance, pounding his chest both convincingly and desperately, as he tries to rally the brothers together, or as he yells at the assembled troops with conviction and passion, all the while looking hurt by his grief. Alex Høgh, meanwhile, gets better and better as Ivar, rolling around in his chariot with an intimidating grin, genuinely making you believe that he’s Ragnar’s rightful heir. Together, they do justice to Travis Fimmel’s dearly departed lead star.
The others? Well, they remain less engaging – so it’s a shocking, but clever, move by Hirst to bump off Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, as Ivar lobs an axe in his chest, mid-argument. It’s a death that makes it obvious to everyone watching that the brothers have fallen out without much recourse for reunion, but also that Ivar is not a man to be questioned. Or, indeed, trusted.
We also say goodbye to Helga, as Maude Hirst’s wife of Floki is stabbed by Tanaruz – a scene that’s as harrowing as it is unexpected, made all the more tragic by the brief moments in Episode 8, where Floki bonds with their daughter and Helga struggles to make any real connection.
But it’s just one of the many deaths that Hirst uses to strip down his ensemble to the bare essentials needed – and Helga’s departure paves the way for Floki to fulfil his destiny as Kattegat’s new Seer. Gustaf Skarsgård’s moving ceremony for his wife out of the way, he quietly tells Bjorn that the last part of him has died, leaving him free to toss like a boat in the waves of fate. It’s surely only a matter of time until he winds up in that soothsaying role.
The other death we witness might not seem significant, but that’s all the more credit to Vikings, as it finds the room to give Harald (Peter Franzén) and Halfdan (Jasper Pääkkönen) their own subplot. In Episode 8, Harald sees Ellisif at the Kattegar gathering, a woman he once fell in love with, but who refused him, unless he became king of Norway. When they meet again, he discovers she’s married a Danish Earl – and so he pretends to forgive her, so he can kill her husband. Ellisif, meanwhile, pretends to forgive him, so she can try to get revenge – only for Halfdan to kill her. It’s a great reminder of just how dangerous Harald can be, but also gives him a moment of vulnerability – if Franzén’s King was just a background figure before, he’s given real depth in these exchanges, backed up by Pääkkönen’s steadfast sidekick.
The eventual discovery that Harald was behind the failed siege on Kattegat only underscores his importance for Season 5; this villain has never been so interesting or threatening. It’s that long-term ambition that has made Vikings Season 4 so impressive, even in its more uneven episodes. Michael Hirst’s two-part season is the biggest the show has ever been and its time-jumps, battle omissions and character deaths have all converged here with a coherent, confident vision for a series that could run for several years to come. That clarity comes in tiny moments, such as Harald’s fatal tryst, Floki’s private funeral, and Bjorn saying bye to his kids – a whole new generation of viking stories to tell.
It’s no surprise, then, that after everyone’s been bumped off, Season 4 finishes by introducing us to a new face: Heahmund, a bishop. It’s immediately apparent that he’s trouble: firstly, by his Christian faith, as he conducts the burial of an unnamed nobleman; secondly, by the fact that he beds the widow immediately afterwards; thirdly, that he keeps a hulking big sword by his bed; and fourthly, by the fact that he’s played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. A star name joining the ensemble and filling the gap left by Travis Fimmel? Between Heahmund, Ivar and Harald, maybe Season 5 of Vikings does have enough lead characters to inspire new legends after all.
Vikings: Season 4 is available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. Seasons 1 to 3 are also available.