“I only came here to seek justice.”
So speaks Jarl Borg as he takes over Ragnar’s home village of Kattegat. An invasion fuelled by revenge, it hits Ragnar where it hurts – and cuts short his negotiations with King Eckbert.
Eckbert continues to prove a menacing opponent for Lothbrok, holding their chat in a swimming pool while casually offering up his own men for sacrifice if necessary. But while the ruthless parallel with the Norse legend is rammed home, we’re also shown that the King of Wessex has some principles: when the subject of giving up his son arises, he looks his descendant dead in the eye. “I would never surrender you without your blessing or agreement.” Naturally, his son’s ready to bless and argue in the blink of an eye.
That notion of loyalty and inheritance has never felt stronger in Michael Hirst’s show: the focus has always been on the small ensembles, but in Episode 4, the family comes to the, er, fore. While King Horik remains in England to discuss a truce, Ragnar rushes home to avenge Princess Aslaug and his latest newborn son – who, up until now, have been protected by Rollo. It’s the start of a turnaround for Clive Standen’s brother, who goes from washed-up wraith to the dedicated sibling he once was, much to the pleasure of his wife, Siggy.
Like Eckbert’s son, Rollo seems (for the first time) happy to lay down his life for Ragnar. The one who actually comes close to doing so, though, is Athelstan. George Blagden’s conflicted monk continues his fascinating path between cultures, as the English Christians raid Horik’s camp and devise a suitably religious punishment for him. If Athelstan offers a smart reversal of the savage-converted-to-civilisation arc, Eckbert’s idea is the brutal reassertion of the conventional narrative; an act that bring the Biblical Eye for an Eye title into cruel relief. It’s typically heavy-handed from Hirst’s script, but Blagden’s performance sells the horror with personal conviction.
For all its smaller character beats, though, Vikings continues to sail forward at an impressive pace. And so, after Episode 2’s bold time jump, we finally see the return of his son, Bjorn. Alexander Ludwig is a manly male spectacle – a figure of hope (thanks to his armies) as well as resolution. Travis Fimmel’s hero, who usually grins with such a cocky arrogance, gives a rare, sincere smile at his son – combined with his repeated, softly-spoken speeches about being a farmer at heart, it’s a reminder that there’s a man behind the legend. And like all men, he’s there to seek justice.
While the world of Vikings descends into barbaric retorts, though, Episode 4 proves that there is still some civilisation left in Kattegat. Eye for an Eye is the going rate, but Ragnar – with his son by his side – has one eye on the future. Justice, when it does come, promises to be even more satisfying.
Want more Vikings? Read our interview with creator Michael Hirst.
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