The words epic, legendary, and saga leap instantly to mind when thinking about the story of Vikings so far. The words unflinching, brutal and bloody aren’t far behind.
I am a fan of heroic fantasy, of the type written by George R. R. Martin and, especially, David Gemmell. Swords, knives, blunt bashing instruments, shields, armor and sailing ships in a pre-gunpowder milieu, with sorcery kept to a minimum and lots of bloody close-quarter combat. Oh, and plenty of motivation and firmly held principles and beliefs on all sides. All of this makes Vikings seem like it was created with me in mind.
Okay, I’m willing to admit that’s more than a little narcissistic, but it feels no less true despite this fact. When I write “me,” I mean “viewers like me,” of course.
Throw in all the drama, both high and low, and the interpersonal relationships, and I take the bait, set the hook, and am wriggling on the line for whatever comes next.
I usually try to keep these reviews spoiler-free where I can, but it’s difficult for me to talk about the things I like in this season without dropping a few spoilers. So you have been warned that there are SPOILERS AHEAD. If you plan to watch this series at some future date, I encourage you to stop reading now.
Season 1 of Vikings showed the rise of Ragnar Lothbrok of Kattegat from farmer to Earl. Ragnar is a forward thinker, with big plans for himself and his people. In the first season, Earl Haraldson was an obstacle to Ragnar’s dreams that he had to overcome. He was forced into seizing power to accomplish this. Season 2 presents additional obstacles, including Jarl Borg, King Horik, and, in many ways, Ragnar himself. At the end of the season—-last warning if you don’t want to know—Ragnar himself is the King.
This overarching story of Ragnar’s rise to power is a lot like that of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, the barbarian who became king. That the story of Ragnar Lothbrok is based, however loosely, on real Viking history is a bonus.
At the end of Season 1, I believed we were arriving at the brother vs. brother conflict that was set up between Ragnar and his brother Rollo. And, we were, of course, but the war between the brothers didn’t take as long as I thought it would. I expected it to be a season-long conflict. It was dispensed with in a single episode. The forces of Jarl Borg (Rollo’s side) and King Horik (Ragnar’s side) battle. Rollo ends up surrendering to his brother because he can’t bring himself to kill him. Ragnar, who always seems to be thinking three moves ahead, brokers a truce between Horik and Borg. His rationale seems to be that they can achieve more together than they can if they are constantly at each other’s throats. Rollo is put on trial for his life, but Ragnar had bribed the lawkeeper to set his brother free. He, too, is unable to kill his brother.
Life can’t allow a hero to remain at peace for long. Ragnar’s Season 1 indiscretion with Princess Aslaug comes back to haunt him when the princess shows up at Kattegat, visibly pregnant with Ragnar’s child. Ragnar wants to take Aslaug as his second wife, but Lagertha isn’t having any part in that. She leaves Ragnar and Kattegat, and, to add further turmoil for Ragnar, his only son Bjorn decides to go with her.
I didn’t like this turn of events. I was afraid that Lagertha would disappear from the story entirely. Have no fear, my friends. She comes back in a big way this season.
Four years pass, and Ragnar is ready to raid England again. King Horik and Jarl Borg arrive to join in the raid, but Jarl Borg is cut out of the deal, not allowed to join the raid. Rollo, because of his past betrayal, is also forbidden to raid. King Horik is behind this broken truce, even though Jarl Borg will hold Ragnar responsible.
A storm throws the Viking ships off course and they land in unfamiliar Wessex, where they are ambushed. Several men, including one of Horik’s sons, are killed. Athelstan saves Ragnar’s life during the fight. Athelstan describes King Ecbert, the ruler of Wessex, as being similar to Ragnar. At his heart still a farmer, Ragnar believes the true wealth of Wessex is its rich soil. He wants to colonize.
We discover that Lagertha has remarried to Earl Sigvurd, who is abusive towards both her and Bjorn. Mother and son are both unhappy in their current situation.
While Ragnar is away, Jarl Borg decides to seize Kattegat in retaliation for Ragnar breaking the truce. Rollo attempts to rally the citizens, but most get slaughtered. In the end, Rollo has to escort Ragnar’s family and Siggy to safety, fleeing Kattegat.
Unware of what’s going on back home, Ragnar meets with King Ecbert, a man who likes to take a lot of long baths. For some reason, the actor playing Ecbert reminds me of Graham Chapman’s King Arthur. This thought occurs to me in every scene in which he appears. Ecbert offers to grant the Vikings land. It seems that Ragnar is on the verge of achieving his goals. When he returns to the Wessex camp, however, one of Horik’s ships arrives with news of Borg’s sacking of Kattegat. Ragnar and his men immediately set sail for home.
Athelstan chooses to remain with Horik, but is later captured by Ecbert’s soldiers. He is branded an apostate and is actually crucified. This scene is difficult to watch. His life is saved by King Ecbert, who orders his soldiers to cut him down. Ecbert’s forces slaughter King Horik’s men, leaving Horik and his son Erlendur alive.
Ragnar returns home and finds his family, but they don’t have enough men to defeat Borg. A large group of fighters, led by Lagertha and Bjorn, arrive to help Ragnar retake Kattegat. See, I told you that Lagertha returns to the story. Jarl Borg is forced to flee when Ragnar and Lagertha’s combined forces retake Kattegat. Lagertha must eventually leave to return to her husband, but she allows Bjorn to stay behind with his father.
Meanwhile, in Wessex, Athelstan becomes a sort of advisor to King Ecbert. He teaches the king about pagan beliefs, even though the former monk seems to be having trouble reconciling his own Christian and pagan beliefs. Athelstan seems to gain the king’s trust, eventually becoming the keeper of secret Roman scrolls and relics.
King Horik returns, a beaten man. He tells Ragnar they need Jarl Borg and his ships again. Rollo goes to Borg to negotiate while Jarl Borg consults with the skull of his first wife. The skull seems to think another truce is a good idea. Stupid skull.
Earl Sigvurd isn’t happy with Lagertha when she returns home. He seems equally displeased that she helped her ex-husband and left Bjorn back in Kattegat. He sends some of his men to beat her during the night. The following day, he attempts to humiliate her in front of everyone, and she stabs him in the eye. Sigvurd’s nephew is primed to decapitate him, so this was obviously a planned coup. Lagertha is a force to be reckoned with.
So is Ragnar, it seems. Despite King Horik’s wishes, Ragnar has no intentions of joining forces with Jarl Borg. He spends a day lulling the man into false security, then, that evening, burns his men alive and takes Borg hostage. Scrambling to save some face, King Horik asks Ragnar to delay killing Borg so that they won’t scare off any other potential allies. King Horik seems to be regarding Ragnar more and more as his enemy rather than ally. Ragnar, in turn, doesn’t seem very subservient to Horik. There seems to be a growing rift between Floki and Ragnar, especially when Floki doesn’t seek Ragnar’s blessings to marry Helga. Horik seeks to capitalize on this rift. Horik is also carrying on an affair with Siggy, who apparently wants a return to her former position.
Back in England, King Ecbert allies himself with King Ælla, from Season 1, marrying his son to Ælla’s daughter. Princess Kwenthrith of Mercia arrives in Wessex. She is engaged in a civil war with her family after she murdered her brother. The newly allied kings see an opportunity for political gain here. To say the least, Kwenthrith is sexually adventurous.
Back in Kattegat, a mysterious Earl shows up as an ally for Ragnar, and it turns out to be Lagertha, who has assumed her second husband’s title after killing him. Now Ragnar and Horik have their ships and men, and Borg can be executed. Jarl Borg dies through use of the Blood Eagle ceremony, a gruesome and painful way to go.
When the raiding party travels to Wessex, Floki chooses to go with Horik’s men. Rollo, who redeemed himself by saving Ragnar’s family, gets to go on the raid. When they arrive, Ragnar unilaterally decides to send Torstein to inform Ecbert of their arrival, which annoys both Horik and Lagertha. Ragnar doesn’t treat his allies as equals, which is becoming a common refrain. As a descendant of Odin himself, perhaps Ragnar doesn’t consider himself their equal. King Ecbert’s son Aethelwulf arrives and invites Ragnar to speak with his father. King Horik sends his son Erlendur out with a group of Northmen to ambush Aethelwulf’s group. All are slaughtered except Aethelwulf, who is allowed to escape. Horik also did this without the consent of his allies. As king, Horik definitely doesn’t consider himself their equal.
It’s obvious that the tension between the leaders of the Northmen will have to come to a head eventually.
Using old Roman military tactics, Ecbert defeats the Vikings in battle by catching them between two troops of cavalry. Rollo is badly injured, but, recognized by Athelstan, is taken back to Winchester. Bjorn returns from battle unscathed, and Ragnar renames him Bjorn Ironside. King Ælla wants to destroy the remaining Vikings, but Ecbert decides to offer them land and employ them as mercenaries to fight against Mercia. Ecbert is forward-thinking, like Ragnar. Rollo is returned to the Vikings. Some of them volunteer to fight for Kwenthrith. Viking DNA is beginning to get sown freely.
Athelstan returns with Ragnar to Kattegat. He admits that he holds beliefs in both the Christian and Norse gods now.
Horik’s wife and children arrive in Kattegat and the entire village celebrates. Horik wants Floki to kill somebody important to prove his trustworthiness. Floki poisons Torstein. Horik plans to kill Ragnar and his entire family. Horik also promises to marry Siggy if she murders Ragnar’s children. With reinforcements, Horik attacks Kattegat, but his plans are foiled. Torstein is still alive, and Floki and Siggy did not betray Ragnar. Ragnar and his closest allies kill King Horik and Ragnar claims the King’s Sword. All of Horik’s children, save Erlendur, are slaughtered. At the end of the season, Ragnar is king and is sitting atop the cliff Preikestolen.
Throughout this season, it seems that it is circumstance and not a greed for power that drives Ragnar to become king. What kind of king will he be? What of his plans for colonization in the New World? Every story question answered seems to lead to additional questions, and I like that. I don’t know what’s going to happen next.
I was sad to see Donal Logue leave the series, even as I was glad to see King Horik die. Like Game of Thrones or Sons of Anarchy, two series that this one never fails to remind me of, it seems no character in the series is safe, including members of the main cast.
There is a lot of story packed into these ten episodes. My synopsis, as thorough as it was, didn’t cover everything. There’s a subplot with Bjorn falling in love with Porunn, a slave girl, and eventually granting her freedom. Also, Aslaug gives birth to a child with deformed legs who is dubbed Ivar the Boneless. I’m sure that’ll be important later. Floki’s child with Helga is also born. I’m sure there are a dozen other things I left out, seeds that may grow in importance in later seasons. I’m looking forward to finding out.
I guess I didn’t bury the lead here. I love this series and plan to watch all of it, come what may.
Season 2 Report Card: A