And so, Ragnar Lothbrok became King of the Vikings when all he really wanted to do was explore and farm.
Season 3 of the History Channel’s Vikings, which originally aired way back in 2015, is another 10-episode arc. The story told in these ten episodes is tightly packed, enough narrative for twenty or more episodes in any other series. I like the pacing of this story, moving rapidly through both time and its various locations.
As the season opens, King Ragnar is champing at the bit to return to Wessex to claim the land promised by King Ecbert. This, after all, has been his goal from the beginning. Rich, arable land means more to Ragnar than casks full of gold and silver. Lagertha, Ragnar’s ex-wife and now an Earl in her own right, joins Ragnar on this new raid, leaving her trusted right-hand man Kalf behind to oversee affairs in Hedeby. Kalf is too handsome and smooth-talking; we know this is a mistake from the beginning.
When the Vikings arrive in Wessex, King Ecbert has placed more conditions on handing the land over to Ragnar. The Vikings must fight for Princess Kwenthrith to regain the kingdom of Mercia. Lagertha gets the job of leading the Viking settlers in Wessex. She also, of course, attracts the attention of that old horn-dog Ecbert.
Þórunn, the slave girl freed by Bjorn last season, idolizes Lagertha and has also become a shieldmaiden, even though she is carrying Bjorn’s child. She later gets severely wounded and scarred. When Ragnar learns that she is pregnant, he berates Bjorn severely.
Back in Kattegat, Helga, Siggy and Aslaug have a shared dream about a hooded stranger, who shows up in the village by the end of the second episode. He gives his name as Harbard. He is a wanderer and shares stories about his travels and the gods in return for lodging. A Kattegat fisherman catches two drowned boys in his nets, which seems to be an omen of sorts. In a later episode, Aslaug’s two sons fall through the ice on a frozen pond. Siggy dives in after them. The mysterious Harbard pulls the two boys out as Siggy drowns. Goodbye, Siggy.
The story of Harbard is expertly woven across several episodes. Because I’m not a huge fan of too much sorcery with my heroic fantasy (which this certainly is, in spite of the “historic” trappings), I didn’t much care for this particular story thread. Aslaug, who is grateful that the seemingly magical Harbard helped to alleviate Ivar the Boneless’ pain, ends up sleeping with the wanderer. Floki later tells Ragnar about this, but also says that Harbard is another name for Odin. Still, too much magic for my tastes. Plus, Siggy exits the series, and I kind of liked her.
Back in Mercia, Ragnar and his Vikings are eventually victorious over Princess Kwenthrith’s uncle and brother. Floki resents fighting for the Christians, and his hatred for Athelstan festers as a genuine rift seems to be growing between him and Ragnar. Torstein also dies, which means another of my favorite characters is gone. Kwenthrith’s brother Burgred is spared at her request, but then poisoned by the princess during a celebratory banquet in a move worthy of Game of Thrones.
Betrayal is a recurring theme this season. Lagertha’s man, Kalf, of course steals her earldom from her while she’s away. Kalf also allies himself with King Horik’s son Erlendur, who is now married to Jarl Borg’s widow Torvi. King Ecbert’s son, Aethelwulf, discovers that his wife Judith is pregnant with Athelstan’s child (yes, the monk slept with another man’s wife). Ragnar discovers Aslaug’s infidelity. After Ragnar returns to Kattegat, leaving the Viking settlers behind in Wessex, Aethelwulf leads a group of soldiers to the settlement and kills all of them. More betrayal, as this was done at the behest of King Ecbert, that slimy double-crosser.
Þórunn eventually gives birth to a baby girl that they name Siggy. Siggy lives. Sort of.
Judith also gives birth, to a baby they name Alfred. Immediately after the child is born, Judith is sentenced to having her ears and nose cut off for committing adultery. After one ear is cut off, she admits that Athelstan is the father. It is Ecbert who claims that the child is a gift from God and christens him Alfred. Judith is spared further punishment since God had a hand in this. Plus, I think Ecbert is sweet on her, too.
While all of this is going on, Athelstan and Ragnar plot to invade Francia and take Paris. Before the plan can be enacted, Floki kills Athelstan, thinking he is doing so on the orders of the gods. Athelstan’s murder breaks Ragnar’s heart, because he genuinely loves the man. Ragnar gives Athelstan a Christian burial and takes his crucifix as his own.
If you’re keeping score, that’s Siggy, Torstein and Athelstan, all dropping out of the story. Is no one safe?
Earl Kalf sails to Kattegat to join the fleet on the raid against Paris. Erlendur and Torvi are with him. The Viking fleet, also reinforced by the earl Siegfried, sails to Francia. Ragnar, who seems to know that Floki murdered his monk friend, puts the shipbuilder in charge of the attack. Floki, always an engineering genius, builds siege towers mounted atop boats. Floki, Ragnar, Bjorn and Rollo attack from the river, while Lagertha, Kalf and Erlendur attack the city gate directly. The initial attack is repulsed by the Franks, at great cost on both sides. Bjorn and Ragnar are both badly wounded, as is Floki’s pride and self-confidence.
During this invasion of Paris sequence, we are introduced to an entirely new cast of characters. There is the weak Emperor Charles, the brave princess Gisla, and the ambitious Count Odo (who is, sadly, not a shapeshifting Founder). We will continue to learn more about these characters as the story continues.
A follow-up attack, led by Rollo, Lagertha and Kalf, manages to get past the bridge, but is eventually pushed back again. Siegfried is captured and executed on Princess Gisla’s orders. A plague spreads through Paris and citizens are dying. Count Odo convinces the emperor to come to terms with the Vikings. Ragnar, who seems to be dying himself from internal wounds that won’t heal (he fell from the top of the Paris wall and bounced off a siege tower on the way down), doesn’t accept offers of silver and gold. And, he doesn’t want farmland this time, although that’s what I thought he was going to ask for. Instead, he wants to be baptized as a Christian and to be buried inside the city walls after he dies.
In a short sequence that seems to exist only as a counterpoint to Ragnar becoming a Christian, Aslaug is shown ruling in Kattegat, and putting a Christian missionary to death.
In the final episode of the season, Ragnar Lothbrok dies. His body is placed in a beautiful wooden coffin built by Floki, and is then taken into the Cathedral to be blessed. But—Surprise!—Ragnar, who is always playing the long game, jumps out of the coffin, quite alive, and takes the princess Gisla hostage, forcing the guards to open the city gates and allow the Vikings to enter the city and do what they do. By using subterfuge, Ragnar is able to accomplish what Floki’s engineering genius and brute Viking force could not. As they are sailing for home, Ragnar tells Floki that he knows he killed Athelstan.
Rollo, and a small party of Vikings, remain behind in Francia as the rest sail for home. Emperor Charles very much wants Rollo on his side, and offers Rollo Gisla’s hand in marriage.
This is good stuff. Even with the culling of a few of my favorite characters, the cast continues to grow, as does the epic scope of the story. It’s clear that Ragnar is still gravely wounded as the season ends, although quite alive in spite of his funeral. But, even as some story questions are answered, new ones are being asked.
What is Ragnar going to do about Floki? What is Rollo going to do back in Francia? When—not if—will Ragnar get his revenge against King Ecbert? How will Lagertha exact her revenge against Kalf? What’s going to be the ultimate consequences of that whole Harbard sequence? Will Ragnar and Lagertha ever get back together again?
I could go on. The story potential is rich and full, as promising to me as the arable land of Wessex was to Ragnar Lothbrok. The scope and the grandeur of this show is nothing short of amazing, proving that dragons aren’t necessary when the story is good. I am, as you may have already guessed, a diehard Vikings fan. I’m looking forward to the rest.
Season 3 Report Card: A+