Season 4 of the History Channel series Vikings was actually expanded to 20 episodes, after three seasons of 10 episodes each. However, there was a six-month gap between the first ten episodes and the last, and the parts were treated as separate story arcs. In effect, these were two different seasons.
These episodes were marketed as Parts 1 & 2, which is how I will address them.
This first half of Season 4 has been my least favorite sequence in the series since I started watching it. Which is to say that I didn’t think it was as good as what came before, not that it was bad.
Why do I make this assessment? In the broadest sense, it’s because Part 1 has a messy, unfocused feel to it. There are numerous plot threads woven through these episodes. At times, the overarching story of Ragnar Lothbrok begins to feel overpacked and sometimes the narrative is lost in sideplots. As a veteran gamer who often gets lost in side missions, this is a familiar feeling to me. Since Part 1 begins with the wounded, though victorious, Ragnar leaving Paris to return home, and then ends with him returning to attack Paris once again, the middle part sometimes seems like Odin pressed the pause button on the story.
Here’s a summary of everything that happens.
It seems like Ragnar is going to die at the beginning of the season. While Ragnar languishes in his death bed, Bjorn arrests Floki for the murder of Athelstan, only to get upbraided for this decision once Ragnar awakens. Helga helps Floki escape. He is pursued and recaptured, a sequence that takes much more time than it takes to read this sentence. Ragnar has Floki chained inside a damp cave, where he gets the waterboard treatment. Meanwhile, Floki and Helga’s daughter dies, which kicks off this season’s theme of dead children. Eventually, Ragnar frees Loki, his debt to society apparently paid. Aslaug later asks Floki to teach Ivar the Boneless the ways of the gods.
Bjorn goes to the snowy wilderness to have his Jack London moments and become a man. While he is away, a berserker assassin sent by Erlendur, King Horik’s son, tries to kill him and fails. Fortunately, Erlendur gave the berserker King Horik’s ring, which is enough to tell Bjorn who tried to kill him. Bjorn goes to Hedeby and steals Erlendur’s wife, Torvi, right under Erlendur’s nose. This is not how I thought the scene would play out.
Aslaug purchases an Asian slave named Yidu who catches Ragnar’s eye. She becomes his lover and gets him hooked on some Chinese medicine that’s probably heroin. She joins Ragnar on his later raid on Paris, and when she refuses to give him more “medicine,” he drowns her. It seemed like Yidu was being set up to be a much more important character and then the writers changed their minds.
Back in Hedeby, Earl Kalf—who stole Lagertha’s earldom from under her, if you recall—announces that he and Lagertha will share the Earldom. This pisses off Kalf’s co-conspirator Einar, which signs the death warrant for Einar and his supporters. Kalf falls in love with Lagertha. Who doesn’t, right? When Lagertha announces she’s pregnant, Kalf asks her to marry him. Just before their wedding, Lagertha stabs and kills Kalf, just as she promised she would. Now she is sole Earl in Hedeby.
Rollo, having been left behind in Paris, almost immediately betrays Ragnar and everyone by murdering everyone in the Viking encampment outside of Paris. Rollo becomes a Frankish noble, marrying Emperor Charles’ daughter Gisla. He eventually wins Gisla over with his sexy Viking ways. He is placed in charge of preparing for the Vikings return. He proposes the building of two forts flanking the river, with a chain suspended between them. If you’ve watched Game of Thrones, you realize the strategic importance of the chain. Odo, meanwhile, is betrayed by his S&M lover Therese and her “brother” Roland. They eventually carry out Odo’s execution themselves. Rollo is appointed the protector of Paris. Then Emperor Charles has Therese and Roland executed. Once again, it felt like the writers tired of the characters.
Over in Wessex, King Ecbert sends Aethelwulf to Mercia to rescue Princess Kwenthrith and her child Magnus (supposedly Ragnar’s son) from rebel nobles. While Aethelwulf is away successfully completing his mission, King Ecbert is sleeping with Aethelwulf’s wife, Judith. It becomes obvious to everyone that the marriage of Aethelwulf and Judith is just one of convenience, as Aethelwulf begins a relationship with Kwenthrith. Ecbert sends Aethelwulf and Alfred away on a long pilgrimage, mostly to get Aethelwulf out of the way for what he plans next. After Ecbert successfully takes over Mercia, claiming it as part of his own kingdom, Kwenthrith tries to kill the king, only to be stabbed and killed by Judith herself. Another character wiped off the whiteboard.
King Harald Finehair arrives in Kattegat during the Yol celebrations. He announces his plans to become King of all Norway, which means he is Ragnar’s enemy even though no one really acts like it, including Ragnar. Harald appears to be set up to become something more important later on. There’s no real payoff in this first half of the season.
Eventually, in episode 6, Ragnar announces his plan to raid Paris. His sons Ubbe and Hvitserk get their arm rings (just like Bjorn did in the very first episode), and they’re going with their father on the raid. Ragnar asks the Seer how he will die, and is told that he will die when “the blind man sees him.” Don’t know what that means yet. The Vikings’ initial clash on the river with Rollo’s forces is a disastrous one. Ragnar decides to retreat while muttering to a decapitated head, in a scene that never made much sense to me. He hatches another ambitious plan to carry their ships over a mountain to reenter the river behind the Frankish forts; he relies on Floki’s engineering genius for this.
While the Vikings are off raiding, Harbard returns to Kattegat and begins having sex with all the women there. I didn’t care for this Harbard sequence either, which ends with the drowning death of Bjorn’s daughter Siggy, which seems to amuse Aslaug. If I didn’t already hate this character, this certainly would have done the trick. I really didn’t understand the motivation for this sequence at all.
In keeping with our theme of dead children, Lagertha miscarries while the ships are being carried overland. Erlendur decides to order his now ex-wife Torvi to use his crossbow to kill Bjorn; she kills Erlendur instead. Scratch off another one. I’m referencing the wrong mythology here, but Atropos would get carpel tunnel syndrome from all the threads she’d have to cut on this show.
During the last episode of Part 1, the Vikings are soundly defeated by Rollo’s forces at Paris and are forced to retreat. Rollo is treated as a hero in Paris. Then we have a time jump of many years. Ragnar has disappeared, abandoning all of his subjects and his family for years. Everyone learns that Ragnar kept the news about the slaughtering of the Viking settlement in Wessex a secret, and that Ragnar also has a son named Magnus in Wessex. Ragnar is now no longer everyone’s favorite Kattegat farmer. Even his own sons seem to hate him. Bjorn, meanwhile, has assumed the dreamer mantle and plans to sail into the Mediterranean, which he learned about from the scrap of an old Roman map.
As part one ends, Ragnar has returned to Kattegat, challenging his sons and anyone who wants to try to kill him if they want to become king. As the episode ends, Ragnar is still alive and we have our cliffhanger, which would have lasted six months back in 2016.
Again, this was another ambitious ten-episode sweep where a lot of stuff happens. I’ve broken it down here, more or less, into seperate story threads, but these were all intermixed throughout the season. While this certainly keeps the viewer from getting bored, it can also get a bit confusing. I didn’t feel that the story itself moved as seamlessly as it did in the previous three seasons.
Having said that, I still enjoyed it. It still has that epic feel, even if Ragnar Lothbrok feels a little less heroic than he started out.
Before I give this a grade, let’s take a moment to remember everyone we lost in these ten episodes.
The Viking encampment outside of Paris. The berserker assassin. Einar and his gang. Earl Kalf. Count Odo. Therese and Roland. Princess Kwenthrith. Siggy II. Lagertha’s unborn baby. Erlendur. Yidu. And a thousand extras.
I’ll still be watching, of course.
Firewater’s Season 4 (Part 1) Grade: A-minus