Much better, Vikings. With an entire action set piece last week devoted to what has been the least interesting plot thread of the season, “Mercy” sets the English side of Vikings back on track during an uneventful (literally, not in the negative sense), but fascinating hour. The key here is, unsurprisingly, Athelstan–or, rather, his absence. Although it’s hard to buy into Ecbert being as touched by our favorite dead character as Ragnar is, the narrative really comes together when both characters wake up in their separate bedrooms, eventually visited by the ghost of Athelstan. Vikings has certainly pushed for Ecbert and Ragnar as intrinsically tied (it’s hard to forget that beautiful shot from last season, in which the two sit side-by-side wondering aloud about if they’re good men or not), and moments like these are clearly what Michael Hirst builds up to when constructing thematic poignancy.
Ecbert’s visit from Athelstan leaves him at his most vulnerable. It’s hard to tell how genuine Ecbert is being with other characters in the room, because he’s so good at lying. By himself, at night, there’s no reason to act or put on a faÃ§ade, so when his arms are outstretched, begging Athelstan not to leave him, we are seeing a core moment for Ecbert–one that is indicative of who he is, past the scheming. He does love Athelstan, and having Judith with which to commiserate makes their pairing much more palatable. Really, it gives Ecbert more leeway when it comes to sincerity with her, and that can only be a good thing for Vikings, since the other side of the mirror–Ragnar’s relationship with Aslaug–is shattering into pieces.
Ragnar, though, has the more important visit from Athelstan because of what he does in the aftermath. It felt like the season couldn’t effectively continue much longer with Floki tied up, recalling the huge issues of the tortured Theon subplot from Game of Thrones. Yes, it is important to break characters down, stripping them of everything. But the point has to be made, sooner rather than later, that they are being torn down to be built back up or to be killed at their lowest. The dramatic shot of Ragnar taking an axe to Floki’s cave might, briefly, suggest the latter, but the echoes of Athelstan saying “Mercy” to Ragnar while washing his feet make it pretty clear that Ragnar is ready to let him go. Slightly out of frustration, he passes it off as telling Helga that she has suffered enough, but an essential part of him knows that Floki has to be forgiven, even if Athelstan meant the world to Ragnar. It makes next week’s episode incredibly intriguing, because there are a few legitimate responses Floki can have: being wholly grateful for Ragnar’s forgiveness and trying to earn his trust back, leaving Kattegat with Helga permanently or plotting revenge against Ragnar because of his certainty that he did the correct thing in killing Athelstan. In any case, it’s a powerful closing scene, and from the audience’s point of view, it’s good to see that Helga has earned some respite after suffering just as much as Floki, but in different ways.
While those two parallel sequences join Ragnar and Ecbert thematically, Ragnar’s connection with his son, Bjorn, is also manifested in “Mercy,” despite their physical distance from one another. After Bjorn kills the bear (!!!), Ragnar sees a bird as a symbol of Bjorn, and a vision of the younger Bjorn follows. With Athelstan dead, Bjorn is absolutely the person that Ragnar cares the most about in Vikings, and their eventual reunion is highly anticipated, given that Bjorn has reconnected with his Vikings roots in ways that Ragnar is unable to, being tied down to the role of king.
Again, Bjorn’s story is a huge, huge highlight for the episode, as the less-is-more approach to dialog helps the storytelling sing. Bjorn’s isolation and desperation feel real, and every disappointment and bit of luck (finding a barrel of booze) lands exactly as Hirst intends, because we care for and admire Bjorn, supporting him on his personal quest. Sure, there are questions of realism regarding the showdown with the bear (and, also, being able to survive after jumping into that icy lake?), but those matter much less in the face of the development that Bjorn is undergoing–something which has always been a major part of Vikings‘ plans, even when he was a child.
It speaks well towards the character work that Vikings has done across the series that an episode in which most characters are at a standstill (with some minor exceptions) can be so engaging. More than that, there’s a self-awareness about some of the disparate parts, which find ways of coming together (Aethelwulf and Kwenthrith being back in Wessex is absolutely necessary, because there was no way they could carry their narrative weight without Ecbert and Judith nearby). This, though, has been the case with each season of the series, and there’s eventually a turning point in which things get a little out of hand, because the gaze of the show looks too far outward instead of looking inward. For now, Vikings is humming along beautifully, earning its spot among the best of television currently airing.
Runes Carved from My Memory:
- Vikings-related tune of the week: Blind Guardian – “Valhalla”.
- Rollo gets himself a French teacher, but the lessons? Yeah, they don’t go so well. Rollo’s scenes are actually a lot of fun (taking a drink before the blessing, chewing loudly during a dramatic moment), but it’s also easy to feel bad for the guy when he’s struggling to communicate so much as a few words.
- Kalf tells Lagertha he loves her and wants to have a child with her. Lagertha is utterly silent.
- Also, a berserker is sent to assassinate Bjorn. Give the guy a break, will you? He just fought a bear.
- Vikings has tons of beautiful shots in any given episode, but that aurora borealis has got to take the cake for this week.
- Ragnar is an incredibly animated storyteller for his kids, but it’s all for an eventual dig at Aslaug. You have to wonder how much longer those two are going to last under the same roof together.
Vikings Season 4 Episode 3: "Mercy"
Vikings has certainly pushed for Ecbert and Ragnar as intrinsically tied…and moments like these are clearly what Michael Hirst builds up to when constructing thematic poignancy.