Two Historical Fiction Authors Review #VIKINGS S.3 Ep. 5 "The Usurper"

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The Shieldmaidens of History (Protecting the Innocent from Anachronisms) welcome you back to our review series on the History Channel show Vikings. 

Historical fiction author Sandi Layne is with me again to discuss the historical aspects of the show. Sandi has written her own series on Vikings, both well-written and carefully researched. (You can read my review of the third book in the trilogy, Éire's Devil Kinghere.)

Lissa: Treachery is everywhere this episode!

​Sandi: Oh my word, yes. I'm still processing. I was left unsettled and unnerved by last night's episode. I want to go and yell at different characters so that they know what's happening. This is good, though. I react like this to my favorite books.​
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Lissa: We started out with Ragnar lounging in the longboat, asking Athelstan to tell him a bedtime story about Paris. "Again!?" Athelstan teases him. All that was lacking was Athelstan tucking him in with a warm glass of milk. (Goat milk, surely!) Athelstan tells him about the wonders of Paris, and the beautiful ladies that made the young monk question his vows of celibacy.

​SandiThis was really an interesting exchange. For one, we see the very real friendship/relationship the two men share. And it's lasted for years, through captivity, temptation, major life changes, worldview adjustments, everything. And they can still talk to one another in this manner. That's wonderful. Also interesting of course was Athelstan's reminder to Ragnar that at least he, Ragnar, has children.​ A nice bit of foreshadowing for later in the episode, eh?

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Lissa: Floki is watching, spider-like, from another boat. He asks Rollo what he thinks "that priest" and Ragnar are talking about. Jealousy drips from every word.

​SandiIt really does. The writers have done a fine job of maintaining the tension between Floki and Athelstan (and Ragnar!) in this battle for Ragnar's conscience, heart, and loyalty. No mean feat over a show that's spanned not only seasons but years of in-show time.​

Lissa: The boats arrive in Kattegat, and Lagertha's ship pulls up with them. She's riding in the middle, slightly elevated, and all I could think of was Cleopatra from Antony and Cleopatra:

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The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burned on the water...
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them ...
Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i’ th’ eyes,
And made their bends adornings...

What can I say? Lagertha makes me wax poetic.

​SandiShe really does. :) The Shieldmaiden Longship was quite dramatic. ​

Lissa: Anyway, they arrive at Kattegat. Lagertha is helping the wounded to shore when two ladies, large with child, approach her looking for Torstein. "Both of you?" she asks, and the women exchange uneasy glances as they nod. Lagertha tells them that Torstein is now in Valhalla, and the women slowly walk away together.

​SandiThis struck me as quite singular. These women probably despised each other, having discovered they were simultaneously pregnant by the same man. They would perhaps have drawn together in some fashion while he was away, and had perhaps come to appreciate being known to one another, if only to bad-mouth Torstein for doing this to them and then being so eager to leave! ​

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Lissa: Rollo comes ashore shouting for Siggy. Aslaug has to tell him she's dead. Rollo looks like he's been hit between the eyes with the butt of an axe. Aslaug explains she drowned while trying to save the boys after their fall through the lake ice, and they never recovered her body. Rollo is crushed and says it's his fault because he didn't treat her well enough.

​SandiI really, really feel bad for Rollo in this episode. He is so very often disappointed in his life. The ambition he held as a younger man, being thwarted by his blue-eyed brother. The love he had (and still has maybe?) for Lagertha, the most amazing woman, wife, and mother. And then just as he's finding a space for himself, maybe, his lover is killed saving the children of another man. Never mind that their relationship was odd at times and based upon an uncertain premise, it was still his relationship and where Rollo sets his loyalties, they tend to stick. It was dreadful to see him deteriorate.​

Lissa: Ragnar, on the other hand, is more concerned with the reasons why it happened.

​SandiHe's grown and matured as a leader over the years. He knew there had to be something happening behind the scenes—his life has been filled with "behind the scenes" moments of great significance. ​

Lissa: Why was Siggy tending Ragnar's sons? Aslaug tries to explain it away by claiming the women shared child-tending duties, but Ragnar notes that Siggy had no children of her own to tend. He wants to know what was going on. In their bedroom, Aslaug drifts around in a filmy shift, and tries to lure him into their bed, but Ragnar rejects her and leaves.

​SandiShe tried the classic sex diversion for what I believe to be a two-fold purpose. One, to get Ragnar to focus on his lust, not his brain. Two, because it is possible that she is pregnant and if she can get Ragnar to have sex, there would be no proof that she was unfaithful. (Of course, she didn't know that Helga had spilled the entire story to Floki already.) ​

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Lissa: Porunn is having a breakdown in her quarters after seeing her scarred reflection in a bowl of water. Aslaug tries to comfort her but Porunn says there's nothing she can do for her.

​SandiI think there were a few hard truths hitting poor Porunn at that j​uncture. She fought, fully believing in her right to do so, even though she had been advised against it due to her pregnancy. She had been wounded to the point where she feels unattractive and unworthy, AND she miscarried the baby she carried. All of this is pounding at her and she knows that basically, if she'd listened to Björn, she wouldn't be in this condition. For a proud woman determined to make her way in the world, this had to be hard to bear. Especially without a counselor whom she would trust. Therapy wasn't an option. 

Lissa: Rollo is having a breakdown of his own, getting roaring drunk in the presence of the other men. They're dismissive of his grief, saying they've all lost people in the battles in the Christian lands. Rollo tries to start a fight, but ​Björn breaks it up, telling his uncle the other men will kill him. But Rollo wants a fight. ​Björn obliges, giving him the physical pain Rollo can deal with better than the emotional pain he doesn't know how to express.

​SandiI think it probably helped Björn, too. He has to be dealing with pain of his own.​

Lissa: When ​Björn goes back into the longhouse, Lagertha asks him about his battered face and Bjorn tersely says he had a fight with his uncle, and "What of it?" Lagertha decides to accept that at face value. She asks ​Björn if he's going to go see Porunn, but ​Björn says no. She doesn't want to see him, and if she does, she's a grown woman and can ask for him.

​SandiAnd here we see how very young Björn is, and it's a very male trait, too, I think. He's not rejecting Porunn, but he's honestly confused I believe about how he feels because she seems to have rejected him. And he has to be blaming himself (thanks, Ragnar) for her condition to a certain degree. Being able to fight with Rollo helped, but again, this family needs a therapist and they don't have one.​

Lissa: Helga confesses to Floki what happened during Harbard's visit. Floki is excited by it and says Harbard is another name for Odin. They have been visited by a god. Helga doesn't understand, because the visit resulted in Siggy's death, but Floki shakes his head. The gods bring death, but they also bring new life.

He stuck the landing!
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​SandiFloki is a true believer. He dashes off to Ragnar to share his revelation with him, and Ragnar's response was, according to someone on social media, the biggest eye-roll​ in history. Still, Ragnar is determined to continue to find out what happened in his absence. Another confrontation with Aslaug—in which she avoids his direct and offers instead a redirect for her own purpose—reveals that Harbard seems to have aided Ivar. 

"Was he good?" Ragnar asks. He knew what had happened and he wanted her to know he knew. 

Aslaug plays it off, but I don't think she won any points.

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Lissa: Another new life is on its way. Judith confesses to her husband that she is with child. He asks how this is possible, because they haven't lain together since the birth of his son.

​SandiThis surprised me because I really had thought she was pregnant before he left. His behavior and words seemed to indicate as much. But he was just marking his territory apparently.

Lissa: He roars and smashes his hands onto a table as Judith sobs. He's leaning against a wall, struggling to regain his composure when his father, Ecbert, calls for him. Someone has attacked the Northman settlement, and he wants the conflict to end because of the promises he made to Ragnar. Aethelwulf offers to go with a group of soldiers.

​SandiNow up to this point? I was still seeing King Ecbert as sincere. Just for the record. He had alliances to protect, not only with King Ragnar, but also with Lagertha. She might not have wanted to stay as his mistress—she's an earl, blast his eyes!—but she did seem to have earned his regard and respect, to a degree. ​

Lissa: Lagertha learns about Kalf's betrayal and how he has seized her earldom in his absence. She marches up to Ragnar and demands he support her in getting it back. Ragnar essentially says, "Yes, dear," but warns her that civil war could upset his plans.

​SandiBoth of them have changed a great deal since we first met them. Their ambitions have grown with their experiences. I really think they both behaved in character, and even appropriately to this point. They made sense to me even if my Ragertha ship isn't as smooth as I might like. ​

Lissa: Ragnar goes to the Seer to ask about his Paris attack plans. The Seer tells him that "The dead will conquer Paris," and that the "bear" or "bearer" (the sound was a little unclear) will be crowned king - but that's not Ragnar.

​SandiThe Seer doesn't have a lot of screen time, but he surely can keep us thinking, no? Björn means "bear" as we were reminded ​on twitter last night, so if it is Bear, then the Seer could have been talking about Björn. Or it could refer to Rollo, whom we know in history does become a Duke of Normandy (essentially leading the way for Vikings to become Normans over the course of time).

Lissa: "Bearer" would work too, which is why I wasn't certain. "Something" will be carried, if the show sticks to the storyline of the saga.

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They return to Lagertha's realm, but the exchange with Kalf is not as decisive as Lagertha would have liked. She eyes Kalf coldly as he tells her that even as he was plotting against her, he lusted for her.

​SandiSo he was genuine with her—to a point. He seemed insufferably into himself during that entire exchange, though. I believe that if Lagertha had been a man, his self-assurance would not have been so obvious. 

Ragnar, it seems, has decided to settle for a peaceable agreement for the meantime, even if it means Lagertha has been unseated. She's pissed, and rightly so. She mounts her horse and rides off. "You're a man now," she tells a protesting Björn. "Act like one."

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​SandiIf she and Ragnar had not been married and had a life together before, I think the anger factor would have been less. But they were and they continue to have a good relationship even now, so Ragnar's insistence on pursuing his own interests over hers rankles. I get it. Then, Lagertha's talk with Björn leaves him dissatisfied. Be a man, huh? In terms of helping his mother? Helping his father? Helping Porunn? Seems like the young man can't get it right no matter what. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't, and he is still also likely dealing with guilt. History knows Björn Ironside, though, so one must imagine he gets through this and becomes even stronger. I look forward to watching that happen.​

Rollo goes to the Seer as well, but his visit is less to ask for insight into the future than it is to unburden his soul at the unfair treatment he's gotten at Ragnar's hands.

Everyone has preferred Ragnar over Rollo, and he asks if anyone can blame him for being disloyal in light of it. The Seer chuckles and says he wouldn't be so tormented if he could see what the gods have in store for him in the future. In fact, he'd be dancing for joy on the seashore if he knew.
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​SandiAnd we know the Seer to be right on target for this. Really a remarkable character, as I said earlier. Rollo will, I hope, rise to the occasion that his future presents to him.​

Aethelwulf arrives at the Northman settlement and decides to solve the problem of conflict by killing all of the pagans, which he piously says is for the lord.

​SandiThis really shocked me. Utterly. The children were so vulnerable here, too, and that was heartbreaking for me. What was he thinking, I wondered. Did he know about Athelstan and his wife? (Likely.) Was this in retribution? (Possibly.) Was he mad at his father and wanted to create further strife, uncaring as to the ramifications upon his future kingdom and reputation?​

After they're all slain, he kneels before a burning cross and begins to recite the Lord's Prayer, his eyes fixed on its flickering flames. Back in his father's hall, Ecbert roars in rage that his treaties with Ragnar have been violated. He accuses Aethelwulf's men of treason and has them all arrested. He orders his people from the room so he can deal with his son. As soon as they're gone, he spreads his arms and laughs, embracing Aethelwulf - the plan went off without a hitch.

​SandiThis was THE mindblowing moment for me. Up to this point, I had thought that Ecbert was sincere in his pursuit of an alliance and so on. Even now, I'm not sure what was happening "behind the scenes". Ecbert's tone never seemed sincere in this final scene, he seemed to be acting, even with his son in private, and I'm not (still) entirely certain he was being real for anyone. 

He's still playing his own game of chess.​

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Thanks for joining us! Tune in next THORSday for another episode!

Heill þú farir, heill þú aftr komir, heill þú á sinnum sér!

Hale go forth, hale return, hale on your ways! – Vafþrúðnismál 4

1 comment:

  1. Porunn miscarried? I didn't catch that. Her face is healing well.

    Ecbert definitely is a sly devil. He got rid of the nobles that were talking behind his back recently. Not sure how he'll keep from getting in a war with the Vikings over the fate of the settlement, though.


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