Well, they did it.
I wrote at the start of this half of season four that the show really needed, in order to keep the momentum going, to kill off Ragnar Lothbrok. This entire season has been building to it- longer than that, actually, as his nihilistic outlook has been an increasingly important part of his character since the death of Athelstan. But this week, in All His Angels, Vikings finally bit the bullet and killed off their leading man.
Major character deaths have been a theme for this season of television, but no show has done it with more style or substance than Vikings. This episode, written by Michael Hirst and directed by Ciaran Donnelly, is a real masterwork in both restraint and spectacle. The direction, on odd interplays between light and dark-such as having only Ragnar’s hands lit in one of the first shots of the episode- is award-worthy in it’s beauty, but this is fifty minutes of truly sumptuous writing more than anything else.
Michael Hirst, who created the series and writes all the episodes, has an ironclad grip on the mythos and history of Vikings, an unusual feat in a time when most shows rely on a plethora of writers to come up with a full season’s story. You can peel back this tale as far as you like-right back to the first episode- and all signs point to Ragnar’s final moment in Aelle’s snakepit (thanks, by the way, to Vikings for ruining my snake-fearing boyfriend’s birthday, as we snuggled up to watch this episode and finished up with him practically smashing the screen to dust in Ragnar’s final moments as the camera lingered on the particularly enormous slitherers). Hirst has proven himself, in unfolding the story of Ragnar Lothbrok and particularly in this final episode, to be one of the most patient and detail-orientated storytellers working on TV today, and I, for one, am glad to have him.
This is, as it should be, an episode dominated by Travis Fimmel- whose career I sincerely hope hasn’t died along with Ragnar. He’s exhausted but still defiant, admitting that he has long since stopped believing in the Gods, but still bellowing his excitement at entering Valhalla at the English people who turned up to watch his execution because it’d piss them off. He insists to a vision of the Seer that he has defied the Gods by choosing his own death; whether or not he has if left ambiguous, but till his last moments, Ragnar is idiosyncratically himself, the myth, the man, the legend- the arsehole. He peers up out of the snakepit to see Ecbert disguised as a monk, an stand-in for Athelstan (an Athelstand-in?), he smiles, and he dies. It’s a brilliant, brutal death, and a sad farewell to one of the most compelling characters in this golden age of television- if an overdue one.
But as one story ends, another begins- Ivar speaks with his father before he is sent back to England, and Ragnar makes him promise to avenge his death on Ecbert. Ivar agrees, but when he returns, it seems like he’s got more dead parents to avenge than he knows what to do with. I’d been trying to figure out what the show was planning to do with Ubbe, Sigurd, and Ivar, and forcing them into this uneasy alliance to take down Lagertha and Ecbert seems like a way to get fraternal sparks flying.
Honestly, it’s hard to look forward after an episode like this. I’m impressed and glad that Ragnar has finally bitten the dust and opened the show up to whole new stories and characters, but I’m sad to see him go, and the little flashbacks in this episodes only served to remind us what an amazing story his has been. I’ll be raising a horn of ale to Ragnar- and Travis Fimmel- tonight. As well as trying to figure out who that one-eyed raven bloke floating towards Kattegat is meant to be…