Vikings Season 1 Review “Burial of the Dead”

There are many action shows on television that focus entirely on explosions, blood spray, and mutilated bodies. There are many shows that think they are delving into the deeper questions of the human mind, while they are actually presenting a superficial thought imbued with pretention. The thing I like about Vikings, and Michael Hirst projects generally, is that there is a balance between fast-paced action and esoteric ideas. The fact that it has an incredibly talented cast and beautiful setting is just gravy.

We’ve been building up to a conflict between Ragnar and Earl Haraldson all season. The Earl never understood Ragnar; he only saw him as a threat to his soft, easy life on his fur-covered throne. It is easy to imagine how things would have been different if the Earl had supported Ragnar’s initial request to go west and rejoiced in his success. The episode begins with a look back at an earlier confrontation between the two men, where the Earl announced to the crowded room, “This is an ambitious man, and he resents the fact that he owes me loyalty and obedience as his chieftain.” In this moment, the Earl miscalculated because he didn’t comprehend Ragnar’s true motives. From what we’ve seen of Ragnar, he is driven by curiosity and a sense of adventure. He never seemed like he secretly longed to be the liege-lord.

By misjudging Ragnar, the Earl ensured his own destruction. In last week’s episode, the Earl slaughtered the people of Ragnar’s village, attacked him, and tortured Rollo. This reaction was excessive considering that the only crime Ragnar had committed was success in a raid approved by the Earl (setting aside the pretense of justice for the rapist killed by Lagertha). The severity of the Earl’s action demonstrated that he viewed Ragnar as a threat. When Floki presents Ragnar’s combat challenge, the Earl initially declines, “That would suggest that I take him seriously – that I see him as an equal.” This is precisely the message he’s sent out by all of his actions against Ragnar. The Earl thinks back on the words of the Seer and knows that fighting Ragnar is unavoidable.

The Vikings held the belief that an individual’s fate is predestined from birth. Similar to the Greek Fates, the Viking Norns would weave an unalterable web of an individual’s life. The strands woven by benevolent Norns would bring a person honor and success, while the strands of malevolent Norns would bring tragedy and despair. Earl Haraldson knows in his heart that the darker forces surround the imminent ending of his life. The Earl is compelled to accept Ragnar’s challenge of one-to-one combat and feels that he has been abandoned by the gods. He tries to imagine that his antagonistic relationship with Ragnar has some bigger purpose, “Our fates have brought us together, and maybe he has opened the western lands for me.” The expression on his face belies his optimism.

The notion of predestination permeates the episode. Lagertha worries that Ragnar is too weak to take on the Earl, but Ragnar assures her that the outcome will be what fate demands. The battle between the two men is relatively short, and Ragnar triumphs. The raven reappears, and Ragnar tells the Earl that Odin has come to take him to Valhalla before opening his wrist. Ragnar is elevated to the position of Earl, an honor that he appears to enjoy.

The problem with fate is that it strips individuals of personal responsibility. Ragnar understands that Rollo is not entirely loyal, even though Rollo backed him when the Earl tried to frame and kill him. As they embrace, Rollo asks, “How will we ever be equal now, my brother?” Ragnar’s expression alters because he knows that the future holds a conflict with Rollo – one that both men are apparently helpless to avoid. Even if Ragnar betrays his brother, how could he have done differently considering his fate was decided at birth? There is no other option than the one fate has decided. When Rollo approaches Siggy at the end and offers to protect her, he tells her that he will one day become Earl. If you believe in predestination, Rollo’s treachery is unavoidable. He can’t help but betray his brother. Does that make him less of a villain?

Throughout the episode, Athelstan lingers in the background, watching as everything unfolds. We see him becoming more and more part of the group, but he has not abandoned his faith. England was not exactly a peaceful place at the onset of the early Middle Ages. Nevertheless, Athelstan is not prepared for the violence of the Vikings. He may take a knee and join the cheers for Ragnar after the defeat of the Earl, but that does not mean that he’s embracing all of the traditions. Athelstan is horrified when he witnesses the sacrifice of the slave at the Earl’s funeral and crosses himself. Ragnar’s son, Bjorn, demonstrates that he is a Viking through and through and violently challenges Athelstan when the priest attempts to leave the scene. Bjorn is still quite immature, but there is also something else in him that seems angry.

The future of Ragnar and his family feels unstable and not just because of Rollo. Even with a new child on the way, Lagertha doesn’t seem like the type of woman who is going to be satisfied lounging about all day. Their new social status is likely to make Bjorn even more insufferable. Ragnar is happy now as he sails up the river in England, but will he be able to effectively rule at home? We’ll have more time to explore these issues now that the show has been renewed for a second season.

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