In the second episode of Vikings, we seem to have a nod to Oscar season as Bjorn, having just set out to explore and conquer southern Europe does his best Leonardo DiCaprio impression from the Revenant, including an encounter with a bear. Although fortunately for the audience, he is spared an ursine sexual assault (that’s a sentence you don’t write everyday). There isn’t really much to say about this story line. Bjorn has no dialogue and all we see him do is fish for his dinner. It may set the scene for reminding us of his fortitude, but there is no plot or character development which is unfortunate since that screen time could have been replaced with more about the drama taking place at Kattegat which is sadly absent from this episode.
In a second narrative, Floki has escaped with the help of Helga and is being hunted down by Ragnar’s younger son in a plot very reminiscent of The Fugitive. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking and the chase scenes are worth watching just for cinematography, but it does very little to advance the general plot. However, it does lead to an (on the surface) touching exchange between Ragnar and Helga. It’s an exchange where we are reminded that Ragnar can display considerable kindness tinged with underlying cunning.
While Bjorn and Ragnar’s subplots plateau, the real action takes place in Wessex. With the third season’s final episodes focused on the siege of Paris, Ecbert’s subplot had taken a back seat, but this episode the continuing efforts of forging a unified Anglo-Saxon kingdom under Wessex domination takes centre stage. Beginning with a Witan where Ecbert informs his nobles that Princess Kwenthrith has been overthrown and imprisoned. He faces push back over the expense of sending an army to free an unpopular princess, eliciting from Ecbert a teleological foreshadowing of Wessex’s future greatness. This is a common theme in historical fiction. More often than not authors and artists inject a certain inevitability in historical events. Wessex did in fact come to dominate the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and control the throne until the Norman invasion of 1066. However, the reality is the historical Ecbert and his successor, including Alfred the Great, were ambitious monarchs, but their ambition was not fueled by a nascent concept of the English state. They were powerful warlords seeking to expand their power base. Even Alfred, considered the first of the English monarchs for driving the Danes out of the south and unifying the kingdoms was more interest in protecting the interests of Wessex and subordinating his rivals to the newly strengthened kingdom. The irony of course is that the state apparatus that he and his successors put in place was used by the Danish king Cnut over a century later.
While Ecbert’s son Aethelwulf goes off to rescue Kwenthrith, Ecbert offers his daughter-in-law, Judith in a scene of proto-feminism, her freedom by importing one of the greatest illuminators to teach her how to illuminate manuscripts. So enters Aethelstan lite, a Frankish illuminator from Troyes who reluctantly agrees to the job of teaching a woman the art of illumination.
This is an important scene given that in the previous season, Ecbert got her pregnant with the future Alfred. It’s a nice soap operatic touch that does not bear any reality to the historical record. The real Judith was the daughter of Charles II of France who become Athelwulf’s second wife after his divorce from Osburgh, his first wife. It is also historical that that Alfred was Aethwulf’s son, but he was the fourth son from the first marriage. In fact, chances of Alfred inheriting the throne were slim since he was preceded by three brothers. Alfred only became king after the premature deaths of his older brothers. But I somehow think these detail would slow down the plot somewhat.
The fourth subplot is the Frankification of Rollo who is given the wardrobe of a Frankish noble, along with the bobbed haircut to go with it. As with the first two subplots, this one does very little for Rollo’s narrative apart from showing his military prowess by suggesting the building of a chain across the Seine to prevent Viking ships sailing up to the walls of Paris. Hopefully by the end of Rollo’s transformation we will be calling him Robert. Rollo’s brief narrative sets the stage for the plotting of Odo’s overthrow.
Again, Vikings knocks it out of the park with its production values. The aerial shot of 9th century Paris alone is almost worth watching the episode. Walking the fine line of costume drama and action oriented narrative, the second episode fully delivers what makes the show so compelling. Based on the previews, it seems that the third episode will focus more on Rollo’s efforts to adapt to Frankish culture which should prove great viewing as this narrative has really given Clive Standin a chance to develop his character with some depth.
Jason Sager is a historian of French history and loves to slum around the medieval period. He can be found on facebook: facebook.com/jasonbsager, and twitter: @drjasonsager