“Unforgiven” is somewhat of a strange episode for Vikings‘ second season, which has had a ton of forward momentum in its first half. While we still get scenes in Wessex and ones that follow Lagertha back to her current husband, the majority of the hour is focused on luring Jarl Borg back to Kattegat and then repaying him for his treachery during Ragnar’s absence. There is mention of Ragnar’s grand design in “Unforgiven,” and Horik reminds him directly of the plans to colonize in England. Yet, the episode remains fairly static, serving as an example of what happens in the aftermath of betrayal both physically and psychologically.
Plot-wise, Ragnar’s decision to have Borg killed (presumably; we won’t see if he follows through on his rather gruesome plans to have Borg’s rib cage ripped apart) makes sense but is mired in several instances of emotion overcoming reason. Horik, surprisingly, is the only one who legitimately seeks Borg’s return to their ranks and is willing to pardon the man. It’s an unusual episode for Donal Logue’s king, who also forces Siggy into a situation where her best option is to sleep with Horik’s son for fear of rebuttal. On the one hand, Horik gets bonus points for being one of the few vikings who doesn’t act like an offended child (that’s probably trivializing the situation, since Borg did go after Ragnar’s family, but whatever). On the other hand, he’s clearly overstepping his boundaries by engaging Rollo’s woman. Why, exactly, he does this is not completely clear, but it may be that his respect for Rollo is still dangerously low even after Rollo has transitioned back into being the brother Ragnar needs him to be. Horik also chimes in on the whole “it’s a good thing Athelstan is dead, because that guy sucked” conversation that occurs when he returns. This is all to say that Michael Hirst doesn’t make it easy and allow us to have uncomplicated sympathy for most of these characters (if you follow the Vikings Twitter feed, the episode 6 poll was essentially a vote for MVP in the episode: Rollo or Horik; you could make just as much of a conflicted case for Rollo, who also makes his fair share of bad decisions in “Unforgiven”).
The Borg situation also brings questions of viking politics to the table. It has been a while since the days of Gabriel Byrne’s Earl Haraldson, in which there seemed to be some sort of sentencing based on a set of rules every week. Ragnar makes the decision to apprehend Borg independent of viking law. If the group is willing to let him back in the first place–and Thorbjorn Harr is utterly convincing in his speech about how Borg is so grateful to Ragnar for being welcomed back (Harr, by the way, has what is easily the most viking name of any of the actors: Thor…bjorn…c’mon)–then I have some difficulty with Ragnar going against that without consulting his people. Then again, Ragnar hasn’t been portrayed as a ruler interested in custom, since he leaves it to his son to decide how much livestock one man has to give to another after being wronged. Still, for someone who has had a troubled relationship with his faith to the gods, this seems like bad karma, and roping Rollo into it, having him essentially burn people alive, can’t be something Odin would smile about without a convincing argument.
Speaking of convincing, how about Lagertha? It almost seemed like the threshold of her tolerance was going to be stretched, but Sigvard is in the unfortunate situation of never having seen the television series Vikings. He doesn’t know just how convincing his wife can be about not messing around with her. After being beaten in the dead of night, certainly at Sigvard’s behest, he tries to humiliate her in public only to get a knife to the eye and then his head lopped off by a Lagertha loyalist. Truthfully, I’m surprised he lasted as long as he did. What this does for Vikings is absolutely tantalizing, since Lagertha clearly commands respect in her area of Scandinavia. With Borg’s men gone, if Lagertha can rally her husband’s people behind her, that gives Ragnar the amount of vikings he needs to head back to Wessex to take down Ecbert. It also probably brings the love triangle back into play, which isnt’ the best avenue of story right now, but any Lagertha is better than no Lagertha for this series.
The most interesting part of “Unforgiven” to me, however, is what’s happening in England with Athelstan and Ecbert. Ecbert has been portrayed as a slightly different ruler–one that is certainly more intelligent than Ragnar’s previous English foes, but one who also seems to operate in his own little world. Once he sees some of Athelstan’s artistic talents and interests, he invites him into his archives of Roman artifacts. I don’t know much about vikings culture, so historical accuracy eludes me while watching Vikings, but as a viewer of television who is watching the first ever History original scripted series, this interest in looking at how history is forged is unexpectedly satisfying. There’s mention of a former poet in Sigvard’s company, and Athelstan takes on a somewhat similar role by being Ecbert’s archivist or master of lore. Tying Roman history to the events of Vikings not only situates it in historical lineage and offers an idea of the process of continuing history through transcription and interpretation. It also complements the story of Vikings as a work of semi-fiction by drawing a parallel between Ecbert and this conquering Caesars he admires. And, just sticking with how this affects the plot of the show, it also draws Ecbert and Athelstan closer despite the former threatening to kill the latter if he tells anyone about what’s going on. It’s an unexpected way to bridge that gap and perhaps provide Athelstan with someone else other than Ragnar that he can admire for completely different reasons. We’re still far away from the former priest being in a position where choosing between Ragnar and Ecbert will require much thought, I think, but this is an obvious step in that direction, which will hopefully be a focus during Vikings‘ final four episodes of the season.
[Photo via Jonathan Hession/History]