What is most immediately striking about “Blood Eagle” is how much of an ensemble episode of Vikings it is. The series tends to understandably revolve around its central character, Ragnar Lothbrok. He is the man with foresight. He is the unique one among the vikings, admirably ambitious and naturally compelling. He is the reason Vikings exists. Even major characters like Rollo and Lagertha have had a tendency to fall to the wayside in favor of focusing on whatever Ragnar has in store for himself and his people. Yet, “Blood Eagle” is hardly an hour that belongs to the man. Just about every character in the cast this season gets to shine in some noticeable way, making an episode that does little to move the plot forward feel much more necessary by establishing motives, commenting on relationships and letting characters think and feel rather than act.
It’s no wonder, then, that many of director Kari Skogland’s decisions in the episode help convey meaning in some of the more static scenes. There is a bunch of prison imagery in the first half of the episode, beginning with Aslaug and Siggy’s conversation about the princess’ pregnancy. As Aslaug recalls the moment of involuntary speech in which she warned Ragnar about forcing himself upon her for fear of bearing a monster, we see both characters’ faces obscured by the tapestries that they’re working on. Siggy finds herself in a situation more obviously confining in “Blood Eagle.” Rollo knows about her relations with King Horik and nearly chokes her to death because of them. However, despite Aslaug’s attempts to brush off the return of Lagertha and even embrace it as a welcome circumstance, she also finds herself in a kind of prison that is beginning to close in on her as she races towards the birth of her next child. Also in the episode, we see Athelstan’s face appear behind a column of scrolls. And with the help of the Seer explaining how Athelstan’s soul is tortured, the prison imagery makes perfect sense given the former monk’s situation of being trapped with an enemy who doesn’t necessarily seem like an enemy as much anymore. Finally, during a campfire scene in which Horik learns about Floki’s disillusionment with his earl, Ragnar looks on from behind a gate that is modeled almost exactly like a cage. We might question how Ragnar, who appears to possess the most influence and power in Vikings even though he is not a king, could be grouped in with the other characters who are trapped in some way. But even Ragnar laments how the gods are toying with him in a scene that exemplifies Skogland’s command over visual storytelling in “Blood Eagle.” Ragnar lies back, looking up at the sky and stating the it will be dark soon. The camera is positioned directly above him as one might film a death scene for a fallen warrior in battle. It even lingers there long enough for his eyes to close, doing some heavy foreshadowing, intentional or otherwise, to whatever the end of Ragnar’s story is. That moment is certainly far in the distance, but the shot works by creating that layer of everyone’s lives being at the mercy of the gods.
Of the many other characters who get some great material in “Blood Eagle,” Gustaf Skarsgard’s Floki is the most pleasantly surprising. Floki has always been used sparingly in dialog because of the physical energy Skarsgard brings to the role that tends to overpower the few things Floki ever has to say to anyone, being a self-proclaimed joker. However, the scene he shares with Helga when he learns that she is pregnant is among the better ones Vikings has done all season. Like Ragnar’s conversation with the spirit of his dead daughter in the season premiere, this is a moment that strips down one of the series’ characters to his barest. What is something that ought to be celebrated ends up weighing Floki down with anxiety initially. In his eyes, his relationship with the gods has been inadequate, making him fear for the child’s future to have an unworthy carpenter of a father. It may very well be the only scene in the whole season that allows Skarsgard to dig into who Floki is as a person when he is at one with himself, but it’s enough to communicate that in a way that is both memorable and touching. It gives his wedding scene (which runs concurrent with the wedding scene going on in England) more substance and draws us in more as viewers. We want to see him happy, not just because he has shown his truest side but also because he’s an honest character amid a handful of people lured by deceit and treachery. His opinions might put him at odds with our main protagonist, Ragnar, but Michael Hirst has done a great job of explaining why that’s okay. Ragnar acts like a bored and stubborn child for much of “Blood Eagle,” and his ambition does seem to be carrying him away.
Ragnar, though, does embody the stern earl he’s often been in the other ceremony of that the episode gets its title from. The sheer brutality of the Blood Eagle immediately recalls something like “Decimation” from Spartacus: War of the Damned. It’s not something that’s been invoked many times in history and serves as a grandiose set piece for the episode’s final act. At first, we think Jarl Borg might be on his way to escaping, and either I missed something vital or the episode doesn’t make it clear whether or not it was Horik’s plan to string Borg along or if Ragnar made an impulse decision regarding the timing of the execution. In any case, Borg silently suffers through it (I think; at a couple points, his mouth is open, but he doesn’t appear to be yelling), which allows him safe passage to Valhalla. To be sure, Borg has been anything but an honorable character in Vikings this season, and of the many people who probably deserve a trip to see the gods, he’s right up there. That said, I’m weirdly glad that he makes it through the Blood Eagle without screaming, slightly redeeming himself. That’s probably less a case of the episode making Borg any more sympathetic and more a case of Ragnar becoming less sympathetic. If nothing else, Thorbjorn Harr has been great in the role of antagonist and this is as respectable a send-off for him as any. And now that his execution has been taken care of and Lagertha has joined forces with Ragnar, we can hopefully move on to the confrontation with King Ecbert in the final three episodes of the season. Or, at least, we can see Bjorn keep trying to run his game and fail horribly. Poor guy.
[Photo via Jonathan Hession/History]