Viking Blood Eagle

Viking Blood Eagle, “Blood Eagle” Season 2, Episode 7 Befitting its title, “Blood Eagle” is filled with animal imagery. The first image is a spider spinning its web in the snow. When we first see Ragnar, he’s killing and skinning a rat, accepting King Horik’s advice that publicly killing Jarl Borg might scare off other potential allies for their upcoming raid. Ragnar, dismembering the rat with his bare hands, calls, “But at least we are still allies, King Horik,” as the king beats an uneasy retreat. When Ragnar goes to the Seer to inquire about Athelstan, he allows the Seer’s snake to twine itself around his arm. When we first see Athelstan, contentedly at work among King Ecbert’s secret trove of Roman documents, his task is interrupted by a raven staring through a hole in the window. The imprisoned and increasingly desperate Jarl Borg sees his captivity shared by a different snake, and a different rat, which he seems to have befriended. And then there’s the eagle, watching its horrifying namesake enacted on Borg with its cold, pitiless, alien eyes.

What does it all mean? Well, there are some obvious parallels-Horik’s been plotting against Ragnar, hence the rat imagery (plus, his betrayal of Borg at the end is presaged by another). The raven, symbol of Odin, suggests to Athelstan that his time with the Norsemen is not as finished as he thinks. The snakes-you’ve got me. And the spider, weaving a seemingly fruitless winter trap? As the final scene shows, Ragnar Lothbrok, as ever, is going to bide his time-until he’s got his foes right where he wants them.

Which isn’t to say that Ragnar is proving infallible. In fact, this season of Vikings has gone a fair way toward revealing the weaknesses of Ragnar’s signature approach to any challenge. In some ways, Ragnar has placed himself in a position he’s unsuited for, his ascendance magnifying how much he relies on resolution, prowess, and luck to carry him through, while skills he lacks or neglects such as statesmanship, intrigue, and simple personal interaction may have served him better. Tonight, his planned execution of Borg stalls until a force from the outside (we’ll get to that, believe me) makes his final, terrifying vengeance possible. Ragnar’s always working on a lot of different strands, but there’s always the sense that even he’s not sure how they’re going to come together to achieve what he wants. As a political strategy, it’d be worrisome-if Ragnar’s force of will were ever to falter.

In the strikingly staged scene in the great hall, we see Ragnar looking in through the latticework that surrounds the other characters as they dine. He circles, staring that signature Ragnar stare and giving away nothing as he observes: Horik plotting with Siggy, Aslaug commiserating with Borg’s pregnant wife, Bjorn getting some love advice from Floki. All the while, Ragnar is watching from his web, the understated music building in a steady, rising tension that seems incongruous with the seemingly commonplace things Ragnar sees. It’s effective in conveying that, like always, Ragnar’s catching a lot more than everyone else.

But not everything-”Blood Eagle” introduces the development of a rift between Ragnar and Floki which is worrisome, not least because it seems to come out of nowhere. Gustaf Skarsgård’s Floki has always been a wild card, but his seeming jealousy against his friend here is abrupt. Floki’s always been Ragnar’s ally and advisor-perhaps there’s been some tension over Ragnar’s friendship with Athelstan, against whose Christianity Floki has always had a visceral antipathy. And while it’s not inconceivable that Floki, who built the innovative ships that have been so instrumental in Ragnar’s success, might harbor some resentment at Ragnar’s advancement to Earl, I can’t say this development (which looks to be continued in future episodes) is particularly auspicious. Floki, as he says to the now-pregnant Helga, has always been “the fool,” in the Shakespearean sense-he’s on the outside to a certain extent, which gives him both the perspective to see what others cannot and the freedom to say things others will not. To bring him down to the level of jealous squabbling that’s been the provenance of so many other characters is to rob him of much that makes him so unique, and entertaining.

Which isn’t to say that there’s not a lot of great Floki in “Blood Eagle.” His tearful lament to Helga about the “poor child” in her belly is affecting, especially his sorrowful, “I will be the worst father I always was a fool.” Brought up short by Helga’s news, it’s as if his outsider’s perspective focuses on himself, and finds himself wanting. As he replies to Bjorn’s later compliment, “I’m not wise at all. I’m just a jokester.” But their wedding, cast in contrast to the dour, political arrangement of British Kings Aelle and Ecbert’s offspring, looks like the best, most joyous Viking party ever, with flowers, white garments, cheers, nature-if I had a choice, I know which one I’d attend. (Skarsgård’s face when he swears to the gods that he wants to marry Helga is the purest expression of joy Vikings has ever seen.)

Speaking of joy, the entire next sequence, with Ragnar playing very dangerous drunken games with Torstein (think Jarts, but you hold the target) is the sort of roistering shenanigans that makes for great Vikings fun. There’s the sense that Ragnar, not asked to bless Floki’s wedding, may be smarting from the slight and acting recklessly, but he’s also clearly having a blast, especially when it comes to scaring the shit out of the poor messenger sent from the mysterious Earl who prefers to meet out in the woods.

It’s Lagertha, naturally, although I didn’t piece it together until just before she appeared, regal and playfully revealing herself to the delighted Ragnar. Their reunion, bantering about Lagertha’s offer to join Ragnar and Horik with her (dead husband’s) four ships and 100 warriors is more delight, as the two slip easily back into the clear admiration they’ve always shared. There’s no one out there who thinks the Ragnar/Aslaug marriage superior to Ragnar/Lagertha, and this scene poignantly underscores how well-matched these exes are-Lagertha’s playful, “Yes, we are equal” encompasses a lot about their shared past, and how their future is altered so irrevocably. When they, terms agreed upon, ride off together, the obvious affection is both heartening and a little heartbreaking.

Like last week’s episode, there’s a fair amount of table-setting going on here, but with the added exuberance of the scenes mentioned-and then the yawning horror of the last. There are some feints toward Borg escaping-and no doubt Horik would have followed through if Lagertha hadn’t shown up when she did-but the way the scene plays out, with Borg walking to his fate at the center of the people he’d conquered, where the white-clad Ragnar awaits, is as stunning a sequence as Vikings has ever pulled off. Here the echoes all come together. All the lesser prey animals are gone in favor of the raptor watching over all. Ragnar’s white garment at the center of the gathering parallels Floki’s wedding attire-while Floki attends in his traditional, jokester’s garb. The joyful wedding ceremony becomes this other, more terrifying Viking ritual. When Ragnar explained the blood eagle to Bjorn earlier, telling his son the details while staring balefully over the lip of the tub, it was like a scary bedtime story. (Bjorn even jumps when the door opens behind him.) Here, Ragnar enacts the infamous torture and execution on the kneeling, resigned Borg in intimate, graphic detail. The sequence’s power is reminiscent of the similar ending of the first season episode “Sacrifice”-both end in scenes of breathtakingly photographed, mysterious, ritualized violence.

As he often does, Ragnar had seemed willing to play along with the plans of other, more powerful men so well that he seemed irresolute-overmatched, even. In this last scene, we see the truth of Ragnar Lothbrok. Borg had betrayed him, conquered his people, and threatened his family-so he had to die painfully. If it took everyone else until they saw Borg’s lungs resting on his own shoulders in the town square to understand that, well, that’s why Ragnar’s the one walking away covered in his enemy’s blood while Borg breathes his last. At least he didn’t scream-Valhalla awaits.

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