Fun fact: actor Ivan Kaye, who plays King Aelle on Vikings, also played Ivar the Boneless in the 2013 film Hammer of the Gods. That’s a bit significant because according to old Icelandic sagas about the quasi-historic Ragnar Lothbrok and his family, Ivar would successfully seek personal revenge with the help of his brothers against Aelle for something that occurs in this very episode.
That thing, of course, is the death of Ragnar. The saga mentions that as well. And then Vikings goes and does it.
How does Ragnar die? Sort of on his own terms. Though he doesn’t say so out loud, I suspect the reasoning was Ragnar realized he couldn’t get back at Ecbert for the colonists’ deaths due to his low reputation following the disaster that was the second raid on Paris. The only thing to do is get his sons to do it for him, and the only way to do that was to die in England at the hands of Ecbert. And Ecbert, well, he won’t do it himself. He actually considers Ragnar a friend, and given Ragnar may be one of the few men in the world Ecbert could consider an equal, he may not be too far off. Ecbert is a king. They don’t really have friends. Even other kings like Aelle don’t quite measure up to someone like Ecbert. Ecbert is smart, wily, political, and mindful of the past. Ragnar is a bit of that in many ways.
Aelle, by contrast, is a brute. His entire treatment of Ragnar is testament to that. Ecbert wouldn’t have gone that way. Instead, it’s brute torture by Aelle’s men, consisting of stabbing, burning, slapping, beating, and perhaps the worst being sanctimonious lectures from Aelle himself. And Ragnar, to his credit, never gives in. He has a final conversation with the Eyeless Seer Dude when the blind man driving the cart from Ecbert’s kingdom to Aelle’s “sees” Ragnar (fulfilling the Seer’s prediction that Ragnar couldn’t die until the blind man saw him). He affirms his belief in his own gods. He offers Ecbert some comfort when he tells the man that Athelstan ultimately chose Christianity. He even gives the dead monk’s cross to Alfred.
And Alfred, well, he and Ivar seem to bond over a game of chess. Maybe those two can be real friends and not the ones that plot against each other like Ragnar and Ecbert ultimately do.
And though Ragnar dies in a snake pit, with Ecbert disguised there to see it (the king walked barefoot in a monk’s robes to be there as penance), his plan perhaps worked. Ragnar took Ivar for a reason: Ivar would be the most dangerous and ruthless of Ragnar’s five sons due to his condition. And though the saga said Ivar would target Aelle, Ragnar tells him instead to go after Ecbert, breaking a promise he made to the King of Wessex. Ecbert does get Ivar back to Kattegat safely, as promised, and Ivar does tell Ubbe and Sigurd that they need to go after Ecbert, also as promised. But first, there’s the little thing about Lagertha killing Aslaug. Ivar is the most dangerous, we’ve been told. He won’t let that stand.
And there’s still the mystery of the one-eyed man coming into Kattegat.
But here’s a better question: can Vikings survive without Ragnar in the lead? The show’s already been renewed for a fifth season. Are the remaining, younger characters strong enough to take that spot? We’ll just have to wait and see. They have five more episodes to end the season on first.