Starring Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen, Gustaf Skarsgård, Jessalyn Gilsig, George Blagden, and Thorbjørn Harr
My rating: ★★ stars
New characters and new situations hamper season finale.
While the previous episode felt like a season finale, most of this episode, “All Change,” feels like a season opener. As the title suggests, much is changing on the show. This episode sees the introduction two new major characters and the death of several others.
The episode opens with Ragnar, along with Rollo, Floki, Arne, Torstein, and Bjorn, traveling to Götland, Sweden, on behalf of King Horik to meet with Jarl Borg (Thorbjørn Harr) to settle a land dispute between him and the king. Our first impression of Götland is how dingy and miserable it looks compared to the fjords near Kattegat. The location managers, set designers, and special effects team have done a wonderful job at creating a contrasting look that is yet similar enough to reflect the same general culture.
Jarl Borg presents a much more thoughtful and charismatic figure than King Horik. Unlike the king, the jarl is willing to negotiate regarding the land. Horik wants the matter settled in no other way than Borg selling the land to him outright.
Borg recognizes almost immediately that there’s underlying tension between Ragnar and Rollo. He deftly manipulates the situation, sending Ragnar off to explore the countryside while Floki travels to King Horik to present him with the jarl’s offers to negotiate. Borg requests that one man stay behind, probably sensing that Ragnar will choose Rollo. Ragnar, unwisely, does, which allows Borg subtly to exploit Rollo’s feelings of jealousy until he agrees to turn on Ragnar.
The season has been building up to this betrayal since the beginning, with Rollo seething in resentment as Ragnar increased in power as leader. However, its actualization doesn’t seem monumental enough for a season finale cliffhanger. Nothing specific about Rollo’s betrayal is shown. He takes no action and indicates no plans beyond saying that he will support Jarl Borg.
Furthermore, the question of Rollo’s betrayal doesn’t seem that pressing because Ragnar has no personal stake in the upcoming fight. He’s merely supporting King Horik. Earlier in the episode, when Ragnar was asked which side he would support, there was a question of which leader he’d choose, so Ragnar isn’t even fully dedicated to King Horik’s side.
We viewers also can’t be sure that the betrayal will really take place because, earlier in the season, Rollo indicated to Earl Haraldson that he would betray Ragnar but double-crossed Haraldson and supported Ragnar instead. Rollo does, in fact, fight against Ragnar and his friends in the battle in the next season’s premiere, but we don’t know that he will in this episode.
With the build-up of Rollo’s resentment from the start, it would make sense that the culmination of that would be the season cliffhanger. However, I don’t think the show’s execution of the betrayal gives it enough dramatic import to be a strong season-ending event.
The other major plot development in the finale similarly fails to excite viewers for the next season. In this episode, Ragnar meets Princess Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland) and has a fling with her, much to the chagrin of his son Bjorn (and, after the episode aired, viewers, too). The cliffhanger of this development—that Aslaug becomes pregnant—has the potential to anger more than intrigue viewers.
As fascinating as the legend tells us Aslaug is supposed to be, she doesn’t come off that way. Sutherland doesn’t have the compelling presence needed to sell the character to the audience immediately. Furthermore, that she is introduced in this episode and so soon becomes such a disruptive force in the story prevents the audience from developing a connection to the character.
The difficulty creator and writer Michael Hirst had is twofold. First, the story of Ragnar Lothbrok is an established legend in which Aslaug is his most famous and popular wife; his first wife, Lagertha, is a minor figure in the legend. No matter what Hirst feels is best for the story, the legend dictates that Aslaug has to be introduced at some point. Secondly, the whole first season was produced and delivered to the network before the first episode even aired, so Hirst could not have known that Lagertha would become the breakout character of the series. (Yes, he could have had an inkling based on seeing the content of the episodes, but it would be only a tiny inkling.) Yet, as with Rollo’s betrayal of Ragnar, the execution of this plot development is not ideal.
While Ragnar and company are off in Sweden, disaster in the form of a mysterious fever strikes Kattegat, killing Siggy’s daughter, Thyri, and Ragnar and Lagertha’s daughter, Gyda, as well as numerous others. This storyline is so separate from the other (Ragnar’s trip to Sweden)—geographically, tonally, and narratively—that it doesn’t seem to belong in the same episode. The fever, also, seems to come out of nowhere. Nothing in the previous episodes has built up to this event. Furthermore, the characters who die—Gyda and Thyri—are superfluous to the greater story arc of the series. The fever seems less a natural story development than an easy way to trim the canvas of the series.
Were this episode not a season finale, it might be stronger. But introducing new characters and conflicts, which haven’t been developed over the course of the season, prevents viewers from becoming engaged with those developments. The one occurrence that has been building over time, Rollo’s betrayal, is not fully realized when the episode ends, leaving the viewers with little to anticipate eagerly over the series’ nearly ten-month hiatus.