It happened just a few days before 2016 ended, in the latest episode of Vikings, a semi-historic drama loosely based on the medieval Icelandic Ragnars saga Loðbrókar (“saga of Ragnar the Hairy-breeches”). This episode is not the season finale, but it gives us the most shocking twist of plot: it kills the leading character around whom the show has been built up in the past four years.
To be fair, to say it is “shocking” may be exaggerating – after all, Ragnar has been talking about death for a few weeks by now, and anyone who has some knowledge of the saga knows that he will die in a snake pit in the hands of King Aelle of Northumbria. But you’d thought it would happen a bit later and, when it finally comes to that, Ragnar will surely put up a fight, basked in a final moment of glory with the glittering dream of Valhalla.
None of these happens, however. Ragnar’s death is portrayed in a solemn, poignant, and almost ceremonial manner. We see him suffer – silently, helplessly, not as a warrior but as an average man, who has become too tired of fighting – of living. He does shout out Valhalla once and showers insults on Aelle, who just finishes a lengthy prayer. Yet we can tell that he does not believe in what he says. It is only an act of defiance. He knows it is precisely what the world expects a pagan barbarian to do. I can almost hear him saying, fine, this is the monster that you think I am, this is the monster that you accuse me of, so this is precisely what I am giving to you. Are you happy with what you get? Then we see Ragnar curling his lips, forcing into a smile full of sarcasm.
It is also a smile full of sadness – sad not because of the impending death but because of the uncertainty of the after-death. Ragnar starts out as a man of faith. In the first season, we see him communicate with Odin through meditation and repeatedly consult the blind seer for what fate the gods have for him. As his friendship with Athelstan, a captured monk from Lindisfarne, deepens, Ragnar learns the Christian way – a flashback in the episode makes sure we remember it. In the first part of season 4, aired in early 2016, Ragnar becomes intimate with a slave girl who is a princess of China. I found it quite odd at first, for the chance is small for a Chinese girl to reach Kattegat, Denmark, not to mention that she miraculously picks up Old French and Old Norse on the way. But now, with Ragnar’s death roar and flashbacks in the episode, it seems to make sense now: how likely Ragnar meets a Chinese girl does not matter; what really matters is that he meets someone from a culture entirely strange to him, someone who can introduce him to a different kind of vision and spirituality. The result is a man who starts to question the world, the gods, and the definition of self. Ragnar has not quite grasped the answer, but an awareness of something higher certainly surfaces, when we see him try to orchestra his own fate.
Aired in the very last week of 2016, this final episode of the year chooses its timing well. It is, in the first place, an episode of reflection – Ragnar reflects on moments of his life, the show on its previous seasons. By doing so, it invites us, the audience, to reflect upon our own life and belief. It also, however, heralds a new era. Ivar the Boneless, Ragnar’s youngest son, seems to have already conceived a plan of revenge at the end of the episode. He is destined to achieve no less a greatness than his father, and the same goes for Ragnar’s other sons. They have been considered as children so far. They are old enough to start their own adventures, but they have been wanting in motivation. Now Ragnar’s death changes everything, and the TV show will surely move from Ragnars saga to Ragnarssona þáttr (“the Tale of Ragnar’s sons”).
But, no matter how the plot may develop in the future, no matter how the young heroes may steal the show, Ragnar Lothbrok will not be forgotten. And when we remember him, we will not only remember his cunning and bravery in fighting, but also those inner struggles expressed at the old warrior’s silent death.