“My brother doesn’t hold grudges. He’s strange that way.” – Rollo
“Burial of the Dead” is a rewarding episode of Vikings, and probably the show’s best to date. The season-long conflict between Ragnar and Earl Haraldson finally reaches its climax, appropriately in the form of a personal combat — a one-on-one fight to the death.
Predetermination is a recurring theme in this episode, and that is what drives Ragnar to propose the personal combat and why Haraldson ultimately agrees to it, despite the obvious risks. Ragnar, remember, is still wounded from last week’s attack on his farm by Haraldson and his thugs, and as his wife, Lagertha, reminds him (during sex, of course), he’s departing from Viking rules of combat by fighting while the odds aren’t in his favor. Believing himself to be destined for greatness, Ragnar is OK with taking this liberty.
As Haraldson prepares, and faces the very real possibility of his own impending death, he comes clean to his wife about his efforts to stifle Ragnar. He knew Ragnar was probably right about the lands to the West, and even concedes that Ragnar is not unlike a younger version of himself — driven and ambitious. He stood in Ragnar’s way merely in the interest of preserving his own power, he explains. But now, finally, he’s willing to submit his will to fate, whatever it may be.
Ragnar wins the showdown, and even in a bloody victory over his mortal rival, his actions underscore why he has risen to power and usurped Haraldson. Rather than spike the proverbial football, Ragnar plays it earnestly. After incapacitating Haraldson with an axe to the back, Ragnar mercifully kills him simply by opening his wrist with the blade of the axe. He’d have been well within his rights to do something horrific after what Haraldson had pulled (and I suspect much of the audience was pulling for that), but again: spiking the football. Haraldson’s wife tries futilely to stem the flow of blood, but Haraldson brushes her away. He’s at peace with his fate — an honorable death in battle is the optimal way to go.
Of course, it is Ragnar who affords Haraldson this honorable death, and it is Ragnar who decides Haraldson should get an elaborate funeral on a burning boat. Athelstan, our eyes and ears on the ground, asks Ragnar the question everyone watching at home is asking: Why go to these lengths for a villainous old man, your mortal enemy?
“He was also a great man — and warrior,” Ragnar says. “He earned his renown in this life, and now in death he deserves such a funeral.”
If you’re thinking Ragnar is a hell of a guy at this point, well, he is. Even his half-evil brother Rollo understands this:
“My brother doesn’t hold grudges. He’s strange that way.”
This is what Rollo tells Haraldson’s widow while she’s lining her pockets with treasure in anticipation of being cast into exile — or worse. You can’t blame her for fearing the worst now that her husband is dead and she’s out of office, but Rollo — his face badly scarred from last week’s torture incident at the hands of Haraldson — assures her she’ll be allowed to live a normal life. Rollo seems like a swell gent to be so compassionate, but soon he reveals to her his real intentions: He thinks he’ll be earl. He doesn’t know how or by what means, but hey, predestination has a funny way of taking care of those things. Or not.
So begins the new chapter in Ragnar’s life, replete with a new set of challenges. Haraldson is dead, and so it stands to reason his sibling rivalry with Rollo will come into focus. Ragnar also has another baby on the way; Lagertha tells him that she’s with child at Haraldson’s funeral, a nice bit of symmetry, albeit an easy one.
Joffrey Baratheon Bjorn, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly obnoxious, having a couple cross exchanges with Athelstan and throwing a tantrum when Ragnar tells him he’s not yet ready to join the Viking men on their next raid. You’ll be a man some day, Bjorn. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the hapless Northumbrians are growing increasingly leery of Viking raids. As the episode ends, Ragnar and a crew of his men sail up an English river in search of plunder. King Aella, meanwhile, shows off his new toy, a snake pit. He tests it out on a soldier who failed to halt Ragnar the last time the Vikings paid a visit. Turns out, it works.
Ragnar’s innumerable virtues — bravery, grace, wisdom, pragmatism, to name a few — have gotten him to where he is. But that was when he was merely the people’s earl. Now, he really is the earl. Will the same virtues serve him as well in his new role? For example, while taking his seat as earl, he grants a purposeless old Viking his wish to join the younger men on their next raid — to do the only thing he’s ever done. But perhaps Ragnar’s sympathy for the warrior will haunt him if the old timer is a weak link in battle.
- Athelstan, meanwhile, sees a lot in this terrific episode, because a lot of new ground is covered: the personal combat; the preparation and later sacrifice of one of Haraldson’s female slaves; the boat burning; the swearing-in of Ragnar and his family; the Ragnarok. His reactions serve to show what a great and interesting character he is. Really, he doesn’t bring much to the forward movement of the show’s story one way or the other, but his constant sense of wonder (and shock, and appall, etc.) at the foreign world in which he’s immersed is a mirror for ours. He’s getting by among the Vikings just fine, but he’s no Viking, to be sure.
- The slave bit, in particular, is especially jarring for the monk, as you might imagine. First, he witnesses her entering a house full of men where she’ll have sex with all of them, then he’s forced by Bjorn to see her sacrificed (by throat-slitting) at the hands of a new female character, the creepy Angel of Death. It almost played like comic relief when he crossed himself and kissed his cross necklace as the sacrifice neared.
- The personal combat is a barbaric way to resolve a conflict, at least to us, but one the Viking community sees as acceptable and, indeed, honorable. To me, that dissonance — and how it challenges us, the viewers — is what distinguishes Vikings as a really good show in its own right, rather than just being a medieval heroic saga riding the coattails of Game of Thrones.
- There’s only a brief buildup to the combat, which transpires only about a quarter of the way through the episode. This was a wise choice after the relative lull of the second half of last week’s episode, when Ragnar retreats to Floki’s house to heal.
- Despite his injuries, Ragnar defeats Haraldson in the personal combat. The injuries might have been the only way to raise any doubt about who might win such a confrontation — seriously, who ya got between the decorated-warrior hero and the old man? — but that’s almost beside the point. If the outcome was obvious (and I think it was), then the renewed focus on all those foreign cultural customs, and how they imbue the characters’ behaviors before, during, and after the main event is what made this hugely important scene, and the rest of the episode, compelling.