This week’s episode of Vikings is titled “Homeland,” but do any of the characters really have such a place? The sons of Ragnar Lothbrok have scattered across the world, following their ambitions far away from a Kattegat much changed since their youth. King Harald returns to his people a conquering hero, but the kingdom he imagines for himself is far removed from the mudstreets he leads Astrid down. Aethelwulf and his family fled their own home when they fled their patriarch, live now as nomad royals reclaiming their land one siege at a time. And Floki is a man without a family, his own history erased by time’s passage: He’s never been further from his people, and has never felt more peace.
In such company, the affairs of King Harald and Astrid feel unexpectedly light, a playful chapter between sagas, almost a rom-com. Harald is one of the great conquering warriors of his time, yet has no luck in love. He’s carried Astrid away from home, he has offered her a Queenship, has declared her “part of my dream” to his assembled followers. She is not impressed; when he follows her to the bedchamber, she breaks his nose. One of the interesting running ideas in Vikings is how ambition can radically change a character’s mind, cause them to betray a close friend or ally with a sworn enemy. Astrid won’t turn on Lagertha so easily, it seems. She has her own ambitions, though: Could Harald be a means to an end?
Astrid represents the ascendant generation of Viking culture, someone raised on the stories of Ragnar Lothbrok. She seeks her own glories. So, too, do Ragnar’s sons, rejoicing in their victory at York but preparing their own strategies for how to continue on from that victory. Ubbe has carried forward his father’s great dream of farming here on this island across the sea — of extending the homeland of the Lothbrok clan.
Ivar’s plans are different. In a stunning, rainswept battle sequence, Ivar leaves his safe perch to ride his chariot into battle. It ain’t pretty: Knocked off onto the ground, he’s left cowering next to his chariot, covered in an enemy’s blood, facing down the whole assault force of the Saxons. Yet “cowering” is the wrong word. “Don’t you know who I am?” he screams at them in his own tongue. “You can’t kill me!” Arrows fire at him, one embedding in his own cold dead legs, and still he laughs, declaring his name over and over. Here is a boy almost left for dead by a father who only eventually seemed to notice him; a boy stricken with disability in a culture that values great mythic strength. And so he has never felt more at home than in the deathstorm of a bloody battle, staring enemies in the face.
He makes eye contact with Bishop Heahmund, who seems to acknowledge something in the young Viking warlord. Heahmund is a devoted Christian, already begging the Lord’s forgiveness for the violence he must undertake. Yet he’s also a man of violence — of appetites the Bible declares sinful. He fights for a god who deplores fighting, wandering across his religion’s moral spectrum. Perhaps he looks at Ivar and sees a kindred spirit: someone who will never quite be at home anywhere.
The battle ends, and York remains Viking. The sons of Ragnar have a difference of opinion. Ubbe takes Hvitserk to meet with the Saxons, offering peace in exchange for land. Perhaps he doesn’t know that they tried this before, the Vikings and the Men of Wessex promising a pact of friendship. Perhaps he knows, but has the familiar dream of so many young people: This Time Will Be Different. Heahmund beats him and sends the brothers back to Ivar, who laughs at their silly hopes. Ubbe sets off for home, refusing to acknowledge his younger brother’s status as chieftain. But Hvitserk remains behind. Like Halfdan on his jaunt with Bjorn, Hvitserk has taken for a compass the ambition of a greater man. “Everyone is with me,” says Ivar, in a moment more triumphant than any of his military victories: The runt of the litter become alpha wolf.
But not everyone is with him. In a distant strange landscape, Floki wanders through dream and dreamlike reality, seeing visions supernatural and incredibly natural. We here in the present day may know the land he wanders through — they have excellent seafood and hot springs! — but Floki experiences this new place as somewhere between heaven and hell. It is the land of the gods, yet empty. It is tantalizing, mysterious, unknowable. He speaks to the Allfather and thanks him for finding his humble servant a good place to die. But although Floki is a devoted fundamentalist, he is also a spiritual soul open to new discoveries. Recall his fascination with the Mosque, his moral confusion over Ragnar’s love for his despicable monk. So Floki opens his eyes to a new decision. He will not die. “I will live here with the gods!” he declares. A note of optimism in a brutal time: Far beyond the most distant borders of the known world, someone has found home.