Part way through “Promised,” a Viking feast roars on in Ragnar’s great hall, but the king isn’t there. For the second episode in a row, Ragnar’s off with now-freed slave girl Yidu, sampling her mysterious medicines with abandon and, even with new, very untrustworthy ally Harald taking in all that Ragnar has (and Harald covets) in the presence of his family, Ragnar and Yidu peep over a a neighboring roof like teenagers playing hooky. Staring up at the stars, they talk like it, too, the king and the slave girl sharing their biggest, darkest secrets—Yidu is the kidnapped daughter of the Chinese emperor, Ragnar is haunted most of all by the slaughtered settlers he left behind in England. (“I live with such guilt because of it. And nobody knows.”) Meanwhile, Harald plots, Aslaug—turning spoiled, crippled Ivar over to seething, unstable Floki for instruction—plots, and Rollo plots on how to repel his brother’s inevitable return to Paris.
“Promise” takes its cue from Ragnar, allowing the players to scheme and rest for what’s coming. Over in Wessex, Ecbert does his signature cagey manipulating, pledging support to Kwenthrith and Aelle in their plan to retake Mercia—and making his relationship with Judith that much more open, giving his mistress (and his son’s wife) his late wife’s ring. In Paris, Rollo works with Count Odo to fortify the rivers with traps to keep the Viking ships from overrunning the city once again while Emperor Charles worries over Odo’s loyalty. In Hedeby, Kalf and Erlendur continue to plot—this time counting on Torvi to rat out Bjorn’s actions, all while Kalf prepares to wed Bjorn’s mother Lagertha and delights in the news that she’s carrying his child. In Kattegat, Alsaug coddles Ivar as her hope for future rule, allowing Floki—whose initial hints of madness (hear that unsettling little giggle when he tells Harald of killing “Ragnar’s pet Christian,” Athelstan) have returned—to train the boy in true Viking ways. Bjorn talks tough with Harald and seethes in fury when Torvi tells him that it was Erlendur’s ring he took off the tracker he killed last week. And Ragnar hangs out in his secret clubhouse with Yidu, downing her potions, teasing out her story while dropping hints of his own, and finally making love to this enigmatic stranger (or at least, in an extended bathtub scene, engaging in some languorous knife, foot, and finger play—plus hair-washing.)
And then, in the last ten minutes, Vikings shows that all that momentary peace is an illusion, as two shocking acts of violence send the show hurtling forward on its inevitably bloody path. The first act is horrifying, as little Ivar, teased in a game of keep-away by the able-bodied kids surrounding him, snatches up a hatchet from inside his cart and kills one of the children with a single blow to the head. The children (and Ivar) scream at what he’s done, and even Floki freezes in shock and terror, before Aslaug scoops the shrieking Ivar up and hurries him off, soothing, “Do not be afraid. It’s not your fault. Everything is all right. Everything will be all right.”
In the final scene, Lagertha, welcoming the beaming Kalf into the bridal tent where she and her shieldmaidens have been happily making her up for her wedding ceremony, embraces and kisses her groom, then calmly guts him with the knife concealed in the sleeve of her wedding dress. She holds her hand to the wound, kisses him again without a word, and watches him die at her feet. When she takes her place at the altar, her white dress stained with Kalf’s blood, her shieldmaidens, shields and swords at the ready, surround her and demand her people hail her as Earl Ingstad, the title Kalf took from her.
It’s a triumphant moment (not the least for those of us who’ve been waiting for Lagertha to dispatch this creep since the first time we laid eyes on him), with Katheryn Winnick finally allowed to reclaim her position as one of the show’s most formidable characters just as Lagertha does the same in her earldom. Laying in wait, biding her time, taking some enjoyment in Kalf’s bed even as she prepared for this (literal) crowing moment of awesome. She’d seemed sidelined this season, but Winnick’s unreadable face here reminds us—you just do not fuck with Lagertha.
As for her ex-husband, it’s likely that’s what he’s doing too, as he—lips and teeth stained red, presumably from Yidu’s drugs—desultorily hurls throwing knives at a hanging shield, ignoring Harald and his newly-arrived, gung-ho brother Halfdan as they try to engage him in talk of the coming Paris invasion. When not lounging on rooftops or in hot tubs with Yidu, he makes time to prepare one of his ships and banter with Bjorn about fatherhood, and husband-hood, only flashing a touch of his usual fire when Bjorn accuses him of having left him just as Bjorn has taken Torvi away from her child. “If you remember, your mother left me. You left me,” Ragnar snaps, before sinking back with a conciliatory, “It is not easy being a father. It is even harder being a husband. Maybe I have failed at both. No—I have definitely failed at being a husband.” (Travis Fimmel sells that last line with a mischievous twinkle.) But, if Raganr is working his traditional long con on everyone or not, his words to Yidu on that rooftop sound awfully sincere. “I feel so old. When I was young I had the passion to win. But now with age and all that comes with it I have lost the desire. And the strength.”
With everyone gathering up for the bloody actions to come, Ragnar, whether he feels this weariness or is only putting on an act, hasn’t got much time before he’ll be put in the position of having to summon his strength again.