Vikings Recap - S04E08 Portage - "How Strange Life Is"

If ever you find yourself speaking with a king and he says "How strange life is," then brace yourself. Someone is about to get screwed over.

Big moves by the big players in Portage. The previous episode saw Ragnar betrayed yet again by Rollo (now a Duke of Francia) who prevented Ragnar from raiding Paris by constructing a hidden blockade across the river, funneling Ragnar's ships into a pincer trap of flaming bolts. Now on a full retreat after their base camp was razed by another contingent of Franks, Ragnar is beside himself with grief and pressure.

Ragnar's new frenemies, King Harald Finehair and Halfdan the Black, are quick to criticize—but rather than complain directly to Ragnar, they complain to Lagertha. She isn't having it, though. Despite Ragnar being annoying and inappropriately butting in on her business, Lagertha remains loyal to a fault and cautions Harald to not speak ill of Ragnar to her face.

Ragnar reveals a spontaneous plan to carry their ships across a narrow isthmus, placing them upstream and beyond the blockade. He needs an engineering feat that only Floki can devise to see it through, and giving Floki the chance to shine again is just the shot in the arm their dying friendship needed. Floki comes alive in that moment, once again valuable to Ragnar, "I can do it, Ragnar. I can do it for you. Everything I do, Ragnar, is for you," and soon enough, Harald and Halfdan are eating crow.

Meanwhile, back home in Kattegat, the wandering holy man known only as Harbard (which vikings mythology reveals is another name for Odin himself) has been shtupping Queen Aslaug. Ragnar has been emotionally distant and even antagonistic, driving a wedge between him and Aslaug, so with Ragnar away, Aslaug is enjoying a little tryst. The problem is that Harbard "loves everyone" and is "only concerned with the will of the gods" which is code for shtupping every other single woman in Kattegat who's looking for sexual healing.

Aslaug is completely blindsided by this... how? Harbard's been flaunting his wares in plain sight, with literal crowds of women surrounding him and groping at his oft-exposed chest. I understand Aslaug is busy raising her kids and managing the kingdom in Ragnar's absence, but how did she miss this spectacle? In any case, after a scandalous commotion and confrontation in the great hall with Aslaug, Harbard decides it's time again for him to move on.

Next, in Wessex, a hot mess of infidelity and betrayals come to light. Ready? Here we go: Queen Kwenthrith of Mercia reveals to King Ecbert of Wessex that she is pregnant with the child of Ecbert's son, Prince Aethelwulf. "How strange life is," Ecbert ponders, just before he one-ups Kwenthrith with news of his own: Kwenthrith's brother, Prince Wicksten cut a deal with Ecbert, ceding the throne to Ecbert, who now has the signed and legal contracts to prove it. Sorry Kwenthrith, you're out, Ecbert's in. Naturally, Kwenthrith is not happy with this arrangement, "My own sins seem so trivial, so unimpressive! How do you sleep at night, Lord Ecbert?"

With Prince Aethelwulf out on a pilgrimage, Kwenthrith is fresh out of allies and in desperation turns to Aethelwulf's wife Judith, who unknown to Kwenthrith, is having an affair with King Ecbert (her husband's father). Still with me? Later, when Judith probes Ecbert about these latest developments, Ecbert confesses that he has true feelings for Judith: it's no mere affair, he is in love with her. Ecbert is a fun and fascinating character to watch; someone who is able to tell his honest truth, yet remain untrustworthy.

For Judith, this moral complexity isn't yet a problem, and she decides helping Kwenthrith isn't in her best interests. Ecbert then makes plans to keep Kwenthrith under lock and key in the eventuality of Ragnar's return, where he will use her son Magnus (to whom Ragnar is the father) as a bargaining chip. With no options left, Kwenthrith sneaks and stabs her way into Ecbert's chamber at night, but just before she can pierce his jugular, Judith stabs Kwenthrith from behind. When Kwenthrith asked how King Ecbert slept at night, she instead should have asked with whom?

In Paris, Emperor Charles ponders "How strange life is." as he switches favor to his new son-in-law Duke Rollo over his steadfast right-hand, Count Odo. Count Odo's mistress Therese claimed Odo was plotting treason, and while it's true that Odo was talking trash, this appears to simply be a maneuver by Therese and her lover/brother Roland to get closer to the throne. It works, and the siblings assassinate Count Odo on Chuck's orders (in Odo's sex dungeon, no less), leaving Rollo solely in charge of the defense of Paris.

Lastly, Ragnar is a fiend. An addict for glory, power, love, and now for opiate edibles (likely betel nuts), Ragnar has been growing increasingly irate and violent toward Yidu, who maintains his stash. When Ragnar threatens Yidu (a freed-slave and possibly a Chinese princess) with further enslavement, she overplays her hand and threatens to tell his people about the death of their settler friends in Wessex (which Ragnar had covered up at the time to protect his friend Athelestan).

Immediately and without bargaining, Ragnar drowns Yidu in the river. A tragic end for a fascinating character, though one that makes sense with Ragnar's descent into instability: something had to give and unfortunately it was Yidu. Ragnar's two sons, Ubbe and Hvitserk, see this murder occur and are completely disturbed; Ragnar unconvincingly assures them everything is alright. I have to wonder if Ragnar was thinking to himself "How strange life is."

Random thoughts:
  • Helga lives! I was half-expecting she would die from her wounds at the hands of the Franks, but she's sitting up again and seems to be in pretty good health considering.
  • Poor Count Odo. Everyone has ranted about their incompetent boss before, but not everyone gets whipped to death in their own sex dungeon for it.
  • Goodbye "Just Kwenthrith," a.k.a. Vegetarian Murder Princess, you will also be missed. Aethelwulf gonna be pissed.
  • Ragnar's children tend to have a radar for infidelity and they will BUST YOU. First Bjorn, now Sigurd. People need to recognize.
  • Torvi's paranoid vision could come to pass if Bjorn doesn't act soon. Seriously, Bjorn knows it was Erlendur that hired the berserker to assassinate him, so why is he hesitating?
  • Even though Rollo is objectively, a total bastard, I feel oddly happy for him and Gisla. Ever since the two shared locked eyes as a shirtless Rollo charged the Paris ramparts like a scene out of a regency romance novel, I've shipped them. Gisla is genuinely, head-over-heels happy and in love with Rollo, and he seems to be very happy to be with her, too.

Adrian Martinez is a graphic designer, comic book letterer, hobbyist writer, and all-around geek living in New York City.