[SPOILERS ahead for Vikings season 4, episode 15 'All His Angels'.]
The second half of Vikings season 4 has been one of change. It began with the massive time jump (which actually took place in the final moments of the midseason finale) that took the series' central narrative forward in time many years, introducting an older, displaced Ragnar Lothbrok. Since the midseason premiere, the new episodes have worked hard to introduce Ragnar's now-grown children, and to present his son Ivar as a character whose destiny is perhaps more closely tied to that of Ragnar's than his other siblings. Those efforts have paid off for the most part, as the potentially negative effects of the season's rapid evolution and whiplash-inducing sense of forward momentum have been mitigated to a certain degree, thanks to the strong focus on Ragnar's sons and his journey back to Wessex to seek vengeance for his lost settlement there.
All of that changed last week, as shieldmaiden Lagertha took steps to reclaim what she believed was rightfully hers: the kingdom of Kattegat. In doing so, Lagertha staged a raid on the now-bustling village, and in last week's 'In the Uncertain Hour Before the Morning', killed Queen Aslaug with an arrow to the back, despite having granted her safe passage. The end of Aslaug promises a new beginning of sorts for Lagertha, who has ascended the Viking hierarchy much like her former husband: through lots of bloodshed and careful maneuvering. It also puts the futures of Ivar, Hvitserk, Sigurd, and Ubbe (Ragnar's sons with Aslaug) into question – though only Ubbe and Sigurd are in any immediate danger – as they must face the possibility of life under the authority of the woman who killed their mother, and the speculation that they are now orphans.
That speculation began for the audience just before Aslaug's death, as she proclaimed Ragnar dead, claiming to have seen it in a dream. As any fan of the series knows, those dark visions often foretell some great misfortune on the horizon, and as was discussed between Ragnar and King Ecbert throughout the rest of the episode, the Viking king plans to see his life reach its conclusion in Wessex. After much discussion between the two, it is clear that series creator Michael Hirst is finally ready to make the unthinkable into the inevitable. Ragnar Lothbrok is dead.
To be fair, the series hasn't exactly been coy about heading in this direction. After all, Ragnar did attempt to hang himself in the midseason premiere – unsuccessfully, obviously. Following his inauspicious return to Kattegat, and dismal showing in recruiting anyone to help with his journey back to Wessex, it has now become extremely clear that series creator and writer Michael Hirst was positioning the latter half of this super-sized season as the beginning of the end of Ragnar Lothbrok.
And three quarters of the way through the series' fourth season, Vikings finds itself looking at a far more uncertain future than it ever has before. The death of Ragnar closes a huge door – certainly the door from which the series itself began – but it also opens up an intriguing window, through which an exciting and hopefully propulsive new chapter in the series can commence. And as shocking as it is to see the ostensible star of Vikings lying at the bottom of a pit of snakes, after enduring a Via Crucis at the hands of King Aelle's men, Ragnar's death establishes the foundation on which the remainder of the series will eventually be constructed.
But Vikings is nothing if not an ensemble piece – or at least it has become that in recent years. When the series first began, the conflict of Ragnar and his ambitions was on par with the ongoing conflict between him and Rollo, but Hirst was never entirely consumed with either being the sole driver of the narrative. That was especially true when Lagertha struck out on her own with Bjorn following Ragnar's emotional betrayal with Aslaug, creating a new thread that has evolved over the last few seasons. That thread was finally paid off with her usurping the throne and killing Aslaug, but with the death of Ragnar, it takes on a whole new purpose as far as the rest of the series is concerned. With Bjorn, Floki, and Rollo in search of Mediterranean plunder, Lagertha becomes the bedrock on which the future narratives will presumably be built.
And if Lagertha provides the foundation, then it's clear in the final moments of 'All His Angels' that Ivar is now the engine driving the plot. And thanks to Ragnar's instructions prior to his execution, that plot now promises to bring his sons back to Wessex on a mission to avenge their father. Hirst has (with a huge helping hand from history, of course) brought his ostensible protagonist's story full circle while still leaving a substantial thread dangling that doesn't require the entire series to reboot. Instead, the notion that King Ecbert must be dealt with provides a fresh starting point that is already familiar territory for the audience.
Ultimately, the tease of the Great Heathen Raid on England promises more bloodshed to come. But the real test will be whether or not the coming carnage will be enough for the series to continue being successful without Travis Fimmel and Ragnar Lothbrok in the spotlight.
Vikings season 4 continues next Wednesday with 'Crossings' @9pm on History.