While the second season finale of Vikings: Valhalla didn't feature a big, epic battle like the first season finale did, there were certainly as many casualties. After hunting down Freydis (Frida Gustavsson) for her pagan beliefs all season long, Olaf (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) finally made his move in the final episode.
Unfortunately for him, Freydis and the people of Jómsborg, who had just taken one final stand against Harekr (Bradley James), were ready for him. As Olaf's men went up in flames, Freydis ended her adversary's life with a fitting nod to Jesus on the cross. She then spared the son of Canute (Bradley Freegard) in order to broker peace with Kattegat.
Meanwhile Harald (Leo Suter) and Leif (Sam Corlett) finally made it to the gates of Constantinople, where they discovered they were really delivering Elena (Sofya Lebedeva), who was betrothed to the emperor. In the closing moments of that storyline it was clear Harald's feelings for his travel companion (and rescuer) developed over their trip, and he may not leave her behind so easily.
As for Leif, he said farewell to another lover when Mariam al-Astrulabi (Hayat Kamille) succumbed to her illness. Where that leaves him heading into the already-ordered third season remains to be seen.
Lastly, over in England, Canute returned to Queen Emma (Laura Berlin) and chastised her for the way she handled her interrogation into Earl Godwin (David Oakes) and his involvement in the plan to assassinate her. In the end, the queen realized she had been played by the earl, who married Canute's daughter as a result.
"Season 2 is a much more personal journey," showrunner Jeb Stuart tells Metacritic. "The characters are driven by much more personal stakes, which is the theme of the season."
Here, Metacritic speaks with Stuart and stars Suter, Corlett, and Gustavsson about the most shocking moments from the second season and where those turning points leave the characters heading into Season 3.
Freydis giving birth to her son was hard to watch, especially since Harekr immediately snatched the babe and plotted to use him to get the people of Jómsborg to fall in line. Of course Freydis wasn't giving up without a fight, as she convinced her followers that their leader wasn't as pure as he claimed to be. It was quite the full circle given Freydis' reluctance to embrace her moniker as "The Last" at the beginning of the season.
"Freydis grew up on the outskirts of the Vikings world, but she's always been incredibly independent and intuitive," says Gustavsson. "For her to accept responsibility, not only over herself but now of her child, it helps her to accept the leadership and the responsibility for her people. It really transforms her and she just grows into this ferocious Mama Bear."
In real life Freydis wasn't celebrated as "The Last" or a leader, but it was a journey Stuart felt developed naturally given that it was Christians who wrote the Sagas, which scarcely mention her. Meanwhile, the storyline with Harekr and his downfall led to another touchstone: Religion isn't the only thing that tore the Vikings apart.
"If you look back at her character, there's a nostalgia about her independence and her strength," says Stuart. "That gave me a place to go. She's very strongly on this journey to uphold the old beliefs. At the same time, it's easy to blame the Christians. In Season 2 the threat isn't always from Christians, that threat can come from a homogenous society, too."
From the moment viewers met Elena, disguised as a boy, she wasn't who she claimed to be. Her layers continued peeling back throughout the season, as she emerged as a strong fighter, an independent thinker, and, eventually, the to-be empress of Constantinople. Still, Harald was taken completely by surprise by that last reveal, and those feelings will certainly spill over into Season 3.
"He's hurt. He's done. And he's not used to that feeling," Suter says. "He always gets what he wants and at the end of the boat ride, everything's gone perfectly. It leaves a bitter taste in his mouth that he's hurt by, and that will sit with him. He's not the kind of guy to forget things."
Despite what Suter says, the boat ride wasn't perfect. Aside from the casualties along the way (not to mention Harald having to dump his furs), there was that massive waterfall that shattered the boat, killed one of the passengers, and left the crew vulnerable to the Pechenegs.
It was also one of the season's most CGI-heavy moments, one that Stuart parallels to the moment in Season 1 when the Vikings took out London Bridge.
"Last year we did London Bridge, which everybody said was going to be impossible; this year is the waterfall," he says. "It's one of my favorite scenes. That episode is about having faith and believing in something that you don't know. There's a power to that, of having faith in somebody who has your interests at heart, which Harald does. He really has to learn to lead in that episode."
Stuart explains that's something Harald has never had to do before, since as a prince everything was always handed to him. By giving up his furs and the things that were most important to him, he became a true leader.
Meanwhile, would a boat like that actually survive such a waterfall?
One of the most memorable through lines of the season was Leif and Harald coming together in friendship and proving they had each other's backs.
"Some of the most fun scenes were pushing that relationship to the limit, especially when Leif dropped the bombshell that Freydis was pregnant," Suter says. "The stakes are really high and it was really meaningful. To do that with an actor you've worked with for two-and-a-half years took that to another level."
"I suppose the inspiration from the get go was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," adds Corlett. "He's the talker and I'm the quiet one. We also had a reference to Thelma & Louise with that boat trip. Leif is looking to do what's right for those around him, and he gets a lot of guidance from Harald in Season 2. The brotherhood is strong."
As some viewers have noted, however, that friendship was strictly scripted for the series and didn't exist in real life. (Leif died when Harald was about 5 years old.) According to Stuart, he wanted to put the characters together because they both carry certain themes that amplify in each other's presence.
"The two of them are a good yin and yang," he says. "Historically there's an overlap, but if you look at the original Vikings, Ragnar and Rollo were not brothers. They were separated by 200 years and the audience didn't seem to have a problem with that either."
One of the hardest parts for some viewers in Season 2 were the various torture scenes. They were present in England, as Queen Emma and Earl Godwin went about their respective interrogations; in Jómsborg (to a degree) when Freydis gave birth; and in the Pechenegs camp when Harald was being strung up by hooks that were thrust into his chest.
"That was a wild one," Suter says of the last scene. "I knew the Pechenegs were a bloodthirsty bunch, but as I turned the episode over and got toward the end where they inserted the hooks I was like, 'Where are we? What are we getting ourselves into here?' If you Google it, those images come up. I was slightly nervous to do it, but the silicone scan of my chest took all the punishment. No pectorals were hurt in the making of that scene."
According to Stuart, the threshold for including torture scenes in the show is how invested audiences are in the actual characters at the center of those scenes.
"When you start researching medieval cultures you come up with a lot of terrible things," he says. "By the way, there are still a lot of terrible things out there right now. You don't have to go far off the farm to find bad stuff to write about."
"Personally, I think the imagination is more powerful than what I could show you on-screen. We can show you just about anything. But in those moments, the actor is really what you're focused on. The torture doesn't mean anything if you don't carry the character's weight with you," he continues.
By the end of the season it seemed as though Freydis had brokered peace, and according to Gustavsson, that request was heartfelt. At the beginning of the season Freydis spoke of raising her children in peace instead of war, plus this is a character who has now lost almost everyone she has ever loved.
"It's her alone now with her child and she's weary of seeing her loved ones die," she says. "She means it when she says she wants peace. No more fighting, leave us alone, and I won't kill you. It's a very genuine request from her."
What Freydis might not have factored in, however, was how her killing Olaf may play out in the future — especially when his son, Magnus the Good, finds out about it.
"Magnus, we know from the history, went to the Rus as a young man and in his return he destroyed Jómsborg. No one knows why he destroyed Jómsborg," says Stuart. "We're laying the pipe for all of these stories you'll see."