Ragnar's attempted suicide wasn't the most shocking detail in the return of #Vikings Season 4. His youngest son Ivar has transformed from an angel-haired little boy to a brooding young man, and he's got some serious issues.
As fascinating as Ivar is, the presence of a disabled but arguably evil character on the show raises some serious questions. Does Ivar represent the dark shadow of viking culture that hasn't yet been explored, or is he just playing into the tired trope of crippled villain?
Truth be told, it's not an easy question to answer, especially for a character as complex as Ivar. There's many factors to take into consideration, with each playing an important role in addressing this topic weighing on many viewers' minds:
Diversity is still such a big issue when it comes to casting TV shows. Showing a diverse range of people from all walks of life is something that often doesn't even cross the minds of those in charge of handing out the roles, to the point that seeing disabled people on screen is a rarity.
When it comes to a historical drama like Vikings, historical accuracy isn't an excuse for lazy writing— and the show writers are well aware. Viking culture was surprisingly more progressive than you'd think, with gender roles and sexuality being vastly different to what you'd expect from a medieval era.
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While there have been criticisms of tokenism and sexualisation levelled at the depiction of Lagertha's relationship with a fellow shieldmaiden in Season 4, it's still important to represent those from minority groups on screen. Viewers within those minorities and communities reap great benefits from seeing people like them on screen; It helps to foster a sense of normality and belonging, rather than alienation.
This is certainly true for Ivar. He has Osteogenesis imperfecta, otherwise known as brittle bones disease. This is what causes his weak legsand blue sclera.
He's spent much of his life suffering from his physical disability, but as he's grown, he's learning to turn it into a strength. His dedication to joining Ragnar on his journey to Wessex was his way of demonstrating that he wasn't going to be defined by the limitations of his disability anymore.
In Season 4 Episode 13, Ivar butts heads with his father, who tells him that he will never be normal— despite Ivar defiantly claiming otherwise. Later in the episode, as the two are having a heart-to-heart, Ragnar explains what he meant:
"I thought your legs were a weakness and you wouldn't survive. I was wrong. Your legs have given you a strength, a strength that even your brothers don't have. You are like a deaf man whose eyesight is sharper than anyone else. You are special, not in spite of your legs, but because of them."
Inspiring as these words are, Ragnar is just telling Ivar what he already knows, but has yet to really admit. He can handle his own against any adversary, and commands a powerful presence over those around him. Ivar is proof that no one needs to be made to feel inferior because of their physical condition.
2. Negative Stereotyping
As refreshing as it is to see the focus on a powerful character with a disability, there's no denying that Ivar fits the mould of "crippled villain" perfectly. This a common trope in media; A physically disabled and thus deranged evil overlord whose condition is used to make them look all the more sinister. These characters are often sadistic without explanation, and their disability used as nothing more than a prop. It's a misrepresentation of people with disabilities as a whole, and it's lazy writing.
Then there's the matter of Ivar's mental health. He's clearly a sociopath, and can't seem to control his bouts of rage. He's unpredictable and violent, and thus dangerous. His impotence has caused him to develop a complex about his masculinity, which he tries to assert by raping a servant girl. He's the perfect example of the dangerous outcast who could turn on anyone at anytime.
The words "mentally disturbed" are thrown around all too often as an explanation for acts of violence. But the misconception that people who suffer from mental illness are violently dangerous is incredibly damaging.
Unfortunately, Ivar fits both of those tired clichés perfectly: An evil cripple whose mental health issues make them a hazard to everyone around them. Simply put, it's representation done wrong.
Granted, we've seen far more of Ivar as a child than as an adult, which gives us a very detailed backstory on how he became the man he is today. Cursed from the moment of his conception by his own mother, Aslaug predicted that Ivar would be born a "monster" if Ragnar forced himself on her.
Ordinarily, his condition would mean he would be left to die at birth, as viking culture was not accepting of physical weakness. Nevertheless, Ragnar spared him last-minute; But Ivar still grew up bitter over the knowledge that he was unwanted, and never supposed to live. This is shown earlier in Season 4, when a drunk Aslaug confesses to her son that she's the only reason he's still alive:
That same scene also shows a side of Ivar that we're starting to see a lot more of, and a part of his personality that Aslaug encouraged. Her closeness with her son caused her to impart much of her resentment about her life onto him. After she discovers Bjorn's daughter Siggy has drowned under her watch, a young Ivar remarks, "Who cares?", and laughs along with his mother— who, moments before, he had called "stupid". There was clearly a lack of discipline in that household.
This immaturity is a reflection of his mother's personality, and their closeness only worsened his outlook on the world. Being showered with far more attention than his able-bodied brothers, he became both spoiled from Aslaug's affection, and yet fiercely jealous of his brothers.
Seeing his despair at being left out, she charged Floki with teaching Ivar the ways of the gods, stressing that he impart his hatred of Christians onto the young boy. Spending so much time with Floki, a lonesome oddball, further enforced Ivar's view that he, too, was an outcast.
Aslaug's terrible parenting reached an all-time low when Ivar killed another little boy; instead of reprimanding him, she reassured him that he's not to blame, and that everything will be fine:
Considering his unconventional childhood, it's hardly surprising that Ivar didn't bat an eyelid when he learned that his fellow vikings, who had settled in Wessex, had been massacred. He was conditioned from a young age to only care about what affects him, and to have little sympathy for those around him. More importantly, he learned that his violent actions often bear little consequence.
Ivar's out-of-control mental health problems could be perceived as an incredibly damaging representation of mental illness; But if you consider his childhood, it's obvious that he was groomed to be a psychopath from infancy.
4. Historical Accuracy
The most important factor to keep in mind when critiquing Ivar's character is that he's based off a very real historical figure. Ivar the Boneless was a bloodthirsty and merciless viking warrior, who was notorious for his violent exploits. But is it necessary to stay true to the real Ivar, no matter what the consequences?
The question of historical integrity has been raised many times in a number of other dramas, including Game Of Thrones— which, although depicting a medieval world in which violent acts were not uncommon, has been criticized for its casual use of rape in what is essentially a fictional, fantasy setting.
The same can be said for Vikings. Yes, it's based on a true story, but it's an imaginative portrayal of viking sagas which were often more fiction than fact. Is it necessary for a modern TV show to depict Ivar as the most deranged, sexually violent monster to ever leave his mark on Denmark, in order to convey his importance as a historical figure?
Regardless of this argument, Vikings has never shied away from showing the more unsavory side of viking life. The blood eagle ceremony from Season Two, as well as the many instances of sexual violence, are a confronting but accurate detail from that era. Not to mention the glorification of violence in viking culture. Murder wasn't exactly a crime to those pagans, and warriors prided themselves on their kills.
If Vikings is going to continue to stick to what history has told us about viking life, then we're probably not going to see Ivar transform into a pacifist anytime soon. If anything, he's only going to become stronger and more capable of terrorising the people in his life. The best hope that we have for this fascinating but disturbing character is that he focuses his violent tendencies on his real enemies, and not the innocent victims around him.
What effect will Ragnar's capture have on young Ivar?