Previously on Vikings, “The Reckoning”
Like most Vikings fans, you’re probably wondering if the show can sustain its strength and vitality now that Ragnar and Ecbert are in the rearview mirror and “the boys” are barely men. Wisely, the Season 5 premiere keeps the past very much alive, and series creator Michael Hirst is working overtime to remind us that fan-favorite Lagertha in still in business. In name and story, “The Departed” recalls not only Ragnar, Ecbert, Aelle, Helga, and Sigurd, but the long-departed Jarl Borg and Athelstan, along with the vectors their deaths set in motion.
Last season closed with the shocking (and anti-historical) death of Sigurd Snake in the Eye, setting the stage for a royal Viking burial on English soil. Afterward, the premiere quickly pulls us back in to the ambitions of Lagertha, Aethelwulf, Ivar the Boneless, and Harald Finehair, and finishes introducing us to Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ warrior monk, Bishop Heahmund. All is not well. Lagertha is perhaps losing her edge. Harald is full of spurned ego. The Ragnarssons cannot see eye to eye. Bjorn is blind to all but the Mediterranean. With gorgeous new textures, visions, and discoveries and ever-expanding budget and scope, Vikings might be missing the magical charm of Travis Fimmel, but the storied Ragnarssons raided far and wide, filling the sagas with wild and colorful tales, and, as Hirst loves to remind us, there is much potential there. If the sight of characters scattering with the tides dismays you, remember: like the ocean they belong to, Vikings must return to their shores, and, with them, a promised civil war.
After the funeral, Ivar victim-blames Sigurd, but constant side eyes from everyone else, what’s done is done and they need establish a foothold in the English soil. Bjorn and Halfdan stay resolute about the Mediterranean while Harald smirkingly offers to return to Kattegat with the news and is hurt by Halfdan’s departure, reminiscent of the Rollo/Ragnar conflict, although Halfdan promises to always watch his back. Ivar deems York the ideal tactical stronghold, and, thanks to Ragnar’s past advice to attack on holy days, handily slaughter its settlers during mass. Ivar maniacally taunts the priest, pouring a melted crucifix down his throat, and a toddler cries poignantly atop the pile of bodies. Despite the victory, Sigurd’s death poisons them, so Ivar takes a number of steps to appear
in charge equal, like hiring private guards, getting a giant tattoo, and forging braces that allow him to stand face to face with his brothers.
This battle is both the strong and weak point of their story. The camera is still in love with Ivar’s molars as he screams down York’s narrow pathways in his chariot, Ubbe swings between sharp leadership and shell-shocked moping, and Hvitserk Me Too’s all over the place. But, Ivar’s characteristic cruelty towards the Christians, especially the priest, is disturbing and visually arresting, as is the cunning danger he represents when successfully using his Old English to bully the next holy day out of two little boys.
Heahmund and his warrior monks restore Ecbert’s burned stronghold and offer his body, found in a cask of wine, a proper service. As we suspected, Ecbert’s nervous cleric verifies that his deal with the Vikings is null and Aethelwulf is king, inspiring Heahmund to reclaim that land with a prayer to the martyr king. Aethelwulf and his people escaped to the most primitive of marsh settlements, where Alfred suffers from the exposure, leaving his parents at their wits end while the settlers hopelessly toss another body into the bonfire. Alfred nearly drowns after following a cloaked hallucination into the water, and when Aethelwulf saves him, again, he prophesies that the Northmen are in York, a vision courtesy of his father, Athelstan. Just in time, their forces arrive to give Heahmund’s army a fighting chance.
Given last season’s departures, Jonathan Rhys Meyers brings needed weight to Vikings. Heahmund is the Christian counterpoint to Ivar: womanizing, self-loathing, gravelly, and zealous. But Jennie Jacques and Moe Dunford’s frazzled desperation in the ghostly marsh, with Judith shrieking over Alfred’s body while Aethelwulf buries understandable resentment under genuine love, was perhaps the best moment of the episode.
Torvi trains Guthrum, now a lanky teen, reminding him that his true father, Jarl Borg, was a great warrior who earned his place in Valhalla. After Egel’s failure, Harald’s return is met with imprisonment. He blames the whole thing on his ex and suggests he and Lagertha marry, earning her outrage at the power dynamics implicit in his offer. Discussing the proposal at dinner divides Lagertha and Torvi from Astrid and Margrethe, when the elder women, both married politically at least once, acknowledge compromises must sometimes be made. Astrid stalks away angrily, only to be kidnapped by Harald’s men. Appealing to her ambition, he offers to make her queen. Meanwhile, Margrethe expresses doubts in Lagertha’s leadership. The costuming in this segment is such a fantastic contrast to the plight of the English. Lagertha’s court wears ornate silk gowns, a massive step up from previous seasons and testament to the wealth and success of Kattegat as an international trading center.
However, there is one big problem: Harald Finehair. The real Finehair was dangerous indeed, a fundamentalist with a powerful army and many wives. This Harald is a figure straight from modern headlines: the sexually-frustrated, violent male. His heartless raiding parties are all male, and his impotence with women leads to murder. In contrast, Lagertha’s all-female court is implied to be too soft. Then, Lagertha essentially rapes him rather than prostrating herself to his ambitions. Given Hirst’s love for Lagertha and Harald’s sexually violent past, I must question the writers’ intentions here. Is she stooping to his level? Is it a triumphant turnabout of power? Was it not intended to be seen as rape because he proposed marriage? Before anyone schools me on history, yes, rape is a war tactic, and historical figures are realish, imperfect people; but, until Bjorn swaggered off screen into that Mediterranean harem, it was not something “good” characters did on Vikings, and to be honest, I’m still stunned by that choice as well. Ragnar himself never used sexual violence, but rather cunning and martial skill, and Lagertha was always presented as his equal. With him gone, the show clearly wants us behind Lagertha, so this was a perplexing choice unless it’s not supposed to be rape, but technically, Harald is a captive and cannot resist, so… it is. In today’s climate, this seems like a potentially fatal mistake on the part of the writers for some viewers, and I’m not sure they understand that, nor Lagertha’s true potential as a character. Disappointing.
Determined to commit himself to the whims of the sea and his gods, Floki builds a one-man boat ornamented with twisted serpents. The serpents, by the way, can be seen as not only a tribute to Ragnar, but a challenge to the gods in typical Floki form. The ouroboros Midgard serpent Jormagundr was the middle child of Loki, and it was said that when he released his tail, Ragnarok would begin. His arch-enemy was Thor, who heralded Ragnar’s death with thunder. To his foster son, Ivar, Floki sweetly croons:
“Ivar the Boneless, scourge of the world. You don’t need me.”
Blessed by the chants of his people, he rows away, tossing Ivar’s parting gift, Ragnar’s compass and sunstone, into the ocean. Ouch. When the wind dies and his raven mocks him, he beseeches Heimdall to tell the gods of his faithfulness and is answered by a blinding storm that beaches him on black volcanic sand: the discovery of Iceland. Floki’s journey is a true stunner, from his touching embrace of Ivar to his crawl across the whistling green mountainside to find a smoldering volcano and a waterfall vision of an Aesir greeting him, making him think he’s found Asgard. Such a rich note to end on, and one Gustaf Skarsgard has earned.
- Consigning oneself to the sea was something Christian missionaries did at the time, so it is keeping with Floki’s nature to do something similarly faithful, yet crazy.
- I love that Floki keeps a chortling raven, like a My Little Ragnar Buddy, and sends it forth like Noah did, minus the dove. Likewise it doesn’t return, but meets him on land.
- Shoutout to the random body in Aethelwulf’s swamp. How?
- Floki’s “not like this” reminds me of this scene.
- Color of the episode: blue. Lagertha, Judith, and Aethelgyth.
- If you’re wondering why “Æthel-” is so prevalent, it’s an OE prefix denoting nobility. People with royal blood were called Æthelings until Alfred, and after that, only those in line for the throne. Thus, Æthelgyth is a noble lady, and Æthelstan, RIP, was historically Alfred’s grandson, not a monk. Æthelwulf is of course the king, Æthelred is the crown prince, Alfred was Ælfred, and they had two brothers, Æthelburht and Æthelbald who were also kings. The more you know.