Previously on Vikings, “A Simple Story”
Can test each mortal when unaware;
Yea, that strange mirror
May catch his last thoughts, whole life foul or fair,
From “Moments of Vision” by Thomas Hardy
In Vikings, visions from the gods insert themselves in critical times, as we saw within the opening minutes of the series when Ragnar witnessed Valkyries and Odin claiming souls from the battlefield. Each vision tests the seer: where is this tale going, and who determines that? Under experienced vision-wielder director Daniel Grou, the final battle for Kattegat unfolds in “Moments of Vision” as a series of flashbacks and visions, experimenting with perspective and revealing what thoughts and emotional baggage linger even on the battlefield. Interweaving these visions is more excellent sound work, woodpecker taps morphing into threatening rattles, haunting melodies, and throbbing war drums. Additional kudos to the special effects department for turning the entire field, save Lagertha, into skeletons through Ivar’s eyes, and makeup/props for Lagertha’s Valkyrie war paint and beat-down death of four men with a severed head. Fantastically atmospheric and beautiful material to complete this first Ragnarless season with only a few missteps, primarily in the evolution, or lack thereof, of a certain demographic. More on that in a moment.
The casualties of the second battle on Scar Mountain are perhaps not surprising, given the characters’ trajectories and Hirst’s writing tendencies: Astrid, Halfdan, Guthrum, and Snaefried die; Kattegat is lost but Team Kattegat survives; and Ivar prepares to claim his “birthright.” After more disheartening bloodshed, we’re left with the all-too-familiar sick feeling of an unsuitable, uncaring ruler taking over a beloved territory, but the episode’s last moments reveal three major plot twists. First, losing Astrid and her kingdom leaves Lagertha visibly aged. Second, Rollo sails in view and it doesn’t look like a courtesy call. And the third, Floki declares that Iceland needs a human sacrifice.
Throughout this season, Ragnar’s legacy, whether it was curiosity or new farmland or simply Kattegat, was a prime focus. To be frank, pun intended, this is Ragnar’s legacy: fraternal discord. Rollo was always a petty, jealous backstabber. No matter his fatherly love, Ragnar did nothing to foster a better situation between his own sons, nor instill leadership skills, except in Bjorn who, unfortunately for Kattegat, also inherited his wanderlust. It’s no surprise, then, that once Lagertha’s power wanes, Rollo reappears. But, who is using whom? Did Ivar really use Rollo to gain the throne for himself, or did Rollo cultivate his own Trojan horse by befriending the perennially clueless Hvitserk a decade ago?
Sexually Transmitted Death
Back to Lagertha. Since Ragnar began aging, Lagertha’s youthful appearance grew increasingly obvious, and once Bjorn sprouted grays, even more so. Minus marketing, favorite fan theories included Lagertha being part Valkyrie or her youth being tied to Kattegat’s fate. During this battle, Lagertha flashes back to a fatalistic last kiss with Heahmund and her sweet father giving her a Thor’s hammer necklace as a child. Afterward, Bjorn finds a much-aged Lagertha rocking in a corner, lost in remembering Astrid’s death. Although rapid aging has precedent in traumatic events, tying this to Astrid’s death rather than Kattegat’s loss is questionable considering Lagertha was never that into Astrid. Terrible as it must have been to kill her pregnant ex, she’s done much worse, as Floki said, and Astrid literally asked for it.
Perhaps this is more ill handling of Vikings‘ female characters, exemplified further by the deaths of Snaefried and Astrid, predictably felled by Sexually Transmitted Death with Ragnar’s family. Featured in the Heimskringla for ensnaring Harald Finehair with magic, the show version of Sami princess Snaefried is only another titillating toy, killed off quickly along with her father. Although Snaefried and Bjorn’s pre-battle nuzzling is touching, we have nothing to make us feel remorse about her death other than sympathy for Bjorn.
As for Astrid, not only is she Lagertha’s and Bjorn’s former lover, she’s essentially forced into marrying Harald, gang raped when she tries to leverage her situation, and finally seeks death to escape Harald’s plans. Despite more screen time than Halfdan, we are never privy to Astrid’s inner thoughts; therefore she has no developmental arc besides others’ changing reactions to her. Lagertha treats her affectionately but somewhat dismissively despite her (general) loyalty; originally using her as a stepping stone, Harald comes to adore and respect her, primarily because she manages to paint a facade of choice over her kidnapping. Her own visions in this episode are heavy ones, to the actors’ credit: one, a flashback to Harald asking her to cut his hair in fulfillment of his vow to the gods for marrying the woman of his dreams and begging to know her sorrow, and the other, a vision of Lagertha preparing to die. As much as I congratulate Harald for evolving from a brute, Astrid’s feelings for him remain, at best, resigned tolerance, as they should, considering she is still a captive, now of her own body. Her only agency is inviting death at Lagertha’s hand, which may in itself galvanize Harald’s expansion plans, a final insult.
The Ragnarssons’ last victim, Margrethe, shockingly does not kill Bjorn and Torvi’s children nor does she die (drat!), but is driven insane by visions of bodies washing downstream. She confronts the Seer, who crankily declares that neither Ubbe nor she will rule Kattegat and he’s tired of being bothered by crazy people. Once Torvi returns to claim her children in a horribly tense scene, the mad former slave runs away, a redux of Þorrun’s breakdown and desertion of Bjorn. As she is a hateful, grasping creature, nobody will miss her, but hysteria is a classically feminine plot.
See You in Valhalla
While Torvi is spared the deaths of Bjorn’s children, Guthrum crosses Hvitserk in a berserker frenzy and is simply outmatched. Both Torvi and Lagertha see the moment in slow motion, Torvi battling over to his side, but too late. Blood spatters her face and his spirit reaches out to bid her goodbye before she beats Hvitserk back into the fray. Overall, not a terrible ending for Jarl Borg’s son, considering he was almost killed in the womb; even then, Torvi remarked, We just give birth to the slaughtered. Later, Bjorn stumbles over his body and blesses his ascension to Valhalla, then wrenches out the hatchet and commands arrows be rained upon Ivar. Bjorn stares in bewilderment as Ivar stands untouched and calls down the Franks, laughing at Lagertha and Heahmund’s challenges. Perhaps the gods are on his side after all.
Ivar’s story intertwines with Hvitserk’s. In the battle’s first moments, Hvitserk flashes back to Ivar asking what he fears most about death, joking that the gods pushed him from Ubbe’s boat. At last, Hvitserk claims ownership of his desertion, regretting only that he never fathered children and pettily stabbing at Ivar’s inability to do the same. Ivar curses his decision, revealing his secret hope that Hvitserk did it out of love for him, a rare moment of realness between them. The vision leaves Hvitserk stumbling into Ubbe who refuses to kill him, a decision that keeps their family alive, but costs his lover her son.
Harald does not do the same when it comes to his own brother. Halfdan sets the tone of the episode by opening with an untranslated, melancholy tune which echoes through the foggy woods and washes over both armies. Harald joins him in song across the space. Bjorn later reaches out to Halfdan with understanding, but his friend has only gratitude for these lessons in a greater purpose. Once on the battlefield, Halfdan seems overwhelmed and retreats to a vision of solitude in the desert, sand running through his fingers as his heart beats slower. Harald turns and strikes him down woefully, Halfdan kissing his ax and saying, This is life, and this is death, brother. For Halfdan, a perfect character arc, from tag-along marauder to actualized individual, at least for a Viking. In retrospect, his obsession with Kassia was perhaps a lust for that same fierce individuality, which he blessedly gains before his death.
For the last bit of blood planted in the soil, we end with Iceland. Eyvind’s family lays Bul to rest in a boat grave. Floki approaches with an offer to make him lawgiver with the power he craves, if he can resist the temptation to avenge Bul’s death. After all, Eyvind now has as much invested in the land as Floki. But, he can’t resist and Aud finds Thorgrim’s body floating in a caldera. Floki openly admits that he has been a fool, and as builder, he must take responsibility, offering himself as a sacrifice to earn a second chance for them. I certainly joined his pilgrims in gaping and internally screaming. Will Gustaf Skarsgård be the first big exit in Season 5b, or will the offer be enough for the gods?
"Moments of Vision"
Starring: Alexander Ludwig, Katheryn Winnick, Gustaf Skarsgård, Clive Standen, Jonathan Rhys Meyers,, Peter Franzén, Jasper Pääkkönen, Josefin Asplund, Georgia Hirst, Alex Høgh, Marco Ilsø, Jordan Patrick Smith, Ida Nielsen, Adam Copeland, Kris Holden-Ried, Leah McNamera, Jack McEvoy, Mei Bignall, Kelly Campbell, James Craze, Elijah Rowen, Donna Dent, Rob Malone, Scott Graham, Lulubelle Earley, Orlaith Doherty, Ben Roe, Dagny Backer Johnsen, Anthony Brophy, Jonathan Delaney Tynan