Previously on Vikings, “The Lost Moment”
Drawing on several seasons of experience as the second unit director for major character death and massive battle episodes like “Paris,” episode director Stephen St. Leger artfully brings Vikings Season 5B to a head with the inevitable battle between King Alfred’s alliance and Harald Finehair’s army. Echoing the 5A finale, “Hell” uses a framing technique to elevate and dramatize a major character death, in addition to building on the lessons of warfare from that battle. Interwoven with the excitement of battle, the plot unveils three big surprises and two closing revelations that together evoke the glory days of Vikings when good will and review scores flowed easily thanks to Ragnar’s epic “gotchas.” Reverberations of Ragnar abound in Heahmund’s pre-battle vision and Hvitserk’s quietly judgemental lurking, but behind the best Ragnar-like machinations is Ubbe, at last rising to his full potential and cementing himself the heir to his father’s true nature, a turn as satisfying for fans as it is for critics as the narrative circle completes.
While Bjorn struggles with his paternal identity by imitating Ragnar’s familiar twitches but little of his spirit, relying entirely on outside counsel and his considerable brute strength to make his mark, Ubbe has quietly blossomed into a familiar-feeling reliable yet capable introvert. Yet, one thing lacked in all of the Ragnarssons–Ragnar’s clever, Puck-like battle strategies. His singular capability lay in out-thinking friends and foes alike, inspiring them to great heights while giving them lengths of rope to hang themselves. Save the obvious absence of Travis Fimmel, this is a major quality missing from the post-Ragnar era, and one gratefully welcomed back in “Hell” through Ubbe outmaneuvering of Harald. His delay tactic mirrors his father’s use of disarming charm and intellect while his battleground Ring of Fire plays off of lessons from the Battle of Scar Mountain when Harald and Ivar’s forces attempted to melt back into the trees, showing Ubbe’s willingness to learn from and adapt to his opponent. Minus forest backup from the Saami, Ubbe keeps Harald’s forces concentrated and panicking by luring them to a pre-scorched, flammable trench. Historical authenticity not withstanding, the result is intimate and exciting, setting it apart from other similar battles.
Hell is Anticipation
Alfred officially swears to restore East Anglia to the Vikings if they win this battle. Ubbe shows him an assembled trebuchet, then furthers their fighting lessons by surprise, approving of Alfred’s increased skills. After Torvi insists Ubbe wear the torc for protection from their own gods, along with the cross, Ubbe pays Alfred another visit and, channeling his father again, shakes a little more manliness into him until it sticks (Remember when Ragnar shook Alfred’s father, Athelstan, saying, “You cannot leave me”?). Armed with this and their mother’s exhortation, Alfred and Aethelred swagger out of the throne room worthy of the king who raised them. For such young actors, Ferdia Walsh Peelo and Darren Cahill rock this becoming with authenticity.
On the other hand, Heahmund awakes from a vision of Hell, convicted to to sever his ties with Lagertha. Heahmund’s hellscape echoes Ragnar’s own struggles on the eve of battle, although it doesn’t quite approach the hair-raising level of the Odin/Jesus/Athelstan fever dream. By way of justification, he tells her, “You weren’t there,” stating the obvious but resurrecting series-long worries about the separation of loved ones in Heaven and Valhalla–she wasn’t there, something Ragnar worried about Athelstan and Lagertha herself whispered to Ragnar’s casket in Season 3’s finale, “The Dead.” When Lagertha coldly claims he never loved her, he just sobs. Despite my misgivings about their relationship, Jonathan Rhys Meyers truly sells Heahmund’s conflicted agony at letting Lagertha go.
The first strategic surprise belongs to Alfred. As he makes to lead the troops out of Wessex villa, he pauses and announces Lord Cyneheard’s arrest for treason. Cyneheard’s hauled off his horse and dragged through the mud to plead with “gentle lady” Judith. In large part thanks to Ecbert, she snorts and says she’s no gentle lady, torturing him throughout the episode until she extracts the names of his co-conspirators. Of course, her success is no triumph and torture’s violence is no art, brutally contrasting the visual feast that marks Vikings battles.
War is Hell
The second surprise results from Ubbe’s trip to Harald’s camp. Harald counsels him to join with them, seize his lands, and overthrow Ivar. But he turns cold when Ubbe announces his conversion and proposes they name their price to leave, a concept which came to be called Danegeld. Danegeld consisted of two parts: gafol, which paid off invaders, and heregeld, which paid the standing army. Historically, after Rome left Britain, coins were not widely used on the island for nearly 200 years, but were struck with increasing frequency as the Viking Age progressed for this very reason. As Harald is considering his price, however, Magnus scuttles in looking for validation and inadvertently reveals that Alfred is with his army, meaning the whole thing was just a delay tactic so Ubbe’s side could claim their preferred battleground.
As Harald’s army runs to meet Alfred’s assembled forces, St. Leger introduces the narrative framework: Alfred’s solemn post-battle speech, his face spattered in blood. Through this lens, the fiery battle jumps forward, rewinds, begins, and ends. The speech begins inspirationally enough, but gorgeous mournful music underlines the pathos of Harald’s situation, hinting at more tragedy to come. Yet again to Peter Franzén’s credit, Harald’s frustration and certain humiliation is surprisingly sympathetic.
As for the biggest surprise, Jarl Olavson questions why the ground around them is burned and Harald paces like a caged animal, waiting for the reveal: Ubbe lights a scorched trench around the battleground, forming a wall of fire behind Harald’s army. Harald’s Norse battle chant arises nonetheless, striking off of Heahmund’s English blessing for Alfred’s allied army. In another masterful stroke of directing, Athelstan’s son Alfred shouts next to Heahmund while Ragnar’s “son” Magnus cheers next to Harald, two unblooded boys heading into their first battle. Both hold their own, but when Alfred is pinned, Aethelred saves him, shouting, “Long live the king!” Heahmund is dragged off his horse, marking the turn in Alfred’s framing speech towards a eulogy. As Heahmund admires Lagertha across the field, something he’d done in his last two battles, he’s hit by a bolt. He goes down with her name on his lips, damning himself after all as she watches. Alfred finishes, saying Heahmund’s famed “Ananyzapata” sword would be buried with him, the warrior bishop dead under Alfred’s flag.
Closing his speech, Alfred swings the tempo upward with his signature “sandwich method,” praising their Christian Viking friends for handing them the day. As the battle ends, Gunnhild slices a scar through Bjorn’s right eye, but he in turn captures her with respect. Seeing scarce allies left alive, Harald shouts orders to retreat in Norse, again contrasting Alfred’s English sermon: he is the Other, and the Vikings are with Alfred, save, perhaps, Bjorn, who stands shoulders above the rest, soaked in blood and silence. The matriarchs carry the closing as Lagertha is discovered missing in the battle’s aftermath and as Judith finally tells her battle weary, drunken son-king that his brother led the conspiracy, leaving him staring at Aethelred anew. As his fraternal conflict kicks into high gear, Magnus caps off the episode on Harald’s retreating ship, two brotherless brothers, setting in stone several major questions for the back half of Season 5B:
- Where is Lagertha? Was she captured or on Crazy Town 2 walkabout?
- How will Alfred manage Aethelred’s pre-battle betrayal?
- What’s up with Bjorn and Gunnhild?
- Will Magnus become a linchpin in the gods’ plans?
Hell in Kattegat
In the dark of night, Ivar’s goons haul the Seer’s body out into the woods and burn it, fulfilling the Seer’s vision of fire and darkness. The next day, Hvitserk finds bloody earth in the Seer’s hut and inquires of Ivar, who’s drunk and reiterates his divinity. Hvitserk further endears himself to me by leaning in and whispering, “I know.” If it’s obvious to Plus One, the rest can’t be far behind, so Ivar publicly announces the Seer has “disappeared” and swears to find who’s responsible, using the opportunity to positively reinforce his divinity and the future birth of “his” supposed demi-god child. Alex Høgh is at his absolute best in Ivar’s creepily charming, sing-songy, gaslighting moments. To Hvitserk’s incredulity, it starts to catch on. At episode’s end, the townspeople erect a statue of their new god while Ivar rehearses his sad, sad history to Freydis, calling her “all truth and goodness.” This can’t go well, right?
Vikings S5E15 Review Score
Starring: Katheryn Winnick, Gustaf Skarsgård, Georgia Hirst, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Alexander Ludwig, Alex Høgh Andersen, Jordan Patrick Smith, Peter Franzén, Marco Ilsø, Jennie Jacques, Adam Copeland, Kris Holden-Ried, Leah McNamara, Jack McEvoy, Roisin Murphy, Dean Ridge, Alicia Agneson, Tomi May, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Darren Cahill, Donna Dent, Ragga Ragnars, Scott Graham, Elijah Rowen, Ann Skelly | Director: Stephen Saint Leger | Writer: Michael Hirst