Previously on Vikings, “Hell”
Post the peak mid-season battle, Vikings takes a pause to clean up dangling threads and reset the Ragnarssons on the playing field. But there’s no dramatic lull thanks to Alfred’s sudden illness, Aethelred’s final misstep, and Judith’s filicide to protect the younger king. After granting the Vikings their land, Alfred returns to Wessex in a cart, stricken unconscious with a mysterious chronic malady. Having pulled his weight earlier in the episode, Ferdia Peelo (Alfred) is sidelined while Darren Cahill (Aethelred) takes up Heahmund’s mantle of husky whispering and Jennie Jacques frets like Judith hasn’t fretted since Alfred fell ill in the Fire Swamps. Narrative tropes perhaps validate Judith’s paranoia: his furtive secrets, his overly demonstrative concern for Alfred, his skulking around in a hood, his manhandling of Judith, and his lust. Was Aethelred caught up by lordly conspirators and his own youthful resentments, or is he still after the throne? We’ll never truly know.
Outside of Wessex, Vikings hits another of Ragnar’s favorite past times, experimenting with a new religion in the episode title “The Buddha.” With little to do but serve Ivar good face, Hvitserk dabbles in Buddhism thanks to an encounter in Kattegat’s bustling marketplace. Although his understanding is scant, Hvitserk’s discovery seems to free him from the mire of inaction and guilt-ridden paralysis. Across the pond, their brothers make good on their father’s dream, as Alfred officially grants them East Anglia and helps Ubbe and Torvi settle in as Christian governors of the land, while Ubbe backs Alfred’s definitive moves against his detractors. Yet even as Ubbe and Torvi assimilate Ragnar and Lagertha’s farmer-governor-counselor personalities, it’s as if all of the Viking-ness melts off and clings to Bjorn and Gunnhild Highlander-style, making the imposing pair, like the Grinch’s heart, 3 times larger.
In case you missed it, Vikings recently aired a separate special called “The Saga of Bjorn” framed as a bedtime story for his eldest son with Torvi narrating flashbacks of Bjorn’s life throughout the series, suggesting that showrunners Hirst et al realized the disservice they’ve done Bjorn as of late. Thus, with Lagertha still missing and Gunnhild validating his instincts, Bjorn decides to wrench Kattegat from Ivar’s grip and finally returns to the Bjorn we once knew—charming Gunnhild by respecting her, offering Ubbe his understanding, smoothing past cruelties by praising Torvi, and asking the perennially-jealous Harald for help while flaunting Gunnhild in his face. Oh, Bjorn, you scamp.
Alfred officially signs East Anglia over to the Vikings, advising Ubbe to look after its wary residents. Then, with Ubbe at his back, Alfred orders every conspirator, save his brother, arrested. Alfred tells Judith he’s silently forgiven Aethelred, but she asks to question him so she can also forgive. With Cyneheard hanged cursing Alfred’s name and bodies piling up in the streets, perhaps communication is called for. Swearing he’ll never move against his brother, Aethelred admits he was “approached” for a “bloodless coup” but nothing more. With a machete, though, my good man?
Bjorn asks Gunnhild if his mother was captured or is missing on purpose. She reflects on finishing off Heahmund, losing her husband, and her current disadvantaged position. Acknowledging her as an equal, he offers freedom in exchange for what she knows, which unfortunately is nothing. Her ropes cut, Gunnhild punches him in the face then dismisses him, which of course he loves. Frustrated by a lack of information on Lagertha, Bjorn takes it out on Ubbe, but Torvi suggests Lagertha, who was shown briefly at the episode open standing over Heahmund’s body on the battlefield then staring into the distance, has lost her sense of reason.
Sharing an awkward communion with Ubbe and Torvi, Alfred leads the Vikings to their land. Ubbe digs his hands into the earth like Lagertha once did and nods gently to their wary subjects. Later the trio attend a local mass, but Bjorn and Gunnhild don’t go in, talking instead about Ragnar’s dreams, and end up in bed. Yes, it’s soon after Jarl Olavson’s death, but since our introduction to them was Harald’s judgement that they weren’t truly in love, we’ll let it go. Determined to take Kattegat back, Bjorn bids Ubbe and Torvi goodbye. Ubbe offers his older brother admiration as a farewell, and Bjorn FINALLY thanks Torvi for her loyalty and love to his family. Having put down yet another challenge to his authority in York, Harald wins back the crowd by touting his spare Ragnarsson, Magnus, who literally throws himself at Bjorn like a velcro-covered tree frog when he and Gunnhild turn up. Harald seems amenable to their plans for Kattegat but is not amused at watching Bjorn canoodle with Gunnhild.
When the guards return to Wessex with the unconscious Alfred, Judith reassures Elsewith, who admits she’s newly pregnant, making Judith even more concerned at Alfred’s tenuous hold on the throne, especially after Aethelred visits. Judith tries to explain Alfred’s situation to the surviving lords, saying it’s a chronic condition he’s always survived, but her news has the opposite effect. Aethelred quietly talks them down, but when she asks what he said, he grabs her and sends her off to “pick some stinking borage.” Then he bangs his wife who muses that she hopes Alfred dies, and he smiles with his eyes.
Historically, Alfred the Great was stricken with a life-long condition which contributed his death at 50, and its exact nature is widely debated, from epilepsy to venereal diseases. However, one helpful article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine points to Crohn’s Disease, which would ebb and flare but otherwise allow what passed for an active medieval royal life. Herbal medicine-wise, borage would be the opposite of help but there were possibly helpful native British remedies including wormwood (absinthe) and Lion’s Mane. Although the camera focused on Judith gathering mushrooms, it’s more likely someone on such a mission would look for wolfsbane and/or hemlock. Lastly, the real Aethelred I was king for 6 years before Alfred and died of battle wounds two weeks after fighting the Danes at Meretum, where the real-life Heahmund also died.
After Judith makes her concoctions, she and Aethelred sit to dinner. He reassures her that he cares for Alfred while she nervously prattles about the nobles conspiring. She must understand, he says, their fears… and he chokes, poisoned. Twisting her hands, she says she doesn’t believe he’s capable of accepting Alfred as king. Jacques’ fearful shrieks at her eldest’s death throes and the horror of what she’s done are chilling, and Cahill nails Aethelred’s strained desperation to breathe, demanding incredulously: “What kind of mother are you?!” Aethelred’s eyes grow bloodshot as he wheezes, stumbles, and dies. With Aethelred draped across Judith’s lap in black and red, the episode ends in a distinctly perverse recreation of a classical pietà.
The way Judith was set up, she was always going to kill Aethelred, sooner or later. Thanks to Ecbert publicly torturing her straight from the birthing bed then extorting Alfred’s protection in exchange for being Ecbert’s mistress, Judith was driven to a pathological focus on Alfred’s well being. After Ecbert’s death, Aethelwulf mellowed, but she still saw any favor of Aethelred as a threat towards Alfred. It’s a shame when a headstrong, intelligent older woman turns conniving Lady Macbeth stereotype while the other matriarch, Lagertha, has apparently gone insane, but this is the logical outcome of Judith’s arc. Once Alfred wakes up, will he execute her or send her to a nunnery? After a move of this level, surely Judith’s days are numbered.
Iceland or Whatever
Dining on the nastiest fish of all time, Floki and Kjetill’s family hear Helgi screaming for help. Everyone from Eyvind’s party is dying or dead. Floki amputates Helgi’s frostbitten fingers and allows him to recover while they mull the dangers of inviting them back in. Helgi swears his father has changed, and maybe it’s my imagination, but that sounds ominous. Floki lets Kjetill the optimist decide, so out they go into the driving winter rains. Woof. Couldn’t be me.
Ivar hears about Harald’s defeat and determines to swoop in and team up with him to defeat Alfred, holding up their chess piece from long ago. Hvitserk tells mini-Aslaug (Thora) more of his new philosophy but he doesn’t quite grasp it, so they just have sex. Incidentally I would rather hear him say that 1000 times than Aethelred say he’ll do his husbandly duties ever again. With everyone primping Freydis, Ivar jovially scolds Hvitserk for his cynicism, saying Hvitserk jumped ship but blames Ivar for making him unhappy. Hvitz philosophizes that there is no contradiction because it’s all one and Ivar decides he has gone barmy. New philosophy students are a lot, bless.
Vikings S5E16 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, Róisín Murphy, Dean Ridge, Alicia Agneson, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Darren Cahill, Donna Dent, Ragga Ragnars, Scott Graham, Elijah Rowen, Ann Skelly | Director: Stephen Saint Leger | Writer: Michael Hirst