Previously on Vikings, “The Most Terrible Thing”
Rounding into the latter three episodes of Vikings Season 5, director Helen Shaver presents “Baldur,” a transitional episode nonetheless packed with tightly-wound scenes, reaffirming the dark tendencies of so many familiar characters while leaving the future uncertain for others. Beyond potent plot drama, Lagertha travels through a spiritual reenactment of Ragnar’s execution designed either to maintain supernatural elements in a world becoming all too real or to provide wholesale fan service… or both. Each Ragnarsson is directly named so in their scenes, showing what Ragnar’s fame meant to the Vikings world at large and individually to each of his sons. Lastly, three long-time series regulars–Judith, Lagertha, and Floki–claim permanent changes as their characters slowly begin their exits. On a final fan note, Katheryn Winnick’s brother Markjan joins the cast as Danish King Angantyr.
We’re going to get to Ivar, but first let’s talk about Lagertha, who disappeared from the narrative following the battle with Harald and fills in the missing time with flashbacks. After making her way to Heahmund’s body, she drifted into the woods, cutting her hair ragged, hallucinating, and wandering to the site of Ragnar’s death. A woods witch (Sandra Voe) took her in where her story collides with Judith’s when she visits about a breast lump. Back in the royal villa, Lagertha comes to but is not the same, and neither is Judith. While painting the Virgin Mary, Judith reveals to Lagertha and Elsewith that she is dying. Lagertha acknowledges that they are both now “without shields,” marking Judith as a warrior with the precious blue paint.
Lagertha’s visions of Ragnar’s journey are powerful indeed, and Katheryn Winnick is riveting as always. Yet with the Ragnarssons in their prime, Vikings seems unsure in handling its biggest star as a middle-aged woman, unable to balance reasonable aging makeup with her considerable fighting prowess. Fans criticized when Bjorn caught up to Lagertha in aging, so Vikings “solved” the problem by aging her via trauma from Astrid’s death. Maybe the change was too much with one major battle left, so Lagertha “recovered” until she lost Heahmund as well. A questionable cause, considering Lagertha was never 100% invested in either lover, nor vice versa, so perhaps Ragnar’s visitation was to compound these lightweight losses while amplifying her Old Lady Magic. Suddenly, Lagertha is unstable, unattractive, and retired, a state more palatable if this wasn’t the classic “sudden expiration” narrative of female aging, save a bit of residual witchcraft to do good before one dies. It’s one thing to hint at Lagertha’s supernatural origins, but to break down Lagertha’s inexplicable youth in two fell blows due to loss-induced insanity feels disrespectful.
Leaving that angst behind, the convergence of three elder women in the woods witch’s hut brings to mind the Norns, the three Norse fates who lived at the base of Yggdrasil. The Norns were believed to draw near to every baby’s birth. Appropriately then, Freydis delivers Ivar’s heir Baldur, who presumably has a cleft palate, but her rapturous proclamation that deformity is a blessing falls on deaf ears. Ivar takes his son into the wilderness and does what his own parents could not bear to follow through with. Alex Høgh’s hypnotic sing-song pays off in gold as he tells the cooing Baldur that he cannot allow his own son to suffer the same jeers and lack of love, nor can he stand to be reminded of himself, then strands the screaming newborn to die. What lies behind was the promise of securing his legacy, and what lies before is unmitigated cruelty with nothing left to lose nor anyone to gain it for.
King Olaf the Stout
Hvitserk arrives at the raucous northern hall of Olaf the Stout where a little person majordomo named Canute (Conn Rogers) suspiciously greets him, tells him to strip naked, and escorts him through the snow to Olaf’s sauna, a quirk designed to prevent any surprise attacks and keep visitors off their game. Shoutout to the owl who gives Hvitserk an open-mouth once over, then nearly breaks the fourth wall wondering if we can’t believe this either. Hvitserk deliriously spouts his new philosophy to the rotund king, saying all of this is one and he is the Buddha. Olaf laughs uproariously. In the official assembly, Hvitserk admits that Ivar is a tyrant and he wants Olaf to overthrow him. In response, Hvitserk is strung up by his arms in the bath house, during which Canute reminds him never to anticipate the desire of kings. When Hvitserk remains resolute, however, surprise fellow deep-thinker Olaf admiringly cites his own preferred Eastern philosophy Hinduism—datta (giving), dayadvam (sympathy), damyata (control)—or TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land” if you prefer, and agrees to join him against Ivar.
*Credit to @smidbeach in the weekly #ShieldGeeks live tweet for recognizing the Sanskrit quote.
Bjorn & Gunnhild’s Wedding
Bjorn and Gunnhild are married in a wedding worthy of two warriors, with her fellow shield maidens twirling around her in a slow-motion shield wall. Muffled cheers and shredded feathers float through the air, a dream for some but a nightmare for one Harald Finehair, who imagines himself having sex with her in the crowd.
During the party, they circle each other, Harald asking about her ambitions to be queen, but Gunnhild never said who she wanted to be king. A drunk Magnus nearly gets himself killed intruding. Harald baldly tells Bjorn he wanted Gunnhild and has no idea, short of his being a Ragnarsson, why she picked Bjorn. Bjorn jeers him for wanting to be Ragnar and says the Gods will never make him king, but their rivalry is no reason for them not to work together and trust each other. Is Bjorn really this cocky, or is he too trying to provoke Harald into a challenge? Because Harald might be a wee man, but he’s savage AF. Watch out, honeymooners.
When Ivar finds his idol burnt and defaced as a free-form version of a scorn pole, he has his detractors rounded up, questioning Thora with deceptive friendliness. She explains that her parents taught her Ragnar’s brand of freedom and humanity. He seems to receive it gently, marking her face with red paint in pretend comfort, but she’s herded outside the gates where her father and others are burned to death, then is thrown in herself. As Thora was yet another disposable woman attached to a Ragnarsson, her death is horrifying yet wholly unsurprising.
With Ivar’s “enemies” vanquished, Freydis labors Baldur into the world, but the midwives’ fearful glances at Ivar reveal something is wrong. The lead midwife (Clodagh Downing) says he’ll never be able to nurse, but Freydis is ecstatic, reminding Ivar deformity is a sign of the gods. Ivar joyfully takes his son, but when he sees his face, his hope is destroyed. He takes the baby out into the blue night, explaining how he thought Baldur would make everything right. Instead the baby reminds him of himself, which he can’t allow, nor him to suffer like Ivar. He wonders how a father could do that, then kisses the baby goodbye, telling him to make his own way in life, and crawls away as Baldur screams. What will become of Ivar’s queen?
Oh, Hello, Old Floki…
In the pettiest possible move, Kjetill doesn’t even bury his own
disposable female daughter, telling Floki she was more his daughter anyway. When he tries to provoke Floki into killing him like he wants to, Floki coolly says he won’t because he has changed. If he hadn’t, Floki says calmly while channeling his most extra self, he would have paralyzed Kjetill so he could watch Floki brutalize, in disturbing detail, his surviving family. But, hey, he WON’T because he’s not only changed but is superduper done with the entire world. It’s incredible how that one tiny scrunch of Gustaf Skarsgård’s nose makes the lawful evil of Floki’s worse days feel so very close. Out in the wilderness, Floki confronts the gods and swears to hunt them down in the underworld. He finds a hole in a mountain swarming with gnats and heads in to what he believes is a “Hel” mouth.
The Three Norns
Judith cries through the woods witch’s spell, seeming to take to heart her words to the lump: become small and waste away. Lagertha interrupts in a fit, and Judith has her brought back to the villa. Lagertha hallucinates Ragnar’s execution, imagining herself in every position–Ragnar, Ecbert, Aelle, the priest. Then she flashes back to a Season 1 scene of them in bed, when Ragnar dreamed she’d given him her heart. Such babies! At last she comes to herself, remembering Heahmund. Alfred shares dinner with his fragile ally, understanding what it’s like to be absent when life moves on. Lagertha answers with newfound clarity that with her shield gone, she is no longer a shieldmaiden.
Later in Athelstan’s studio, Judith grinds lapis lazuli to paint an illustration of the Virgin Mary, telling Elsewith its luminosity is reflected light, like that of the moon (Remember that full moon speech Ecbert laid on her when blackmailing her into bed?), Jesus’, and their own sons’, one of whom she murdered. Also, she’s dying of breast cancer. While Elsewith seems surprisingly un-shocked by Judith’s murder confession, the thought of her conniving mother-in-law dying sends her into a tailspin. Lagertha limps over, naming Judith a fellow warrior, and paints two lines down Judith’s face with the divine mother’s blue.
The Three Danes
Wessex’s new army leaders Ubbe and Torvi meet the troops and assert that the best way to avoid conflict is meet the Danes directly. He calls out in Norse naming himself a son of Ragnar, and they’re escorted to the kings, Angantyr (Markjan Winnick), Hemming (Erik Madsen), and Frodo (Gavan O’Connor-Duffy, also one of Aelle’s body guards in S1E6). From the moment they arrive, thousands of men chant Ubbe’s name, an encouraging sign that his fame could bring them favor. He explains their alliance and settlements, which Torvi emphasizes as a woman who understands long term goals when Frodo wonders why they’d ally with “their enemies.” You don’t even know Alfred, my dude! Then he asks who this woman is making points he doesn’t want to hear, but, unlike Bjorn with the constant manterruptions, Ubbe lets Torvi say whatever she wants. Also, she’s his wife, Lord of the Ring. Any questions?
As the kings mull his offer to settle East Anglia, Torvi doubles down on her Viking badassery, telling Ubbe that if they have to fight their way out, she’s cool with that to the bitter end. Eventually, two kings agree but Frodo has to get to Mount Doom and refuses, so Ubbe declares it a personal insult and challenges him to a single combat honor duel, or holmgang. Something about this guy’s deeply cheerful acceptance says it won’t be an easy fight. He’ll be ok, though, right? RIGHT?!?
Vikings S5E18 Review Score
Starring: Katheryn Winnick, Gustaf Skarsgård, Georgia Hirst, Alexander Ludwig, Alex Høgh Andersen, Jordan Patrick Smith, Peter Franzén, Marco Ilsø, Jennie Jacques, Adam Copeland, Leah McNamara, Róisín Murphy, Dean Ridge, Alicia Agneson, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Ragga Ragnars, Eve Connolly, Jamie Maclachlan, Erik Madsen, Markjan Winnick | Director: Helen Shaver | Writer: Michael Hirst