Previously on Vikings, “What Happens in the Cave”
HAIL KING BJORN!
In “Ragnarok,” Season 5 concludes with a satisfying arc for Bjorn Ironside, who had languished for some time as the other Ragnarssons grew into manhood. During Season 3’s Paris arc, Bjorn was poised to take the reins from Ragnar, but with four other teen Ragnarssons ready to hit the world stage, there was little time in Season 4 to maintain Bjorn’s depth. For a time Vikings felt like a young adult drama as Ubbe, Hvitserk, Sigurd, and Ivar wrestled for lines, Margrethe, and defining characteristics beyond “big mood.” Meanwhile, the writers had Bjorn assassinating his own character with highly questionable choices while raiding, background brooding, ignoring Torvi and his kids, and eventually marrying the sadism-inclined Sàmi princess Snaefrid, who was promptly offed with little fanfare. Not my favorite Bjorn moments.
In the Season 5B premiere, Bjorn returned to the forefront when Rollo raised questions of his paternity, pushing Bjorn to solidify his identity as Ragnar’s eldest son. Through the course of 5B, Bjorn found a wife he can literally see eye to eye with, realized England is not for him, acknowledged that his version of Ragnar’s dream wasn’t for every Ragnarsson, swallowed his pride (barely) to re-enlist his frienemy Harald, and seized Kattegat for himself as much as for Lagertha. The image of Bjorn, defeated and rasping for his friends to remember him and his father’s dreams, is an important one as the young bear learns at last to lower himself and wait for power to present itself. As with Ragnar, we’re not sure if Bjorn Ironside will be a great king, but we know he takes his people’s sacrifices seriously. The vision shift emphasizes the weight of power and return of spiritual wisdom via the Seer as Ivar’s oppression lifts from the land. With Gunnhild’s incomplete allegiance, Harald’s growing ambitions, Ivar’s grudge, and Kattegat’s recent taste for darkness, Bjorn has his work cut out for him at home even as powers and religions shift on the world stage.
As a whole, Vikings 5B successfully developed all of the official Ragnarssons. Ubbe smoothly cut around Bjorn’s stagnancy to help Alfred secure his throne then fulfilled Ragnar’s expansion dream by waging war first with an army and then with his fists. Like their father, Ubbe and Hvitserk experimented with religion but discarded their dalliances at the crucial moment. Hvitserk remains a Plus One, but in a helpful way consistent with his historical record. Ivar’s tale is the rise and fall of a despot. Even as all of the ingredients for happiness are within his grasp, Ivar cannot resist his father’s worst impulses, including strangling a woman whose only existence was to feed his toxic whims. (See: Yidu) We considered their fates in contrast to looser definitions of being a Ragnarsson when Earl Olavson chided Harald for his ingratitude towards Ragnar’s impact on Vikingdom and of course through the story of Magnus, who bites it the moment he decides the gods favor him too. Even the people of Kattegat are Ragnarssons, and their sentiments illustrate a crucial political lesson in how easily the average person is influenced by the side promising loudest to protect their homestead. The very people shouting Ivar! Odin! one week are the same shutting their doors when Bjorn commands it.
“Ragnarok” follows the familiar Kattegat invasion plot, with Bjorn following more in Lagertha’s footsteps than Ragnar’s, even reenacting her Solomon-like exhortation to its citizens when he instructs them to stay in their homes. Battering the gate is exhausting and agonizing, while Ivar taunts his increasingly frustrated and outraged older brother. The fight coordinators intermingle familiar and new techniques, opening and closing the shield wall or lines of shields with machine-like precision. The carnage is personal, especially when Bjorn’s front line is trapped inside the walls and systematically exterminated. Although Olaf’s fireside and chariot-side recitations seem wildly dramatic, it’s as if they are summoning their gods through remembrance. Vikings even spares a moment for Freydis, affording her an appropriately tragic end that is as aesthetically pleasing as her life. The title itself, “Ragnarok,” might sound hyperbolic when the battle ends favorably, but the Viking culture and its gods are dying. The only slightly flat note is the surprise family reunion with Ubbe, Lagertha, and Torvi, who arrive just in time to contribute nothing but moral support, moving though it is for Lagertha to hand Bjorn Ragnar’s sword. Overall, a solid bookend to Season 5.
As spies observe Bjorn’s forces moving down the mountain, Grey Hair (Kieran O’Reilly), Ivar’s bodyguard, tells him they’ve appointed district earls to pay taxes and provide soldiers. He and Ivar observe the walls fortified and blacksmiths working. It’s not the most organic scene, but reminds us of his charm. When his spies report, Ivar laughs that with all of his brothers against him, he knows he’s the chosen one, but Freydis throws side-eye. Olaf wonders if they should negotiate, but Bjorn and Hvitserk disagree. Hvitserk leaves his Buddha in the grass.
Interlude: Ubbe, Torvi, and Lagertha are on a boat. As Ubbe sleeps, Torvi asks Lagertha what she learned between life and death. Lagertha replies only that life is about suffering and how we deal with suffering. When Torvi despairs of telling her children this, Lagertha smiles and says they’ll find out themselves.
The night before battle, the leaders gather around a fire. This episode makes strong use of veteran actor Steven Berkoff‘s sonorous voice when Olaf retells prophecies of Ragnarok, when the war of brother against brother will echo through Midgard and heaven, causing the Winter of Winters and eventual death of the gods. Magnus seems frightened but the rest smile in various degrees of resignation and excitement, tagging in for their favorite parts.
“It’s only a story,” Harald smirks.
“Stories are all we have,” Olaf replies.
While dozens of swords are pounded out in Kattegat, Bjorn’s army leaders decide to split in half and attack the gates. Since they’ll be coming from opposite sides, they decide on face paint: Bjorn’s half goes with white, while Harald chooses blue in Halfdan’s memory. Freydis wakes to Ivar asking forgiveness for all he does. She agrees, but flinches from his kiss. For what it’s worth, he means it, not that sincerity ever stops him from being the utter worst.
Kattegat is more fortified than it once was with Ivar’s army lining the metal-reinforced walls and Bjorn’s army piled up outside. Bjorn’s half sets up a siege tunnel and shield wall to cover their battering ram, but make little progress thanks to Ivar’s archers and flammable liquid. Gunnhild leads backup while Ivar screams from above. Bjorn grows ever desperate and hoarse while Ivar laughs, and Olaf strikes up a round of chariot-bound carnival barking about the end of the world. Harald maintains his King of Petty crown by lighting up Ivar’s banners before moving an inch, then sends out ladders, vaulting poles, and a clever running-start ramp, which Magnus hides under crying to Jesus after taking a single arrow to the shield until he realizes that Jesus doesn’t typically attend Viking battles. Harald makes it up the wall but is cornered, so he tosses himself down Ragnar style and coughs up blood. Hvitserk barely clears one section and tells Harald they have to retreat, but Harald worries they’ll hurt Bjorn.
Bjorn has his own troubles, thanks to some kind of pre-flamethrower bellows that torches the battering crew. At last Bjorn breaks through the gate, but only about 30 make it inside before Ivar shuts the gates and has Bjorn’s people shot. Thanks to Gunnhild cutting a one-man swath from the outside, Bjorn breaks out and jumps outside the walls to call retreat. Magnus wakes with a new revelation that Odin is with him, shooting an arrow but missing. He leaps into the golden sunlight and starts to mount the walls when Harald pulls him down like a bad puppy, agape that he lived. Well, that’s because Magnus hid except for 30 seconds of the entire battle, including the following 5 seconds of him jumping out from behind Harald’s shield to declare his identity only to get shot. Harald pats him and runs, while Bjorn stops to hoarsely call to his former countrymen:
You know who I am! I am Bjorn Ironside, son of Ragnar. I grew up with many of you. You were my neighbors, my friends. We played together when we were children. I am not your enemy. Ivar is your enemy. He rules over you with tyranny and cruelty. He wants to destroy everything my father built. You know me.
Ivar’s chuckles fall when he realizes everyone is listening, and nobody will shoot Bjorn as ordered, so he does it himself. But Bjorn fends off the arrow easily and tosses the spent shield into the smoke. The damage is done. Despite his victory, Ivar hangs the soldiers who refused to shoot Bjorn and furiously screams to the city that Bjorn’s ambitions don’t include them. Only he can speak for them and he’d die for any of them, ominously finishing like any good cult leader that if they are disloyal they’ll all perish together. The crowd looks sick of his shit.
Back at camp, Harald and Olaf don’t see a way to win given their current options. Hvitserk says as sons of Ragnar they don’t give in, but Harald, exhausted and fed up, points out that so is Ivar. In private, Bjorn contemplates his life in general, being a poor father, and Gunnhild says she’s had her own losses—a dead husband and no children. She doesn’t like being trapped or knowable, and tosses him into bed because she’d like to be pregnant if she lives. She wonders if her being crazy put him off. Compared to his last wife? You’re normal. Ivar’s hall is raucous but Freydis is over it and makes her way to Bjorn’s camp with news of Thora and her baby’s death and an offering to let them in Ivar’s secret way the next morning. She sneaks out of bed to unlock the gate, and Ivar notices her return, but it’s already too late.
The Final Battle
Once they cut a swath through the first line, Bjorn yells that everyone should stay inside their houses, leaving only Ivar’s personal guard whom Bjorn, Hvitserk, Harald, and Gunnhild take on. Ivar skulks away to confront Freydis, who admits her betrayal, and after kissing her passionately, he strangles her to death, repeating that he loves her all the while. The camera work in this scene is gorgeous as it floats around them struggling intimately on the floor.
Back in the street brawl, Bjorn eventually lands on his back, but with a glance at Gunnhild, Harald steps in, taking a wound to help. Yet another scar to feed his grudge, although Bjorn sincerely thanks him before grabbing Hvitserk and swaggering into the hall to scream for Ivar. All they find are his dark throne, Freydis’ body, laid gently on the bed, and the bones of their son. After a moment of sorrow, Bjorn walks back into the sun toward Olaf, who happily hands him his banner, then, surprise! Ubbe congratulates him, sniffing at Hvitserk, and Lagertha brings Ragnar’s sword, calling HAIL KING BJORN!
The jubilation is momentary, as the sky clears to a vision of Bjorn standing in a sea of warriors’ bodies. Ragnar’s voice asks again, Why do you want to fight? And what are you fighting for? Looking over Kattegat in his furs with Ragnar’s sword, Ragnar whispers, Power is only given to those who are prepared to lower themselves to pick it up. The Seer appears and confirms the fulfillment of his prophecy: No one will forget Bjorn Ironside’s name, but the war, of course, is not over. When Bjorn wonders if it’s real, the Seer smiles and taps his lips in silence.
On the back of a merchant’s cart, a disguised Ivar rides out of town.
Vikings S5E20 Rating
Starring: Katheryn Winnick, Georgia Hirst, Alexander Ludwig, Alex Høgh Andersen, Jordan Patrick Smith, Peter Franzén, Marco Ilsø, Dean Ridge, Alicia Agneson, Ragga Ragnars, Steven Berkoff, Kristy Dawn Dinsmore | Director: David Wellington | Writer: Michael Hirst