This Vikings review contains spoilers.
“We have failed the gods.”
Whether you view “Moments of Vision” as a season finale or a mid-season finale doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that Vikings stands, once again, on the brink of reinventing itself after one of the most emotionally devastating episodes of the series’ run. Following Ragnar Lothbrok’s death, there have been a number of power shifts, and now the time has finally arrived for the old guard to make way for the new.
Michael Hirst’s decision to visually fuse the battle scenes with flashbacks and visions may take some getting used to, but this narrative strategy deftly drives home the anguish each of the characters feels and the acceptance that today may be their last. While the opening segment certainly presents a sense of calm before the storm, it sets the stage for the out of body experiences interspersed among the action sequences. Harald and Halfdan singing a plaintive Norse song to each other from their respective camps reminds us that this is a civil war, and there will be no winners today. And as Floki’s colony stands ready to implode, his warning that the “cycle of killing” must end transcends the tragedies taking place on the island.
One by one, individuals come face to face with “thoughts and memories” on the eve of battle, and Ivar and Hvitserk come to terms with their own relationship. When Lagertha, who may arguably have the most to lose today, appears in full battle attire, we’re given the impression the battle is ready to commence. Along with Ragnar, Lagertha built Kattegat into the thriving community it has become, and the realization that all could be lost in the blink of an eye becomes painfully clear. That she chooses to connect with Bishop Heahmund is no longer a mystery, and when the scene cuts to her without battle face paint, their talk of the afterlife reinforces the similarities these two possess. She asks for one last kiss as if she knows that today she will die and seems at peace after she and the bishop enjoy what they accept may be their last moment together.
The effective use of slow motion during the battle provides a glimpse into the inner turmoil these warriors feel. Lagertha sees Torvi and her son engaged in combat, and when Hvitserk cuts him open and then delivers a fatal blow, the queen’s vision suddenly shifts to her childhood and her father who gives her a necklace with a tiny replica of Thor’s hammer. “This will take care of you always,” he tells her, but clearly, at this point, she has her doubts and calls on a cherished memory to see her through the pain of loss. The long awaited reunion between Astrid and Lagertha follows the memory of her father, and how fitting that it’s presented with the two alone in a field as the fog drifts in. Astrid makes it clear she’s unhappy with her pregnancy, and while we’ve envisioned this scenarios in many different guises, none could have predicted what occurs.
We’ll never really know why Astrid chooses death over leaving Harald and rejoining Lagertha, but when she tells her lover that “I cannot have this child,” her options suddenly become limited. Of course, we can ask why Lagertha acquiesces to Astrid’s request to kill her and the unborn child, but we really have to go no further than their belief that as warriors, they will all be together in Valhalla. It’s a touching scene made even more so when viewed in isolation from the battle raging in the background. Director Daniel Grou, for the most part, chooses to avoid showing these two queens in the context of the reality in which they find themselves, but visually removing them from the chaos allows them a proper goodbye.
Once Rollo’s forces enter the fray, it becomes increasingly clear that this is a fight that Lagertha and Bjorn cannot win. Peering down on the battlefield, Ivar sees only Lagertha fighting a skeleton amidst a field full of fighting skeletons. Unlike Bjorn who orders a retreat upon the realization that this is a hopeless fight, Ivar’s vision strips away the humanity of the soldiers. Bjorn chooses to save as many lives as he can; Ivar only cares that he has not yet avenged his mother’s death. “Ah, Lagertha. Don’t be a coward. Come and fight me.” Taken at face value, this is a rather disingenuous statement since he won’t fight her one on one, and without his uncle’s troops, stands a good chance of losing this fight. Whether she has it in her to continue the fight to preserve her rule in Kattegat seems doubtful. Having returned to the village, Bjorn orders the others to grab and pack what they can in anticipation of abandoning the village before Ivar enters to enjoy his triumph. However, it’s as if her visions during the battle set the stage for her journey’s end, and she sits, dazed and looking much older than we’ve ever seen. Will she flee with Bjorn and the others, or wait behind to confront Ivar one last time?
Going into the battle Rollo makes clear to Ivar that Bjorn is not to be killed, but eventually brother is going face off against brother. Hvitserk has never explicitly explained why he chose Ivar over Ubbe, and since today seems to be a day for reflection about hopes, dreams, and regrets, Ivar challenges his older brother’s decision. Ivar can’t seriously believe that Hvitserk sides with him out of love, and when Hvitserk is dealt what turns out to be a non-fatal blow, he sees himself literally jumping ship to stay with Ivar.
With all of this spinning in his head, Hvitserk comes face to face with Ubbe who immediately swings his blade towards his brother’s neck though he stops just short of contact. When Ubbe takes a second swing, Hvitserk doesn’t react as if he hopes his brother will kill him. Hvitserk stays with Ivar out of fear, but Ubbe spares his brother’s life out of love. Of all Ragnar Lothbrok’s sons, Hvitserk faces the most difficult decision. He understands he fights for a madman and has made the morally wrong choice in supporting his younger brother, but there may be no turning back for him once Ivar advances on Kattegat.
It’s also easy to forget that at some point, Ivar and Harald seem destined to clash since each desires roughly the same thing. We’ve witnessed Halfdan on numerous occasions acknowledge the debt he owes to Bjorn, and the experiences they shared hold deep significance for him. There’s a sense that like many warriors here, Halfdan accepts that this is his last battle whether he lives or dies. Bjorn has taught him that there’s more to life than raiding and perpetuating the cycle of killing, and seeing himself alone in the middle of a desert seems to be an admission that he understands circumstances prevent him from achieving personal fulfillment. Unlike Ragnar’s sons, Harald kills his brother without a moment’s hesitation, and his message that “I will see you in Valhalla,” rings hollow. Though he doesn’t yet know of Astrid’s death, today’s events might ultimately bring Harald to his knees.
Bjorn now finds himself the odd man out. He knows his uncle Rollo can’t protect him from Ivar’s wrath forever, and even though he had nothing to do with Aslaug’s death, the association with Lagertha carries too much weight. Though his attraction to Snaefrid occupies his attention leading up to the battle, her death frees him to go where he wants and do what he wants, and it seems difficult to believe that at this point, he’ll want to stay and continue to fight Ivar. But what of Torvi? Her son by Jarl Borg dies in the fight, and she and Ubbe have initiated a triangle whose outcome portends disaster for all involved. And in the grand scheme of things, we have to ask whether this is a fight to the death, or does Ivar possess the wherewithal to broker a peace in Kattegat?
There always seems to be a wildcard in the mix, and to no one’s surprise, Margethe fills that role here. We learn early on that visions are not limited to the battlefield, and while the former slave has always been a bit off, she seems to have begun a descent that promises to wreak havoc among the sons of Ragnar. Though Margrethe has previously displayed no supernatural insight, her vision of a dead body floating in the river and reaction that “soon they will all be dead,” implies a premonition of the battle’s progress. However, her audience with The Seer forces us to view her impact on the political front from a different angle.
For the most part Vikings has stayed away from employing the supernatural as a narrative tool, and though the gods occupy an integral role in the lives of the characters, it’s the The Seer’s ability to drift in and out of the story that makes for some of the show’s most haunting moments. Margrethe’s hunger for power has been no secret, but when she asks The Seer point blank whether Ubbe will rule Kattegat, his answer disappoints. Undaunted, she asks if she will be queen, and is again told no, she will not. But The Seer then offers up one of his cryptic predictions implying that Ubbe may be a king, just not of Kattegat which simply confuses her even more. When he tells her that he knows she’s mad but “perhaps the mad will inherit the Earth,” the sense of foreboding that follows falls right in line with her current persona. The sense of dread we’ve felt as Margrethe watches over Torvi’s children reaches its high point when their mother anxiously comes for them, obviously afraid of what Ubbe’s wife might have done. At this point there’s little disputing that Margrethe is descending into madness.
And though there has been movement in Iceland, it’s certainly not for the better. As compelling a character as Floki has been throughout Vikings’ first five seasons, his arc in the land of the gods has felt a bit second rate, until tonight. Caught in the middle of a power struggle, Floki tries to placate Eyvind by appointing him lawgiver, but even that’s not apparently enough to prevent more bloodshed. Finally, having reached a point at which he knows “only too well what happens next,” Floki offers himself as a sacrifice to the gods in the hope of rescuing his Norse version of Eden from collapsing in on itself.
All of which brings us to Kattegat and Iceland. Floki explicitly states that he’s willing to sacrifice his life so that the community may thrive and the violence cease, but as we watch a broken, dazed Lagertha sit alone while Bjorn readies to flee the village she helped build, might she be considering the same thing. At its core, this is a war based on revenge which means it’s possible that Ivar’s bloodlust might be placated with Lagertha’s death even if it doesn’t come in battle. Regardless, there doesn’t appear to be much hope for Lagertha now that Rollo’s Frankish forces support Ivar. It’s not been made clear why Rollo decides to enter this conflict, but with Ivar, Harald, and Ubbe waiting in the wings, this war may be only just beginning.
There’s no denying the charisma Travis Fimmel and Katheryn Winnick bring to the small screen, and while Vikings has successfully weathered the storm of losing Ragnar Lothbrok’s dynamic, visionary warrior, Lagertha presents a unique dilemma. While the series has featured a number of strong women both politically and on the battlefield, none rise to the prominence of Lagertha. Though if she may be permitted to paraphrase Mark Twain, Lagertha might state that rumors of her demise have been greatly exaggerated. Time will tell. Nonetheless, it appears we may have reached the end of an era.
The wonderfully crafted “Moments of Vision” lays out the future, and it appears times may become dark for the good people of Kattegat before they improve. Nonetheless, season five’s first half ends with a beginning, and now that the remaining principals face vastly different situations than when this chapter of the tale began, the hiatus provides ample time for speculation and reflection. Now, if we can only refrain from cracking open those darned history texts.