This Vikings review contains spoilers.
Vikings Season 5 Episode 12
“I am what I have always been, Christ’s warrior on Earth.”
What begins as an episode examining the doubts and fears of leadership, quickly devolves into a study of political survival as the exiles from the north settle into their new lives in Wessex while their former friends and neighbors learn to live under the rule of a new king in Kattegat. Vikings wastes no time laying out what’s at stake here, and tonight’s cold open presents a young King Alfred determined to employ the values taught him by his late grandfather King Ecbert. However, “Murder Most Foul” reminds us that not everyone is ready to hold fast to the moral high ground as they seek to obtain, retain, or regain power.
Watching Floki agonize not only about his decision to bring settlers to the land of the gods but also his unquestioning devotion to the gods, underscores the probability that the man with the purest of intentions is likely the one who will come crashing down the most violently. Despite the splintering of his group into opposing factions, Floki still wonders what else he can do for his people, even though the harsh surroundings continue to prevent the group from prospering on what was once viewed as the promised land. “What if it was all in my head,” Floki wonders, now questioning whether he was selfish or insane. At this point, we have to consider that this once vibrant boat builder may not be able to hang on to his vision much longer.
And while Floki’s crisis of faith remains fairly straightforward, Bishop Heahmund’s inability to separate his desires of the flesh from his desire to serve God continues to plague the man who has fallen in love with the pagan Lagertha. Of all the principals, Heahmund’s inner turmoil balanced against his determination to do good makes for a fascinating character, and while breaking his vow of celibacy can be understood as a basic human flaw, his lust for power places him in a totally different arena. Understandably, he wants his bishop’s ring returned to him and thus his position in the church, but Alfred’s reasoned explanation does not sit well with him. “I am what I have always been; Christ’s warrior on Earth.” And while that may be true, his actions here show a man who picks and chooses which of Christ’s teachings he deems appropriate to his needs.
It doesn’t take long to learn how Heahmund plans to address his situation, and after he pays his successor, Lord Cuthred, a visit, the new bishop initially treads carefully. Nevertheless, Heahmund’s attitude continues to confound when he presents Cuthred a thinly veiled ultimatum. “You should step aside before the Lord finds you out.” Clearly underestimating his predecessor, the equally opportunistic Cuthred giftwraps the information that the clergy is unhappy with what it perceives as Alfred’s meddling in their affairs. Now that we view Heahmund on his home turf, it’s not clear whether he actually believes God favors him in spite of his foibles.
“Murder Most Foul” not only lays the groundwork for the warrior priest to solidify his standing in Alfred’s realm by protecting the king from those who would depose him, but gives Lagertha the opportunity to regain a measure of control, even if it’s only over the Viking exiles. It’s not insignificant that despite Bjorn’s vocal protestations and Ubbe’s obvious reluctance that she, in no uncertain terms, accepts the terms of Alfred’s offer on their behalf. It’s not unreasonable for the king to expect these former enemies to prove their loyalty, but now that she has been seen with Heahmund on two separate occasions, both Lagertha and the former bishop stand to lose everything they hope to gain. But as ruthless as Cuthred has proved in the past, he’s clearly no match for the union of Heahmund and Lagertha.
No one has ever questioned Lagertha’s intellect or her ability to view situations for what they truly are, so there’s no reason to think that she thought her situation in England would be any different than Heahmund told her it would be while they were still in Kattegat. We see them engage in intimate encounters, yet we still don’t know where this relationship is headed which makes Heahmund’s final act so appalling. Does he brutally murder Bishop Cuthred to regain his ring and his position in the church, or does he in some twisted way tie his love for Lagertha into the equation? Likely, it’s a bit of both. Regardless, Cuthred again makes a mistake by revealing the contents of the letter detailing Heahmund’s affair with Lagertha, and what makes this decision on the bishop’s part so difficult to understand is the unmistakable fear in his eyes whenever he’s in Heahmund’s presence. What did he think would happen?
I’m not sure anyone could predict how far Heahmund would be willing to go to protect himself and Lagertha, but it doesn’t take Cuthred long to recognize his mistake. “Do not commit a crime in the eyes of the Lord. Do not damn yourself.” However, it’s the savagery with which Heahmund attacks his antagonist that spotlights the fact that the priest has crossed a line from which there is no return. Killing men in battle is one thing; killing one in cold blood inside the holy church is quite another. How Heahmund plans to explain this remains to be seen, but watching him make the sign of the cross before leaving seems to imply that he’s going to chalk this all up to God’s will.
And while overt acts such as Cuthred’s murder continue as a staple of Vikings, “Murder Most Foul” takes us behind the scenes amid the clandestine machinations inherent in any successful kingdom. The fascinating parallel between queen mother Judith (Jennie Jacques) and royal neophyte Freydis (Alicia Agneson) acknowledges the long term vision necessary for the present security of the reigning monarch and the future viability of his heirs. There’s no denying that Judith has successfully grown into her role, and while she certainly engages in a significant amount of subterfuge and manipulation to support her son, Freydis now inserts herself into Ivar’s inner circle and his heart with a dangerous set of promises.
Ivar’s announcement that he has chosen Freydis to be his wife and queen is understandably met with a measure of concern, and it is not surprising that King Harald’s first reaction speaks to the wisdom of this strategic move. And then Margrethe brings up the elephant in the room by pointing out that Ivar is incapable of getting an erection, thus unable to father an heir. For all of the deceitful schemes concocted to put her in a position of importance within the Lothbrok family, Margrethe’s fleeting lucidity remains intact long enough to point out the obvious. So what is Freydis up to, and how does Ivar not recognize the flaw in this plan? Does he accept her talk of the gods bearing children with humans, and that she sees him as a god on Earth? Perhaps he believes what is convenient to believe, or perhaps he believes the gods will intervene on his behalf.
It’s not exactly clear what transpires when Freydis tells Ivar to “trust me. I will have your child,” but to believe that she wields some magic wand which will allow Ivar to overcome his disability seems quite a stretch. To see Ivar in such a vulnerable position points out that despite Freydis’ proclimations, he is not invulnerable. I’m not sure whether to be disgusted or turned on by her blood oath, but when she tells him “all you have to do is believe. I will bear you a son,” we have to wonder how far she’s willing to take this charade. Well, it doesn’t take long to see her drag one of the locals into a stable, clearly intending to pass this man’s child off as Ivar’s and the heir to his throne. Obviously, a lot has to go right for this plot to bear fruit, but if Ivar’s dreams are any indication, he may have some well placed doubts himself.
Though Heahmund’s brutal killing of Cuthred comes as a bit of a surprise, the expected murderous intrigue floating about Kattegat comes from multiple directions. Never one to mince words, Ivar asks Harald why he’s still in Kattegat as Hvitserk looks on, the man caught in the middle of two men not quite ready to acquiesce to the other’s desires. Is Harald telling the truth when he tells Ivar that he has no desire to kill him and assume control of Kattegat, or has the experience with Halfdan truly changed his thinking?
Regardless, Harald is not the only internal threat Ivar faces. Margrethe’s attempt to convince Hvitserk to kill his brother, not only falls on deaf ears, but solidifies the case for her growing madness. “If you kill Ivar, then I will be queen.” One of the series’ most unlikable characters, even Margrethe doesn’t deserve what proves to be her final chapter. However, the question remains: who orders her death? Does Hvitserk inform his brother of her plan, or does he take matters into his own hands, seeing this as a more merciful ending should Ivar learn the truth? Either way, this murder has Ivar’s fingerprints all over it.
Nevertheless, the most puzzling development occurs when Alfred’s future queen makes no secret of her fascination with Bjorn Ironside. From the start, it’s clear this is a woman not easily influenced, and her interest in Torvi’s ability to hold her own in close combat with a man sends the message that she’s open to Alfred’s new relationship with the Kattegat exiles. Princess Elsewith (Roisin Murphy) tells her advisor to “Leave me alone; I can have my own thoughts,” but it’s not clear whether he senses her attraction to Bjorn or simply the Viking way of life. And after their encounter in the stables, her decision to join Bjorn in his bed holds the potential to destroy everything that Alfred (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) has been working towards.
Looking ahead, “Murder Most Foul” offers up the possibility that a commoner has impregnated the queen of Kattegat and a pagan from the north may have done the same with the future queen of Wessex. And while the potential for new life hangs in the balance, there are deaths that must first be reconciled. Will Ubbe’s conference with Alfred lay the groundwork for a workable relationship between the English and the Vikings as both sides adapt to the rapid changes taking place? Hopefully, wiser heads will prevail. And then there’s Ivar.