This review contains spoilers.
5.13 A New God
“We are all at the mercy of circumstances beyond our control.”
It’s time for something momentous to happen on Vikings, and this week’s episode carefully arranges its character pieces, setting into motion potential game-changing scenarios in Wessex, Kattegat, and Iceland. And in the aftermath of last week’s brutal murders of Cuthred and Margrethe, A New God presents one ruler making the best of a difficult situation while another begins a further descent into darkness.
Scandinavian kings did not retain power by being perceived as weak, and though his father Ragnar could be excruciatingly ruthless, Ivar the Boneless begins his reign taking fear and intimidation to another level. With his new bride channelling her inner Yoko Ono, Ivar begins to free himself and Kattegat of the threat King Harald’s presence poses makes perfect sense. However, Ivar may not understand the depth of the betrayal Harald feels, a feeling that could lead to his undoing.
It’s been fascinating to watch Harald lie low, biding his time until he has the strength to claim what he sees as his due, and when he arrives in York and meets Ivar’s proxy, his initial announcement clearly states his intention. “Don’t expect to be in charge much longer.” Contrasted against a man now convinced he’s a god, Harald finds himself in an interesting position. Even though he’s grounded in the real world, the possibility that this could all be a trap should be considered. In Harald, Ivar now faces a worthy adversary.
From the start, Harald’s made no effort to hide his ambitions, but convincing Jarl Olavsonn to abandon Ivar and join his rebellion works because of Harald’s understated, behind-the-scenes approach. Jarl yields to Harald’s desire to be named king of York, but even though he agrees to join him on an eventual raid against Ivar and Kattegat, there’s a hint that maybe he’s not totally on board with this tactical approach. For all of his restraint during this long con, Harald’s willingness to gamble that others see Ivar for what he really is, could ironically become his undoing, which is what makes this arc so compelling.
Nevertheless, Ivar the Boneless is the star of this show, and it’s his merciless act against Margrethe that allows Marco Ilsø (Hvitserk) the space to do some of his finest acting as the Lothbrok brother caught in the middle of two worlds. Though he claims merely to like her, Margrethe’s death has left Hvitserk so despondent that we can’t be certain he actually understands the ramifications of challenging Ivar in his present state. Still, Ilsø’s emotional response to his brother’s acts is even more moving since we understand how this is likely to play out.
Ivar believes he can do no wrong, and his warped discourse that begins by wondering why the gods initially cursed him with his affliction and ends with a declaration that “Ivar the Boneless is a god,” reveals that the man who has lived his life on the edge now places one foot precariously into the void. It’s difficult to get a read on how the people react to Freydis’ claim that she carries “his divine child,” but Alex Høgh’s dynamic portrayal of Kattegat’s new king dominates not only the scene but the episode as well. Ivar’s capacity for cruelty has never been in doubt, but a sense of pride in the Lothbrok family history and obligation to follow in his father’s footsteps has generally guided his actions. No longer.
While pomp and circumstance have traditionally been part of the royal Kattegat experience, and Ragnar and Lagertha certainly had their moments, Ivar’s new mindset motivates him to go to the extreme. Whether he’s truly willing to offer up his brother as a sacrifice to the gods adds a compelling twist to the Lothbrok saga, but the fact that Hvitserk has been Ivar’s champion since they were children should count for something. We need only go back to the last time one of Ivar’s brothers taunted and challenged him to determine whether or not there’s any merit to this present threat. But when we really look at this highly revelatory scene, it contains all the markings of a Stalinesque response to perceived threats, viable or not. Dark times loom for the people of Kattegat.
Through five-plus seasons, Vikings has presented countless images of terrifying acts generated from all angles, but the “Hail the god Ivar” procession through the streets of Kattegat may be the most frightening scene yet. We don’t know whether Ivar or Freydis makes the decision to carry out this ostentatious display of power and might, but Hvitserk’s observation that Ivar’s people don’t love him becomes readily apparent and stands as a precursor to the episode’s startling conclusion.
A New God reaches its crescendo as Ivar and Freydis ride through the streets, wearing ornate crowns, frightening in their own right, their faces painted white and adorned with blood red streaks leaving the stunned bystanders unsure of what it is they’re witnessing. “Bring on the sacrifice!” Ivar commands, and a chained and hooded man is brought forth. Is the king is willing to commit fratricide to make his point?
As the tales in Kattegat and Wessex gather momentum, Floki’s Icelandic experience is running on fumes, and it appears the writers are at a loss as to how to gracefully exit this aspect of the story, one that has become Vikings’ awkward step-child. The three principals, Floki (Gustaf Skårsgard), Eyvind (Kris Holden-Ried), and Kjetill Flatnose (Adam Copeland) flounder through no fault of their own as the struggle to survive in this barren wasteland coincides with Hirst’s struggle to find anything meaningful to do with this group. Thorunn has disappeared and has likely been abducted, but at this point, I just don’t care anymore.
Nevertheless, as Floki’s candle burns down, King Alfred faces challenges from all sides. It’s convenient to attribute his support of Heahmund and his actions against Cuthred to simple self-interest, and while that’s certainly true to an extent, the harsh reality of the political situation really leaves him no other reasonable option. Watching Alfred grow into the capable monarch he’s destined to become has been fascinating, but when he angrily confronts the former bishop about Cuthred’s murder, the ever resourceful Heahmund takes control of the scene and the king. “I felt I had no choice but to act to save both your crown and your life,” Heahmund tells Alfred, aware that the king will now have a difficult time condemning his act.
It goes without saying that the perfectly cast Heahmund (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) puts his own interests ahead of the church and the king, but Judith and Alfred understand that having him as an ally benefits both them and the country. Aethelred, however, presents an interesting dilemma since he can’t help but resent that Alfred is king instead of him, and his stance that Heahmund should be punished for Cuthred’s murder is not easily dismissed. It’s a complex situation that leads to a touching scene as Alfred asks his grandfather King Ecbert for guidance regarding his doubts and decisions, not the least of which is his impending marriage to Elsewith.
But what makes the Wessex storyline so compelling is the role into which Lagertha, Bjorn and the other Viking exiles have been thrust. When Heahmund is initially thrown into prison for killing Cuthred, Lagertha’s seething anger can barely be contained when she visits him there. “I’m trying to do what’s best for us and for Wessex,” he tells her, but she’s painfully away that their survival in England is tenuous at best. Alfred understands that he may never convince Bjorn to even attempt to truly assimilate into English culture and mores, but in Ubbe, he sees some of what his grandfather saw in Ragnar. Ubbe and Torvi understand the long term importance of renouncing their religion and publicly embracing Christianity.
Ubbe and Torvi’s baptism into the Christian faith marks the first step toward reconciliation, and the fact that they understand the significance of their sacrifice makes this scene even more poignant. Wearing all white, the two renounce their pagan beliefs as a conflicted Lagertha watches from the side, aware that a similar decision on her part could make her life with Heahmund so much easier. Alfred is spot on when he says that this act “marks the beginning of something important.”
There are times, however, when I feel I’m watching a Norwegian soap opera as the lust-centred intrigue begins to rival the political. While Ubbe and Torvi work to make their stay in England more acceptable, Bjorn’s affair with Alfred’s fiance can only make the young king’s life more difficult. For a man who pretends he doesn’t care about such things, Bjorn certainly looks the part of a jilted lover as he stands off to the side during Alfred and Elsewith’s wedding. And as if things aren’t becoming complicated enough, a young man claiming to be his half-brother Magnus approaches Bjorn with this revelation. We’ve heard the whispers about Ragnar’s love-child before, so this doesn’t come as a complete shock. That Magnus immediately points out that Alfred doesn’t have the Vikings’ best interests at heart does not go unnoticed by Bjorn, so for all its soapy feel, it’s a situation worth keeping an eye on.
And finally, there’s Aethelred and his role in the conspiracy to overthrow his brother. He’s not wrong in siding with the clerics who feel that the king should stay out of the church’s business and that Heahmund should be punished, but is he willing to go as far as Ivar to wear the crown? Is he willing to go as far as Freydis who brazenly watches as her assassin murders the true father of the child she claims is Ivar’s and now heir to the throne?
Despite the feeling that Floki’s Icelandic adventure has narratively run its course, the political and familial intrigues manage to keep the Vikings saga reasonably fresh as new characters enter the picture and minor figures step into the light. A New God embraces Ivar’s desire to surpass his father and place himself on a divine pedestal, and the Norse exiles’ dogged determination to forge new lives and new relationships as they pay a steep religious price. We now wait to see the extent to which brothers, wives, and girlfriends will go to seize or hold onto power.