This Vikings review contains spoilers.
Vikings Season 5 Episode 15
“We will torture you to see if you are telling the truth.”
In an episode with all the characteristics of a season finale, Vikings hits all its marks and delivers a stellar tale of the shifting fortunes of three men who wish to be king and the people over which they rule. Losing Bishop Heahmund on the field of battle deprives fans of one the series’ more charismatic characters, but it’s the disappearance of Lagertha that forces viewers to acknowledge that the end may be near for the beloved shieldmaiden. Nevertheless, it’s Alfred’s realization that his brother led the conspiracy against him that presents the greatest challenge not only for the king, but for Vikings as well.
There’s not much narrative movement in Kattegat, but “Hell” establishes the byproducts of Ivar’s god-status proclamation beginning with his resolute denial to Hvitserk of having anything to do with The Seer’s disappearance. The writers can only toy with the growing rift between the brothers for so long, and after Hvitserk’s thinly veiled accusation puts Ivar on the defensive, the king’s hand may be forced. However, it’s the transformation of the village into a repressive state ruled by Ivar’s iron fist and his loyal guards that poses some fascinating questions. Is the raising of the wooden likeness of Ivar a result of fear or faith? Are the people of Kattegat beginning to embrace the notion that they are now ruled by a god, or have they been intimidated into submission?
However, the better part of “Hell” focuses on the impact of King Harald’s attack of Wessex and the future of the Viking exiles once the smoke clears. King Alfred’s royal evolution continues, and the trust he places in Ubbe’s strategic recommendations not only leads to success on the battlefield, but ultimately in the political arena as well. His sparring sessions with Ubbe highlight his determination to be more than a mere figurehead sitting on a throne while other men and women put their lives on the line. And in many ways, a son of Ragnar Lothbrok has continued the king’s education where Ecbert left off.
Vikings often provides a window into the personal impact of battle, and tonight’s sequences with Alfred and his wife on the eve of the showdown serve to show that not only does she love her husband but genuinely fears for his safety. And while Torvi feels the same about Ubbe, she has a much better understanding of the realities of war having fought many times herself. But it’s her insistence that he wear his Viking bracelet in addition to his Christian cross that drives home the fear she feels on the eve of their first battle with the English and their growing acceptance of a new religion and God. Not quite there yet, she acknowledges needing the protection of “their God as well as ours.”
Throughout its run, Vikings has presented a number of compelling characters and storylines, and the enthralling love story between Bishop Heahmund (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) embodies much of the change that’s taking place in western Europe. Though Heahmund’s motivations have been frequently questioned, his tortured admission to Lagertha that he must renounce her, speaks to the man’s moral divide. One minute he justifies murdering Bishop Cuthbert in cold blood, and the next he fears he’ll only hear “the lamentations of the damned” in the afterlife. Though she has admitted on more than one occasion she had little choice but to accept Heahmund’s offer of asylum in England, her decision to follow him for love makes his pronouncement even more difficult to watch.
Once the battle begins, the two can’t help but periodically scan the field to learn how the other is faring, and it’s this lack of focus that eventually leads to the bishop’s death in a powerful scene that finds him calling Lagertha’s name at the end. And though he hasn’t seen eye to eye with his mother of late, Bjorn’s resolute search of the battlefield for her body leaves open the possibility that she somehow survived the carnage. Losing Heahmund is one thing; losing Lagertha quite another. Still, it would be fitting that the two go down together, steadfast in their beliefs that she will find peace in Valhalla and he, hopefully, in heaven with his God.
The battle for Wessex has been a long time coming, and as it turns out, Harald’s initial fears were well founded. His long range plan appears to have lost its traction. Of all the pre-battle scenes, Ubbe’s attempt to negotiate a compromise with Harald may be the most telling. “It’s not a matter of negotiation,” Harald tells him, “it’s always a matter of blood.” Unfazed, Ubbe offers to pay Harald to leave in peace and asks him to name his price, and in the end, this misdirection turns out to be the turning point in the battle. It’s difficult to feel sympathy for Harald as he sails away defeated, and we’re taken back to his decision to kill his brother while Ubbe chose to let his live. Have the gods intervened here? “What is to become of us now?” What indeed.
Nevertheless, it’s the brilliantly executed battle sequence that forms the backbone of “Hell,” and Alfred’s narration of the day’s events contains all the qualities of a Norse saga. But this is a learning experience for Alfred who must come to terms with the fact that the final decisions rest with him, and men and women will lose their lives because of choices he makes. And though Aethelred earlier refuses to give the order to kill the king, the Queen Mother’s counsel to her sons that “in a battle, no one is more important than your own brother,” further dissolves any resolve Aethelred might still hold in following through with the conspiracy’s plans. Now that Judith learns the identities of those plotting against her son, it will be up to Alfred to make arguably the most difficult decision of his young reign.
Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of presenting the narrative in a disjointed manner, but Michael Hirst’s decision to intersperse Alfred’s chronicle of the day’s events with some of the most visceral action sequences of the series, makes plain the powerful impact the day has had on the young monarch. Listening to Alfred, his face still spattered with the blood of friend and foe alike, speak not only to the valiant manner with which both sides fought, but to the horrific nature of war, paves the way for the inevitable unpleasantness we know must now be addressed.
Alfred’s poignant eulogy for Heahmund and victory speech to the citizens of Wessex represent some of Ferdia Walsh-Peelo’s finest work, and his emotional acknowledgement of the Viking exile’s role in this hard fought battle lays bare the heart and soul of a man whose willingness to trust and leave the past behind, represent the keys to the day’s success. “Without our Viking allies, I swear to you, there could be no victory,” he tells those assembled. As emotional as Alfred’s account has been, it’s Judith’s revelation that she knows not only the names of the conspirators but the name of their leader as well that reveals the deep divide in which she now finds herself. Tears streaming down her cheeks, Judith finds herself a fiercely protective mother now facing an unspeakable nightmare.
As global dynamics change, men like Harald must change as well or become relics among the incoming forward thinkers. Raiding England is no longer the cakewalk it had been in the past, and as happened in Frankia, the Viking influence outside Scandinavia means that peaceful assimilation may be more financially and socially profitable than raiding. Of course, Harald could return to Kattegat to enlist Ivar’s aid in taking another crack at Wessex, but what does a god need with mere gold and silver?
Vikings has teased major character deaths since its return four weeks ago, and while Ivar’s murder of The Seer may have significant political implications, it’s the losses of Heahmund and possibly Lagertha that resonate most profoundly. There’s little question that “Hell” represents Vikings at its best, and with a new leadership wave taking hold, things should really get interesting. But first things first; Lagertha must be found.