This Vikings review contains spoilers.
Vikings Season 5 Episode 16
“Perhaps she’d come to the end of reason.”
With Bishop Heahmund dead, Lagertha presumably alive but missing, and King Alfred suffering a debilitating illness, Vikings moves away from the battlefield and explores the notion of second chances in Wessex, Kattegat, and Iceland. “The Buddha” goes behind the scenes for a more introspective examination of the aftermath of the evolving political landscape, and the strategic machinations of those who retain power and those who desire it.
Much like the island on which they’ve settled, the story of Floki and the other pilgrims has become utterly detached from the rest of the Vikings narrative. That said, Helgi’s arduous trek through blinding ice and snow in the hope that Floki will reconsider the banishment of Eyvind’s family, many of whom have fallen ill from malnutrition, brings to light the harsh realities that go beyond the challenging conditions. Should Floki believe Helgi’s claims that his father has changed his ways and is now filled with remorse over his prior actions that led to the family’s ouster in the first place? Wisely, the leader places the decision of whether to give Eyvind’s family a second chance to live peacefully within the larger community squarely on Kjetill Flatnose’s shoulders. Surprisingly, he tells Floki that “if necessary, I will carry Eyvind on my own back.” Though this humanitarian act doesn’t hold the same weight as Alfred’s open acceptance of the Viking exiles into Wessex culture, it’s significant nonetheless and provides a nice parallel with the social progress on the mainland.
Though he failed in his attempt to sack Wessex, King Harald remains a viable threat though he first must win back the trust and support of the people of York who are decidedly underwhelmed by his return. Much like Ivar’s force of personality in Kattegat, he begins a campaign promising new levels of greatness for the city by invoking the name and reputation of Ragnar Lothbrok, and the introduction of Ragnar’s son Magnus clearly means to glom onto whatever goodwill he can engender as a result of the family connection. Once Bjorn turns up in York, the seeds of a plan to overthrow Ivar begin to germinate, and it seems clear that Harald’s second window of opportunity has arrived. Why Bjorn so readily accepts the overly zealous Magnus’ story remains a puzzle, but the common enemy of Ivar gives all three men motivation to unite in yet another attempt to seize power and control.
Ironically, all seems relatively calm in Kattegat now that the self-proclaimed god Ivar has removed yet another threat to his rule, but it’s Hvitserk’s chance meeting with a local artisan that causes yet another Lothbrok son to examine his religious beliefs just as their father did. Hvitserk is fascinated by the man’s explanation of the Buddha figure he’s carved and his offer of a path to enlightenment. Much of the season has found Hvitserk searching for his place in Ivar’s world, and though he realizes that the physical world may never give him what he seeks, the spiritual world does offer a second chance for fulfillment.
And while it’s interesting to observe a man steeped in his belief in the Norse gods open himself to other possibilities, the introduction of Eastern religion also allows for some levity. When questioned by Ivar about any second thoughts Hvitserk might have about choosing Ivar over Ubbe and Bjorn, Hvitserk explains. “There’s no contradiction because it’s possible that everything is part of The One.” The stunned king must wonder what’s happened to his brother, and Ivar’s comic timing is impeccable. “What?” And then, with the little Buddha staring at them in their bed, Hvitserk tells Thora (Eve Connolly) he just wants to have sex and turns the figure so its eyes face the other way. It’s a delightful sequence that instead of driving the brothers apart, could actually allow a greater level of understanding between them and even a peaceful coexistence. Or Ivar could have him murdered.
Nevertheless, the focus of “The Buddha” homes in on the ramifications of Alfred’s successful defense of Wessex against the latest Viking assault. For good reason, the noblemen and the clergy question Alfred’s strength as monarch, but now, with his resounding victory over Harald, he’s earned a certain level of credibility. But it seems Alfred will forever be required to prove himself worthy, and his willingness to give his brother a second chance after the revelation that he was part of the conspiracy understandably does not sit well with the Queen Mother. Set against the Icelandic settlers and Flatnose’s decision, Alfred’s decision to forgive his brother seems a bit naive.
Still, Aethelred’s actions after his refusal to sanction the coup appear to support his brother, and Judith’s decision to remove her son from the equation speaks to a necessary darkness within her that should terrify everyone around her. Of course, it’s possible that everything Aethelred has done has been part of a carefully calculated strategy to eventually remove his brother and claim the crown he feels should have been his all along, and Judith is correct to take extreme measures. More to the point, he does tell her to stay out of his way as he tries to assuage the noblemen concerned with the king’s poor health, arguably the tipping point in her decision to murder him.
So now, Alfred’s wife is pregnant with a child that could be Bjorn’s, and Aethelred’s wife lacks a solid connection to the royal family. Perhaps she’s received her just desserts for her affirmation that she hopes Alfred dies so that her husband can become king, but in the end, Aethelred’s dying words resonate profoundly. “What kind of mother are you?” Vikings has certainly presented its share of agonizing death scenes, and Darren Cahill’s death spiral at the hand of the mother who’s always placed Aethelred’s interests behind Alfred’s rates among the most emotionally painful.
Perhaps the most important development to emerge from the chaos on both the battlefield and in Alfred’s royal court is the true joy and satisfaction Ubbe expresses as he surveys the East Anglian lands granted to the Vikings by Alfred. “Look at this treasure,” he remarks as he runs his hands through the fertile soil he knows will give his people a new lease on life. But Bjorn’s decision to return to Kattegat and overthrow Ivar may give Ragnar’s youngest son his greatest challenge yet, but it also puts Hvitserk in a position to rethink his original choice of which brother to support.
Hooking up with Gunnhild (Ragga Ragnars), the woman who slashes his face in battle and is then taken to Wessex as his prisoner, fits perfectly into Bjorn’s ever changing lifestyle, but it’s his farewell exchange with ex-wife Torvi that reminds us so much of Ragnar’s relationship with his mother. Bjorn’s genuine apology for his past actions elicits an equally touching response. “I will always make them proud of you,” she tells the eldest Lothbrok son. Both clearly sense that this may be their final meeting, and neither wants to leave important feeling unexpressed.
More than a mere setup episode, “The Buddha” neatly lays out a number of interesting scenarios on all three fronts. With Bjorn leaving Wessex to take down Ivar in Kattegat, Ubbe’s blossoming mentorship of King Alfred has a chance to develop even further, particularly in light of the failed coup that Judith prevents. While they may have lessened, Viking raids on England still loom on the horizon which makes the presence of Bjorn and Torvi critical to Wessex’s survival. And then there’s King Harald. He may not be the sharpest military tactician, but he certainly gains points for tenacity. But in the end, we have to wonder whether Lagertha has had enough, and the face of Vikings has ridden off into the English sunset. Time will tell.
Dave Vitagliano has been writing and podcasting about science fiction television since 2012. You can read more of his work here. He presently hosts Sci Fi Fidelity Podcast and The Den of Geek Podcast.