This Vikings review contains spoilers.
Vikings Season 5 Episode 17
“I killed one of my sons to save the other. May God forgive me.”
Like most multi-arc serial dramas Vikings generally makes a point of thematically tying together each of its story lines, and “The Most Terrible Thing” shows creator/showrunner Michael Hirst at the top of his game as he seamlessly connects the dynamic events stretching from Iceland to Kattegat. There’s still no word of Lagertha’s fate, but recent ground shaking developments keep the narrative fresh and interest level high as the power shifts continue to evolve.
Aethelred’s death at the hands of his mother sets into motion a series of events that begins with an honest admission to Alfred about her reasons for carrying out one of most horrific acts a mother can perform. In the church, she appears relieved she’s gotten away with murder, so her subsequent confession does seem a bit strange. Nevertheless, no matter how we view her decision to poison her son, she’s not wrong to warn Alfred about the realities that surround him, and the temper tantrum he throws plays directly into her message. “The king cannot behave like an ordinary person,” she tells her son and reminds him that a king must be prepared to do whatever it takes to survive. It’s a harsh reality and plays nicely into Ivar’s approach to ruling Kattegat.
It’s been apparent for a while now that Kattegat has evolved into an important Scandinavian trading outpost, and while Ivar reminds the people that his father entrusted him to rule in his absence, he manages to slip in the fact that he’s about to change the rules and take away some of the power citizens have enjoyed to this point. He continues to employ the force of personality to win over the populus and now adds a creative theatrical touch to his performance with lighting effects and helmeted guards. Though Freydis (Alicia Agneson) reminds Ivar that “a merciful god will always be more popular than a vengeful god,” it’s unclear whether he intends to consider that approach moving forward. His attempts to be viewed as a man of the people fall short, and unlike his father Ragnar, resorting to fear rather than love seems to be the path he’s chosen.
While Queen Mother Judith chooses to murder her own son to ensure Alfred’s survival and success as monarch, Ivar now considers doing the same with his brother Hvitserk. Though Kattegat has always been his home, it’s really not clear why Hvitserk chooses to stay, and when Ivar appears in his brother’s bedroom one night, the king takes a page from Judith’s playbook. Ivar’s suggestion that Hvitserk embark on a diplomatic mission comes with a harrowing caveat. “It would be a pity if I had to burn her alive,” Ivar tells his brother and Thora who unexpectedly remains in Kattegat after Hvitserk leaves the next morning. Thora now finds herself in much the same situation as Aethelred’s widow Ethelfled who watches the Queen Mother pack her bags with the understanding that she should immediately search for a new husband in another kingdom.
Alfred’s reaction to the new reality of his inner sanctum will have to wait because news arrives that a Viking fleet has been sighted sailing toward Wessex and should arrive in a matter of days. The first thought is that Hirst has again accelerated the timeline, and Bjorn and King Harald will return sooner than expected. But it’s important that time is allowed for newcomer Gunnhild to manipulate both Bjorn and Harald as the two men vie for her heart and for control of Norway. When Bjorn renegotiates the deal Ivar made with Harald, it’s not at all surprising that Harald concedes to Bjorn because we’ve witnessed cracks in the king’s diplomatic armor before. And while the two men jockey for position, Gunnhild’s true intentions lay hidden, not unlike the situation that unfolds on Iceland.
Playing both sides of the same deal rarely turns out well for the conspirator, so it won’t be a surprise to find Harald and Bjorn still standing after Gunnhild falls by the wayside. For now though, she appears to be biding her time before placing her bet on the man who aspires to rule all of Norway. The situation now facing Floki’s settlers, however, is a bit more complicated after Flatnose’s true intentions come to light, and he ruthlessly butchers a family who thinks his arrival marks not only their survival but a reconciliation for a group whose existence has teetered on the edge almost from the beginning.
For a brief moment, it appears Helgi may survive the Vikings version of the Red Wedding, but once the camera pans by a row of heads on spikes, we know Flatnose has ended this chapter once and for all. While the murder of Eyvind’s family may push Floki over the edge metaphorically, Flatnose’s daughter Aud (Leah McNamara) ends the episode and perhaps the Icelandic saga by throwing herself over a cliff and into the waters below. It seems incomprehensible that Flatnose doesn’t recognize the deep connection his daughter has formed with Floki and his teachings and now must live knowing his actions kill his oldest daughter. These are precisely the kinds of conflicts and thinking that Floki sought to avoid by leaving the mainland, but now, with the community in tatters, is this the time to set sail and return to Kattegat?
Of course, should he and the other pilgrims return to Kattegat, Floki will find things very different from when he left. Resorting to McCarthyesque tactics, Ivar walks a fine line between god-like adoration and fear driven paranoia. “I will take care of you. I will lead you,” Ivar promises the crowd but also lets them know that they too have a role in Kattegat’s continued success. Find and root out those who oppose the king whether they be friends, neighbors, or even family. Interestingly, despite her obvious manipulations of Ivar, Freydis does seem to have a handle on what it takes to be a successful ruler. Whether Ivar heeds her advice remains to be seen, but his reaction to the question of whether he’d prefer to be feared or loved doesn’t bode well for the future.
Perhaps the most fascinating twist, however, involves the ongoing relationship, dare I even say friendship, between Ubbe and King Alfred. Having already successfully deferred to Ubbe’s military acumen in the battle with Harald, Alfred now faces another decision that his advisers will surely oppose. With news of the approaching Viking fleet, Ubbe places another challenge at the young king’s feet by suggesting he be placed in charge of Alfred’s army. “Words are fine, but they don’t win battles,” Ubbe explains, and coming off his earlier success, Alfred will be well advised to heed this suggestion. But it’s not quite that simple. Does Alfred possess the political capital with the noblemen to make a call of this magnitude so soon after the Viking assimilation into the Wessex culture?
It goes without saying that resolution of Lagertha’s arc weighs heavily not only with fans of the show but also with her son. Even though “The Most Terrible Thing” fails to address that situation, its solid presentation of the active political and personal evolutions buys it some time. For now, it’s up to Ivar, Alfred, Bjorn, and Floki to drive the Vikings narrative, and from what we’ve seen, at least three of them are up to the task.