This Vikings review contains spoilers.
“As you can see, it is difficult to kill me.”
Even though King Olaf wonders whether he’s made the right decision in following Hvitserk, and Ivar now questions the veracity of everything his wife has told him, the penultimate episode of Vikings leaves no doubt that the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok make their father proud as he peers down on them from Valhalla. In the finely crafted “What Happens in the Cave,” Michael Hirst brings satisfying resolution to several arcs while setting the stage for the long awaited confrontation between the wannabe god Ivar and the brothers who seek to depose him.
Floki’s journey into what he believes is the gateway to Hel may wrap up the Iceland adventure, but the message it sends reverberates throughout the episode and much of season five. Both Christians and Vikings have grappled with their beliefs in a power greater than themselves, and no one more than Floki embodies that emotional struggle that often leaves the individual feeling abandoned by his or her god. Ready to find a new life away from the flaws of man, his spirits are buoyed when he thinks he hears the dwarves pounding their anvils.
But in the cruelest of ironies, rather than evidence of the gods, Floki finds a Christian cross standing in the middle of the cave and a chalice lying on the ground beneath it. His gods have truly abandoned him which makes this scene so meaningful as we listen to plaintive cries that fall on deaf ears. And to add insult to injury, the effects of a minor volcanic eruption fill the cave with dust and ash, apparently trapping Floki inside, leaving him to die alone with the God that mocks him in his last moments. Is this the end for the once brilliant boat builder whose creations play a significant role in the Viking expansion? From a narrative perspective, it seems a fitting end to a tale that began with so much promise. Time will tell.
With next season marking the end of Vikings run, it makes sense that major characters will continue to fall by the wayside, and as we watch Judith take her final breaths, it’s clear that Alfred is now completely on his own. Having been aided by Judith in her emotional and physical recovery, Lagertha reminds Alfred that his mother succeeded in her mission, and it’s now his duty to be a great man and king. It’s a touching scene made even more poignant when we later learn that she too will be leaving Wessex to begin the final phase of her life. Neatly placed within this sequence is the flashback to the waning moments of the battle for Wessex as Lagertha stumbles away severely wounded, ultimately to be found by the witch who tends to her. Significantly, she discards her sword and removes some of her armor indicating that her life as a warrior is over. However, it’s the old woman’s advice to Kategatt’s former queen that resonates so intensely, prompting Lagertha to ask the son a woman she killed for a favor. “Your old life is dead; you must forget,” the woman tells her, and when we see her cut off Lagertha’s braid and burn it, we know she leaves her storied past behind.
Nevertheless, before peace can truly reign over Wessex, Ubbe must deal with the impending Viking invasion that threatens everything he and Alfred have been able to build in their short time together. There’s no question that Vikings does full scale, massive battle scenes as well as any anyone, but the single combat duel between Ubbe and King Frodo ranks among the series’ most engaging action sequences owing in part to its judicious use of silence. How either man survives this brutal encounter is a testament to the people for whom each fights, but it’s clear from the start that Ubbe stands on a moral high ground that attempts to unite people rather than rape, pillage, and plunder them.
However, as Ubbe lies gravely wounded and virtually helpless, he calls on Odin for help and then summons the strength to put Frodo down for good. There’s a lot to examine in this scene not the least of which is Frodo’s man’s attempt to circumvent the rules by trying to kill Ubbe. Torvi watches the fight and offers encouragement wearing a luminous red tunic that can’t help but capture her husband’s attention. Whether she does this so he can easily find her amidst the confusion we may never know, but she fittingly takes down the man who tries to kill the victorious Ubbe further cementing their status as Wessex’s first Viking power couple.
But it’s Ubbe’s acknowledgement that his conversion to Christianity has been a sham designed to smooth the Viking assimilation into English culture that carries the most weight in this aspect of the story. His admission to Torvi that “something inside me has changed. It doesn’t speak to me,” somewhat confuses the issue because it implies that for a time he had made a connection with Christian teaching, and while it’s understandable he now has doubts about his decision, we know everything he’s done has been in good faith. She’s overjoyed that he’s returned to the “familiar spirits,” and we have now only to wonder whether this could be a problem as the Vikings settle in East Anglia. Having seen the man Ubbe has become and the woman Torvi has always been, it’s seems difficult to believe they won’t try to foster an atmosphere of tolerance on both sides of the religious fence, and Lagertha’s request to go with them to the new settlement gives her a chance to earn Ubbe’s trust and perhaps even his friendship.
As Lagertha prepares to settle in to enjoy her later years as the younger generation takes over, it’s nice to receive validation for something we’ve suspected all along. Her love for Ragnar never waned despite the obstacles that frequently confronted them. Like Ubbe earlier, she bends down and takes a handful of East Anglian soil in her hand and remembers that she and Ragnar began their married life as farmers. “Ragnar, do you see this? Are you watching this? This is our dream.” Her acknowledgment that she’s going home also brings a satisfying ending to her long journey.
However, “What Happens in the Cave” really lays the groundwork for the season finale and the first half of next year by pushing Ivar’s story to the brink of war. One way or another, a son of Ragnar Lothbrok seems likely to die. Before the battle can begin, however, Ivar must deal with his relationship with Freydis who now faces a mother’s worst nightmare, the death of her child. Freydis is not stupid and immediately suspects Ivar has something to do with their child’s gruesome death at the hands of a pack of foxes. And now that doubts on both sides have begun, whether Ivar will have his wife put death becomes a very real possibility. “Was he really my son? I’m not so sure anymore.”
While it was fairly easy to predict that Hvitserk and Olaf would join forces with Bjorn and Harald in an attempt to take down Ivar, Ivar’s decision to fortify Kattegat’s defenses without acknowledging an awareness of an approaching enemy presents an interesting dilemma. His wife suspects he killed their child, and the people of the village no longer unequivocally back their once revered king. But despite the odds seemingly stacked against him, Ivar is, as Olaf proclaims, “a force of nature,” and his drive and will to succeed should never be overlooked.
Though they’ve agreed to work together, the uneasy alliance formed between Bjorn and King Harald remains on unsteady ground as the armies move toward Kattegat. The weather Harald warned Bjorn about hits their fleet, nearly destroying any chance they have of overthrowing Ivar. Salvaging what they can from the scattered contents of the wrecked ships, it becomes increasingly clear that Ironside and Harald are headed toward their own single combat. Harald’s continued patience and acquiescence towards Bjorn’s demands can only last so long before one man kills the other. A successful military campaign can have only one general, and it seems as if this attack may be over before it even starts. After breaking up round one of their fight, Gunnhild tells them to kill Ivar first, and then fight over control of Kattetat.
Religious ideals continue to drive the narrative from Iceland to Wessex to Kattegat. Floki has lost hope, Ubbe returns to the gods he never really left, Christians and Northmen live and work side by side in Wessex, Hvitserk’s fascination with the Buddha occupies much of his thought, and Magnus’ true faith inadvertantly exposes itself via a shieldmaiden who taunts him for calling out to God during the raging storm. “Did you know your little brother is a Christian?” she asks Bjorn hoping to provoke a response. But Ironside has other things on his mind, and if Magnus wasn’t so disagreeable, it might be easier to feel empathy for a young man struggling to fit in with a group he barely knows.
As Vikings fifth season draws to a close, the events of “What Happens in the Cave” lead nicely into a season finale that promises to answer, once and for all, the question of whether Bjorn Ironside deserves to wear the crown his parents worked so hard to establish. Have we seen the last of Floki and the Icelandic settlement? Will peace and harmony reign in East Anglia, but more importantly, can Ivar hold onto Kattegat? It’s a lot to look forward to.