This Vikings review contains spoilers.
Vikings Season 5 Episode 5
“We could crucify him; that would be fun.”
Let no one ever accuse Michael Hirst of playing it safe with History’s flagship scripted drama Vikings. Simultaneously synchronizing five separate storylines, the show’s creator and driving force still manages to seamlessly bring the threads together while forcefully propelling the overall narrative that features a clash of cultures. Ivar has his Christian, the beautiful nun turns out to be a cutthroat killer, and Floki plays “chicken” with Lagertha. Somewhere, the gods are smiling.
“The Prisoner” opens with an eight-minute battle sequence of Saxon bluster, and as Aethelwulf triumphantly reclaims York. Shifting quickly to the sewers below the city, the camera shows us Ivar strategically preparing his men to emerge and commence the slaughter of the Christians, and we realize that one again the Saxons have been outsmarted. While this extended scene might seem a bit excessive, its steady pace matches that of the episode and series, and there’s never a feeling that the story is being held back with Vikings. There’s a lot packed into this eight minutes, not the least of which is the one-on-one Hvitserk momentarily engages in with King Aethelwulf; the future king Alfred also more than holds his own in the fray.
Nevertheless, once it becomes clear the Norsemen have again routed the Saxons, ever the showman Ivar watches as Heahmund has his horse shot out from under him, leaving him alone and surrounded. “He is too great a warrior to fight on foot,” Ivar tells his men and commands that the bishop be given the Viking leader’s horse. His insistence on humiliating Heahmund before taking him prisoner stands in stark contrast to his father’s abduction of Athelstan. Though each briefly makes his god’s case, Ivar may be more interested in the bishop as a pawn than a source of spiritual enlightenment.
On the one hand, it’s continually fascinating that the invading Vikings are viewed more sympathetically in their confrontations with Christianity, but what primarily comes out of this aspect of the narrative is the detail to which Ivar goes in constructing his battle plans. Though we rarely see him during the initial stages, time after time his successes show he has considered even the smallest detail and anticipated his foes’ every move. He’s a brilliant military strategist, and watching Aethelwulf attempt to explain to the queen how their great army allowed itself to be defeated by the pagan horde is absolutely painful. “I thought that God had at last seen fit to be merciful unto us. I was wrong, Judith.”
Though this may be the last we see of the Saxons and Aethelwulf, Ivar’s saga with Bishop Heahmund is only just beginning. While the suffering man of God lies chained helplessly on the floor, Ivar’s evil grin belies the depth of cruelty he possesses, and the crucifix he’s placed just out of reach of the bishop sends an unmistakable message. Your God can’t help you. Whether Ivar is capable of taking advice and learning from mistakes has been unclear, so when Hvitserk suggests returning to Kattegat rather than setting out to annihilate the Saxons, his willingness to listen to his brother’s suggestion shows growth. Ivar now has someone that he not only can trust, but whose proposals bear serious consideration.
The decision to abandon York and return to Kattegat comes at the perfect time, and the recognition that Harald’s ambitions can work to their advantages shows that Ivar and Hvitserk are keeping their eyes on the big prize. They understand that in the long-run, their half brother Bjorn may be a bigger obstacle than King Harald, so an alliance with Harald makes strategic sense at this point. Of course whether Bjorn will be alive to return is still up in the air.
But what of Bishop Heahmund? “We could crucify him; that would be fun,” Ivar tells his brother. Under the circumstances, it’s difficult to get a read on Ivar’s intentions regarding the bishop because even though he enjoys engaging in this brutal behavior, Heahmund’s tactical value appears negligible. But the two discuss religious philosophy not unlike Ragnar and Athelstan, and though Ivar’s father treated the priest with more respect, Ivar does seem curious about how the bishop justifies his own behavior. “What is evil?” he asks implying that the bishop’s actions are no different from his own. They both act on behalf of their God which may only be tangentially true for both.
At this point, Bjorn and Halfdan have to be questioning their decision to travel over the desert by camel merely to meet the man in charge. On the other hand, visually, these desert scenes provide a sensual, serene contrast to the visceral nature of the York engagement. Unlike his brother Ivar, however, Bjorn exhibits patience in an unfamiliar land, and watching him and Halfdan reclined smoking hookahs when the Emir’s two beautiful gifts are brought into their tent is just plain fun. To be sure, all is not as it seems on several levels here in the desert.
Then again, it’s not clear what Bjorn really hoped to accomplish on this trip other than the sheer adventure associated with new experiences, and when we see Kassia sexually engaged with the Emir, our opinion of her role in all of this changes drastically. After watching Heahmund in battle and in bed, it should come as no surprise that Kassia possesses every inch the shrewd, devious behaviors as the bishop, and it appears she orchestrates the entire Euphemius escape scenario. The emir has three of his men beheaded, and given the graphic nature of Vikings, it’s somewhat of a surprise that we only see the aftermath rather than the actual act. Don’t get me wrong; seeing the heads roll on the ground is gruesome enough especially now that we link Kassia to this and the impending butchery.
There’s no questioning Ivar’s ability to plan a military campaign, but when we examine the entirety of the grisly ruse pulled off by the emir and Kassia, they almost make Ivar seem normal by comparison. That they literally feed Euphemius to Bjorn, Halfdan, and their guests is classic as is Sindric’s reaction that they should return to the boats. For all his warrior exploits and sincere desire to see the world, Bjorn is a fish out of water here and embarked on this journey with perhaps a bit too much bravado. As he and Halfdan go to their knees in anticipation of their beheadings, a sandstorm approaches, but not before Kassia unhesitatingly gives the go command to the executioners. Of course, the screen goes to black before we see the outcome, but it does appear that one blade is in motion.
Is this it for Bjorn Ironside? Does the battle for control of Kattegat now include only Harald, Lagertha, and Ivar? Regardless, Floki’s return home unexpectedly complicates this power struggle, and in no uncertain terms, Lagertha forbids him from recruiting for a return to the “special place” he has found. It’s always an interesting dynamic when these two meet because both put so much stock in the gods’ role in the lives of men and women. They simply see things from different perspectives. We know Floki has only the best of intentions as he looks for “kindred spirits” to follow him, but when she asks him if he understands her order, she receives only a weak smile. He no longer sails under Ragnar’s protection, so while his decision to defy her isn’t totally unexpected, the fact that he finds so many candidates willing to disregard the queen is.
As compelling a story as theirs has become, the absence of Astrid and King Harald is mitigated by Bjorn’s cliffhanger, Ivar’s capture of Heahmund and decision to return home, and Floki’s blatant defiance of Lagertha. “The Prisoner” does a wonderful job of wrapping up multiple plot lines while at the same time, triggering the initial phases of what looks to be an all out civil war for control of Kattegat. Will Harald simply bide his time and watch from the sidelines, or will Astrid’s influence tip the scale one way or another? Somewhere the gods are smiling.