This Vikings review contains spoilers.
Vikings Season 5 Episode 8
One thing’s for sure, Michael Hirst holds nothing back as the long awaited civil war finally begins, and though Lagertha may have won the first round, Ivar and Harald will most certainly not go away quietly. Throughout its five-year run, Vikings has consistently staged epic battle scenes, both large and small, but “The Joke” presents a visceral experience so engrossing that it’s difficult to resist the urge to look away. Nonetheless, the heart of the episode puts on display the civil unrest that percolates not only among the Norse at Kattegat, but the Saxons and Floki’s followers in Iceland.
Whether the Saxons become a major player once again during this or a subsequent season, Vikings still continues to lay the groundwork with the rapid progression of Alfred as the future king. The scene in which he and his mother look down on Aethelwulf, having the time of his life conducting a training session, drives home how out of touch the king has become. After suggesting the abbot conduct church business in English, Alfred’s forward-thinking again shows itself when he explains to Judith why they should be building a navy to prevent further Viking invasions. Alfred’s assessment of his father is dead on. The king is “too set in his ways, too old-fashioned, but he’s not my father.” That final admission paves the way for a possible conflict as to whether Alfred is the rightful heir to the throne.
While Judith and Alfred consider the path on which King Aethelwulf insists on leading the Saxons, Floki must now contend with his own version of civil discord as Kjetill Flatnose (Adam Copeland) and Eyvind (Kris Holden-Ried) articulate their differing assessments of “the perfect island” to which the boatbuilder has brought them. With no true leadership qualities, Floki stands caught in the middle of two strong minded men, each with his own ideas about how the colony should proceed. The visual of Floki, raven perched on his shoulder, looking down on the group as it goes about its day, reminds us that his dependence on the gods’ direction may not be enough for the colony’s success.
However, the most important idea to come out of this sequence is the acknowledgement that there is no going back after they abandoned Lagertha when the queen needed them most. Floki’s directive to build a temple to Thor, even though there’s still not enough shelter constructed, only adds to the confusion, and when Flatnose offers to build the temple on his land, Eyvind sees it as a direct move to curry favor with Floki. Even though we don’t spend much time here, it’s an important scene that reveals a microcosm of the events taking place in Kattegat. Poor Floki; he had no idea what he was really getting into.
Once into the main storyline, Lagertha’s offer to send emissaries and try to avoid unnecessary bloodshed is a bit unexpected, but it sets up the opportunity for the brothers on both sides to explain their intentions to each other. The build-up to the final onslaught is punctuated with Ivar asking Hvitserk if he’ll be able to kill his big brother Ubbe while Bjorn tells his son, “It’s a proud day when a father takes his son to his first battle.” But it’s Lagertha’s assertion that Ragnar’s sons should not slaughter each other that nearly provides the impetus for a peaceful resolution. Perhaps the most intense exchange occurs between the oldest and the youngest when Bjorn appeals to Ivar moments before Lagertha puts an end to the conference. “I am the rightful queen.”
Whether or not Lagertha is the rightful queen of Kattegat can be debated since she murdered King Ragnar’s wife in cold blood and assumed control, but given the Viking way, her ascent to power and status follows a similar pattern each step of the way. On the surface, her proposal to unify the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok and resume their raiding and conquering ways makes some sense, but what transpires after that is the stuff of which legends are made. “If you want a war, then let’s go to war,” Lagertha tells Ivar, who she points out will be seen as an illegitimate ruler should he prevail. Does she really believe this logic because she became queen essentially the same way?
If we’ve learned anything along the way, it’s the difficulty attempting to predict what Ivar will do in any given situation. So when he renounces his pledge to kill Lagertha and tells her she can have Kattegat, the assumption is that this is simply one part of a bigger plan that he’s improvising on the fly. Obviously, when Harald pours his drink on the ground during the toast to a peaceful resolution, we understand his disgust, because peace impedes his grand scheme. But whether Ivar has a change of heart or merely wants to humiliate his brother, it becomes moot as the war is back on. Throwing his drink in Ubbe’s face, he recants his earlier declaration. “Of course I will kill Lagertha.” Game on. And as the combatants posture in preparation for the battle to come, all eyes go to Astrid. What is she thinking? Will she stay with Harald or return to Lagertha’s side? For now, she stays while carrying a child… even if its paternity is unknown.
Visually, the battle for Kattegat is stunning. Both armies in formation, facing each other awaiting the command to attack, gives a sense of scale we have previously seen in Vikings. Tonight, however, Hirst takes the typically graphic, hand-to-hand combat segment to a new level. Definitely not for the faint of heart, these images provide a sense of the horror and terror these men and women must have endured during these battles as they lost limbs, friends, and loved ones. Nonetheless, the strategic aspect of the engagement marches to the forefront, as Ivar orders Hvitserk to take part of the army to protect their ships from a flanking maneuver just as Bjorn suspected he might do. Once Hvitserk’s men enter the woods, the Sami take over and silently kill with blow darts, a tactic that prevents Ivar from listening to determine the success of the mission. The skill and manner with which the Sami fight is unlike anything we’ve seen, and to this point that everything is falling into place for Lagertha.
The last 10 minutes of the episode are brilliantly edited, alternating between the brutality of the battlefield and the serene, yet deadly nature of the Sami in the forest. Yet for all his bravado and self-confidence, Ivar’s troops are routed and must retreat. As his men begin the withdrawal, Heahmund makes a critical mistake and appears to completely lose his focus, absorbing a significant sword blow to the back. It’s certainly conceivable that he’s received a fatal blow, and it’s not until Lagertha walks the battlefield and finds the bishop’s sword that we discover he still breathes. Like Ivar before her, she orders the bishop helped from the field so that his life may be saved. She likely doesn’t have a plan yet but anticipates this man might prove valuable. “Maybe the gods know why,” she decides to save Heahmund’s life, or perhaps she’s taking a page from Ragnar’s book?
Having watched Vikings for four and a half seasons now, the knowledge that everyone’s time eventually arrives creates a level of anticipation each time the characters take to the field or to the sea. Even though the struggles for control appear across disparate levels of magnitude, “The Joke” still manages to deftly cut to the heart of the lust for power and recognition that drives each of these stories. And in each case, the battle is far from over.