This Vikings review contains spoilers.
Vikings Season 5 Episode 9
On the one hand, it’s easy to view the events of “A Simple Story” as the calm before the storm, but nothing comes easily on Vikings. One of the benefits of a 20-episode season is that it gives the writers plenty of room to develop storylines that may not appear on a weekly basis, and after looming in the background for much of the season, the Saxon saga reemerges from the shadows with a renewed sense of importance, as well as some as yet undetermined subterfuge. Michael Hirst presents viewers an episode of reflections on life, love, war, family, and a behind-the-scenes look at the nuances of the aftermath of battle as well as its preparation. And as an added bonus, he even brings back Uncle Rollo, though in name only. But is this enough?
Nothing goes according to plan for Floki and his true believers, but the same cannot be said for Queen Judith, as her son by Athelstan prepares to ascend to the throne after King Aethelwulf’s sudden death. Once we get past the inherent silliness that the Saxon king dies from a bee sting incurred while perusing a religious text, the rest of Judith’s scheme to place Alfred on the throne instead of Aethelred leaves plenty of room for serious scrutiny.
Unfortunately, the entire Saxon thread falls flat beginning with Aethelwulf’s impassioned speech about preparing for the next series of Viking assaults on Wessex even though he repeatedly comes up short against the Great Heathen Army. The fact that his wife and Alfred conspire behind his back to take the Saxons forward militarily and politically should be enough to drive this aspect of the story, but it’s not. Everything falls into place far too easily, beginning with Judith’s insistence that Aethelred (Darren Cahill) refuse the throne because he’s not the king the country needs at the moment. While we understand what she means, his father has been personally grooming him, and it seems difficult to believe that Aethelred, who is presented as a warrior prince, would capitulate to his mother’s wishes so easily.
There’s no question that Judith, like many of the women in Vikings, desires a more active role in how her country is run, but are the tears she sheds ones of sorrow or relief that the country will now be in more capable hands with Alfred at the helm? Whether or not his mother’s frank assessment of his shortcomings leads Aethelred to yield to Judith’s proposal remains unclear at this point, but even though the people clearly prefer him over Alfred, he reluctantly nominates his brother to become the next king. Again, this all transpires a bit too easily, and the brief coronation scene in which Alfred is handed his scepter, just as Bishop Heahmund has his sword returned to him in Kattegat, makes for a convenient reminder that these two cultures are destined to clash once again. And the visual call back to the bee certainly seems to imply that Judith may have had a hand in his death.
Floki’s Icelandic tale receives more attention this week, and tensions finally reach a point from which there may be no recovery. Flatnose and Eyvind continue to jostle for a leadership role in the fledgling community, but the intrigue ratchets up a few notches when the former sits down with Floki to talk about Eyvind’s attempts to undermine the boatbuilder’s vision. In simplistic terms, Eyvind has been taking a more pragmatic approach to the colony’s direction, but it’s just as likely that Flatnose’s commitment to building a temple to Thor is nothing more than an attempt to sway the religious vote when it does come time to choose a king. We should question why Eyvind came on this journey if he doesn’t follow Floki’s vision and wonder whether he’s truly so despicable that he would provoke war to politically rise from the ashes and claim the crown? It’s still not clear how this aspect of the story ties into what’s taking place on the mainland, but for now, it’s fascinating to watch the growing pains inherent in any endeavor of this sort.
Since Floki has moved further away from the persona of the boatbuilding warrior, it’s natural to forget that on numerous occasions he more than held his own on the battlefield. So when the blood begins to fly at the temple’s dedication ceremony, he’s caught in the middle and nearly axes one of Eyvind’s followers before walking away from the fray. And then juxtaposed against Alfred’s kneeling at his coronation ceremony and Heahmund’s getting on his knees to offer his fealty “now and forever” to Lagertha, the image of the burning temple speaks to the volatile nature of all three kingdoms. As Floki falls to his knees in horror, it remains to be seen whether he possesses the will to extinguish the flames of discontent among his group. Nevertheless, it certainly appears we’re in for more rough weather on the island of the gods.
And like a free agent sports star, Bishop Heahmund signs on with his third team setting into motion one the more compelling subplots currently in play. As soon as he admits to Lagertha that his love of women transcends spirituality, we know where this is headed. They talk of God, life and death, the soul, but at the heart of the scene is the sexual subtext that quickly leads them to bed. “Fate has brought us together,” he tells her, but this is Lagertha who most certainly does not fall for his admission that they have more in common than she knows. If she accepts him into her bed, it’s on her terms, not his. “You really want to sin again?” Lagertha asks as she extinguishes the last candle in her room. While it’s true he may see Lagertha’s cause as being more righteous than Ivar’s, we can’t forget that as attractive as Kattegat’s queen may be to him, the bishop still views the Vikings as heathens. He will no doubt fight by her side, but once the smoke clears, what he does is anybody’s guess.
Ubbe’s confession to Torvi that Margrethe “is not what I thought she was,” is a welcome revelation, and should these two survive the war with Ivar, they could become one of Kattegat’s power couples. However, much of “A Simple Story” involves the soul searching that many of the characters engage in as they reflect on life’s fleeting nature. Even though Ubbe tries to reassure Torvi that Margrethe will not hurt her children, we’re reminded of the death of Bjorn’s daughter Siggy. Clearly one to be feared, Margrethe tells Torvi’s children that their mother is “never coming back except as a ghost.” Wishful thinking on her part, and while it will be interesting to see how she plays this should they return safely from battle, Torvi may end up taking a page from Lagertha’s book.
Though the war is far from over, there are cracks developing on both sides. King Harald chides Ivar for his ambition and tells him that he won’t be so quick to support his next plan, but Hvitserk’s suggestion that they call on Uncle Rollo seemingly turns the tide in their favor. Why Rollo would choose to support Ivar over Lagertha is not immediately clear. Does he fear her more than his nephews? But it’s Astrid’s announcement to Harald that she does not plan to sit out the next battle, pregnant or not that puts the king on the defensive since he does seem to really care for her. I’m not sure what to make of her declaration that “I want my child to hear the cries of battle,” but she does appear unhappy and not because Harald’s side lost the first round. Once in battle will she somehow return to Lagertha’s side?
And finally, as always, there is Ivar. It may be time, as Harald suggests, to re-evaluate Ivar’s skill as a military tactician now that he’s been outmaneuvered by Lagertha and Bjorn. Though he may be losing his strategic touch, perhaps more importantly we have to question whether he’s simply losing touch with the situation unfolding around him. Bjorn comes to meet with his brothers and presumably his uncle to see if they can work out their differences, but at the end of the conversation, Ivar signals his men to kill Bjorn. It’s probably time to view King Harald in a new light as he stops the murder saying that this is not the way we do things. “It was worth a try,” Ivar mutters disappointedly. Harald does not hide his own ambitions, so it will be interesting to watch how these two fight together when we know they both are ready to take out the other when the time is right.
More contemplative than most episodes of Vikings, “A Simple Story” nonetheless paves the way for a mid-season finale that promises to shake the very foundation on which the tales of Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons have been built. Is peace possible on the island of the gods? How long until Wessex rejoins the battle? But most importantly, can Lagertha hold off the dual pronged assault from Ivar and Harald? Bishop Heahmund has changed sides; can Astrid be far behind?