“We three brothers are the leaders together as our father would have wished.”
In the aftermath of Ragnar Lothbrok’s death and the demise of Kings Ecbert and Aelle, Vikings returns for its fifth season with a wealth of storylines and the first extended look at the man on God’s mission to stop the Great Heathen Army in its tracks. With a powerful two-hour season premiere, creator Michael Hirst takes advantage of the opportunity to explore battles both earthly and spiritual.
As we begin this season five journey, there’s a bit of housekeeping to take care of first. After four plus seasons of compelling plotlines, stellar acting, breathtaking cinematography, impeccable pacing, and crisp dialogue, it goes without saying that those elements continue as the heart and soul of Vikings. The focus here will be on the story elements, character development, and narrative devices employed by Hirst and the directors as they push the tale forward. So, grab your axes and shields, and let’s get to it.
“The Departed” sets the stage for the next wave of leaders, and after watching Sigurd’s Viking funeral ceremony, Ivar’s opening scene explanation as to why he killed his brother further establishes that he is a man barely able to control his anger when things don’t go his way. Of course, no one buys his reasoning that it was Sigurd’s fault, but his lust for power and battle acumen are just what the Northmen need in lieu of Bjorn’s refusal to take charge. Interestingly, Bjorn has never been one to shy away from a fight and his execution of Aelle with the blood eagle reminds us that he’s as savage a warrior as his half-brother. He simply doesn’t feel the need to take up his father’s mantle and must follow his own dream.
Still, for all of Ivar’s sociopathic behavior, his ability to plan and execute a complex military campaign stands as one of his greatest strengths. When Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen) suggests establishing a settlement to be used as a staging area for Saxon raids, even his brothers recognize the wisdom of this approach, but there can only be one man in charge. He has a vision, and it’s up to Hvitserk and Ubbe to fall in line despite the fact that they’re older. Andersen is brilliant as the man who recognizes that he lets his anger rule his actions at times, but the question will be whether he can continue to use that to his advantage.
We’ve seen the men of Kattegat conduct vicious raids in the past, but there’s something unsettling about watching Ivar’s men ransack the church in York and butcher its worshippers. The savagery feels even more intense and curiously touches Ubbe (Jordan Smith) as he watches a nun fall dead into his arms. As he gently lays her on the ground, a change sweeps over him, and clearly Ubbe has been deeply affected by everything he’s seen. There’s never been any doubt that Ubbe is Viking and the son of Ragnar Lothbrok, but there’s always been a more sensitive side to him that Hvitserk doesn’t appear to possess. Whether this will influence him as the campaign progresses remains to be seen. It seems unlikely, though, that he will walk away from this battle.
Hirst’s ability to control how we feel and with whom we connect, hits home as Ivar’s men pillage the church, torture the priest, and abuse the parishioners before making a horrific statement of faith. They melt down a cross and then pour the molten metal down the priest’s throat. The Viking message is clear: we have no interest in what your God has to say.
With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that Ivar’s personal bodyguards stop Ubbe and Hvitserk when they try to speak to their brother, who has clearly anointed himself leader of the Great Heathen Army. Again, he speaks eloquently about having to be better than everyone else to overcome the perception that he is somehow less than whole, but his brothers seem willing to let him have his way. Understandably, they fear him and must know that neither of them is a true leader. On the other hand, Ivar likely does, as his brother suggests, fear them as well.
After Bjorn refuses to involve himself in his brothers’ desire to go to war, Ragnar’s eldest sails off for the Mediterranean with an unlikely companion in King Harald’s brother, Halfdan. However, that’s all we see of Ironside and his voyage, which marks the only real disappointment of “The Departed.” So while Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) indulges his passion to explore and leaves behind his wife and child, whether or not Halfdan (Jasper Pääkkönen) harbors any ill will towards his companion remains to be seen. Surprisingly, it appears that Bjorn and Halfdan may simply be kindred spirits much to the chagrin of Harald. But Halfdan’s assurance that he will always have his brother’s back can’t be ignored, and given Harald’s continued aspiration to become king of Norway, it seems likely that the Finehairs and Lothbroks have more battles to fight.
While other storylines in this season premiere may have more significance on the narrative, Floki’s loss of purpose is easily the most heart wrenching. Distraught after the losses of his family and best friend, he builds himself a one-man boat and sets off “to where the gods decide.” Floki’s relationships with both Bjorn and Ivar are not enough to move him to accompany either on their quests since his own voyage of self-discovery comes first. The men lining the shore chanting “All hail Floki” marks one of the episode’s more poignant scenes. The master boat builder’s impact runs deep at Kattegat, but the mysterious Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård) feels rudderless and seeks to find new meaning in life.
The emotional scenes with Ivar are difficult to analyze because of the complexities of both men, so when Ragnar’s son weeps over Floki’s decision to leave, the veracity of this display comes into question. Is Ivar simply attempting to manipulate Floki into staying as part of his war machine? He does, however, give Floki the navigation sunstone and compass which Floki later tosses into the sea. The overhead camera angle implies that the gods are watching over him, and it’s possible he views the device as a slap in the face to those looking down from above. Regardless, watching his desperation while adrift at sea highlights the fact that in his eyes, the gods have deserted him. And like him, we wonder whether they will once again acknowledge this great man.
While the other Norsemen with whom we’ve come into contact often pay lip service to the gods, it’s been quite evident that none feel as genuine a connection to the faith as does Floki. Bringing the raven on the journey is clearly a nod to Odin, so when he releases the bird while still at sea, does he mean to cut ties with the god, free it as a means of gathering information of nearby land, or simply out of frustration? Eventually, the gods answer his prayers, and though the raging storm at sea may not be the reply he was hoping for, in fits in nicely with the emotional turmoil he’s enduring.
Floki’s storyline though reaches its high point when he finds himself washed up on shore, his raven waiting for him. The gods do have a purpose for him, and like many Robinson Crusoesque tales, watching him face the next set of challenges is important in his next stage. He has no idea where he’s landed, but like any worthy Norse adventurer, even though weakened, he sets out to explore his surroundings and eventually sees a volcano erupting in the distance and a waterfall whose directional water flow raises an important question. Initially, the viewer sees the water flowing naturally down, but as he gets closer, Floki now perceives that the water flows up. Whether he’s found himself hallucinating in Iceland or welcomed in Asgard depends on whether we believe he survives the storm. Either way, it’s a fitting tale for the series’ most beloved character. More likely though, he’s in Iceland.
The long anticipated addition of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers to the cast does not disappoint as Heahmund, the warrior bishop, rallies the Christian troops in his quest to put down the Great Heathen Army. Different from most Christian leaders, Rhys-Meyers plays Heahmund as a man struggling with a weakness of the flesh, and we see early on his charisma does not go unnoticed by a female follower. Rhys-Meyers always brings an edge to his roles, and Vikings is no different. Entering the fray on the heels of the deaths of Ecbert and Aelle, this new chapter holds a wealth of promise since Heahmund will eventually want to take out Lagertha, Harald, and his immediate foe, Ivar. Will we see a version of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend?”
Vikings remains a tale of political and personal intrigues replete with complex subplots that eventually work their way to the surface to be incorporated into the greater whole. So when we’re reminded of King Ecbert’s scheme to swindle Ragnar out of the rights to the land their deal promised, the bishop has his first piece of ammunition in the fight against the Northmen. And while the combined forces of King Aethelwulf (Moe Dunford) and Bishop Heahmund present a formidable foe, each has his own agenda.
Hirst’s script sets up a number of wonderful character parallels, but none so moving as that of Floki and Aethelwulf. Like the Viking boat builder, Aethelwulf too feels his God has forsaken him and prays that his punishment will soon end and His light shine upon the people once again. How Wessex’s new king and the bishop work together obviously will be critical in their fight against the Vikings, but Aethelwulf brings a lot of baggage with him to this new relationship. Though he’s king, the bishop is God’s representative, and now Aethelwulf will have two voices in his ear: Judith and Heahmund.
The pace of Vikings always takes into account that these are the stories of warriors, and continues to favor action over exposition. With this in mind, now that Floki and Bjorn have departed and Aelle, Ecbert, and Ragnar have died, opportunities abound for those willing to seize the day. Aethelwulf appears poised to follow his father, but must contend with several persistent thorns, not the least of which is wife Judith (Jennie Jacques) and her son Alfred. This is a man who’s had to bear the realities that his wife bore a child by the priest Athelstan, much to the delight of Ecbert, and then watch as she begins an affair with his own father, the king. Can he overcome feeling that everyone, including God, works against him?
Though it doesn’t resort to mysticism as a narrative device often, when it takes that route, Vikings flourishes. Typically, we’ve seen this sort of approach with Floki or the Seer, but here, it’s through the eyes of the future king Alfred. After going into the water to save Alfred, Aethelwulf pulls the boy ashore who then reveals his vision. God has spoken to him through his grandfather, and it’s off to York to fight Ivar and the Northmen. Jacques stirring performance as Judith experiences every mother’s worst nightmare does not go unnoticed.
Vikings rarely draws out the inevitable, and with this in mind, the union of Wessex’s troops and Heahmund takes place rather quickly as both converge on York. The wild card though remains Judith and her burning desire to avenge her father’s death at the hands of Bjorn. Will she allow the soldiers to do their jobs without interference especially in light of the fact that her husband and the bishop already disagree on how to proceed against Ivar? And will she stay out of Heahmund’s bed?
All things considered these three storylines provide plenty to keep viewers engaged, but we still haven’t even addressed Lagertha’s tenuous hold on Kattegat which Hirst holds in reserve for the second hour. In keeping with the head to head battles cropping up everywhere we look, the fact that everybody’s favorite queen is still in control, should not let Team Lagertha members get too comfortable. Remember, it’s only a matter of time before she’ll have to confront Ragnar’s sons and the bishop as well.
With age comes wisdom, and while it can be debated whether or not she should have fought for her man when he returned to Kattegat with Aslaug, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) has systematically and with great care returned to rule a people whose love for her never waned. What can’t be debated, however, is the fierce loyalty she feels for her family and for her people. Knowing that Aslaug’s sons will eventually come after her and that Kattegat has become a thriving trading village, Lagertha takes nothing for granted and continually prepares for outside attack.
While some shows might collapse under the weight of this many plot lines, Vikings thrives on the challenge of keeping viewers interested despite a periodic changing of the guard. Though she has a temporary reprieve from Ubbe and his brothers, the appearance of Harald’s ship in Kattegat forces Lagertha into action. She’s not afraid to fight, but thus far has been able to avoid any extended conflicts. What’s so delightful about King Harald (Peter Franzén) is that he’s completely open about his aspirations, and though the wisdom of marching into Lagertha’s throne room with all the swagger of someone whose self-importance may not be matched by the reality of the situation, he nonetheless gives her little choice.
While Ivar, Aethelwulf, and Heahmund’s stories are more or less straightforward and devoid of any real surprises, that’s not the case with Lagertha and Harald. But he’s on her turf, and the next thing we know, she binds him in chains and begins torturing him to learn the truth behind his arrival in her village. And that’s the thing about Harald; everything he tells her is the truth. Well, maybe he leaves out the part where his men free him.
In one of the episode’s more unexpected twists, Harald bares his soul to Lagertha, admitting he killed the girl he loved after she rejected him and married another. He desires a queen to rule Norway with him and views an alliance with Kattegat’s leader a perfect match. So how does she respond to his offer of a union? She hikes up her skirt and has sex with him. Out of character? That’s difficult to say, but as crazy as it sounds, his offer of marriage catches even the queen off guard. Is she testing him and actually considering the offer? It’s not inconceivable that she seriously considers the proposal thinking she will still be the partner in control despite the fact that she’s a woman.
Nevertheless, even Lagertha makes mistakes, and allowing Harald to live can be counted among her most grievous. This is a woman who murdered her groom on their wedding day and then calmly left the tent to address the adoring crowd awaiting her appearance. She’s seen too much to let him live, but the sexual encounter is a puzzler. Astrid (Josefin Asplund) is understandably upset that Lagertha didn’t kill him when she had the chance, but Harald is full of surprises, and after his men release him, they escape in their ships taking Astrid with them. Of all the twists and turns we’ve seen tonight, his marriage proposal to Lagertha’s lover and right hand will test her loyalty perhaps more than it’s ever been tested.
There’s a lot to digest in the Vikings season five premiere, but Michael Hirst’s decision to balance the psychological intrigue of Lagertha and Floki’s situations with the actions of Ivar and his Christian foes gets the story off to a magnificent start. With a long season ahead, it will be interesting to see how the different characters and plotlines are handled once the show returns to a 43 minute block. Regardless, it’s been well worth the wait.