This Vikings review contains spoilers.
Vikings Season 6 Episode 10
“Today it is a sad day; we lost a child. But it will be far worse to lose a country.”
It would appear that the gods have, in fact, abandoned Bjorn Ironside. Now that it nears the end of its six season run, there’s not much Vikings hasn’t already shown us, but by continuing its experimentation with a challenging nonlinear narrative in the mid-season finale, the series takes viewers on a surreal journey that brings the Lothbrok brothers together and ends with the death of the man who would be king. While “The Best Laid Plans” seems to shut the door on much that has become familiar and even beloved, a situation that will make some fans even more disenchanted with the show, Ivar’s return from Rus creates enough possibilities to keep things exciting as the narrative places its primary focus on Ragnar Lothbrok’s youngest son.
There’s no question that Michael Hirst’s decision to abandon the familiar, linear narrative form keeps viewers on their toes, particularly when it comes to Bjorn’s conversations with Ivar. After last week’s unexpected wedding to Ingrid, Ragnar’s eldest returns to political prominence and takes charge planning an intricate defense against the imminent Rus invasion led by Prince Oleg and Ivar. However, it’s the Bergmanesque beach scenes featuring Ivar and Bjorn that drive much of the episode’s underlying meaning as we shuttle back and forth between the violence of the battle, the internal struggles of a number of the principal characters, and the brothers coming to terms with the next phase of the Lothbrok dynasty.
Despite being wounded by Oleg, Gunnhild escapes, unaware that by day’s end she’ll find herself a widow, but more importantly, her miscarriage foreshadows her husband’s fall. When she tells him that “perhaps I am not meant to have a child with you,” this sense of resignation seems totally out of character no matter how young and beautiful Ingrid might be. Watching this broken woman bury her son alone in a field counterpoints the scenes with Bjorn and Ivar, underscoring the fears each has about the future. Does Gunnhild anticipate being driven into the background by Bjorn’s infatuation with Ingrid, or is Harald correct when he tells the young woman that the second wife is always relegated to the background?
Still, it’s the power of the psychological war Bjorn and Ivar fight as they sit alone on the empty beach discussing the inevitability of the coming conflict between Norway and the Rus that reminds us how personal this conflict has become. We’re never quite sure whose point of view we witness as the two stare out across a sea completely devoid of Rus ships, and it’s this disconcerting feeling that helps us understand Bjorn as he watches his entire world crash down around him. Keeping Ragnar’s legacy alive always seemed more important to Bjorn, and here, Ivar’s suggestion that a Norwegian defeat at the hands of the Christian Rus somehow preserves everything that their father worked to build leaves Bjorn at a loss. Does this scene reflect Bjorn’s fear that by allowing Ivar to control the Lothbrok narrative, he will somehow be erased from the Viking sagas?
Despite the overwhelming numbers unleashed by Oleg and the fact that many of the kings and jarls opt to watch from the sidelines, the expectation that Bjorn’s leadership and tactical skills would somehow be enough to ensure victory remains in play until the last ten minutes of the episode. It’s then that we see a beaten Bjorn sitting among the hundreds of dead soldiers littering the landscape and his brother a short distance away. Again, it’s only the two of them, and now the realization that Ivar has won begins to sink in. Though there are brief moments during the action sequences that Ivar appears concerned about the outcome, that quickly changes, and he tells his brother that there’s no way Bjorn can win. Ivar exudes a confidence that Bjorn only pretends to feel, and now, the eldest Lothbrok son resigns himself to his fate.
Vikings consistently presents exhilarating battle sequences, and whether we’re taken inside the brutality of individual combat or made privy to the grand scale of a full blown invasion and war, it’s difficult to find fault with any of the action scenes in “The Best Laid Plans.” Whether based on historical evidence or the product of artistic license, even the strategy sessions featuring scale models of the various terrains each side expects to encounter provide a fascinating look inside the minds of the opposing generals. Ivar takes Igor’s suggestion to sail down the river and tackle the mountain (We don’t really know whether Ivar considered this or not), a decision that puts the Boneless among the men as they scale this formidable obstacle, putting themselves in a position to begin the rout of Harald’s armies. Likewise, ingenious weaponry has always had a place in Vikings’ battle scenes, and tonight, the giant spiked balls Bjorn’s men roll down onto the Rus rank among the most entertaining. Setting them afire once they’d stopped moving adds to the appeal, but you have to wonder why they didn’t also fill them with oil.
There’s little question that this mid-season finale centers on the bad blood between Ivar and Bjorn, but the episode also gives some resolution to Harald Finehair and his brief reign as king of Norway. Any doubts about his true nobility as a ruler and as a man are quickly addressed when he initiates conversation with Ingrid and attempts to get into her head to establish whether or not she could be useful as a tool to eliminate Bjorn as a threat to his crown. As one of the survivors of the Rus onslaught, her story, however brief, helps close the door on Harald’s underhanded attempts to acquire the crown he ends up wearing only briefly.
Even though neither man survives the attack, it’s fascinating to observe the disparate approaches Bjorn and King Harald take to the coming threat. Harald is clearly out of his depth both as a leader and as a tactician, and while we’ve never doubted either man’s warrior status, Bjorn’s ability to match wits with his younger brother shows a side of him we don’t see often enough. Not only does he believe he can defeat Ivar, he believes he can regain the crown Harald took from him. But it’s final images of the violent clash that spell out exactly what the future holds. Gravely wounded, Harald now lies dying on the battlefield having lost both his kingdom and the symbolic crown he schemed so hard to obtain. The powerful image of the crown, off his head and out of his grasp, signals the end of an era that may be gone forever now that the Rus have arrived.
Losing Harald is one thing; losing Bjorn Ironside is quite another. One of the more striking scenes follows Ivar as he employs his massive upper body strength to scale the mountain in preparation for the surprise attack on Harald and Bjorn’s troops. But upper body strength alone can’t truly compensate for his lack of mobility, so when Ivar plunges his sword into his brother’s torso, whether this is literal or metaphor isn’t clear. Does Ivar symbolically stab his brother in the back, perhaps gaining an additional measure of revenge for the death of his mother Aslaug? It seems unlikely that the crippled Ivar could crawl along the ground amidst the chaotic battle, find his brother, and deliver a kill shot without running into trouble before hand. It’s a powerful visual, but for now, it should probably be viewed in a more symbolic light.
The briskly paced, out of order battle scenes finally give way to a celebration in the great hall that cements the fact that Ivar and the Rus have won the day. Bjorn lies dead on an empty beach, and again, we’re left to wonder about the accuracy of the scene even though the core truth remains – Bjorn Ironside is on his way to Valhalla. Whether Ivar actually kills him remains a mystery, but in the end, the identity of the person wielding the sword seems immaterial. Ivar and Hvitserk return to take what Ragnar and later Lagertha built. One thing you do have to say for Hvitserk is that when he goes into rehab, he clearly puts body and soul into the experience.
And we can’t overlook the relationship that appears to develop between Ivar and Katia. Ivar still seems to resist the notion that Katia is not Freydis, and when the princess sends a handmaiden to bring Ivar to her bedchamber in the middle of the night, the story ends up in uncharted territory. The dramatic removal of her blonde wig naturally confuses the issue and leaves viewers and Ivar unsure of her true identity. Even though she continues to deny a previous connection to Ivar, her sexual advances and insistence that he is sexually potent can’t help but take us back to the duplicitous Freydis.
If there’s a more striking visual than Katia’s entrance wearing her stark white fur coat and cloak, I must have missed it. And if things in the bedroom aren’t compelling enough, then her admission that she’s been afraid of Ivar’s insistence they knew each other in another life seals the deal. “I think I’m falling in love with you, and I don’t even know who you are,” he tells her just after she confesses to knowing he helped Dir escape. Is she part of some insidious plot Oleg puts into motion, or does she perhaps plan to escape with Ivar? Nonetheless, when Oleg peers down at her from a castle tower and makes eye contact, it certainly appears there’s a measure of fear in her eyes. This thread may be the most intriguing of all.
Perfect finales are few and far between, and while “The Best Laid Plans” doesn’t enter that conversation, there’s still a lot to like. Vikings brings a sense of finality to Ivar’s stay in Rus, and we now to find out whether or not his stay with Oleg and Igor has changed the man and king he’s to be. Can Ivar content himself with Kattegat and replace Harald as Norway’s king, or will he follow through with his plan to unseat Oleg? Could we possibly face a time jump when the series returns in nine months or so and find Igor’s now an adult? Regardless, all eyes now fall on Ivar, and it’s up to Alex Høgh Andersen to put the show on his broad shoulders for the sprint to the finish line. There’s no question this actor’s up to the task.