Were a week removed from the latest season of Vikings and I, for one, have a lot of thoughts.
Reader be warned, for here there be spoilers! Scroll on with caution.
First thing’s first, a little disclaimer: I started binge-watching the show in an “it’s okay to watch four episodes in a row if I’m doing it for research” frenzy this past summer. (To be fair, I was then and am now genuinely researching Nordic myths and legends.) I got hooked fast, and managed to catch up to the series just in time for the premiere of the second half of season five. Why disclose this? Because I’ve found that binging a show gives you a different perspective than drinking it in small, seasonal sips. I took in the story all at once. I saw Bjorn and his brothers grow up before my eyes, saw kings rise and fall in days, and watched Lagertha turn from shieldmaiden to queen to nomad in mere weeks.
I got all the backstory at hyper-speed, and in consuming so much so fast, I found myself entering the new season with some very strong opinions.
At the forefront of those opinions was my absolute and utter disdain of Ivar the Boneless.
Is he a cool character? Yes, definitely. You have a Viking born disabled, whose birthright was death and whose mother’s love was his only salvation, defeating all odds to become a feared warrior and all-powerful king. That is a damn great character concept that is only heightened by the skilled performance put on by Alex Høgh Andersen.
The good stuff ends there.
Ivar has long history of heartlessness, cruelty, and bloated hubris, but this season really took that cocktail and ran. We saw him ruthlessly torture, hang, burn, beat, stab, and strangle absolutely anybody who dared cross him. He betrayed brothers, lied to his people, and went as far as to kill his own “divine child”. His rage knew no bounds, and as he slashed his way through Kattegat, he became predictable. We knew that he wouldn’t keep his promises to Hvitserk. We knew he wouldn’t let his deformed son live. We knew he would kill the Seer, who refused to acknowledge Ivar’s presumed divinity, and who warned of dark times to come. His arc grew boring, and as we waited in vain for someone to finally (finally) thwart him, it became frustrating.
There are two positive things that come out of Kattegat, though: Freydis and Hvitserk.
Freydis is the first one to call Ivar a god. She deceives him and, despite his impotence, convinces him that he has fathered her child. She makes him believe her pregnancy is proof of Ivar’s own divinity all to secure her place in his palace. She is the only character who, even for a short while, plays Ivar. She is portrayed as his equal - right up until she gives birth to her son. That’s when the veil comes off and a shred of humanity pokes through.
When Ivar leaves Baldur to die in the woods, and when the infant’s bones are found, we see Freydis break. She stops seeing him as a step ladder and starts seeing the man behind his many masks - of husband, of king, of eager father-to-be. We even see her betray him - and then it all crumbles. She dies.
Her redemption is cut short and she becomes just another death in Ivar’s overflowing stream, which leaves me wondering - did nobody see her potential? Like Astrid, who died by Lagertha’s hand last season, and like Thora and Aud, Freydis was a character with immense potential hardly a fraction of which was actually used. (Or is it just me? It can’t just be me who’s frustrated by this.)
Anyway, let’s move on to Hvitserk, who spends the greater half of the season questioning his fate. Why did he abandon Ubbe? Why did he choose Ivar? What is he still doing in Kattegat? He finds love (rest in peace, Thora), has an encounter with a Buddhist, and eventually finds his purpose and hatches a plan with King Olaf the Stout to overthrow Ivar. Good on you, Hvitserk!
Across the sea, Bjorn Ironside and King Harald concoct a similiar plan.
Bjorn - as well as Lagerha, Ubbe, Torvi, and Bishop Heahmund - fled to Wessex in the first episode of the season. The group, with Heahmund’s help, form an alliance with the recently appointed King Alfred - whose own people remain wary of his leadership, and whose brother wavers between jealousy and loyalty; the king agrees to grant the Norsemen land in East Anglia, previously promised by the late King Ecbert, in exchange for (1) Ubbe and Torvi’s conversion to Christianity and (2) aid against other Viking invaders. Their first attack comes from none other than King Harald himself, who sailed to England after being snubbed by - you guessed it - Ivar the Boneless.
Let’s backtrack a little: in the last season, Heahmund was captured by Ivar, who was intrigued by the warrior-bishop’s skill in, and in planning, battle. Ivar enlisted Heahmund as a war strategist. Although Ivar won Kattegat, Heahmund was wounded and re-captured by Lagertha. In the gap between seasons, Heahmund and Lagertha began a romantic relationship - a relationship which is severely tested in the first half of 5B.
After refusing an offer of protection from Rollo, who is now an established French nobleman, Lagertha agrees with Heahmund’s suggestion to escape. Upon his return to Wessex, Heahmund takes back his place in the Church (albeit by killing his replacement - not exactly godly, but has anyone on this show been godly since Athelstan? I digress.) and subsequently finds himself tortured by visions of Hell. Believing these to be prophecy, he ends his romance with Lagertha, denouncing her in an attempt to save his place in Heaven.
This lasts approximately one episode, for when Heahmund falls in battle his last desire is Lagertha. He calls out for her, and she watches him die and then vanishes from the battlefield.
With Lagertha disappeared and Ubbe and Torvi committed to settling land in East Anglia, Bjorn feels that there is nothing left for him in England. He frees and begins a relationship with Gunnhild, who becomes his third (fourth? I’m losing count) wife, and, with her and his eager brother Magnus - whom both Lagertha and Ubbe denounced as a son of Ragnar, but with whose rage Bjorn feels fiercely connected to - allies with King Harald and sails home, intent to take back Kattegat.
Oh, and did I mention that Harald still wishes to be king of all Norway and that he covets Bjorn’s new wife? Because that’s a thing. He wouldn’t be Harald Finehair if that wasn’t a thing.
But wait, there’s more!
Floki. Remember him? Out there in Iceland with his colony. Well, the season begins with the settlers debating his execution. Helgi’s tie-breaking vote saves him, but can’t save the colony. Tensions between families build. Revenge killings run amok. Floki questions the gods and, while seeking their aid, finds a Christian cross erected inside a mountain. While laughing at his find, he is injured by the erupting volcano.
Honestly, the Iceland plot gets lost in the drama. At least, for me it did (and perhaps this is because I'm just not a huge fan of Floki, despite Gustaf Skarsgård's continued brilliance).
Splitting the story between so many characters, and planting those characters in so many places, made it difficult to keep up with everything. On top of that, Iceland is an extremely isolated plot. Wessex and Kattegat remain in flux with one another, with characters moving to and from both places, and the primary tension of the show hovering between them. Iceland sits outside of this action. Without any ties to the other stories, it's easy to lose Floki's settlement under all those other moving parts.
Oh, and in this medieval soap opera, the political drama continues, particularly heating up in Wessex.
Alfred is king by his mother’s insistence and with his brother’s public approval, but Aethelred remains somewhat shady over the course of the season. So shady, in fact, that his own mother distrusts him enough to, in one of the most shocking and heart wrenching historical deviances of the show, poison him while Aflred is struck ill. (Judith later states, “I killed one son to save the other.”, but I guess we’ll never really know if her extremism was necessary. We do, however, know who her favorite son is. Not that there were doubts, but now it’s #confirmed.)
And in case you were worried, Judith suffers more than the guilt of murdering her own son.
Because nobody on this show can catch a break, Judith develops breast cancer. While secretly seeking treatment from a local witch, she finds Lagertha, who had been missing for two to three episodes, and takes her back to the royal villa. The two women discuss their lives and their fates while Judith succumbs to her cancer and Lagertha reflects on her life with Ragnar, and on what is next for her. By the final episode, Judith dies, and Lagertha sails back to Kattegat with Ubbe.
Ubbe, of course, has his own arc. He struggles with his faith after publicly denouncing the gods and becoming a Christian to prove his loyalty to King Alfred. He teaches Alfred to fight, and meets with the incoming Danes on Alfred’s behalf. He is baited into single combat by a Danish king; if the king wins the Danes attack Wessex, if Ubbe wins the Danes join the Viking settlement in East Anglia. Ubbe wins, though he is severely injured in the process. During combat, Ubbe calls to Odin for strength, and while he is recovering at the royal villa he tells Torvi that the Christian cross means nothing to him. He believes in the Norse gods, and the Norse gods alone. This revelation prompts Ubbe and Torvi to sail back to Kattegat together.
That brings us to the finale: a long battle, an impassioned speech by Bjorn reminding the people of Kattegat that he is their friend and neighbor, and imploring them to see Ivar as their enemy, and a betrayal of Ivar by Freydis.
The season ends with Ivar fleeing Kattegat. In his absence, Lagertha returns and bestows Bjorn with the Sword of Kings. Bjorn then has a ominous vision in which he hears Ragnar’s voice and has a conversation with the late Seer, who warns him that the war is not yet over. Before fading to black, we see Ivar being carted away by his followers, a straw hat on his head suggesting that he is eastbound.
It’s…unnerving, to say the least.
After a season full of ever-increasing tension, it’s almost unsatisfying to see Ivar kind-of, sort-of win and Bjorn, Hvitserk, Ubbe, and Lagertha kind-of, sort-of lose. Again. I mean, yeah, Bjorn is king, but even he is doubting himself and his future.
And let's not forget that Harald still maintains his ambitions. He wants to rule as king of Norway, a position which his historical counterpart held between the 9th and 10th centuries. Will the show allow for such historical accuracy? He's been thwarted time and time again, and though he's struck deals with both Ivar and Bjorn to succeed them in Kattegat, I doubt that the two (arguably three, if you choose to count Magnus) remaining sons of Ragnar will forfeit the throne willingly - let alone Lagertha, who still calls Kattegat her home.
Speaking of Lagertha, I find myself a concerned over her fate. Her visions of Ragnar hovered around his death, and though she considers herself reborn, what does her knew life really have in store for her? Will she continue to have visions of her former husband? In one of her final visions, she saw Ragnar’s death with herself as the executioner. I can’t get that imagery out of my head, and can’t help but wonder if it has some greater meaning to it. The Seer continues to prophesy destruction and darkness, even from beyond the grave, and I can’t imagine such forces not touching her.
And what’s up with Floki? Is he going to make it out of the volcano and, if so, will he tell anyone about the cross buried there? He has hated Christians since season one, going as far as to kill Athelstan under the guise of the gods’ divine will. The cross, therefore, has deep personal significance to him - that is, it signifies everything he hates. So, will it strengthen his resolve and restore his faith in the gods, or are we going in a different direction this time?
I kind of hope it’s the latter. At this point, Floki’s arc seems to keep repeating. He believes fiercely in the gods, something tests him, and then the gods come to him. This case already feels different as it is Christian symbolism that shows itself, so perhaps we’ll be seeing something from Floki. Hey, I can dream.
And then, of course, there’s Alfred. He has lost his father, and then his brother, and then his mother. He is left to run a country with little support, and is a father-to-be on top of it all. His closest Viking allies have sailed back to Norway, and the newly settled Danes do not exactly owe their loyalty. Historically, Alfred did become victorious against Viking invasions, and even instated Danelaw. So will we be seeing these political developments in season six? The history nerd in me really hopes so.
There are also questions surrounding Magnus, who, in times of tremendous fear, still utters Christian prayers despite his instance that he does not believe in Christianity. In the battle against Ivar, he seemed intent to abandon his Saxon beliefs entirely, but will he stick to that? Will he prove himself in Viking society? I’m curious to see.
Overall, I enjoyed this season - despite being overwhelmingly annoyed by Ivar’s...well, being Ivar. And while the finale left me and many other viewers with a lot of questions, I’m eagerly awaiting the answers in the next season.
Until next time...Skol.