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An action-packed Vikings season reaches an uncertain midway point

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Bishop Heamund (Photo: Jonathan Hession)
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“So is this an interruption of your journey, or is it a part of it?”

The ending of “The Prisoner” marks this first Ragnar-less season’s midway point by reenacting one of Vikings’ first and most fruitful dramatic conceits. Having routed the English (again) in the conveniently tunnel-honeycombed streets of York, Ivar sets sail back to Kattegat—with the captive Heahmund in chains. Like Ragnar’s initial decision to take the English monk Athelstan back to Norway, Ivar’s decision to let Heahmund live is an enigma. Unlike his father’s unexpected kinship with the monk who’d become his greatest friend and instrument of knowledge and discovery, however, Ivar’s relationship with the warlike Christian zealot Heahmund is both less interesting and perfectly in tune with Vikings after Ragnar. Ivar is diabolically clever in extending his father’s martial goals in the muddy fields of England, but there’s precious little of Ragnar’s wonder in him. So his choice to drag the similarly unbending Heahmund across the ocean to experience life among the “heathens” he so despises comes across more as a tortuous extension of the enemies’ ongoing contest of single-minded macho will.


Not that there isn’t a lot to be said for the spectacle of two sneeringly clever warriors matching swords and wits. The second battle for York here sees Ivar—spotting the outmatched and surrounded Heahmund unseated from his horse—commanding his warriors to stop. In the center of the ring of bloodied, muddied Norse and English combatants, Heahmund stands confused until Ivar calls down from his elevated perch, “Give him my horse. He is too great a warrior to fight on foot!” Ivar’s horse is brought, Heahmund gives a grudging salute to Ivar, and then combat continues. It’s the sort of big, dumb action beat that’s rousing in spite of how exaggeratedly silly it is.


There were a pair of such moments in the first battle, too, but there was a desperate, chaotic momentum to the Vikings’ attempts to fend off Heahmund and Aethelwulf’s army that made the sight of the lone, crippled Ivar facing off against dozens of English or Heahmund standing resolute among a hail of arrows feel like part of the madness of the enterprise. Here, though, the second gulling and thrashing of the English forces plays out like a clumsy retread of the first. It’s a flashy showpiece calling attention to itself, which makes the heightened heroism and brutality less effectively integrated.

Moe Dunford as King Aethelwulf (Photo: Jonathan Hession)

There’s a shockingly amateurish contrivance to the plotting here. The very last shot of “The Plan” saw Heahmund noting that York’s rats are all above ground, a glowing, red warning sign that the disappeared Norse have taken to the city’s sewers in ambush. Here, though, instead of picking up with the Vikings swarming out to attack as we know (and Heahmund sure seems to know) they’re preparing to, the episode opens with Heahmund and Aethelwulf milling about elsewhere in the town, still blissfully assuming the Vikings have fled. It takes a second rat sighting for Heahmund to put together what he’d clearly intuited at the end of last episode, all so the sneak attack can take place. And that attack, with the Norse climbing up ladders from the drains, is underwhelmingly directed (by Ciaran Donnelly) and planned (by Ivar), especially compared to Ivar’s lockstep-smart scheme during the first battle (directed with a fine eye for geography by Steve Saint Leger). Here there’s no sense of place, with the Norse straggling aboveground and sending the English into a panic almost before the first blows fall.

The best element of this second disastrous melee is how it unmans (or “un-kings”) Aethelwulf. We’ve seen the newly crowned king settling into his role all too comfortably, dressing down the presumptuous Heahmund and presiding over affairs of battlefield state with son Alfred’s serenely wise counsel. But Aethelwulf has always been a deeply conflicted man, tortured by both his rigid faith and feelings of inadequacy, and now, sent bloodied back to camp (where Queen Juith assists in stitching up screaming, maimed soldiers), he reverts back to his brutishly childish state. Confessing shamefacedly to his wife that both Heahmund and Judith’s warlike cousin Mannel have been lost along with most of his forces, Aethelwulf wails, “I thought that God had at last seen fit to be merciful unto us. To forgive us. I was wrong Judith. I was wrong.” Stumbling into the camp, Aethelwulf had t be shaken back into sensibility before he could speak. Now, his pretensions to kingship and God’s favor in shambles all around him, he bashes his gore-streaked head with his hands and weeps.

Queen Judith (Jennie Jacques) tends to the defeated King Aethelwulf (Moe Dunford) (Photo: Jonathan Hession)

When the episode shifts back to Kattegat, some uninspired plots tread water until enlivened by an unexpected return. Floki’s entrance into Kattegat is greeted by the people with something like awe, and by Lagertha with definite wariness, especially once she learns of Floki’s plan to bring some of her people back to “the land of the gods” with him. There’s a lovely little moment in the great hall where Floki and Lagertha, joined by the delighted Ubbe, sit while Floki spins his tale of gods and a fertile paradise like the Lothbrok clan of old. Describing his island as “at the edge of everything and yet at the very center of it all,” Floki’s old magic holds sway for just a little while as he unveils his plan to start a new Norse colony made only of those whose faith in the gods and rejection of outside influences is as pure as his. When Lagertha—queen of a Kattegat more and more open to contact with that outside world—suggests that she would not be welcome in Floki’s pure Norse paradise, all he can do is look away sheepishly.

Gustaf Skarsgård’ as Floki (Photo: Jonathan Hession)

As enticing as the prospect of watching Gustaf Skarsgård’s Floki explore the stark majesty of his new world alone for the rest of the season was, this coming conflict between Lagertha (who forbids Floki from spiriting away her people with the danger of Harald’s treachery looming) and her oldest remaining friend is a necessary one. There’s always been something deeply frightening in Floki’s fanaticism that, as fascinating and attractive as he is, marked him out as the one who would have to be rejected—or destroyed—if Ragnar’s vision for his people was to move ahead. Floki murdered Athelstan for, as he saw it, corrupting the exemplary Viking Ragnar, an unforgivable act not least because doing so was a repudiation of the series’ narrative intentions. Now, without Ragnar to guide that vision of this world, those left behind are pursuing their own, more limited interpretations of Ragnar Lothbrok’s mind. And Ragnar, for all that he eventually fell short of even his own ambitions, was about looking forward. Floki’s dream is inexorably retrograde, his zealot’s dedication to a “pure” Norse society turning, here, into the birth of xenophobic, implacable cult.

(Photo: Jonathan Hession)

Pursuing his own piece of Ragnar’s dream, Bjorn’s adventure finds him, Halfdan, and wanderer-interpreter Sinric on a camel train into the endless African desert. Here again, Bjorn, thinking himself at last surpassing his illustrious father’s reach, is disappointed that the powerful Ziyadat Allah (Kal Naga) can already speak their language, thanks to the previously revealed presence of the Viking bodyguards of the Holy Roman Emperor. Bjorn’s entire sojourn into the desert sees glory elude him in a series of incessant disappointments, as he and Halfdan can only observe helplessly as Allah’s men arrest Euphemius, behead the guards who allow Euphemius to escape, and then—at an opulent banquet supposedly to celebrate their trade deal with Allah—are tricked into eating their former patron. “We haven’t exactly been the best bodyguards, have we?,” muses Halfdan at one point. “No, we have not,” Bjorn agrees.

Jasper Paakkonen as Halfdan, Alexander Ludwig as Bjorn (Photo: Jonathan Hession)

Again, Bjorn’s disappointment (and, to some degree, ours) that his plan to replicate his father’s thirst for discovery is continually thwarted is clearly part of creator Michael Hirst’s point this season. A world without Ragnar Lothbrok is a fractured, lesser one, and there will be a period of tumult where the Norse (and Vikings) will either forge a new, unique vision, or will crumble. Still, Bjorn’s adventure here is hampered both by the initially magnetic and worthy Allah’s cagy antagonism descending into arch, lunatic villainy, and the episode’s reliance on a truly silly final contrivance. For Allah—what with the beheading and the Titus Andronicus dinnertime surprise—the revelation that Euphemius’ captive Kassia has been pulling the strings is one that’s been telegraphed since her second scene. And the cliffhanger ending here, with the headsmen’s swords in mid-swing toward Bjorn, Halfdan, and Sinric’s necks while a sudden sandstorm sweeps down the dunes toward them, is just as laboriously engineered for cheap drama. (For one thing, why don’t the desert-dwellers spot the coming sandstorm while Bjorn and company do? C’mon.) Sure, Bjorn has a small stick secreted on his person that will no doubt come into play, but this whole plotline creaks.

(Photo: Jonathan Hession)

With Ivar sailing home with Heahmund and his army, Lagertha and Floki on a collision course over Floki’s plan, and Ubbe restating his intention to go to war with Ivar and Hvitserk, (not to mention whatever’s really going on with Astrid), “The Prisoner” sets up various conflicts for the second half of this fifth season that will determine not only the fate of Kattegat, but that of Vikings, too. Essentially, these last five episodes will reveal whether the inevitable chaos resulting from Ragnar’s departure contains within it a viable plan for the future. Or if dissolution and empty spectacle is all that’s left.


Stray observations

  • Ivar still delights in appearing as the monster his enemies think him. After taunting the chained Heahmund, the smiling Ivar defiantly crawls away through the muck of Heahmund’s filthy prison.
  • Adding to the entertaining action silliness of York, there’s a preternaturally resilient hammer-wielding Viking who keeps getting stabbed, only to pop up for one last dramatic hammer-takedown before he finally succumbs.
  • Another lovely moment in the great hall before Floki and Lagertha’s inevitable confrontation: “If I listen carefully, I can still hear Earl Haraldson’s voice, and Ragnar’s voice. Always Ragnar’s voice. Such memories we’ve shared, Lagertha.”
  • And another: “So much has happened to me, Lagertha. I don’t know who I am.” “You are Floki, the boatbuilder.” “I am more than that.”
  • And another, when Ubbe tells him of his coming war with his brothers: “I feel pity. But also the relief that I won’t have to choose between you, or suffer grief, or joy. Which in the end are the same thing.”
  • Halfdan and Bjorn are gifted women on their first night in Allah’s camp—except that Halfdan’s turns out to, as he puts it the next morning, not be a woman. “And was that a problem for you?,” Bjorn asks. Halfdan doesn’t answer. Vikings’ depiction of the sexual flexibility of the Norse continues to be pretty fascinating.
  • Among the acolytes secretly gathered in preparation for Floki’s journey, WWE enthusiasts might spot one Adam Copeland, aka former wrestling star Edge. While mostly mute here, he’s playing the magnificently named Kjettil Flatnose.
  • Hvitserk is all-in on Ivar, telling his younger brother that he will support him in killing Ubbe—and Lagertha. Hvitserk’s never been the strongest character, which makes his flip-flopping loyalties particularly uninteresting.
  • That does leave open the dramatic possibility that he’s actually in danger, though, as when, during the York fracas, he’s brought up short by a shocking spray of blood in his face. Only after a long moment, do he and we realize it’s not his.

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About the author

Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.