“I know only too well what happens next. This is not right. This is not how I imagined everything. But no doubt I am a fool. I was always called a fool. And now I have proved it.”
[Obligatory mid-season finale SPOILER warning. You’ve been duly warned.]
“Moments Of Vision,” Vikings’ mid-season finale, seeks to build powerful moments on top of inadequate foundations. It’s to Michael Hirst’s credit that many of his bold individual conceits here work as well as they do. But that can’t take away the fact that this fifth season has wobbled mightily without the unifying force that was Ragnar Lothbrok to guide it. Still, credit where it’s due.
The episode largely eschews the often deadly exposition and over-explanation that’s marked this season, taking the form as it does of one battle, one day, with fleeting digressions flashing back to the various characters’ preparations for war. One thing that Vikings largely lost this season was its power to be still. Without Travis Fimmel and Ragnar’s enigmatic presence to assure us that there was a greater purpose to events than we understood in the moment, this season has, to its serious detriment, fallen back on words. Words have never been Vikings’ strength. Or, rather, its strength lies in the judiciously chosen words of people unused to expressing themselves in words. This season has seen these descendants and contemporaries of Ragnar Lothbrok spilling their feelings and intentions in prosaic pronouncements that, in the clipped and variable accents that remain Vikings’ approximation of ancient Norse-speak, too often emerged to deadening effect. Hirst’s chosen to largely jettison all that talk going into the season’s halfway point, and it’s invigorating.
From the first scene, there’s a vibrant echo of the old Vikings’ economy of visual storytelling—even as it comes to us through a song. The first five minutes or so are essentially silent, save for the Norse song filtering through the two armies’ camps. A midway point in an action-filled series like Vikings calls for some high-profile (or mid-profile) deaths, and throughout “Moments Of Vision,” it’s the unlikely emergence of the tragic story of brothers Halfdan and Harald that is, oddly, most affecting. Here, Halfdan’s surprisingly tuneful singing is heard across the lines by his brother, who then joins him, the two opposing brothers combining with soldiers of both armies in a haunting melody of approaching bloodshed. These two scruffy schemers have long been fighting to overcome their initial antagonist roles, leaving us wondering if (or when) Halfdan’s allegiance to Bjorn against his brother-king would be revealed as yet another ruse.
But it isn’t a ruse, and Halfdan’s battlefield death at the hands of his brother plays out like the final redemption of a grimy little man who saw, in Bjorn’s example, a glimpse of something beyond himself. When, before the battle, Bjorn attempts to gauge Halfdan’s loyalty one last time (with typical Bjorn bluntness, stating, “This must be hard for you”), Halfan reveals that his oft-stated reason for staying with Bjorn is a lot more interesting than it seemed. “You saved my life,” as it turns out, was never about Bjorn’s heroics in the desert, but in imparting to Halfdan a flash of Bjorn’s father’s vision of a world more complex and beautiful and promising than he’d ever dreamed. It’s worth quoting:
You took me on a great adventure. You showed me that life has more to offer than fighting for land or for worthless glory against your own Viking brothers. And if I have to die today, then so be it. I’m ready for Valhalla. At least I know life has taught me something. You have taught me… something.
Flashing to the battle, we see Halfdan wading through the carnage, wild-eyed with something more enigmatic than mere battle-lust. When he inevitably comes to Harald, he doesn’t defend himself from his brother’s reluctant blow, dying in Harald’s arms with visions of himself letting the desert sands slip through his fingers, and a benediction on his lips. “This is life. And this is death. Brother.”
This season has been about the clash of brothers, and Halfdan’s death is mirrored in Hvitserk’s unlikely survival. He, too, wanders pell-mell through the chaos of the battle, giving and taking blows (including one to his back that looks most definitely fatal), before finding his own older brother, Ubbe, waiting for him. They, too, have a standoff, and Hvitserk, too, has visions of his past as he sees death coming for him. But Hvitserk’s journey has been less enlightening than Halfdan’s, couched as it is in regrets—of betraying Ubbe, of joining with the unloving and unstable Ivar—and he, too, refuses to defend himself against Ubbe’s blow. Only the blow never lands, as Ubbe, despite two furious tries, cannot bring himself to kill his brother, and walks away, back into the fight. As much as we’d expected Hvitserk to buy it here—his visions and the fact that he’s poor, dumb Hvitserk seem to necessitate that—the conflict is the most we’ve ever been made to care about either brother, their warring loyalties rendered, for once, in resonant, sad inevitabilities.
The episode’s structure artificially but grippingly spotlights each of the many characters, serving, in several cases, to lend unexpected weight to their fates. Torvi’s son (with the long-dead Jarl Borg), Guthrum (Ben Roe) hasn’t ever established himself as anything but an unrealized subplot, but his death elevates him, if just for the moment of his passing. The battle is, as the title suggests, filled with visions, a showy but well-crafted conceit that sees the bloodied Torvi seeming to pause time for just the impossible second before Hvitserk sinks an ax into her son’s chest. Torvi has never been a terrific character either (nor Georgia Hirst a particularly interesting actress), but her tearful, imagined, silent goodbye is her best moment of the series.
Bjorn’s new bride, the Sami princess-warrior Snaefrid (Dagny Backer Johnsen), has had a laughably short arc since catching Bjorn’s eye. But she also finds some dignity in death, though her demise is colored more by horror than gauzy fantasy, as the Sami’s customary woodland ambush tactics see her darting ably through the sudden bloodshed—only to find her father the king dead by a fallen tree. Taking up his bolo weapon, hers having been lost in her deadly efforts against Harald and Ivar’s men, she charges back into the fray, only to be cut down with one brutal, anonymous blow. Credit to episode director Daniel Grou, who does his best work in this sequence, matching the tiny Snaefrid’s determined yet terrified movements through the carnage with our own apprehension.
Not all the conceits pay off. Ivar—after impulsively pulling a knife on Hvitserk when his brother mocks his impotence—remains a character of localized, heightened silliness and/or awesomeness, depending on your perspective. After rousing his men to battle with a speech about them not being destined to die in their beds as old men, he spots Lagertha fighting amid the masses of Vikings, all but her transformed into not-especially impressive skeletons in armor. The same goes for a rehash of the battle of York, where Bjorn’s bowmen rain down arrows on Ivar and his men, only for the unflinching Ivar to stand, unscathed, as they kill all those around him. It was Heahmund’s move in York, and in each case, it’s both stirring and sort of ludicrous.
As for Lagertha, her story is made up of pieces unmotivated and dull (why does new lover Heahmund get a tearful parting speech before the battle?) and enigmatically incomplete. That latter quality marks the love story between Lagertha and Astrid, both for the fact that the direction makes it unclear exactly what happens between them on the battlefield, and for how their (imagined?) conversation during Lagertha’s vision leaves the question of just how much of a plan the two had in Astrid’s abduction and marriage. With the shift between isolation and battlefield mayhem raging around them, it’s eventually revealed (I think) that Astrid’s abduction was part of their plan all along, but that Astrid, having conceived Harald’s child, is irreparably torn in her loyalties now. Telling Lagertha to kill her, Astrid, like Hvitserk and Halfdan, offers no resistance when Lagertha stabs her through the stomach. Josefin Asplund and Katheryn Winnick make the moment land despite how haltingly their story advanced this season, with Lagertha’s own benediction commending her lover’s spirit to Freya sealed with the touching, “You poor child.”
As the battle turns irrevocably with Ivar’s late release of his Frankish troops into the ragged melee, Bjorn calls the retreat, leaving Lagertha, as Bjorn sees once they return temporarily to Kattegat, a shivering, near-catatonic wreck. It’s shocking, not only because it’s initially difficult to spot the assured, regal Lagertha we’ve come to know in the huddled, smudge-faced woman we see here (for one thing, her hair seems to have been bleached white in grief), but also because of how small she looks, recalling the young Lagertha we saw in her flashback during the battle. Confiding in her loving father that she is afraid, the child Lagertha receives a necklace bearing Thor’s hammer, and her father’s reassurance that the god will watch over her. Leaving Lagertha in such a state might seem a diminution of such a strong female character, except that Lagertha has just killed the woman she loves during a failed battle to preserve her kingdom. And that, seemingly, all of Ragnar’s dreams—which, despite everything that went on between them, she retains as part of her own—lie strewn in bloody pieces.
As Ubbe tells Bjorn they must flee at the approach of Harald, Ivar, and their Frankish allies, we see ships sailing into the harbor of Kattegat, a hunched, figure seated in the lead boat. It’s Rollo, in the episode’s most satisfying and promising final twist, sailing home to a place where he, too, was forever marked by Ragnar Lothbrok’s ambitions. After a season’s worth of often unsatisfying, scattered storytelling, and this midpoint bloodbath that looks to have broken this world beyond repair, the appearance of this older, more powerful, perhaps wiser Duke Rollo at least introduces new possibilities for renewal.
- One other place where Ragnar’s dream (or part of it, anyway) lives on is with Floki. Attempting to forestall the inevitable bloodshed that will result from Bul’s death, he approaches rival (and Bul’s father) Eyvind with an offer to make the seething Eyvind lawmaker of their new land—if Eyvind will forego revenge. It’s true that Floki’s atavistic isolationism goes against Ragnar’s dreams of discovery, but it’s hard not to hear Ragnar’s broader perspective in his plea “that we never return to the cycle of death and revenge that has blighted and disfigured our lives before.”
- Eyvind’s answer comes with the discovery of Bul’s killer (the son of Kjetill Flatnose, Floki’s chief supporter) floating dead in the hot spring. Floki offers himself up as a sacrifice in order to try to prevent his own dream from exploding as Kattegat is doing, Gustaf Skarsgård imbuing Floki’s words (and Floki’s returning, mad giggle) with immeasurable sadness: “We have failed the gods. We have behaved like humans. They gave us every opportunity to be better people and we have all failed. There’s only one way to prevent our settlement from descending into chaos. I am the builder. I am responsible for all of this.”
- Season five continues to go for the gore. This week we get a head pinned to a tree, a severed arm, some spurting intestines, a shattered greenstick fracture, a gaping neck wound, and Lagertha beating people with a severed human head. (Which, okay, awesome.)
- So Margrethe’s gone mad now? She’s another character ill-served by the writing this season, her potentially interesting former slave’s ambitions subsumed by dull jealousy and now some abruptly lost marbles. (At least she doesn’t kill Torvi’s kids, as the series has repeatedly threatened.)
- The Seer returns, once again being both cryptic and annoyingly spot-on in his predictions. Here, he sets up the back half of season five by telling Margrethe that, while Ubbe won’t become king of Kattegat, that doesn’t mean he won’t be king… somewhere. Stay tuned, I guess.
- Ivar’s singsong-insincere apology for putting a knife to Hvitserk’s throat (“I’m anxious about the battle, I’m sorry”) is pretty funny.
- Again, it’s pleasantly surprising how Halfdan and Harald’s characters picked up weight as things have gone on. Here, Harald asks Astrid to cut off his ponytail, even though, in their looks, both seem to know that his pledge to never cut his hair until he wed “the woman of his dreams” is built on a lie.
- Heahmund gives former captor Ivar a sage nod in the midst of the battle—even though Ivar’s POV shows that the two can’t possibly have seen each other in all the far-off chaos.
- And that’s a wrap on Vikings, season five, part one. See you later this year. And, for old time’s sake—SHIELD WALL.