This review contains spoilers.
“Our father would have hated you.”
Shared leadership rarely wins the war, and tonight’s episode of Vikings drives home that theme as the first of many battles finally gets underway. Though the clash between Ivar’s forces and the Christian army led by King Aethelwulf and Bishop Heahmund occupies the majority of the episode, the struggles others face offer no less compelling accounts. In the end though, it’s the fractured Lothbrok clan that continues to drive the narrative in Homeland.
In spite of the fact that their appearances are brief, Bjorn and Floki’s stories nonetheless receive vital attention. Bjorn and Halfdan have left their homelands, and while Ironside’s desire for adventure has always been clear, such has not been the case with King Harald’s brother. Tonight, in a quiet exchange between two like minded souls, Halfdan reveals to Bjorn that he has no ambitions of greatness and simply wants to savor life however it may come. It seems unlikely that his revelation is part of a long con, and while their friendship may continue to grow, there will come a time when each will have to choose a side.
Nevertheless, their shared lust for adventure faces a challenge when it is suggested that Bjorn send all but three of his ships home as they prepare to enter the Strait of Gibraltar and ultimately the Mediterranean Sea. “Better to appear as traders than raiders.” It seems difficult to believe Bjorn will agree to this, and while his raiding days may be behind him, he’s too smart to weaken himself before entering unfamiliar territory.
Floki’s experiences in Iceland neatly bookend the episode as he continues to battle his inner demons after the death of his wife. Floki now believes he’s in Asgard with the gods, but it’s the small detail of the cut on his hand that provides some clarity regarding his situation. It appears the cut has become infected, and whether this or something else causes his hallucinations, he struggles to understand why the gods have brought him here. Visions of a valkyrie that dissolves into a flock of crows leads him to accept that “this is where you want me to die in peace.” Floki then notices the cut on his hand has vanished leaving us to wonder not whether it existed in the first place, but if this great man has finally found his final home.
In what may be the most intriguing plotline of the early stages of season five, King Harald arrives home to celebration, and the love his people have for him mirrors the situation Lagertha enjoys in Kattegat. For the most part Harald has been seen as an outsider, but here, among those who love him, he eloquently recounts his recent exploits. For all of his self-deprecating behaviour, he proves to be a masterful leader and politician. Of course, the great unknown in his quest to make his town the capital of Norway, is Astrid who he introduces to the throng as “part of my dream.” Knowing she finds herself in a delicate situation, it’s not surprising that she takes the seat next to his, much to the delight of the crowd.
Examining King Harald’s strategy here can’t be done in isolation since Astrid plays such an integral role, but if we go by first impressions, she may be warming to his offer to embrace a new home as its queen. That said, it’s certainly possible that she sees this as a future opportunity once he returns to take Kattegat and place it under his royal umbrella. Does Astrid’s loyalty still lie with Lagertha, or does she seriously contemplate what life as the queen of Norway will afford her? Her resolve does seem to be weakening after the king’s men present her with jewels and fine linen, and when she later appears at the evening’s feast in a beautiful gown and headpiece, her smile leaves a telling impression.
Even so, Astrid learned from the best during her time with Lagertha, and after she abruptly leaves the feast to return to her room, all eyes go to Harald. To be sure, this is a calculated strategy on her part, but when he leans in to kiss her, she momentarily accepts the advance. Of course, she then slugs him in the nose, likely breaking it, leading him to return to the great hall. And this is one of the things you have to love about Harald. His response to the crowd that can plainly see the blood streaming from his nose: “I have no luck with women.” But the subtext goes much deeper as she sends the message that “while I might accept your offer and become your queen, understand that I am an independent, powerful woman in my own right.” Can Harald accept her as his equal, but more importantly, when they eventually return to Kattegat, with whom will she side?
It was only a matter of time until the Great Heathen Army met its Christian counterpart, and in true Vikings fashion, the confrontation arrives quickly. For the most part, Homeland favors action over exposition, but the biggest takeaway involves the Lothbrok brothers and the dissension that builds between Ubbe and Ivar. Still, the visual language of Vikings comes in all shapes and colours, and the powerful character work from Alex Høge Andersen (Ivar) reinforces much of what we have known and suspected about the new Norse leader. The image of a black-hooded Ivar peering down on the Saxons articulates the fact that his opponent has no idea what it’s up against.
Because of Ivar’s meticulous planning and his men’s ability to carry out his orders, the Saxons find themselves quickly trapped, their haughtiness now disappearing. Curiously, it’s not until he sees Aethelwulf abandon his station to go to the rescue of his son that Ivar enters the fray. The glance he gives his helmet as it sits off to the side means one thing: chariot. But it too is a powerful image because Ivar has developed a feeling of invincibility while in his battle vehicle, and it’s unclear whether he was prepared to sit this one out. Does he perceive a weakness in Aethelwulf that calls out to be exploited?
Perhaps the most emotionally charged scene occurs when Ivar is immediately knocked from his chariot only to brutally hack the nearby Saxon soldier to pieces with his axe. Sitting on the ground, helpless with blood covering his face, a dozen or so Saxon soldiers look upon him, seemingly afraid to proceed. His commanding presence is frightening. “Don’t you know who I am? You can’t kill me. I am Ivar the Boneless.” Despite all of the chaos in the square, Bishop Heahmund approaches as Ivar sits, mockingly clapping his hands until the battle intercedes, delaying their inevitable showdown.
Though it was only a matter of time until Ubbe broke from his youngest brother, the moment Ivar confronts him about going behind his back to negotiate with the Saxons highlights one of the most visually stunning images of the series. Two white cross windows of the church to which they have retreated after their initial victory, flank Ivar’s head as he chastises his brothers for their betrayal. At this point it’s almost painful to watch Ubbe squirm, and Ivar doesn’t let up. “You made a bad call. You showed yourselves to be weak.” Sensing it’s time to go in for the kill, Ivar demands to be recognised at the leader, and though Ubbe refuses to acknowledge this, it marks the beginning of the end of their relationship.
And while Ivar’s brilliant generalship is on full display, Heahmund and Aethelwulf must slink away in defeat and attempt to figure out how this band of pagans defeated them so soundly. Aethelwulf makes the decision to divide his forces, and in retrospect, it’s difficult to know whether it would have made a difference given Ivar’s ability to anticipate his enemies moves. Seeing Aethelwulf cross the battlefield to save his son appears to have ignited something in Ivar, and perhaps this is a tendency he’ll be able to exploit the next time they meet.
Bishop Heahmund presents just as complex a picture as Ivar. This is a man of God who seems to relish battle, and while his lust for killing may simply tie into his quest to expel the heathens from the land, it appears to be more than that. However, when Ubbe and Hvitserk approach the Saxon camp with an offer to initiate peace talks, the bishop reluctantly defers to the king who tells the Lothbroks that they will have their answer in the morning. Most interesting is Alfred’s suggestion that they grant the land promised by Ecbert even though technically they have the law on their side. Though he’s young, and perhaps speaks out of place, his proposition directly challenges the desire of the displeased Heahmund who wants to annihilate the Northmen where they stand.
Ultimately, the bishop, whose demeanor bears a strong resemblance to Ivar, will bring God to his side even though diplomacy may be a better approach than a drawn out war. The Vikings have lost battles before, but Ivar seems to be operating at a different level than his father, and whether the king has the stomach for what’s to come remains to be seen. Heahmund, though, appears committed to doing whatever it takes, and it will be interesting to see how long he allows Aethelwulf to set policy.
The political winds are shifting, and Homeland gets the first of many battles to come off to a rousing start. While it’s somewhat disappointing that Lagertha and Bjorn’s stories will have to wait to be addressed, Vikings continues to blend the old with the new amidst a swirling ocean of subterfuge on multiple fronts.
Read Laura’s review of last week’s two-parter, The Departed, here.