Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 3 and 4. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free review of Vikings Season 5’s opening episodes.
How do you sum up a memorable historical figure in a single image? Vikings Season 5 gives us the answer in only its third episode: with lots and lots of blood. Michael Hirst’s series has never been scared of the red stuff, unable to compete with Game of Thrones in terms of budget and CGI, but confident in its ability to serve up equally brutal violence.
But the third episode is balanced superbly by a quieter fourth episode, reminding us that the historical drama succeeds because it understands the ebb and flow of conflict, the tension in the smaller, quieter details between the carnage.
The carnage, of course, comes courtesy of the clash between Ivar’s Vikings and Aethelwulf’s Saxons, and this season wastes no time in rushing into battle – and it’s an epic, brutal affair, presented with the kind of confidence and excitement that has become commonplace for the series. It’s a trap, naturally, because Ivar is good at slaughtering and strategy, just one of the many reasons why he’s a better leader for the Vikings and Ubbe and Hvitserk. And that’s made clear to us over and over again, as the battle continues, with the clashing swords, bashing shields and skewered limbs lasting for almost the entire hour. It climaxes in one of the most striking images that Vikings has ever produced: Ivar, sat against a cart in the middle of the fray, seemingly outnumbered and vulnerable. But he keeps the entire Saxon army at bay just by laughing and shouting – “Don’t you know who I am? You can’t kill me! I am Ivar the Boneless!” – and that cackling continues as blood sprays all over him, as he claps, sheers and giggles at the death around him. It’s disturbing, horrifying and intimidating – exactly the kind of moment Ivar needed to establish himself as the natural successor to Ragnar, not just with his troops, but with the shows’s audience. We may miss Travis Fimmel, but we’re not going to forget Alex Høge Andersen any time soon.
As is the way with Vikings, the action spurs on character, as Aethelwulf and Bishop Heahmund retreat (with Aethelwulf’s son, Aethelred, injured) and Ubbe and Hvitserk, who are also losers, suggesting a move towards peace. Ivar disagrees, but his more aggressive attitude proves correct once again: the Saxons only humiliate the brothers, sending them back to the Vikings with their tails between their legs. “You made a bad call. You showed yourselves to be weak,” Ivar castigates Ubbe, embarrassing him yet further in front of the soldiers. “Our father would have hated you,” comes the bitter reply, but it’s hard to judge whether he would or not: if Ivar once seemed like an unhinged ruler-in-waiting, his rational and ruthless mindset continues to pay off. It’s no surprise, then, that Ubbe and Hvitserk decide to head back to Kattegat, nor that they should do so with not many supporters – and, just to rub it in, that Hvitserk should defect once more and decide to stay with Ivar after all.
Ivar, though, is far from generous in return: we only have to wait one more episode until we see Hvitserk humiliated too. “I am nobody’s dog,” he tells Ivar, speaking out against Ubbe. Ivar pauses and smiles cruelly. “Woof, woof,” he replies, leaving Hvitserk fleeing a room of mocking laughter.
But, of course, Ivar does have a plan, even as the Saxons lay siege to York and surround them, hoping to starve them out. Ivar begins to burn meat to make it look like they’re getting rid of their own dead bodies – just enough to lure the Saxons back into the town.
Vikings being Vikings, we also spend time on the other side of the fray, and Heahmund and Aethelwulf are just as fascinating to watch: with Ragnar and Ecbert gone, the political vacuums opened up have made room for manipulation and scheming among each tribe. Heahmund, who could just be a trashy addition to the show, continues to intrigue, becoming increasingly complex in his dual passion for the church and killing. Giving the option for peace, he chooses to advocate for annihilating the whole of the vikings instead. He seems as driven as Ivar, which also means he’s unlikely to leave Aethelwulf in power for long.
Naturally, they clash over what to do next, as Aethelwulf insists that Heahmund follow his order for restraint. But they end up going with the bishop’s more aggressive plan anyway, and finish the episode walking into York, which turns out to be deserted. The stage is set for one is destined to be the next in a never-ending string of battles – and the prospect is one to relish.
Ubbe, meanwhile, heads to Kattegat, where he is welcomed by Lagertha – and brings her much-needed support against rivals Halfdan and Ivar. It’s a reassuring boost to Lagertha’s position, at a time when she risked starting to look weak: she puts Torvi in her place and reminds us that she’s been betrayed by almost every man she’s ever known.
Speaking of betrayal, Vikings continues to display real promise for its post-Ragnar future with a detour over to King Harald’s place, where Astrid is settling in. Theirs is an excellent relationship, and Hirst does a brilliant job of showing both characters to be more complex than they appear: Harald turns out to be a good leader, welcomed back home with genuine warmth by his people. He’s a skilled politician, knowing the value of having a strong woman by his side (she’s introduced to the town as “part of my dream” by Harald) – but Astrid, who gets a taste for power, makes it clear that she’s not a trophy, but an equal.
She resists his advances in the bedroom, which he accepts with genuine humour and grace, saving his face in front of his followers. But she also agrees to be his wife, and their grand wedding makes them a surprisingly likeable couple with real clout and threat; Harald isn’t a hero, but he’s not Ivar, after all. As she smiles, though, we still wonder whether she’s actually bought into Harald’s plan to become King of Norway, or whether she’s playing a longer game to help Lagertha. It’s testament to how well performed both characters are that there’s genuine meat to chew over.
And what of Halfdan? He and Bjorn continue their journey into the Mediterranean, where new advisor Sinric suggests scrapping half their ships so that they can appear as traders, not warriors. Bjorn agrees, and so they sail to Sicily, where they encounter a strange, ambitious ruler called Euphemius. He turns out to be the frontman for another, more powerful Arab leader, and they decide to visit – thanks to the support of Kassia, a famous nun with a stunning singing voice. It all feels somewhat disconnected, but there’s impressive spectacle and new lands to admire, with potential for some fresh adventure on the cards – at this early stage of Season 5, Vikings has more than earned some time to develop a new plotline.
If it’s beautiful landscapes you want, though, Floki more than delivers, having stumbled across Iceland in the season’s opening episodes. It’s here that Vikings once again reinforces its knack for tiny, personal details to balance the clattering action. The wandering fool is astounded by what he thinks is Valhalla – and little wonder, as the show captures Iceland’s waterfalls and hills in jaw-dropping style. If this is Valhalla, though, how has he managed to cut himself? Then again, if this isn’t, how does his cut suddenly heal and vanish? It’s a wonderful little moment for quiet meditation, and as Floki prepares to ship in more people to the land, there’s a real pleasure in the thought of seeing a fledgling viking settlement form over time.
It’s also a nice step away from Floki’s presumed role as becoming the Kattegat tribe’s new Seer – suggesting that he’ll grow to be a more central lead figure in his own right in coming seasons. The Seer, though, is still on hand to deliver prophecies, and it’s always as revealing to see who visits him as it is to hear what he has to say. Here, it’s Lagertha asking whether she’ll see Bjorn again and his reply is as cryptic as it is chilling.
“The consequences of Ragnar’s death are not yet played out,” he warns. “You have only seen the beginning of the end.” “Too much knowledge is an agony,” he adds. “Prepare yourself.”
As Vikings continues to navigate these new waters with an assured sense of pace and a confident balance of action and emotion, we’re the ones who need to be prepared.
Vikings: Season 5 is available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. New episodes arrive every Thursday, within 24 hours of their US broadcast.