Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 5 and 6. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free review of Vikings Season 5’s opening episodes.
Vikings Season 5 continues to chart a course through the waters of history without the star ships of Ragnar and King Ecbert. And while those two big vessels of ambiguity, heart and unpredictability are missed, showrunner Michael Hirst is slowly building two new boats to dominate the horizon – and Episodes 5 and 6 are framed almost deliberately around them.
The show is moving increasingly in unconscious pairs of episodes, as the programme sets up mini-cliffhangers and resolutions to keep the narrative and pace flowing – not unlike Season 3 of Outlander, which switched to micro-plot cycles in the wake of the departure of a major character. But where the latter failed to find consistency in what felt like padding, Vikings’ fifth season feels as lean and tightly plotted as ever. That’s down in no small part to the cast, as Alex Høgh Andersen and Johnny Rhys Meyers warm to their contrasting opposites of Ivar and Bishop Heahmund.
The two have been set up since the end of Season 4 as brutal antagonists, and they clash more than ever in this violent central double-bill. We pick up with the siege of York, as the Saxons enter the empty city, only to realise too late that the vikings are hiding in the sewers. Would they really not figure it out sooner? Before you can ponder it, Vikings throws us back into another bloody battle – and, while repeating the same action beats as before might sound daft, it’s the way that the show uses it to drive up the animosity between Ivar and the Bishop that makes it work. Heahmund, here, ends up surrounded, testament less to the Saxon fighting skills and more to the bloodthirsty ruthlessness of Ivar, whose battles go more smoothly than those of the softer-hearted Ragnar ever did.
Ivar, however, keeps Heahmund alive and takes him as the episode’s titular prisoner instead – and it’s here that Season 5 really kicks into gear, as Heahmund is taken by Ivar and Hvitserk to Kattegat. Before then, though, the show makes a stop off at King Harald’s place, and we see the two forge a shaky alliance. The plan? To attack Kattegat together, so they can overthrow Lagertha. Harald wants to be King of Norway. Ivar? He says he just wants revenge on the woman who killed his mother, but you can see the effort it takes to lie flash across his face; he’s manipulative and deceitful, and barely bothers to hide it, as he smiles his way into Harald’s good books.
The contrast with his behaviour when he’s with the Bishop is fascinatingly subtle: it’s when he’s talking to Heahmund that he doesn’t put on a pretence. It’s because he sees the Bishop as a rival worthy of respect, while he looks down on Harald as an inferior. Their dynamic is wonderfully different to that of Ragnar and Athelstan, whose relationship the Bishop and Ivar’s unavoidably recalls; while Ivar’s father was keen to learn more about the Saxon religion and culture, Ivar is solely focused on himself. He wants the Bishop’s respect in the same way that he admires the Bishop, as a warrior, and as a leader. Ivar talks about crucifying him, but he tellingly takes another tact: he threatens Heahmund to die or join the vikings on the battlefields and fight with them. He’ll still be killing heathens, argues Ivar, which shows you just how little he thinks about religion: he just wants a chance to show the Bishop on the battlefield how equal they are in terms of sheer violence.
Heahmund, on the other hand, is conflicted about the whole idea – and Johnny Rhys Meyers brings a nuance to the scenario that could easily be missing with another actor. It’s clear from his relatively silent performance that the Bishop is biding his time, that he’s readying himself for drastic action to come, both physically but also internally, and spiritually. Seeing them alongside each other is a promising, unexpected path for Vikings to take.
The rest of England, perhaps predictably, pales in comparison to the Bishop, as Alfred pledges to try and unite the country, as his father once dreamed. But the show is too busy itself flying to pastures new – notably, to Africa, as Bjorn and Euphemius travel to meet Emir Ziyadat Allah. He, of course, is far more dangerous than they thought – as, too, is Kassia, who so persuaded Euphemius to take them there. One delicious banquet later, and Bjorn and co. realise that what they’ve eating is, in fact, Euphemius himself – a wonderfully macabre twist for a show such as Vikings. It’s that kind of colourful flourish that helps to keep Bjorn’s part of the story interesting: he’s the most directionless character in the series, which doesn’t make for the most compelling viewing. Throw in a sandstorm cliffhanger that just manages to stop them being killed by Emir next, though, and you have a brief diversion that balances out a lack of purpose with a genuine sense of peril. Here’s hoping Hirst can keep that trick up.
Speaking of heading to new territory, Floki returns from Iceland to Kattegat, boasting of his tales of discovery. He begins to recruit new settlers to build a community in this land blessed by the gods – a Valhalla on Earth. But Lagertha rocks up, as she does, and forbids him to take anyone. We all know that he will anyway, and what’s interesting to see here is how both figures deal with the inevitable scenario – watching their actions and reactions highlights just how much these characters have grown since the very first season. Lagertha is strong and authoritative in her own right, but Floki is also now a leader of sorts, a would-be cult figure who is keen to point out that he is not, as she sees him, still just a lying boat builder.
Back in Iceland, with his new, devout followers, Floki finds himself criticised by those who realise that his promised land is not filled with milk and honey, but is harsh and unwelcoming – at least, until they’ve completed several days of hiking. Lagertha, meanwhile, is also faced with criticism from Margrethe, who thinks that she is weaker than ever, unable to stop Floki from doing as he wishes; the fact that Lagertha was right not to want people to go, at a time when she is bracing herself from an attack and needs the manpower, only reinforces the sense of her time potentially coming to pass.
And yet there is hope to be found for her with Astrid. After settling into her role as the queen of King Harald, she betrays her new partner by sending a warning message to Lagertha. She bribes a fisherman to deliver it – a bribe that, somewhat horribly, sees her assaulted by the whole of his crew. It’s a step too far, perhaps, for the show, but it does reveal just how loyal Astrid is to Lagertha, as she’s willing to suffer to make sure that her message gets home. And get home it does, as Lagertha’s fears are confirmed: that Ivar and Harald are preparing to invade, along with Bishop Heahmund. As the various plot strands of Vikings’ fifth season prepare to intersect, the stage looks set for another impressive burst of action; even without Ragnar and Ecbert to chart these waters, Vikings’ pacing has rarely been better.
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.