Warning: This contain spoilers for the end of Season 5 Part 1. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free review of Vikings Season 5’s opening episodes.
“Our father’s legacy lives through us,” declares Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith), in the final episodes of Vikings Season 5. “Or he doesn’t live at all.” It sounds like a stirring cry of hope, unity and loyalty among a second generation of heroes – but it soon becomes clear that it’s a harbinger of the doom to come, as Ragnar Lothbrok’s legacy devours itself, his once promising realm descending into madness.
Vikings Season 5 has carefully, slowly built up a tale of inheritance, fealty and destiny, not only attempting to continue on in the wake of Ragnar and King Ecbert’s departure, but also making it the explicit focus of the plot. And so, we see Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) on one side of the brewing battle, alongside her son, Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig), hoping to hold onto Kattegat and Ragnar’s dream of a peaceful future – “I would like to go back to being a farmer,” she admits to Bjorn, “living the simple life.”
There is already hint of the discord to come, though, as Ragnar’s sons fail to keep things simple. Ubbe is being coached by Margrethe (Ida Nielsen) to betray Lagertha, waiting for his other brothers to kill Lagertha, in revenge for their mother’s death. Bjorn, meanwhile, ditches Torvo for Princess Snaefrid of the Sami, who arrive on viking shores to ally with Lagertha. And yet, even then, there’s potential for people coming together, as Bjorn prepares to go side-by-side into battle with his and Torvi’s son, Guthrum. “It is a proud day when a father takes his son to his first battle!” with no hint of animosity to Guthrum’s biological dad, Bjorn’s former enermy, Jarl Borg.
On the other side of the battle, however, stands the ringleader of chaos, Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen), alongside Hvitserk (Marco Ilsø) and King Harald (Peter Franzén), readying to invade. With them is Bishop Heahmund (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who speaks with Ivar of chess, the Virgin Mary and of miracles – the two may not match in wit and cunning, but when it comes to battles, a test of ruthless determination and fanatical purpose, they perceive each other as equals. Ivar, naturally, is already stirring disloyalty and backsabbing. “Would you kill Ubbe?” he challenges Hvitserk, with a grin. “If I kill Ubbe, won’t my fame be assured?” comes the reply.
Caught between them all is poor old Astrid (Josefin Asplund), who, after her unnecessary and horrible assault, finds out that she’s pregnant. Harald, who doesn’t know about the abuse, is excited to find out, but, while he tries to keep her at home where both of them can stay home, she goes to the battlefield anyway – and Asplund’s performance continues to shine when it’s allowed to move away from victimhood and show off her strength and unwavering drive, not least her love for Lagertha.
There’s a brief moment where it looks like unity might be on the cards, as Harald hangs with his brother, Halfdan (Jasper Pääkkönen), and Hvitserk and Ubbe reconcile. But as soon as they’ve sat down to negotiate terms of a ceasefire, the whole thing falls apart, first because of Halfdan’s bullish arrogance, then because of Ivar’s unruly cruelty. “Win or lost, you lose,” advises Lagertha, Winnick’s composure and calm demeanour positioning her as the figurehead of maturity and wisdom in a sea of macho idiots. After all, if Ivar succeeds, he will only ever go down in history as the traitor king who slaughtered family. And, if he loses, well, he’ll still be those things, just without the king part. Ivar, of course, can’t break a promises, and Andersen’s equally still (but still far more maniacal) presence is wonderfully magnetic.
And so the battle unfolds – continuing Season 5’s surprisingly effective cycle of conflict and quiet, bloodshed and mopping up. Ivar, though, makes the erratic decision of pulling back a third of his army to the coast to protect their ships, leaving Lagertha’s forces to overrun Hvirtserk’s fighters in the forest, and Harald’s soldiers in the field.
It’s an interesting victory, not only because it puts Ivar on the back foot (his tyrannical leader is fascinating to watch precisely because he’s not in a position of ultimate power), but also because it brings together Lagertha and Bishop Heahmund. And, as you’d expect, sparks fly between Winnick and Meyers, as she saves his life, and they break philosophical bread over Christian concepts of altruistic love (agape) and sexual love (eros). Then they break other things too, as they talk of the flesh, lack of remorse and the desire to sin. Ooo, er.
And yet, even as these two unstoppable people of faith find respect in each other (and in each other’s beds), things are still threatening to fall apart at every step. Ubbe, for example, who regrets marrying Margrethe, soon starts to have an affair with Torvi – because nothing spells brotherly discord quite like everyone going behind each other’s backs. Oh, and the homicidal urges, of course.
No wonder, then, that two of the most intriguing (and often slightly disjointed) characters in the show – Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård) and Alfred (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) – are both dreaming of a new world, one of civility.
Alfred is off in Lindisfarne searching for his father, and both gets blessed by the Pope and visits the church Ragnar once attacked – he’s the kind of new generation hero who’s willing to acknowledge and embrace both parts of her heritage and all sides of history.
Floki, meanwhile, is still leading his followers through the unwelcoming land of their new home, even as they doubt his vision for their blessed settlement there. Floki wants nothing more than a civilisation without rulers and weapons, but the very doubt of his would-be settlers threatens to undermine the whole thing. Floki calls for a temple to be built to honour Thor, while they grumble about not being able to grow crops; the righteous purpose is there, but the trust of others isn’t. After all, with generations of violence behind them all, why believe someone else might try to do things differently?
That changing of the tide echoes again and again through Vikings’ fifth season – and creator Michael Hirst manages to fuse the heavy family melodrama with a dark sting of humour. Look at silly Aethelwulf, for example, who dies not in a cool battle but because he was pricked by a hornet while sleeping. His final command is for his sons to listen their mother, Judith, and like a little Lady Macbeth, Jennie Jacques’ widow relishes the chance to shape things how she sees fits. So when Aethelred, Aethelwulf’s son, turns up on the next-of-kin list, she doesn’t hesitate to tell him to refuse the crown, so Alfred (the son of her beloved Athelstan and champion of Ecbert) can have the throne. Aethelwulf agrees, suggesting that he’s a wiser, gentler soul than his father.
It’s a shame, though, that for every taste of something positive we get, there’s also an aftertaste of nastiness. Floki and his people build their temple to Thor, but within days, it burns and their statue of Thor is damaged. One of his followers blame the whole blaze on Bul, and, within moments, the young man turns up dead.
Both subplots raise relevant themes, but there’s undeniably more impact back in the Lothbrok camp, as in the midst of the battle, we get two bittersweet farewells: Halfdan and Harald have their own time in the spotlight, as Halfdan sees a vision of being in an empty field rather than a skirmish, and Harald ends up killing him – a death that’s accompanied by the promising of seeing him in Valhalla. Astrid, meanwhile, finally gets to reunite with Lagertha, and yet even then, the duo are destined to be torn asunder. She orders Lagertha to kill her, because if not, Harald and his foes will kill Lagertha, and Astrid can’t bear the idea; if you thought Winnick and Meyers was fun to watch, try Winnick and Asplund on for size, as they easily fall back into the chemistry that fuelled their subplots earlier this season. They may be on other sides of the battle, but the love between them is evident to both.
Nonetheless, Lagertha’s side lose, as Ivar and Hvitserk are shored up by reinforcements from the Franks, leaving Bjorn to flee Kattegat. But before pieces can start to be put back together, Margrethe is off behind everyone’s back visiting The Seer. She has one question: can Ubbe be king? No, he informs her, then adds: “Of Kattegat.” He warns her that the mad will inherit the Earth, and as she continues the never-ending cycle of political gamesmanship, selfish career plays and brutal ambition, it’s hard not to agree with The Seer, who, unsurprisingly, sounds bored of constantly being asked whether so-and-so will be the next king.
And so, as Ragnar’s legacy spawns its own downfall, and Floki’s vision of a god-fearing democracy crumbles in flames, what a moving sight it is to see Gustaf Skarsgård’s fool, once a source of comic relief, bring a note of conclusion and resolution to events. He’s still trying to build something, as the boat engineer always has. “We must offer a sacrifice which will mean something,” he declares. “I offer myself.”
It’s a rare moment of selflessness in a season that has become an enjoyably hard-hitting study of the not-so-meek trying to inherit the Earth. The cycle of violence has become repetitive by the time the mid-season finale arrives, but that, perhaps, is partly the point. And it only begs the question, as Episode 10’s cliffhanger shows us Rollo sailing from France back to England: will he be the one to end it all? If there’s one man who keep Ragnar’s legacy alive, surely it’s him? We’ll find out soon enough.
Vikings: Season 5 is available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. Part 2 premieres on Thursday 29th November, with new episodes arriving weekly, within 24 hours of their US broadcast.