Spoilers through Season 5 of ‘Vikings’ follow.
Vikings has returned, and with it a sprawling cast of characters and subplots despite the fact that we’ve lost so many, including Ragnar and King Ecbert.
There’s no dancing about the fact of Ragnar’s death. Vikings feels like a much different show now with its central character gone. I very much enjoyed the Season 5 premiere, but I can’t help but miss the characters we’ve spent the past four seasons following.
In a two hour season premiere there’s too much to recap in a review such as this. I’ll try to summarize briefly the three or four main subplots.
In England, we have the sons of Ragnar and their Great Army. We open to the funeral of the second youngest, Sigurd, is being laid to rest. You may recall Ivar the Boneless killing him in a fit of pique last season.
Ivar is a rather terrible person. Unlike his father, who had both dark and light sides, Ivar is almost pure evil. While he can be brilliant like Ragnar, he is never compassionate. And while Ragnar could be selfish, he was always thoughtful. Ivar thinks only of his various lusts and ambitions. Of himself and of the pain he can inflict upon others.
The raid in York, the slaughter at the church in which dozens of innocent worshipers are killed and Ivar pours molten gold into a priest’s mouth—this would not have happened in a raid led by Ragnar or Lagertha. And you can see how badly it sits with the eldest of Auslag’s sons, Ubbe.
War remains on the horizon for the sons of Ragnar and Aslaug as the warrior priest, Bishop Heahmund (played wonderfully by Jonathan Rhys Myers) and the hapless new king Aethelwulf ride to wage war against the pagans.
I really enjoy this new bishop. Heahmund is a devout man, prostrating himself in prayer, devoting himself to the cause of holy war. But he’s also a lady’s man, and even his issuing of the Eucharist to a noble woman comes across as little more than foreplay.
I’m definitely curious where this character goes in the future. A liaison with Judith seems fairly likely given how much more commanding, confident and fierce the bishop is than Ecbert’s son.
We also meet a grown-up Alfred, who is sickly and thin and pale and has visions and seems like anything but the great savior of England he will eventually become.
Meanwhile, both Bjorn and Floki take their leave of Ivar, Ubbe and Hvitserk. Bjorn, who wants nothing to do with the sibling rivalry of his younger half-brothers, is headed back to the Mediterranean. Floki is off on a lonely spiritual sea voyage. After losing himself at sea he comes to a land of striking beauty, strange formations and flowing waterfalls.
A great deal of this is all set-up for things to come later in the season.
Back in Kattegat, Lagertha is still in charge, having successfully fended off the coup last season. At her side are the women of her new viking matriarchy: Torvi, Astrid and Margrethe.
When Harald Finehair returns he’s arrested by Lagertha, who is well aware of his treachery. When he protests, telling her he has no desire to be king of all Norway anymore now that the woman he was seeking to marry is dead, Lagertha leaves him in chains. He proposes an alliance and a marriage, and she seems tempted. Tempted enough, in any case, to have sex with him while he’s tied up. The bondage stuff didn’t end with Count Odo it would seem.
Alas, Lagertha’s guards are not prepared to keep a powerful man like Harald locked up for long and he makes his escape, capturing Astrid on his way out of Kattegat. His plan is to marry her, instead, a proposition that the woman—who we know from her fling with Bjorn is not nearly so loyal to Lagertha as one might hope—seems to actually consider.
Beyond making Lagertha angry and jealous, though, I’m not sure how this benefits Harald in the slightest.
His brother, Hafldan the Black, has gone off with Bjorn, so it could be Harald isn’t thinking very clearly. When he confronts Halfdan about the decision, about his dream of becoming king of Norway, Halfdan replies: “No, it’s your dream. You want to be king of Norway. I don’t have a dream about being the brother of the king of Norway.”
I realize I’ve skimmed over a great deal. Two hours of build-up and setting the stage for the season to come is not something I care to recap in its entirety.
I do think this was a very strong, if somewhat uneventful, season premiere. We’re given the seeds of things to come. Ivar and Ubbe are clearly at odds, with Hvitserk as the wild card. Floki and Bjorn are off on their own crazy adventures. Lagertha retains a tenuous grasp on power in Kattegat. And Harald is off to gather his strength.
Both Ivar and Harald have their sites set upon Lagertha—the former for revenge, the latter for power. But Ivar, at least, will have his hands full in England. Aethelwulf was a poor strategist, but Heahmund strikes me as a more clear and present danger to the vikings’ ambition.
What isn’t here is as glaring as what is, of course. No Ecbert, no Rollo, and most importantly no Ragnar. Ragnar’s absence is nearly as poignant as his presence. Vikings is still a wonderful show, beautifully shot and acted, with fascinating, complex characters and surprising twists and turns. But it’s impossible to ignore the obvious. The show about Ragnar and Aethelstan and Rollo and Floki is gone. Everything has changed, and the great struggle of Vikings in the coming episodes will be to prove that it’s still a show we can care about enough to keep watching.
Granted, Rollo is still a part of this show, though how his role will play out going forward remains a mystery. Lagertha is still a wonderful, powerful character who has come into her own in many ways, both as a leader and as a woman fully in charge of herself, her sexuality and her destiny. But I worry that she won’t make it through the season, that too many enemies descend.
Maybe my biggest gripe is with Ivar. I worry that he’ll become the Ramsay Snow of Vikings, a character so vile and cruel that he almost becomes a caricature. Ragnar was cruel; Ragnar did terrible things; but Ragnar was always a dreamer, an idealist, a man always at odds with the world around him. He struggled endlessly between different parts of himself. Ivar is none of these things, and I worry that as a central character—perhaps the central character going forward—he will be a tough pill to swallow.
All told, I really did enjoy this two-part premiere. There’s something hauntingly beautiful about this show, from its characters to the gorgeous cinematography, that I find captivating in spite of all the changes.
What did you think of the Season 5 premiere?
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