Vikings: Hell (S5, E15)
(All images from the Vikings show are the property of History Channel and are used here for illustrative purposes only.)
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Lissa Bryan is a noteworthy author and historian who takes a delight in finding the real truths of history. Check out her website at www.lissabryan.com.
And if you're looking for our recaps on Seasons 1-4, check out my former blog HERE.
Lissa: Okay, I’ve got to get the pun out of my system… it was a Hell of an episode.
Sandi: In more ways than one, as will become apparent.
Lissa: We started with men carrying the Seer’s body from his hut and carting it out into the forest in the middle of the night. They burn him. It’s not the respectful cremation such a venerated man should have, but a furtive disposal to cover up what Ivar has done.
Sandi: Oh yeah, this was nothing more than a garbage burn.
Lissa: Hvitserk visits the Seer’s hut the next day and finds a bloody cloth lying in the bottom of the trench of earth where the Seer used to lay. Hvitserk goes to Ivar, who is laughing with Freydis in the hall, and says the Seer has vanished. Ivar vows he’ll investigate and find out what happened. Hvitserk says darkly that he knows. Ivar’s eyes widen at that and he stares after his brother as he departs, troubled.
Sandi: It is interesting that he is troubled by this brother that he has belittled so often. Brothers know things about each other, and one of the central themes in this entire series has been the relationships between brothers. So this is fitting. It is rare that someone catches Ivar on the back foot.
Lissa: Ivar talks about the Seer’s disappearance to an assembled crowd in the hall and vows that he’ll do all he can to resolve it. But his voice rings oddly false, as if he can’t bring himself to commit fully to the role of “concern.” For a guy whose main currency is duplicity, he’s not really appearing to put much effort into selling this one to his people.
Sandi: He has been all about duplicity, but he's now convinced he's divine, so perhaps he's not investing so much of himself into getting people to believe his veracity as much as he wants them to believe in HIM.
Lissa: Torvi and Ubbe prepare for the battle against Harald’s forces. She’s a Christian now, but she’s dressed fully as a Viking shieldmaiden, her eyes ringed with dark kohl. She tells Ubbe he should wear his torc as well as his cross, gaining protection from the gods of both sides, but Ubbe says the Christian god will not protect him if he’s wearing his armband, so he will go into battle wearing only his cross.
Sandi: Torvi is a strong chick. True to herself and out to help her man as long as he is worthy. I wonder if the matter of faith will be a breaking point for her? She went along with the baptism as a political expediency, but Ubbe seems to be embracing it a bit more fully. Is this because Ubbe feels he should? As it's serving him to be a Christian, here?
I love that the show goes to this kind of place. Historically, many Northmen converted to Christianity; this is reflected in the artifacts that have been found. But history cannot show us the true heart of the people and it is highly likely that there were initially more "conversions" of the sort Ubbe and Torvi are juggling than there were of the True Believer variety.
This doesn't mean a mask of this sort will not eventually fit more comfortably.
Lissa: Heahmund and Lagertha are getting ready too, and he has something he needs to tell her. Last night, he says, the Lord came to him in a dream and showed him a vision of hell. A deer walked through the infernal planes and Heahmund knew the deer was Jesus. He can no longer be Lagertha’s lover. He needs to cleanse himself of sin or he will never see the face of God. Lagertha is angry. She accuses him of never loving her, of loving his god more.
Sandi: Heahmund's conflicts between flesh and faith have been consistently portrayed throughout his time in VIKINGS. He is a man of passions, but also of conscience, I think. Flexible though that conscience might be at any given time. Was his dream a vision or a nightmare? His belief in its divine origin gave it strength, I think, and it prompts his break with Lagertha.
Heahgertha has never been a relationship I understood to be deep and meaningful to be honest, but Lagertha is understandably upset by their breakup. I don't blame her, but I do feel that, as an intelligent woman, she had to have had an idea that it could happen. Unless she felt that her own powers were greater than the faith Heahmund has held his whole life.
Lissa: Ubbe shows Alfred the catapults he’s set up. Alfred is a little worried about the battle plans, which seem very risky for his men, but Ubbe insists that Alfred has to trust him. He tells Alfred he must be brave to be worthy of his crown. As they gather in the courtyard to leave, Alfred mounts his horse and says to Cyneheard (second in command of the attempted assassins) that he’s under arrest. Judith watches as they cart him away, begging and pleading.
Sandi: I confess, I'm a fan of the trebuchet. Not sure if the weapon used in the battle was a catapult or a trebuchet, though they are related.
Ubbe really does a great job, here. He's won the confidence of King Alfred, he's adept at the kind of warfare we see, and he can instill attitude in the younger man at this critical juncture. We jest on twitter about Ubbe's nurturing characteristics (leaving lunch notes, etc.) but here, he really does so effectively. Even if the motivational speech about believing in himself to be worthy to wear the crown didn't ring as cheesy as it could have done. Good writing, good acting, in my opinion. And yeah, I have a bias toward Ubbe. Confession number two.
Alfred pulls on the big king boxers and has Cyneheard arrested in front of everyone. So, the speech must have worked, yeah?
Lissa: We next see Cyneheard in a chamber, tied to a chair. His breath hangs in the cold air, which caught my attention as we watched last night. I love those little historical touches. Even with a fire going, living quarters would have been cold. People kept warm with layers of clothing and blankets in those days, and while the fire certainly would have helped warm the room, it wouldn’t have been as cozy as central heating makes our living spaces today.
Sandi: No indeed. We do love it when they get it right!
Lissa: Judith starts to question him about the conspiracy to topple Alfred and when she doesn’t get the information she’s seeking, she unveils a selection of metal tools she intends to use to torture him. One of them was a pair of Victorian farrier’s pliers called “nippers.” Another seemed to be a small bonesaw.
Sandi: ....yeah. The farrier's nippers are consigned to The Boot Sole File and we'll move on. Really, Judith's torture attitude was marked by boredom, which bothered me. How could inflicting pain in the service of saving her favorite son be boring? I mean . . . maybe it was because she had someone else doing the dirty work? She almost looked like she was ready for a manicure. In blood-red. Because ripping the teeth out of someone's head is not a neat affair.
Kudos to Malcolm Douglas, who plays Cyneheard. His portrayal under torture sounded really authentic. Has he had dental work sans anesthesia, I wonder?
Lissa: Ubbe meets with King Harald and tries to work out a way to pay Harald off instead of having to battle him. He says he’s now a Christian, so he’s trying compromise.
Sandi: What Ubbe's doing here is setting up a trap, of sorts. King Alfred's Viking in terms of history was a seafaring man who took charge of Alfred's first real naval fleet, but here, the role is currently held by Ubbe, son of Ragnar. This is quite a coup for Alfred and a boon for Ubbe as well, it would seem.
Lissa: But Magnus ruins those plans by coming to meet with Harald. He speaks to him in Norse and explains when asked that he practiced the language in secret.
Magnus, having been rejected by his “brothers,” is now eager to join Harald and fight against them. And yep, Ubbe doesn’t show the next morning to talk about a payoff. Harald is enraged because while he’s been considering Ubbe’s proposal, Ubbe moved his army to flank Harald’s. Harald apologizes to his men and tells them that he’s been made a fool of by Ragnar’s sons already.
Sandi: He was not amused.
Lissa: The battle begins, in all its cinematic glory. It’s beautifully shot, and carefully composed. Alfred narrates, his face covered in blood, telling the story of what happened.
Sandi: This was a technique the show has used to good effect in the past. Presenting the sequence of events out of order to add drama and uncertainty. Also, the use of close-ups kept our perspective severely limited while still telling the story in the precise order and manner the show wants to have it told.
Lissa: Harald’s men run up to the battlefield to find it a scorched wasteland. Harald asks why the grass is burnt as a deer wanders across the blackened expanse. Like Harald, Alfred says that he saw the deer as being an embodiment of Jesus.
Sandi: The deer was a sure sign in the episode, of one thing or another. For Heahmund, it was a representation of Christ in his vision/nightmare, as it was for Alfred here on the battlefield. For Harald, it is a cautionary figure, but it might have imparted a false hope.
The burnt grass should have been a warning.
Lissa: Fire blasts across the battlefield as Ubbe’s trebuchet’s hurl balls of flaming pitch… or something. Whatever they’re throwing is explosively combustive. The burnt grass traps Harald’s men in a ring of fire.
As we noted in Season 2, the Vikings didn’t have gunpowder or gasoline. They had oils, but nothing that would create an instant inferno like this.
Sandi: Greek fire, such as we know it, was developed in the 7th Century by the Byzantine Greeks. It was considered a super weapon, especially effective at sea, and its composition was held to be a huge secret - so much so, that no one even today knows exactly how it was made. (Reference: Encyclopædia Britannica online.) So, whereas it was technically possible that the Vikings might have had access to it? It's highly improbable. Generally, oil was used as a flammable liquid, as you referenced above.
Lissa: Heahmund fights his way across the battlefield, but it doesn’t seem like his heart is in it. Maybe it was the dream. Maybe it was his breakup with Lagertha. Whatever it was, it seems to be sapping his skills.
Sandi: He's really having to deal with the notion that he's failed, spiritually, and I imagine that is disheartening. Perhaps his own mortality has never confronted him so directly before. Without arrogance, without a sense of superiority. It was quite odd to see him look thus.
Lissa: He looks over and sees Lagertha fighting and as he watches, an arrow catches him through the gut. As he stares down at it, another strikes him through the shoulder. And then he’s hit by a third. He calls out Lagertha’s name as he falls to his knees and a Viking runs up behind him an stabs him through. He remains on his knees, but he slumps in death. Lagertha sees it and squeezes her eyes shut in agony as she, too, is struck, but her injury is to the leg and doesn’t appear like it would be fatal.
Sandi: This put me in mind of Boromir, in The Lord of the Rings trilogy by Tolkien, because Heahmund kept fighting. One arrow wasn't enough to put him down; it took a few, and even then, he's on his knees. Heroic, to be sure.
Not sure what to make of Lagertha, here. I am still not convinced about the sincerity of the relationship, there. With Ragnar, yes. Lagertha was his other half. With Joan Jett, yes, there was a clear connection (even if the relationship was unequal, I never doubted its sincerity). With the Kalfling? I kind of got it, though I didn't trust it. But with Heahmund? Nope. Still not buying it.
Lissa: The next familiar character who falls is Olavson, the husband of the shieldmaiden who was flirting with Harald last episode.
Sandi: Sigh. That's all I can say for that one. Sigh.
Lissa: Alfred fights in the battle and he’s knocked to his back by a Viking. Aethelred runs up and saves him just in the nick of time.
Sandi: The growth of the man who will one day be Alfred the Great has been nicely portrayed in the show, I think. Alfred didn't spring up as a Wunderkind or even a WunderkiNG. He's a young man who has to learn on his feet, for better or for worse. As you said last night, Lissa, we cannot fault the directing talents in VIKINGS. Always done well.
Lissa: Alfred narrates as Heahumund’s body is laid out on a cart, a flag with a red cross laid over him. Alfred holds Heahmund’s bloody sword aloft and declares it will be buried with him. He says that at one point, it looked as though the heathens would win the day, but then, Alfred’s forces emerged victorious. He’s won his first great battle. Ubbe and Björn search among the bodies, but they don’t find the one they’re looking for. Lagertha is gone, and Björn says he doesn’t think they’re going to find her.
Sandi: The discovery that yes, Heahmund did indeed die (if not fall, precisely, as he was on his knees) in the battle was a surprise, but also not. Because the episode built his character in a manner that seems fitting, closing off the perceived loose ends, helping him to confront his moral ambiguity, and hopefully gaining peace in those quite moments before he flew in to fight like a wild man. He really did find his martial mojo once the battle commenced and he ended well. Requiescet in pace.
Alfred gave a good farewell to Heahmund, here, in contrast to the quick and dirty—and eulogy-free—burial of the Seer (another religious figure) at the beginning of the episode. Nice bookending, there.
And yes, where IS Lagertha? She is one of the main touchstones for the series, for all her part has been reduced this part of Season Five. She won't just fade off screen without a whisper, I'm certain.
Lissa: Back in Kattegat, Ivar is in bed with Freydis.
Sandi: /sarcasm/ Now, there's a surprise. /end sarcasm/ Freydis's influence over this man, for all his claims to her being his light of revelation about his true nature and so on, and the mother of his child (!), is basically about sex. And how she's made him believe he's all that and a tin of lutefisk.
Lissa: He tells her that he loves her, and she says she loves him, too. He says other than his mother, no one has ever loved him. All his life, that’s all he ever wanted – to be loved – jut people only saw him as a cripple. As he speaks, we see scenes outside as his men erect an idol of Ivar standing in his chariot. It’s a bizarre, flat, painted thing that looks like something between a nutcracker and one of those flat painted figures that were popular lawn ornaments in the 1990s.
Sandi: We've got Harald and his "I have rotten luck with women" and Ivar and "no one loves me because they only saw me as a cripple". Really, does Kattegat deserve to be led by men with these kinds of issues? Moving on . . .
Lissa: At the victory feast, Judith approaches Alfred.
Sandi: We had some discussion about Judith's hair and what it might signify. Because Judith has made her hair something of a barometer, after a fashion, so I wondered what was up—or down—with it.
Lissa: She tells him that she got Cyneheard to confess. A tear falls down her cheek as she tells him Aethelred was the leader of the conspiracy. Alfred’s eyes widen in horror, and he looks over at his brother, who nods at him, not knowing he’s just been doomed.
Sandi: If it were me, I'd let his most recent behavior—saving Alfred's life in battle when he COULD have legit let the Northmen kill him and thereby been crowned in his brother's place—speak for Aethelred.
But judging by Judith's expression? She fully expects the Favorite Son to execute the Also Ran.
I can only hope she's wrong. Historically, Alfred becomes king upon the death of his brother Aethelred in battle. Will Hirst cling to the Dead Aethelred part of the story or will he do a bit more rewriting?
I hope we find out next week! Join #ShieldGeeks on twitter, Wednesday night at 9 Eastern.
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Heill þú farir, heill þú aftr komir, heill þú á sinnum sér!
Hale go forth, hale return, hale on your ways!
– Vafþrúðnismál 4