Vikings: The Buddha (S5, E16)
(All images from Vikings are the property of History Channel and are used here for illustrative purposes only.)
We are the #ShieldGeeks, out to protect the innocent from anachronisms!
"They are nice women really. They just know a lot about hangings!" - No Ship Network
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: First let me start off by saying I am so, so sorry about not showing for our Vikings Live-Tweet… I’m still in holidays mode – I forgot what day of the week it is! But luckily, the show re-airs at midnight, so here I am, watching it in my jammies, my cat resting beside me.
Sandi: You are the cat's pajamas! I'm just so pleased you opted to do the midnight showing. :)
Lissa: We started off with Lagertha standing silent and still over the recently-slain Heahmund. She looks up at the battlefield, and then the scene shifts away.
Sandi: This is all we get from her in this episode. She is alive. She is on her feet, one supposes, but we have no other information from this glimpse. It's a natural part in a life's cycle to have a significant person fade from prominence, so this type of thing works for me in the series.
Lissa: Björn rides back to town and insists his mother is still alive.
Sandi: As we got to see. It's a quiet opening, but Björn makes it an urgent one. His wish to find his mother is sincere; they might not have always been in close proximity, but the bond is strong.
Lissa: Alfred announces to his court and the Vikings that the lands Ecbert promised them are now theirs, including the common people living on the land. He asks they treat the people kindly. He swears this time it will be different, and he will use his own bodyguards to protect the Vikings’ right to the land. He puts his royal seal on the contract. Handing it over to Björn, and embraces him as an ally and friend while the court applauds.
Sandi: Unlike Ecbert—the sly dog—Alfred does indeed have the power and ability to legally present the lands to the Northmen. That there will be land and people to live and work on it says a great deal in terms of trust and the wish to co-exist; for Alfred's putting his people into the hands of another. This totally matters, even if those people are little more than chattel.
The signing of this was a shifting of tense perspectives and it reminded me a bit of a President signing a new law into being. People watching, postures tense but expecting. Björn was determined not to be impressed, Ubbe wasn't going to believe it was for real until the paper was signed and everyone agreed it was done, but then, he was on board. Alfred's body language clearly indicated he knew he was under the anachronistic microscope, but he was doing this his way anyway, and the court could say what they liked. He kept his part of the deal. Excellent directing for such a scene.
Lissa: He then turns to his court and says there’s one last bit of business. He tells the guards to arrest the traitors, Cyneheard’s men. Aethelred and his Mrs. are left standing where they were, quite relieved to have escaped justice.
Sandi: They will learn (cue ominous music) that AethelBed will still have to answer to . . . Mum.
Lissa: King Harald returns to York defeated, and his taunted by one of his men. Harald says that the men he lost, including Olavson, are now in Valhalla. The man says why should he care that Olavson is in Valhalla. Harald says he needs to trust his leaders, and the guy says he doesn’t believe in second chances. He shoves Harald calls him a fool. So Harald whips out his sword and slays the guy and his pals. Harald then introduces Magnus to the gaping and horrified crowd. He gives a speech, rousing them to cheers, claiming they will rally and win again.
Sandi: Harald holds his own with clear confidence. He is a KING. And among all those who might claim that title during this juncture of the show, Harald has held the title longest and his feet are firmer under him as he lives and breathes authority. I really felt this was well portrayed in this scene.
Lissa: Björn meets with Gunnhild, who sits on a bed, her hands bound in front of her. He says she killed the great warrior Heahmund. She says she did. Many men were lost. It’s a pity her husband was killed, too. He was a good husband to her. She’s pretty hostile when she finds out Björn’s name and mocks his fame. Björn says he wants to get to know her better. She points out she’s tied up and can’t resist his advances. He says he’ll cut the ropes if she answers a question. He asks her if she saw Lagertha when Heahmund fell – what happened to her? Gunnhild says she saw nothing. Björn sighs and cuts her ropes and tells her she’s a free woman who can now do whatever she likes. So she decks him. When he asks what that was for, she says she was exercising her freedom and dismisses him from her chamber. Björn goes, but he pauses to look over his shoulder in amused disbelief.
Sandi: Now, I wasn't a Gunnhild fan, prior to this scene. She seemed to disregard her marriage in order to test the Waters of Fate with King Harald without committing herself. But here? I thought she was great. Her personal strength and confidence are obvious and that she does her best to deck Björn is a completely perfect moment for me.
Lissa: Björn talks to Ubbe about Lagertha’s disappearance. How is it possible for her just to completely vanish? Ubbe says it’s kind of like Ragnar’s disappearance. It must have been the last comparison Björn would want to hear because Ragnar was gone for a decade or so. Torvi says she knew Lagertha -- she loved and trusted her -- and she wouldn’t have left without a reason. Björn asks what that means, and Torvi says she must have come “to the end of reason.”
Sandi: That is still up for debate. Though the death of Heahmund may have been—odd as it might seem to some of us—the proverbial, critical straw, Lagertha did not look as if she'd lost her reason in the introductory moment of the episode. Instead, I think she has a reason that is all her own and we'll find out what it is when it's time. I just hope it's soon.
Lissa: Alfred tells Judith he intends to forgive Aethelred. Judith says he has to confront his brother before he can do that. “If you won’t talk to him, please give me your permission to do so. I need to know why, so perhaps I can forgive him.” Alfred nods.
Sandi: So, do we call it an Achilles Heel, the fact that neither brother can bring themselves to distrust their own mother? Or to fail to recognize how very conniving she is?
Or are they just unaware that a female can BE this . . . determined and single minded?
Lissa: Cyneheard stands on a scaffold, and the words “Death to the king” gargle out of his bloody mouth. He was hanged, and this was one of those delightful historical details that always thrill my geeky little heart. It was a period-appropriate method. He stood on the back of a cart and at the signal, it was drawn from beneath his feet. They were still using this method in the time of Henry VIII.
Sandi: You're so good. Well, it makes sense that this would be the way it would go. There wasn't as much pre-construction required, nor was there a lot of math. The process was simple and the view . . . might have been an effective deterrent. Maybe.
Lissa: As you noted, it was an awful way to die – slow strangulation instead of a swift and merciful snap of the neck in the “drop method” as was used in the Victorian era. They actually had a mathematical formula calculating rope length and the person’s weight to ensure a neck breakage. It didn’t always work out that way, but that was the intent.
Sandi: I still kind of cringe when I see movies where the drop method is not employed. It's just . . . horrible. Not surprised it was a Tudor thing, too, however.
Lissa: As the camera pulls away, we see Cyneheard’s confederates have already been hanged and lie dead in the mud.
Sandi: A traitor's death was supposed to be a huge deterrent for there was little that caused more concern than a traitor. Only someone who is trusted can truly betray someone else, so the perfidy cuts deep. This is one reason why the executions of traitors are often so very gruesome. I imagine, too, that's a bit of vengeance is responsible for the execution style.
Lissa: In Iceland, Floki’s colonists unveil some rotten fish. Floki gives his little “tetched” giggle that I’ve missed so much and says “Food!”
Sandi: As I poked about Twitter, I found there was a general consensus that it was good to see Floki smile again.
Lissa: They hear a shout outside and Floki goes outside to find Helgi staggering through the driving, icy rain. He has blackened fingers from frostbite. He says his starving family is all sick and he’s pretty sure Eyevind is dying. He begs Floki for mercy. Floki begins to heat an ax. He tells Helgi to think of Thor’s hammer, for strength, and then cuts off one of the blackened digits.
Sandi: So . . . yeah. With the treachery theme still prevalent, I am not terribly convinced that mercy will yield a trustworthy co-existence, to be honest.
I liked the amputation. Every good medieval movie should have at least one frostbite amputation. (We've had tooth-pulling, strangulation hanging, and now amputation in addition to the usual battle and sword fighting stuff. Good season, yeah?)
Lissa: Judith calls Aethelred to come speak to her. He claims to not know why she’s summoned him. Judith says Cyneheard confessed. Aethelred says it’s true. He was angry that he was shoved aside for Alfred, and if he agreed to replace him, the coup would be bloodless. He points out that at the last moment, he refused to put it in motion. He regrets ever listening to them, and he risked his own life in battle to save Alfred.
Sandi: So, this was a bit disappointing. I mean, I wanted to believe that AethelBed got it out of his system before collapsing and not killing his brother. I did. But alas, I was wrong. The man is still harboring totally comprehensible bitterness, even if he says he regrets what happened.
Facial and body cues are, in fact, tells, when one is not an accomplished liar.
Lissa: Hvitserk walks through Kattegat and sees an Asian man sitting by a wall. He picks up an ivory Buddha and asks if it’s a god. The man laughs when he asks who the Buddha is.
Sandi: Here, let me diverge and give credit to Rachel Tsoumbakos, aka @mrszoomby on twitter, who posted on Inquisitr about Buddha's significance for the episode.
Tsoumbakos is an author with a special interest in Vikings as well, and she is a great source of information! She discusses the trade routes of the Vikings and how a statue of Buddha was indeed found in Helgö, Sweden, which undoubtedly inspired Hirst's inclusion of the philosophy into this episode. That Hvitserk is introduced to Buddhism by a random fellow and we get a brief mention of Buddhism. However, there isn't a lot of time to delve in to all the ramifications of the philosophy, so I am thinking that it will not hold a lot of sway, later. Instead, it seems to be a tool Hvitserk uses for his own purposes.
Which could, after all, be a commentary on religion in general. The season does include a conversion to Christianity for pragmatic reasons and indeed, this kind of relationship between professions of belief and expediency is far from uncommon in human history.
Lissa: Ivar is hearing reports in his hall and he tells Hvitsy about the defeat of Harald, assisted by Björn, Ubbe and Lagertha. Hvitsy points out that means Ivar knew he hadn’t sacrificed Lagertha after all. Ivar brushes over that and says it’s time to return to England. He picks up a chess piece and says he’d like to play with Alfred again, but this time on the battlefield.
Sandi: "Yeah, and so? Let's go play with Alfie again!" Right. If Ivar genuinely believes he's being utterly trusted and unquestioned, he will, I sincerely hope, come in for an abrupt awakening. Soon. That Hvitserk is persisting in his mild confrontations gives me hope.
Lissa: Alfred, Ubbe, and Torvi kneel at an altar and are given communion. Alfred instructs Ubbe in how to properly cross himself after receiving the host.
Lissa: It probably wasn’t so much a “bonding rite” as a way of showing the honest intentions of all the parties involved. In some court proceedings, they would have people swear out a statement and then take communion. The thought was that no one would ever dare approach the Body of Christ with an unconfessed lie on their lips. It would instantly damn their souls. So, likely, Alfred was trying to assure his newly-Christian friends that he intended to do right by them, and swearing it on his immortal soul.
Sandi: So not so much a bonding rite as a pledge of mutual support? This might not be a formal bond, but I do think it functions a bit as such, at least in the eyes of the court.
Lissa: Björn rides into a village with Alfred and Gunnhild behind him.
Sandi: I appreciate that Björn, for all his displeasure regarding the new faith his brother Ubbe is espousing, rode in company and acted in a civil, almost coordinated manner with him. I also liked that Ubbe is not taking a back seat—saddle?—to his elder brother. Björn, as the season has progressed, has clearly been "aged". His face and limbs are growing heavier, his aspect is more weighty, and so is his posture. I'm really enjoying the work that goes into all of that.
Lissa: The people run out of their huts crying, “It’s the king!” Alfred says to the Viking contingent that this is the border of their new lands and everything east is theirs. Ubbe picks up a large handful of soil and says “Look at this treasure!” It calls to mind a scene we saw with Lagertha and Ragnar, years ago, when he picked up a handful of rich, black English soil and the farmer in him recognized its fertility.
Sandi: We have, here, Ubbe fulfilling part of Ragnar's dream. A dream for a safe, fertile place for his people to live. To grow food, raise livestock, and be healthy and (hopefully) safe. Björn is also determined to fulfill his father's vision, and he will do so in his own way. The sons are men, now, and though they are the SONS of Ragnar, one should remember that the Seer said that Ragnar's sons would have more renown than Ragnar did himself. There are more of them, for one thing, and they've got strong—if divergent—foci.
Lissa: There’s a beautiful scene of the Northern Lights. Floki says Helgi betrayed the settlement and his dreams, but they are still his family. Ald asks what he’s thinking, and Floki says he’s thinking the settlement is starting to work, but now he wants to bring them back. Helgi promises that Eyevind is filled with remorse. And that Floki promised they would live differently here, that people could change.
Sandi: Still not trusting everyone. Eyvind, in my opinion, has been a pebble in the boot since they landed, if not before. And now that the colony is "working" (eating, having shelter, even if the foot is . . . not so fresh . . . and the shelters are small), is it a good time to bring in divisive elements? This is a leadership issue and as inspirational as Floki can be, leadership is a different quality altogether.
Lissa: Alfred walks with Ubbe and Torvi back into church. Gunnhild and Björn refuse to go inside and walk away. Gunnhild says they worship a false god as they stalk down the hill toward a barn. She asks Björn if he wants to talk. Björn says he’s lost his father and his mother, but now here is his father’s dream. How strange! Gunnhild leans toward him, as if to give him a kiss, but he draws away too quickly and walks to the other side of the room. She follows him to say everything will be all right. Then he kisses her.
Sandi: So. Gunnhild is clearly making her preference known. Sorry, Harald. And I like her, here, as she feels as if she's Björn's equal and does not take any guff from him. But really, Björn? Another love interest? There'll be lots and lots of GRANDsons of Ragnar, yeah?
Lissa: Judith runs outside as soldiers return and says, “It’s the king.” It’s an echo of what the villagers said in the last scene with Alfred, but this isn’t an exclamation of delight.
Sandi: Nope, no Third Grand Royal Entrance for this episode. Instead, we find out that King Alfred-the-not-yet-Great is sick enough to make it necessary to a) Call Mom and b) Call the Heir Apparent.
Because of course AethelBed is the next fellow up, should the worst happen and Hirst kills off Alfred the Great.
Lissa: She gasps. They carry him inside, and Alfred is limp and pale. They lay him on his bed. Judith tells Elsewith that this isn’t the first time Alfred has been struck by this sickness.
Sandi: Alfred might have been struck by sickness before, but he wasn't the king the last time. This is a huge deal, as the life of the king affects so many more people, for so many more reasons, than the life of the son of the king's wife.
Lissa: Elsewith cups her belly and Judith notices. She asks Elsewith if she’s pregnant. Elsewith says she is, and Judith’s eyes shine with excitement.
Lissa: She says she mustn’t lose the baby; it’s the future of England. Aethelred comes to his bedside to take his brother’s hand and says tenderly that Alfred must live for the sake of the country.
Sandi: Now, I don't remember what Judith actually said, but my understanding is that England wasn't really called England as such until King Athelstan did so in the 10th Century. He wrote"I Aethelstan, King of the English..." or something to that effect. (Source.)
Will we also have to deal with the whole "Is this Alfred's baby or Björn's?" question? I am sincerely hoping NOT, but one can never tell, yeah?
Lissa: Hvitsy has taken Buddhism’s principles seriously. He recites them to Thora as they lie in bed. He says he’s going to go talk to the man again to learn more. He starts to make love to her and pauses to turns Buddha around so he can’t see.
Sandi: Not sure HOW to take that. Is he serious or is he messing around?
Lissa: The next day, he’s turning the ivory Buddha in his hands in the hall. Ivar and Ever-Bulging Freydis (or do you prefer Fully Fecund Freydis?) are in the background. Ivar comes over and says the emissary he was speaking to was from another king, and was about joining together and invading England. But he wants to wait until spring until after his divine child has been born. When Hvitsy doesn’t fall to his knees in praise, Ivar tells him cynicism poisons the mind.
Sandi: Again, this is me shaking my head. How far is Ivar's divine identity real and how much is it a head game and how much is he truly expecting to be taken seriously? I get that he wants to be obeyed, but believed? Really?
Lissa: He notes that Hvitsy jumped ship to be with Ivar, but now everything Ivar does displeases him. Hvitsy says there may be no contradiction, that everything may lead to one path and turns the Buddha in his hand. Ivar tells him he’s starting to sound crazy, like Margrethe, and look what happened to her. He gives a mock grimace and sucks in a breath through his teeth as he stands up to leave.
Sandi: There is a sense that Hvitserk is truly getting one over on his brother, here, but I'm not so sure. Time will tell if Hvitserk is truly coming into his own or only finding other ways to, well, lurk about the edges.
Lissa: In their new village, Gunnhild sits down beside Björn. Björn says they need to perform a sacrifice, and the lack of one may be why Lagertha is gone. Gunnhild asks if he thinks the gods are angry and Björn says of course they are, now that Ubbe and Torvi are Christian and have betrayed them. Björn says he doesn’t belong here. He wants to take Kattegat back from Ivar. He says Harald has an army and he’ll convince Harald to attack Kattegat with him. Gunnhild reveals her husband told her that was the original plan; her husband and Harald intended to return and attack Ivar once they’d conquered England.
Sandi: So we have a partnership that, to me, feels totally equal.
Lissa: Floki is speaking to Kjetill about what they should do about Eyvind’s dying family. Kjetill says “I cannot live without hope.” His hope is that people can change in this new world. They decide to try to save Eyevind’s family, and Kjetill swears if necessary, he will carry Eyvind home on his own back. They set off through the driving rain. It’s a dangerous journey and Helgi falls down a small cliff.
Sandi: Couldn't have been helped, I guess, as he did in fact lose a digit due to frostbite. Throws anyone off balance. It's all well and good to hope. It is. But these are people on the edge of their world and hope in such extremes is. . . daunting. Will it be rewarded?
Lissa: Björn tells Ubbe that he needs to retake Kattegat. Ubbe says they need him here. They have to defend Ragnar’s dream of a settlement in England. Björn agrees, but some of them have different ways of defending Ragnar’s dreams. He cannot take the path Ubbe has taken.
Sandi: I like this. They are adults, agreeing to take divergent paths and no one is sniping at anyone else. To their face, anyway. Civility is nice.
Lissa: Björn has a gentle, touching scene with Torvi. He says that she was never angry or spiteful, even when he abandoned her and their children. She says she loves their children and she will always make sure they are them proud of him. He says she was always loyal to his mother and she says simply that she loves Lagertha. He pauses for a moment and says, “Thank you.”
Sandi: This is a sweet farewell, but it is the final one for these two? Torvi has been a rock and I find her very admirable in her relationship varieties with Björn.
Lissa: Judith addresses the court and reassures them that Alfred will recover, though no one really knows the origin of his illness. When the courtiers start to question her, Aethelred steps forward to say Alfred has had these attacks before and has always survived. Though others say they cannot afford a sick king, Aethelred says they need to trust him, that he knows Alfred will be fine. Alfred’s wife notes how popular Aethelred is, how everyone is turning to him and he seems to be encouraging it.
Sandi: Vultures, yeah? But they're worried, too. After all, there are Northmen in the court, now, and their king is ill and they've just fought a battle . . . it is natural for those who are trying to find their feet would look to Aethelred. He's a war leader, everyone had assumed he'd BE king, and he's acting confident in this crisis. So, yes. For a man who would be king, he's doing all the right things.
But. We know differently, yeah? Well, we will!
Lissa: Judith goes over after the court leaves to ask Aethelred what he said to them to reassure them when he should simply be asking them to pray for his brother. Aethelred grabs Judith’s arm roughly and says he’ll say what he likes and she should go make some stinking porridge for his brother.
Sandi: This is where the gloves come off, as it were. Judith really didn't have the authority to get her grown son to address the court a certain way. In this time and in this place, she really assumed far more power than she actually was entitled to wield.
But Aethelred was treating his mother poorly. I kind of think he derived satisfaction from it, too, as he was of course aware of his status as Also Ran. With the Favored Son out of commission, Aethelred got a chance to try things his way.
Lissa: Essentially saying to Judith “Go make me a sandwich,” probably wasn’t the wisest decision Aethelred ever made.
Sandi: Yeah, no. But I am thinking that his fate was decided the moment Judith felt he needed to be addressed privately.
Lissa: Judith goes for a stroll in the woods and picks some mushrooms. I have a feeling they ain’t for porridge. She grinds and distills and boils.
Sandi: She is seen picking 'shrooms, but there are undoubtedly other components to her work. Dried herbal preparations that required the grinding and so on, which would have been measured and perhaps blended with more innocuous substances to disguise their nature.
Lissa: Aethelred is making love to his wife. When they finish, his wife snuggles up to him and says “Poor brother… if he died, would you be king?” He says he would be. She giggles and says in that case, she hopes he dies. Aethelred looks up at the ceiling and smiles slightly.
Sandi: Nice. So, Lord and Lady Ill-Wisher. I had hoped for better from the princess, but I guess getting used to disappointment is a thing.
Lissa: Björn walks to the church where Harald holds court – the same church Ivar used to use for his own throne room. Magnus embraces him enthusiastically. “Brother!”
Sandi: I do not get Magnus's role in this storyline so far. Significant player? Paid spy? Red herring? He seems very comfortable in Harald's hall, and seems almost to be playing host or some sort of factotum when Björn arrives.
Lissa: Harald says he’s happy to see Björn too. Who knows what the gods had in store for us. He is a bit less happy to see Gunnhild at Björn’s side. Later, Harald watches Gunnhild whispering with Björn, his eyes narrowed.
Lissa: Judith has lunch with Aethelred and says he’s not doing well. She made some potions to try to cure him. Aethelred tucks into his meal. She says at least she knows he cares about Alfred. She says it’s just sooo terrible how the nobles conspire once they saw Alfred was sick. They have no charity in their souls.
Sandi: Judith's body language was exquisite and I was only surprised that Aethelred either didn't notice or didn't heed it. She was abrupt, edgy, clearly looking as if on the verge of some sort of rash action . . . though she'd already taken it.
Body language, for me, was one of the highlights of this episode. So many wordless expressions can convey so very much that would be overwrought to express verbally.
Lissa: Aethelred says she must understand their fears, and then doubles over in pain. He gulps down some wine, but it doesn’t help. Judith watches him Purple Wedding-ing in front of her, eyes wide. She stands and turns her back as she tells him she understands, but surely they can see that Alfred is the best for Wessex and England. Aethelred asks her what she’s done, and she turns to him as she says she doesn’t think he ever accepted Alfred as king. Aethelred chokes out, “You poisoned me!” and she starts weeping hard. “What kind of mother are you?” he asks and collapses with a hard thud against the table.
Lissa: Judith sits down with her dead son on the floor and weeps, holding him all Pietà-like in her arms.
Sandi: Judith committed filicide, pure and simple. The crime of a parent who kills their child. She did it deliberately, with planning and the expectation that he would, indeed, die in her presence. She never apologizes, but watches, not letting her gaze falter as her son dies from the poisons that she gave him.
What kind of mother is she? One who is seeking the pre-eminence of her favorite son, just as she always has. As @DeeDonuts said, her time with King Ecbert twisted her mightily.
Next week: The Most Terrible Thing, (S5, E17). Now that right there is quite the ominous title...
If you’re looking for incisive comments on the show, please check out Project Fandom. @DeeDonuts on twitter is the Shield Maiden with the sword, there, and she always has sharp things to say as well as being our go-to gal on deep background. Mwahaha!
Looking for an amazing, insightful podcast on VIKINGS? You have GOT to check out the NoShip Network. They haven't missed an episode yet and always have keen insights!
Heill þú farir, heill þú aftr komir, heill þú á sinnum sér!
Hale go forth, hale return, hale on your ways!
– Vafþrúðnismál 4