Vikings: The Most Terrible Thing (S5, E17)
"They are nice women, really. They just know a lot about hangings!" - No Ship Network
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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, now we know why this episode was titled “The Most Terrible Thing,” and I’m actually still a little shaken as I type this.
Sandi: When I remember to factor in the episode titles as we watch, I play a little game with myself, endeavoring to figure out which moments the title touches. With a title like this one, it's a heavy game to play.
Lissa: We began with an ending—the funeral of Ethelred. The stones had been lifted away from the cathedral floor and Ethelred’s coffin (sans lid, I noted) was being lowered into his grave. Judith and Ethelred’s wife stood by, wearing black lace mantillas over their hair.
Sandi: I actually went and tried to find some information on burial practices for Wessex in the 9th Century. Churchyard burials were not uncommon for the period. There is also archaeological evidence for some burials underneath the floor of the church, which surprised me due to the amount of work that might have entailed. However, by and large, the coffins were covered with some sort of protective slab of stone or wood to preserve the body within. Not sure if such a coffin top was underneath the lovely burial cloth, but it didn't appear so as the body was lowered.
Lissa: It triggered a vague memory for me and so I went back and searched my blog, and lo and behold, we’d talked about lace and mantillas in this show before! The last time we saw one was the episode where Heahmund was introduced, when he seduced the widow.
Sandi: So . . . yay for repeat entries in the Boot Sole File?
Lissa: Alfred has managed to stagger out of bed and he comes into the church to ask who is being buried in such elaborate style. Judith tells him it’s his brother. She says they were having dinner when he suddenly dropped dead for no apparent reason.
Sandi: Could not even believe that Judith opened on that one at that moment. "Let me get my tuppence in right the heck now before anyone else asks questions . . ." I am fairly certain the Sar-Chasm was deep and wide on twitter last night.
Lissa: Floki and Kjetill and Helgi are still traveling through a ferocious storm. They finally arrive at Eyvind’s house. It’s a pathetic structure of woven sticks, more of a lattice bower than a house. Rain pours down inside, unimpeded by the paltry thatching.
Sandi: Key elements in the abode were the uncertain lighting, the shadows, and the ability to film a good, surprisingly vicious scene there. Truly, if the inhabitants were as able as they appeared to be (weren't they said to be faltering terribly?) they should have contrived a better cover over their heads. Cold and wet combined with indifferent nutrition could be fatal and they were from a land that could have told them that.
Lissa: Eyvind welcomes his son with a hug and sobs that they’ve changed. Floki tells them to gather their things so they can all leave and Kjetill turns to him with an odd smile and says that yes, they need to get ready. Someone grabs Floki from behind and holds him with a knife to his throat. Kjetill stabs Eyvind’s wife, whom he calls a murdering witch, and then his other son. He keeps killing until only Eyvind and Helgi are left.
Sandi: I seem to recall us being worried that Helgi would lead the Floki-contingent into treachery last week, when it actually went the other way this week in a total surprise to me. I was all !!!! I know that you, Lissa, saw the end as the Most Terrible Thing, but to me, this was equally so, as it was so unexpected and devastating.
Lissa: Back in Wessex, Widow Ethelfled walks into her bedroom and finds Judith there, wadding up her fine dresses and stuffing them into a trunk. She asks her what she’s doing and Judith tells her she has no place at court now that she’s a widow and she needs to return home to her mother. She’s still young enough to remarry. Ethelfled furiously tells her she hopes she never has another mother-in-law like Judith, who seems not to care about the death of her son at all.
Sandi: This seemed to me to be insultingly abrupt which was, I am sure, intended. Judith wanted no reminders of her murdered son about to instigate further treachery. However, Judith should have been under more self-command. Her actions speak of a guilty conscience, of a child's need to get anything and everything that reminds one of a misdeed out of sight and out of mind. She goes on later to lecture Alfred, but Judith could use a few lectures herself on how to behave like a queen who has no reason not to sleep well at night.
Lissa: Ivar is holding court, and it was one of those beautifully filmed scenes this show doesn’t get enough credit for. The camera panned up and over the heads of the crowd to a curtained stage. The curtains pull back and Ivar sits on his throne beside Fully Fecund Freydis. He tells the people that the rules have to change. His father, Ragnar, entrusted him with this kingdom, so he has a responsibility to run it properly.
Sandi: This seemed to me to be so very, very contrived. I guess it is of a piece with the Playskool Idol and his "well duh!" acceptance of divinity. What is he putting in the water? How much have the natives of Kattegat forgotten about life B.I.—Before Ivar? In times of perilous societal crisis, yes, a strong and fierce leader can grab the dedication or at least obedience of such a huge population but . . . this is a prosperous land. There is conflict, but there is also food. And children. And houses with roofs that don't leak. And so on. It feels inconsistent that there is very little dissent to be heard.
Lissa: That’s why everyone can’t vote. He gives a rousing speech to his people about needing them to fully participate in his new world, and that means ratting out any who have doubts, obviously. While the people cheer, Hvitserk and Thora stand there, staring … appalled.
Sandi: And they should be appalled. What I found shocking was that they were the only ones with that stunned expression on their faces.
Lissa: One of the neat things we’re seeing is Ivar’s emerging stagecraft, and I have to admit, he has a real flair for it. His disability is well-hidden. We know about it, so of course we can see the stiffness in his legs, but he rises from his throne to stand, holding on to a walking stick, but he makes it look like a staff of power instead of a crutch.
Sandi: Oh yeah. And it's been a real journey, getting to this point for him. There is no sense of Insta-Awesome or anything. We've seen each painful step in the process.
Lissa: Back in Wessex, Alfred and Judith have a private moment and he asks her about what happened to his brother. Judith tells him it wasn’t a natural death. She tells him how Aethelred had already betrayed him once and intended to do it again, and so she poisoned him. She killed one son to save another. Alfred loses control and trashes the room. Once he’s worn out, Judith asks him if they can talk now in a tone that sounds like a kindergarten teacher speaking reprovingly to a little boy who just had a tantrum. She tells him he cannot react like an ordinary person, show emotion like an ordinary person, for he is a king now.
Sandi: Granted, it's hard to be Mom and Loyal, Obedient Subject to a reigning king. I get it. Moms throughout history have had to figure out how that plays out for them. I guess, for me? I have never approved of the control that Judith has exerted over the lives of her sons. I've not trusted her for seasons. And I don't trust her here for anything save self-interest. Alfred is her son, Aethelred was Aethelwulf's for all he was born of her body.
Lissa: We all noticed her gown, which was a metallic gray, made with overlapping flaps on the arm, like armor plate. Though they did have cloth-of-silver in the era, it was usually confined to trim pieces because it was so incredibly expensive to make.
Sandi: Wool was the foundation of clothing in the 9th Century in England. Flax provided linen, as well, but wool was the bread and butter of trade. A queen might have finer wear, but the style here was way off base. Women wore layers, layers of under and over gowns, covered to the neck, perhaps even the throat and so on. Form fitting gowns did not happen; the fabric draped over the layers. Expense was seen in embroidery (hundreds of hours of labor) and dyes (expensive minerals and plants) and perhaps gems and jewelry. But then, we've taken issue with the costumes on this show for a couple of seasons or so, now, haven't we? Our Boot Sole File is getting pretty thick!
Lissa: Ivar talks to Freydis about what to do with Hvitserk. Freydis says that the people will always love a merciful god more than a vengeful god, and doesn’t Ivar want to be loved? He says he doesn’t know.
Sandi: "Aren't you a god?" she asks, or something similar. Does Ivar want to be loved or feared? Machiavelli wrote that it is better to be feared than loved. I am thinking Ivar would say much the same.
Lissa: Back in Iceland, Floki is talking to Kjetill as he munches on a suspiciously large leg of fowl over the fire. They’re in Eyvind’s Hut of Starvation and Illness, but suddenly, there’s… turkey?
Sandi: So I checked my reference page for birds native to Iceland and there are some that might have turkey-leg proportions. The Shellduck and many varieties of goose. But if there were so many, how come they didn't have them before and why are Floki's people reduced to rotten fish?
Lissa: Outside, Helgi and Eyvind are tied up in the mud beneath a leaky lean-to, shivering violently in the cold. He tries to tell his father that he’s sorry, but his father simply tells him to stop sniveling, and mutters that they’re only meat. He seems to accept his fate. Helgi is terrified.
Sandi: Well, yeah. I would be, too, if I were him. I didn't catch a mention of anything that sounded like, "Dad, I swear I only brought them to help you!" But I may have missed that. This is the part that had me all gasping, though. NOT what I expected.
Lissa: Floki asks Kjetill if he’ll spare Helgi. Helgi has done nothing wrong. He loved Þórra. Kjetill nods and says if Helgi survives the night, he’ll consider it. Floki tells Kjetill that he’d believed him when he said he wanted to forgive. “You had me believing again.” Hope. Maybe for Floki, its death was the most Terrible Thing of this episode. Kjetill tells him that we are who the gods made us to be.
Sandi: Floki likely saw this as a betrayal, you know? He relied on Kjetill's sense and his right to choose to aid the enemy or whatever, and was I think pleased that "Hope" was the motivator.
He didn't know "Hope" could be defined as "expectation of revenge".
Lissa: Hvitserk wakes in the middle of the night to find Ivar leaning over him. He tells Hvitsy that he’s been thinking about the fact that Hvitsy has nothing to do all day, an empty life, and so he’s going to send him to York. As Hvitsy protests he wants to stay in Kattegat, Ivar asks who his bedmate is. Thora tells him her name and tells Ivar that she and Hvisty are in love. Ivar says that’s good. He’d hate to have to burn her at the stake. Hvitsy pulls a knife on Ivar and says he wouldn’t dare. Ivar says then he’d better go.
Sandi: If I had been in Hvitserk's place? I would have awakened in full-on panic mode. Maybe being Ivar's brother his whole life had enabled him to bypass that. But still, not an easy place to be, with a murdering psychopathic brother threatening to kill his current sweetheart.
Lissa: Outside Eyvind’s hut, Kjetill is singing Rollo’s old war song.
Sandi: It was good to hear the old battle song. Vikings who act like Vikings are why so many of us are fans of the show! That the battle song was sung in a sea-and-sorrow-roughened voice during what was basically an execution rather than a war was . . . a bit out of sync, but it also sounded great with the background of sky and ground.
Lissa: His eyes are wide and fierce as Eyvind is dragged out before him. He approaches, ax in hand. Inside the hut, Helgi pleads with Floki and says he doesn’t want to die. Surely Kjetill knows he did nothing wrong. Floki says he told him so last night. And then Helgi is called outside. Floki watches him go with sad eyes. Kjetill is still singing as he approaches his next victim, blade in hand. Later, we see that he’s mounted their heads on spikes, which sort of loses its intended purpose of a warning when they’re out in the middle of nowhere with no one nearby to warn.
Sandi: Yeah. Old habits? Perhaps Kjetill just needed the monument for his vengeance? Why didn't Floki stop him if he knew Helgi was innocent of wrongdoing? I've said it before, but leadership is not actually Floki's best thing...
Lissa: The scene cuts to York, where King Harald’s men are singing the song as Björn walks down the street. Gunnhild is sparring with some of the men as Harald watches. Björn goes up to stand beside him, and both men watch her as they speak.
Sandi: Gunnhild, here, is very much Old School Shield Maiden as she spars with the men. Fierce, strong, confident and self-aware. I am convinced that she knew exactly what King Harald and Björn were talking about.
Lissa: Björn says he wants to attack Kattegat now. Harald says that’s not a good idea with the storms this time of year. Björn retorts that he knows there will be good sailing because his father, Ragnar, told him in a dream. Harald tells Björn that Ivar had promised him Harald would be the next king of Kattegat after he died. Björn says he’ll follow through on that promise and make Harald his heir. Harald asks how he knows Björn will keep that promise and Björn says he’ll swear it on the life of his intended bride, Gunnhild. He even says Harald could have Gunnhild, too, after he was dead. Which, you know, might not be a wise thing to say to a man known for betraying kings.
Sandi: A dream? Right. I don't remember a dream. (But you know it would have been SO cool to see Travis Fimmel's Ragnar show up in one!) And Harald seems to be ready to go along with Björn, here. Is it for the promise of Gunnhild-to-the-Winnah! Or the mystique surrounding the Sons of Ragnar? Or because Harald is just going on instinct?
Lissa: Later, Gunnhild is brushing her hair… In front of three large glass mirrors.
Sandi: The mirrors that Gunnhild is looking at are straight out of the Boot Sole File. She has three, for starters. One glass mirror would have been a big deal, but there are three and they've been "antiqued". But in truth, glass mirrors with the shiny stuff were crafted with mercury, once upon a time, and they didn't really come into their own until about the year 1500. Reflections were generally seen in polished metal surfaces. Some glass, yes, but the glass was generally convex or concave in nature, and lacked the mirror quality in this episode. They were also often round or roundish if they were glass. Metal reflectors, of course, were formed in all sorts of shapes.
Lissa: Harald walks up behind her and says he thought she was meant to be with him. He said that she’d even said the same thing when she was still married to her previous husband.
Sandi: Yeah . . . Gunnhild keeps her cards close to her vest. You know, if she wore one in this scene. Which she isn't. We'll get to that in a second.
Lissa: She told him that’s not what she said – she said she thought her life was going to change. And it had. She asks him if he still wants to be king of all Norway. He tells her that’s still his ambition. She replies that she’d like to be queen.
Sandi: But she doesn't say that she thinks she could be queen either way, whether Björn or Harald is king. And you know, Harald is not stupid even if he's got a recklessness about his, um, relationships.
Lissa: When Björn comes into the room, she’s wearing this bizarre, off-the-shoulder gown of shiny yellow satin with silver triangles and red circles. I have no idea what the costumers were going for, here.
Sandi: Little Mermaid meets the Renaissance Faire? "I can't even with that."
Lissa: Anyway, she tells Björn what Harald said, that he’s still in love with her and wants to be king of all Norway. Björn says Harald is a man who always seems to need to be in love, but he’d rather have Harald’s heart than his own. He’s not sure if love has ever really touched his heart and he feels very alone. Gunnhild challenges him to tell her he loves her before she allows him to touch her. He tenderly confesses his feelings for her, which she says she will always hold in her heart. They fall back on the bed together.
Sandi: There was a cry of "But what about Porunn!" - you know the woman he loved who bore him a daughter (which he promptly abandoned, which he NEVER had to face up to, which is one of those things that will likely always be an irritant in my fangirl heart, here) and was so grievously injured and — yeah. Sorry, but here I see Björn playing a bit like Harald and being seen as unlucky in love and all that. Right. Still, there were tears in the iron eyes of Ironside and that was nice and the scene was otherwise well written with the drawn out reveal. Worthy of a romance novel, yeah? ;-)
Lissa: In Wessex, Judith is standing in front of her own large mirror. Hers looks more period-appropriate than Gunnhild’s, putting aside the huge size of the thing. It seems to be polished metal, which is more in tune with what they would have had. She’s looking down, palpating her nude breast. A maid comes in and asks her what she’s doing and Judith pulls her clothing into place and says breezily that she’s doing nothing at all.
I wondered if she might have felt a lump.
Sandi: This would be a very likely thing, here. Timely on behalf of the History Channel and Michael Hirst as well.
Lissa: There would have been nothing they could do at the time. In earlier civilizations, such as the Greeks and the Egyptians, their physicians had attempted mastectomies, but such a thing wouldn’t have been done in Wessex where the medical arts were mostly confined to the monasteries. If the lump was external, they might attempt to remove it, but deep tissue surgery was beyond their skill at this point.
Sandi: The book Health, Disease and Healing in Medieval Culture (Campbell, Hall, and Klausner, editors) mentions that internal cancers were basically unmentioned in the medical recipes of the day. Possibly because estimates were that Anglo-Saxon women who survived past eighteen might then only survive into their forties, with a small percentage surviving past age fifty. It is possible that breast cancer played a factor, but there is very little said about it, the book indicates, as it would not have been "a major feature in the population".
Lissa: On a related historical note, my favorite president, John Adams, watched his beloved daughter Nabby go though a mastectomy. It was probably the most horrific thing you can imagine, involving a meat fork and a heated flat iron for cauterization, but the cancer returned and Nabby died in John’s arms on her family farm.
Sandi: Adams is my favorite as well.
Lissa: Hvitserk is shown bidding goodbye to Thora.
Sandi: Yeah, I was all up in the exclamation points about this one.
Lissa: In this, I have to argue against the producers. They should have had a small scene showing Ivar forbidding Hvitsy to take Thora with him as insurance that Hvitsy will remain loyal. Otherwise, his decision to leave Thora with a man who already threatened to burn her alive makes little sense.
Sandi: Right, this was not one of their better decisions, from our perspective. Prove us wrong, History Channel!
Lissa: In Wessex, a soldier rides up, hell-for-leather, and runs into Alfred’s chamber. He tells them a new invasion has been spotted off the coast. Torvi and Ubbe are summoned. They tell Alfred it appears to be a contingent of Danes, perhaps the king whose emissary Ivar was speaking to in the last episode, Olaf the Stout. Ubbe tells Alfred that he needs to put Ubbe in charge of the army. Alfred protests… isn’t he intimidating enough? Torvi puts that idea to bed very fast, showing the spark of steel that makes her such a compelling character… when the show allows her to shine. She says she has a terrible habit of telling the truth, and the truth is that the Danes will not be terrified when they see Alfred at the head of an army. Ubbe says that unless Alfred puts him in charge, there’s no hope.
Sandi: First, major props for the tiny detail of having Ubbe and Torvi refer to the Northmen as Danes. Not "my brother's army" or anything, but Danes. Foreigners. Others. This is a fine move for Ubbe to make (and Torvi to back up!) as they seek to cement their place in this court. Still, Ubbe is clearly Alfred's warrior mentor guy, so he's got something to say and he says it without apology. Torvi doesn't apologize either. Love her character in this new country.
Lissa: Floki returns home to the Iceland village and speaks to Aud. She sobs as he tells her that her father and her brother slaughtered Eyevind’s whole family. Floki admits he regrets having ever brought them here. The gods were never here.
Sandi: This is such a terrible thing, too, as it touches on the title of the episode. Floki and Aud reaching such a nadir in their personal experiences and beliefs. So. Hard.
Lissa: Later, we see her running across the plain toward the waterfall. Floki walks up as she approaches the edge. He calls out to her, but she turns away from him and steps off the edge of the cliff, plunging to her death on the rocks below. Floki screams in anguish and falls to his knees.
Sandi: Her face was . . . wonderfully perfect for her decision. And the backdrop in the scene was so alive. The water's rushing, Aud's youth and crushed ideals, the landscape all around was vibrant and healthy, not the dark, cold, stone-crusted scene of Kjetill's vengeance earlier in the episode.
Lissa: I saw her standing there and I kept saying “No, it won’t… No, she wouldn’t… Not Aud! No!” She was such a strong woman, adamant in her faith, so for me, her loss was The Most Terrible Thing of this episode. It wasn’t only the loss of a great character. The show cut off one of the interesting historical aspects of the story with her death.
Sandi: We have had our issues with the Iceland storyline, for sure. But this episode was really intense, there.
Where will it leave Floki? And how will the History Channel spin his history? The title of the next episode is "Baldur". In Norse mythology, Baldur is favored among all the gods . . . you can look up more about him if you'd like. I am not sure how his role in mythology will play into the story next week.
But I can't wait to find out!
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!
Interested in more about the Sagas? Check out the Saga Thing Podcast!
Heill þú farir, heill þú aftr komir, heill þú á sinnum sér!
Hale go forth, hale return, hale on your ways!
– Vafþrúðnismál 4