Vikings: Baldur (S5, E18)
"They are nice women, really. They just know a lot about hangings!" - No Ship Network
(All images from Vikings are the property of History Channel and are used only to illustrate commentary for their show.)
We are the #ShieldGeeks, out to protect the innocent from anachronisms!
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: The episode opened with a village under a shroud of snow. Inside a busy hall, people are telling stories and drinking around the fire. The door opens and a fur-wrapped figure enters. A man we later learned is called Canute demands to know who has come in, and Hvitserk removes his hood to show a frost-bitten face. He’s trembling badly from the cold as he explains who he is and pleads for hospitality. He asks to see King Olaf. Canute, holding an ax against his chest, says he may, but first he has to strip naked.
Sandi: This was rather abrupt and so, of course, effective. Sometimes, one welcomes a visitor with a horn of mead and a haunch of roast goat; sometimes one demands proof of neutrality, if not outright alliance. Hence the demand for nudity. There was no warning, no time to, er, hide anything, either.
Lissa: In York, King Harald is attending a wedding.
Sandi: Yeah, this was a bit disconcerting. Of course, it was in part a fantasy and in part reality, but the blend was skillfully done.
Lissa: An intricate shield-dance is taking place in the center of the room, shot from above, and it looks like a spinning kaleidoscope. He imagines himself as the groom, lifting Gunnhild and making her swoon.
Sandi: The whole sequence was a bit like a Disney cartoon during what might be termed their "Broadway" numbers, complete with prop-enhanced choreography and pretty, shiny things in the air.
Lissa: She walks by him and he says something about how he thought she wanted to be queen. She says she is a queen… she just never specified which king.
Sandi: Gunnhild keeps her cards close to her vest, even here. She is Viking, and I believe a solid match for Björn, and I respect that, but she's not a terribly compassionate person, as seen in this light.
Lissa: He is obviously a very Unhappy Camper and Gunnhild doesn’t make things any easier by kissing her husband whenever Harald is caught looking in their direction.
Sandi: It certainly doesn't help that Björn is rather full of himself—which I understand—and flaunting his "triumph" over the older man. Harald really is terribly unlucky and unwise in matters of love and all that.
Lissa: Hvitserk walks buck-nekkid through the snow, shivering violently. There was a lot of Twittertalk about the owl.
(Ja, I covered up Hvitserk's tush. Hedwig, up there, approves.)
Lissa: I found a pic of the offended owl on Tumblr. You’re welcome, everyone!
Sandi: Sadly, I must have been typing when the owl was onscreen, as I missed it during the show, but I appreciated that Lissa found an image to show me. The owl appears to have broken the Fourth Wall and is regarding the audience.
Lissa: Canute opens the door of a hut and he walks into a steam-filled room. They have a nifty pulley-system trough over the coals that dumps water. At the other side of the room sits a large man with a round belly, difficult to discern though the thick steam.
Sandi: Because possibly the only thing more intimidating than being made to walk naked in the snow in a strange place is to enter a steam-shrouded sweat lodge to find a stranger. Also, a note on sweat lodges. They were common. But the usual practice was to get hot and steamy BEFORE heading into the snow. Yeah.
Lissa: This is King Olaf. Hvitsy introduces himself. Olaf says he knows who he is, and he’s pleased to have a son of Ragnar Lothbrook there to talk to him.
Sandi: All of which is very polite and diplomatic. However, one cannot take a Viking king's word at face value. Diplomacy is a test of wit and balance.
Lissa: Olaf asks him who Hvitsy thinks he is and Hvitsy says he thinks Olaf is the Buddha.
Sandi: This seemed to come out of left field, for me—rather too contrived, a forced tie-in to a previous episode that didn't have to be there.
Lissa: Olaf laughs, and we see a shot of his round belly as the camera pulls away.
Sandi: I got it, but what was even more interesting was the fact that Olaf did, indeed, laugh. My guess, then, was that he had heard of Buddha and was amused at the comparison. If he hadn't a clue, he might have been more suspicious. A whole "Buddha Who?" conversation did not happen.
Lissa: In Kattegat, Ivar’s Playskool Idol has been damaged, hacked in half with a sword. Ivar rides up on his chariot to stare at it in horror. The sword that did the deed is still protruding from the statue.
Sandi: First thought on this is that Ivar instigated the destruction of the Playskool Idol. I am not an avowed conspiracy theorist as a rule, but this just smells like Vintage Set-Up to me. If someone wanted to destroy an unwelcome idol (among the masses of Kattegat folk that listened to Ivar with wide eyes and shouts of acclaim), using a sword would not have been the way to go about it unless they wanted to be caught.
Lissa: As you noted last night on Twitter, swords were known in this era. They weren’t mass-produced objects, and they were very expensive. Each one was unique. People would see you with it every day and it would become part of your personal identity. Every nick and scratch would have its own story to tell. By leaving the sword stuck in the statue, the person who vandalized it was essentially signing their work.
Sandi: All of which led to me to believe Ivar planned this.
Lissa: His soldiers start roughing people up and dragging them from their homes. Thora, Hvitsy’s girlfriend, is terrified when Ivar sends for her, but he’s outwardly courteous when she arrives. But he asks her why she would do such a thing as destroy his idol. She doesn’t deny it, but then again, denying it would be pointless when he’s already decided she’s guilty.
Sandi: That's the whole thing. Ivar is out to handle suspected malcontents—including his brother. As soon as we saw Hvitserk leave without Thora, we knew she was doomed. Ivar makes a show of questioning her, but there is no actual justice planned, no matter how ardently Thora tries to speak.
Lissa: He lets Thora go, but soldiers dog her steps and she runs out of the town into the forest… where she finds more soldiers herding her family into a small clearing. The soldiers throw that Magic Accelerant Oil Or Whatever It Is onto the people and set them on fire. They bump the burning people with shields to keep them together in a small group. But there are fiery people darting in all directions. Thora has to watch her family burn before she, too, is set alight.
Sandi: The Magic Accelerant Oil of Doom seemed to have a brownish cast to it, so I did wonder if it were a form of highly potent alcohol, not the ubiquitous Greek-ish Fire Stuff that we have seen before. The burning was . . . vivid and made in horrible counterpoint to Hvitserk pleading his case to Olaf.
Hvitz, lad, you shouldn't have left her behind.
Lissa: In Iceland, Floki kneels beside a boat-shaped grave with a mound of stone in the center. It’s the grave of Aud. Kjetill enters the cemetery and Floki says something bitter about how Kjetill didn’t even tend to her burial properly. Kjetill gets in his face to taunt him, to try to get Floki to retaliate. Floki says that the man he once was would have done a series of highly-detailed horrors to Kjetill, his wife, and his son, but he’s no longer that man. Everyone in this cursed settlement has shown him that he can’t change other human beings, but he can change himself.
Sandi: Now this, here, is a major deal for Floki. For anyone, really. A man can really, truly, only be sure of the change he makes in himself. I could, perhaps, have done without Floki's graphic rendition of former possibilities, but the point was amply illustrated thereby.
Lissa: He says Kjetill and the rest of the colonists can do what they want. He’s done with humans.
Sandi: And then he heads off and one is left, for a while, to wonder what he plans on doing, then. Where are the men who came out of nowhere to aid Kjetill in his assassination? Where will Floki go on his own?
Lissa: Back in Olaf’s Steam Hut, Olaf asks Hvitserk if he’s here to help with the invasion of England. Hvitserk says no, he came to ask Olaf to help him attack Kattegat. He ends up getting thumped on the head.
Sandi: Diplomacy is still not Hvitserk's best thing, maybe. Though, being brother to Ivar, he has had a lot of practice. Hvitserk is honest, though, and even in diplomacy, that is respected.
Lissa: We next see Judith sitting in an herb-woman’s house, being smudged as the woman whispers a suggested course of treatment to her. Judith looks like hell, her face pale and drawn.
Sandi: The treatment, as far as we could see, sounded more like psychology and meditation than actual medical treatment, but as we mentioned last week, breast cancer wasn't exactly treatable at this time, even when it was discovered and recognized.
Lissa: As she stands, she hears a noise. The herb-woman tries to draw her away, but Judith investigates. She sees a woman crouched by a wall, muttering to herself and asks, “Lagertha, is that you?”The herb-woman says to ignore her. She’s just a crazy woman found in the woods that the herb-woman is caring for.
Sandi: We never find out exactly what the herbalist knows, but she is clearly trying to protect a vulnerable patient in her care. Even from the queen. Who knows what Judith's reputation is at this juncture?
Lissa: She has Lagertha brought back to the palace. Lagertha is having visions. She first sees a glimpse of Heahmund, dressed in a long, black robe, turning away from her, and then she sees him… Ragnar. But it’s not a vision of comfort. She sees his execution as it really happened. She takes different roles in the scene. First she’s holding the snakes aloft.
Sandi: It was disconcerting to see all of this in her visions, but all over twitter, the fans were happy to see Ragnar. Swoons abounded. Yep, in my living room, too. But I have to say it was good to finally see Lagertha "aged" here. Trauma-white her hair might be, but she was clearly a woman of age, in the vision sequence, and it was about time to see her thus, in my opinion.
Lissa: Then she’s King Aella, demanding that he be delivered from his enemies, and it was oddly disconcerting to hear his voice issue from her lips.
Sandi: It was! But it fit, oddly, with what was happening.
Lissa: She hears Ragnar’s final speech about what awaits him in Valhalla. And then she’s lying beside him in the snake pit and then they’re back in their farmhouse bed together and he’s talking about how she’s given him her heart.
Sandi: I am sure that this whole thing was at least in part to get Lagertha to a place where the past several years were, after a fashion, resolved in terms of Lagertha's mourning for Ragnar. They were separated when he died, but they were also kind of perfect for each other even so, and his loss had to have hit harder than it showed in the series. She lost the Kalfling, Joan Jett, and Heahmund, but they were not Ragnar and she needed to mourn his loss. Even if that meant running into the forest and going a bit mad.
Lissa: They coax her back to reality and Lagertha asks where she is. When Judith speaks to her, Lagertha says, “Ecbert’s villa?” and Judith nods with a smile. “Yes, Ecbert.”
Sandi: That might have stung Judith a bit, but she handled it well. Also, it was a smooth way to bring the show back to the present.
Lissa: A bit later, Lagertha is sitting at the table with Judith and Alfred. He warmly welcomes her as Queen of the Vikings. Lagertha says she’s no longer a queen, and no longer even a shieldmaiden, for she has lost her shield, and has nothing with which to protect herself any longer.
Lissa: Judith takes her into Athelstan’s old study and shows her some of her painting. She talks about the blue pigment, lapis lazuli, the most precious and expensive paint, and that’s why it’s used for painting the robes of the Virgin. She tells Lagertha that she, too, had sons, two of them, but one is dead now, and she was the one who killed him. She is dying. She has a lump in her breast and knows women who have died from this. Elsewith starts crying and says she can’t bear it. Lagertha glances over at her and says, “You’re young. You can bear anything.” She dips her fingers into the precious blue pigment and draws it down over Judith’s face. She says she’s a warrior, too, in her own way.
Sandi: I still think it was lovely. Strong women being strong even in the face of unavoidable adversity. **nods**
Lissa: Hvitserk wakes and he’s still in the sauna. He pants from the heat and winces as Canute throws hot water on him. “This is a ridiculous way to die,” he says, noting how cold it is outside. Canute says he loves irony. He asks Hvitserk if he’s changed his mind or he still wants to attack Kattegat. Hvitsy hasn’t. Canute tells him that he should know better than to put trust in the word of kings before he unties Hvitsy and lets him fall to the floor.
Sandi: Best thing in that scene was Hvitserk's "way to die" complaint. Also, the wise advice not to put his trust in the words of kings. Yeah, we get that a lot in this show, don't we?
Lissa: In Kattegat, Fecund Freydis has gone into labor. She screams in pain and Ivar, seated nearby, covers his ears. Dude is so not ready to be a father! Anyway, the baby emerges, and it’s immediately apparent all isn’t well. The midwives become tense and quiet. Ivar demands to know what the baby is and they tell him it’s a boy. Freydis asks to see her son and coos over the baby, but the midwife says to her that the child will never be able to drink milk. It sounds like the baby was born with a cleft palate, but we never see the baby directly, just the reaction of those who behold him.
Sandi: I said last night that Freydis had undoubtedly been planning what to say under ANY circumstance of the child's birth. Son, daughter, whole, or with some kind of physical anomaly, or possibly even stillborn (because it could happen). She had an answer to all circumstances, practiced to sound impromptu and sincere, so she is all ready to pick the needed one when her baby is born.
Lissa: Ivar demands to see the baby and as soon as he does, his eyes widen and he looks over at Freydis in horror. Freydis calls over that she told him the gods sent deformity to mark those who were divine.
Sandi: She has to say that in light of what she's said to Ivar himself, no?
Lissa: Ivar demands to see the baby and as soon as he does, his eyes widen and he looks over at Freydis in horror. Freydis calls over that she told him the gods sent deformity to mark those who were divine.
Sandi: His expression says it all, really. His shields are up. This is such a difference to every other time we've seen him talking about the baby he's now holding. A softness used to take possession of his eyes. He'd smile. Sometimes, there was genuine depth of emotion. But when he holds his son . . . ? No. All the walls are back and Ivar the Boneless is plotting.
Lissa: They’re [Ubbe and Torvi] rowed across the water to a camp.
Sandi: I'm just grateful they look like Vikings!
Lissa: The soldiers, upon seeing him, begin to pound their shields and chant “Ubbe, Ubbe…” Torvi gives him a little smirk and says “See? You’re famous.” Ubbe’s eyes widen a bit as he nods and shrugs, like, “I guess so. Wow.”
Sandi: That was kinda cute, gotta say. Torvi is a great character. I also really appreciated the Ubbe Chant that sounded when they arrived. Before this, there isn't a sense that he's known outside his immediate sphere.
Lissa: He meets with the Danes and says that he wants to tell them a battle between them isn’t necessary. They can settle here and farm if they lay down their swords. At that point, Torvi takes over and says men tend to rush in and fight when fighting is sometimes not necessary to achieve the goal. The king at the table shoots her down.
Sandi: Leave it to Torvi to meet things head-on. Of course, being the partner of Ubbe Ragnarsson cannot hurt her confidence any. Especially when they were well received. But she is unafraid to speak the truth in the hall of a king, so this is totally in character.
Lissa: One of the kings is named Frodo. Yes, Frodo.
Sandi: Another one is King Angantyr, who is played by Kathryn Winnick's real life brother! (Thanks @DeeDonuts from Project Fandom!)
Lissa: Frodo is utterly uninterested in Ubbe’s proposal. Ubbe challenges him to single combat and Frodo is delighted to accept. A little bit too delighted.
Sandi: One must be a bit suspicious when someone is eager to fight one on one. They will either know of a distinct advantage or have something to prove that might be deleterious to your personal well-being.
Lissa: Floki wanders toward the volcano they saw when they first came to Iceland. He kneels beside a small brook and whispers to the gods that he’s almost lost his faith. He would go into the mouth of Hel itself and walk through the halls of the Dwarves looking for the gods.
King Olaf comes to visit Hvitserk, and he’s wearing a long, red loincloth. He recites a few lines in Sanskrit @smidbeach recognized from The Wasteland by T.S. Eliott.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih
Lissa: According to what I’m reading, the three words in the first line mean giving, compassion, and self-control, Hindu precepts. They were the three things built off of Lord Vishnu’s simple answer when asked for a guide to living, “Da.” The gods, humans, and demons all took different meanings from that one syllable. The gods thought it meant self-control (damyata), the demons compassion (dayadhvam), and the humans thought it meant charity (datta).
Sandi: I didn't get a chance to check the episode again but other sources indicate you got the words right, Lissa. The use of Hindi terms would seem to indicate that Buddhism was not King Olaf's philosophy of choice but rather perhaps Hinduism, which is interesting coming from a man who would in history be known as someone who played a "leading role in the Christianization of Norway".
Lissa: He tells Hvitserk that he will attack Kattegat with him and Hvitserk bursts into tears of gratitude.
Sandi: Yeah. Hvitserk tries, but he isn't good with subtle nuances, is he? Not really.
Lissa: Ivar is outside in the dark, sitting on a snow-covered log. He talks tenderly to the baby in his arms. He says he thought the child would be Baldr, blessed among the gods. He says he knows what it’s like to grow up with a disability and what kind of father would he be if he allowed his child to suffer that way, apparently unaware his own father made the choice not to expose him.
Sandi: Well, Ragnar did take Ivar out to expose him. It was his initial plan. But Ragnar, unlike some psychopaths in charge of Kattegat in later years, did his best to take care of his small children.
Lissa: He tells the baby that every time people looked at him, they would be reminded of Ivar’s disability.
Sandi: So basically, "Whenever they see you, they'll remember I AM A CRIPPLE!" Which is what he says often enough in the series, to be sure. And Ivar is doing his level best to stand tall in front of others. I also think, though, that he is at least in part sincere about not wanting any child of his to have to suffer with the same kind of stigma.
Lissa: He kisses the baby and sniffs back tears. He lays the child down and crawls away. I thought the choice to have him crawling was interesting, because here is Ivar stripped of his stagecraft and artifice. He has no need to pretend mobility. He is as raw and vulnerable as we ever see him. At one point, the child’s cries make him pause to turn back, but he continues on his course, crawling away into the night.
Sandi: I half-expected him to go back and retrieve his son, feeling that he had tried, that he wanted to do the Right Thing, the Strong Thing, but that he wouldn't be able to, in the end, abandon this longed for son to such a fate . . . but no. He kept going.
Lissa: He almost bought into what Freydis was selling…. Such a seductive line of thinking for a boy who’s always felt like he was a reject. But as soon as he saw the baby, all of that crumbled away. He wasn’t divine or blessed, and he didn’t want his child to have to suffer as he had. In his own way, he was trying to be merciful, even though we in the modern era find the idea of exposing an infant reprehensible. He saw a lifetime of anguish ahead for this baby, as opposed to a relatively quick and painless demise.
Sandi: So will he still cling to the divinity he has claimed or will he spurn it and continue on as just a man? I think his pride might require him to believe he is divine—he's invested a lot in that—but that he will turn on those who showed him he was not beyond human pain. And giving up his son? A very human pain.
Lissa: Last night, people were predicting trouble for Freydis, and I concurred.
Sandi: Exactly. (And readers, if you can't see the tweets we post in here on your mobile device, I would ask you to find #ShieldGeeks on twitter. Do a search for the tag!)
Lissa: He’s had a brutal awakening. He built a show for his people and he became enthralled himself by it for a while, but now his illusions have been brutally shattered.
Sandi: I have to confess here that I am very curious as to what will happen to Freydis. Still don't like her.
Lissa: Floki approaches the mountain and spots a cave. Considering what he said to the gods while he was beside the brook, it’s no wonder he’s intrigued and heads toward it.
Sandi: This, of course, is when we are introduced to a cave that might well symbolize the mouth of Hel. Add to that the sudden appearance of bugs (flies? bees?) and we have proof of life in a place that didn't seem to offer any to Floki's flagging faith. He goes to the cave and appears to be stricken with awe . . . but we have no idea why. Yet!
Only two more episode to go in Season Five! I am definitely wondering how this season will close out!
If you’re looking for incisive comments on the show, please check out
@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