So, I've had my numbering off. According to the History Channel, The Plan is episode 4, not 3. So I'll adjust my future numbering accordingly. ;-) All images from the show used in this post are the property of the History Channel and are used here only to illustrate their show.
And now on with the post!
The Shieldmaidens of History—protecting the innocents from anachronisms—welcome you to our ongoing, avid, and sometimes snarky discussions of History Channel's VIKINGS.
As we've done since the very first episode, Lissa Bryan and I swap emailed commentary within twelve hours—!!—and here we are again!
Lissa 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: We opened with Björn’s ships sailing through the Strait of Gibraltar. Björn is napping in the bottom of the boat, not bothering to take in one of the most beautiful sights on earth. He’s woken by Sinric. Björn takes a moment to relish that they’ve come so far and says his father would have loved to see this, and thanks the gods for the opportunity.
Sandi: I have to say that Sinric is certainly a fellow who seems to land on his feet in all circumstances. He's not wearing nearly as much makeup as he did in earlier seasons (but the female characters are sometimes wearing more!) and he's got a haircut, but he's still there, the polyglot factotum, and doing a good job.
Björn, here, displays a sort of negligent confidence as he sleeps in the boat. He missed the sights, yes, but he wakes up ready to be flexible.
Lissa: They discuss the map he found in Ecbert’s Roman library. Sinric tells him that the map was made during the era of the Roman empire and the world is much changed since those days. Rome was Björn’s original goal, but mighty Rome isn’t so mighty anymore. Sindric suggests an alternative and they decide to take the ships to Sicily. Björn is excited by the prospect of what they might encounter.
Sandi: Björn is truly quite flexible in this regard. I admire the fact that he's clung to that map through all that has gone on before.
Lissa: Outside of York Heahmund and Aethelwulf are conferring. They have a large number of their army behind them for some reason that doesn’t exactly make sense, because they have no intention of attacking. (I have this vision of a commander shouting for his men to hurry into their armor and grab their weapons because the king wants to have another conversation.)
Sandi: The army would be a psychological presence, really. One has to figure that there are folks watching them, hostile eyes. The army demonstrates the leaders' strength and purpose.
Lissa: Heahmund says he’s had a vision of the Northmen lying dead in the streets of York. Aethelwulf is a tad dismissive, but Heahmund insists it’s a true vision. They decide to close the roads leading to the city to prevent it from being resupplied. They’re going to starve the Northmen out.
Sandi: Yeah . . . visions that presage one's success with one's own plans . . . not always the most reliable, you know?
Strategically, starving out a city/town like York was not always the easiest thing to do. It takes a while, in many circumstances. Here, though, there has been prior fighting and the leaders had to know that the circumstances were already favorable for them. Well, on the surface, anyway.
Lissa: Ubbe arrives in Kattegat. He’s greeted warmly by Margrethe. Torvi watches them walk past with an expression of sorrow because Björn isn’t with him. In the hall, Margrethe takes a seat beside Ubbe. Lagertha, wearing her hair up in a very bizarre flat-top configuration of braids, announces that he’s always welcome in Kattegat and sidles up to the chair, giving Margrethe a pointed look. Margrethe gets up, but she’s petulant about it. She tugs the chair to the side so Lagertha won’t have to move it to sit down. Lags drops into the chair and has a chat with her stepson.
Sandi: I heard on the No Ship Network podcast last week that a change behind the scenes brought on a more "modern" feel to the female characters' appearances of late. Something about how they are presented for their images onscreen and how it affects their careers? Anyway, I am not a fan of the hair, here, though it is striking.
Lissa: Ubbe says, a bit of desolation in his eyes, that he’s now at war with Ivar. He swears an alliance with Lagertha. If she will help him fight Ivar, he will help her fight Harald.
Sandi: The idea of Ubbe and Lagertha allying with one another strikes me kind of oddly. She killed his mother. In front of witnesses. And no one, really, did anything about it. Ubbe knows this. Lagertha knows this. Everyone does. Still, here they are, with a wary sort of camaraderie? Not sure how this will play out.
Lissa: Later, Lagertha goes to visit the Seer, whom we haven’t seen in quite some time (tee hee.) She wants to know if she will ever see her son again, and the Seer says she will, but it will be under terrible circumstances. Lagertha tries to find out what will happen that’s so awful, but the Seer won’t tell her. He says that all of the repercussions of Ragnar’s death have not yet played out, but that is all he will say. He says she would just use the information to try to avoid her fate, and that’s impossible.
Sandi: I can't help but wonder, here, if the Seer's evading tactics are to enable the writer(s) to have wiggle room for future seasons. After all, our characters really aren't getting any younger, despite appearances, but they remain highly popular.
I remain morbidly interested in who kills Lagertha... Yep.
Lissa: Later, Ubbe is in bed with Margrethe and says he will never share her with his brothers again, for they are now his enemies.
Sandi: Though I do not trust Margrethe as far as I can throw her, I am relieved she isn't a community partner any longer. I do like Ubbe, though, and wish all good things for him and hope she either reforms her inner chick or that he finds someone else who will adore him, not just his role in society.
Lissa: She condemns Hvitserk as a traitor – Ivar, too. Margrethe urges Ubbe to take his rightful place as the leader of Kattegat. Lagertha is weakening, she says. Ubbe looks thoughtful, but says nothing.
Sandi: Maybe he's getting a clue? Okay, maybe not. That GIF up there is rather, er, persuasive, no? I really don't like Margrethe and can't see that changing any time soon.
Lissa: In the forests around York, a hunting team is out collecting food. They’ve used jaw traps to catch rabbits. We discussed traps a few years back, during the time of Björn’s “vision quest.” Here’s a snip of our discussion from my blog.
Sandi: While torsion traps have been around for millennia, they were still made of wood with tight sinew or, later, other tension creators in order to function.
Lissa: Anyway, the Northmen have a bountiful catch of woodland critters piled up in their wagon and they seem to be about to return when they become the prey. Each of them is taken down in moments by an arrow. Aethelwulf’s men make short work of them.
Sandi: That was really a big haul, there. They were trying to depopulate the forest of its edible inhabitants and they did a decent job, I think.
But, as you said, they are taken down in their turn. Thus is the circle of life maintained. Here, it is more a circle of death.
Lissa: Inside the York cathedral, which has now become Ivar’s headquarters, Hvitserk tells Ivar that the hunting team never returned. Ivar ignores him and Hvitserk repeats it even more loudly. Ivar shouts that he knows. Hvitserk replies that they’re running short on food and wants to know what Ivar intends to do. Ivar indicates he has a plan, but doesn’t intend to share it with his brother.
Sandi: Ivar doesn't put much value on the life of the individual, with few exceptions. That the hunters were prey in their turn evidently concerns him not at all. Instead, he rather expected their demise, or he wanted to appear as if he had. His plan (see the episode title?) is intact. Or flexible. Or both.
Lissa: Hvitserk confesses he left Ubbe’s ship because he felt like Ubbe thought of him as his obedient little dog, but Hvitserk isn’t anyone’s dog. After this unburdening of soul, Ivar pauses for a moment, and then barks. The whole room explodes into laughter as Hvitserk steams under the humiliation.
Sandi: Though these Northmen aren't Christians by any means, they seem to prove the truth of a proverb:
As a dog returns to his own vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness.
(Proverbs 26:11, HCSB)
Hvitserk has rarely seemed to have had a distinct personality amongst his brethren, but here he is caninized (yep, did that injustice to wordsmithing on purpose) as the dog of the group. Kicked puppy? Something. He can't seem to see what has been before him since way before Ivar killed their brother Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.
Lissa: Back in Kattegat, Margrethe is talking to Torvi. They’re in front of an odd, elevated fireplace.
Sandi: This show can be phenomenal in capturing the realities of life in the 9th Century. The growing community of Kattegat is itself a prime example of all an important town should be for the time and place. Then, the People in Charge of Scenery or something go for drama. And that fireplace was certainly dramatic! Also, a few centuries before its time.
Lissa: Margrethe tries to reassure Torvi that Björn will return. Torvi is also worried about Ubbe’s return since Björn should be ruling Kattegat when she is gone. Margrethe says she thinks Lagertha is losing the favor of the gods. Lagertha overhears her and strides into the room. She tells Margethe that she could kill her for her talk of betrayal, but she’s sick of betrayal.
Sandi: Really so very pleased that Lagertha caught Margrethe red-tongued, as it were. Margrethe has, since the beginning of her relationships with the Ragnarssons, been calculating and conniving. She wants to be a leader, but she doesn't have the requisite character, in my opinion. Now, that is quite clear. But will Ubbe be told of her, now that he and Lagertha are allied?
Lissa: Every man in her life has betrayed her, and now the women are doing the same thing. Margrethe was a slave girl not long ago and had to follow Lagertha, but now she’s a free woman and Lagertha wants her to follow out of love. Margrethe flees in tears.
Sandi: I do hope we get to see the consequences of this!
Lissa: In York, Judith’s cousin Mannel has arrived to assist in the fight. He’s tickled pink to be fighting for Aethelwulf and Heahmund and praises them until Judith says he needs to stop or he’ll make them vain. Heahmund seizes the chance for a small sermon on vanity. All is vanity, yet here they are, fighting in a war.
Sandi: Many kudos to @DeeDonuts at Project Fandom for ferreting out the name of this character. Her keen IMDb skills are an excellent example of Google-Fu.
Judith is SO flirting here, and she really should stop. Courtly love wasn't a happening thing for at least another two hundred years.
Lissa: Later, they gather on the hilltop overlooking the city (again surrounded by troops. What, did they bring them for decoration?) Aethelwulf wants to attack now, because it seems the city has been weakened by starvation and sickness. Heahmund insists they wait longer. His visions have shown him that the city will be full of the dead if they just show some patience.
Sandi: This part seems to be a replay of earlier, similar circumstances. Haven't we done this already? But, there is a bit of a twist...
Lissa: Aethelwulf has a bit of a royal hissy fit. He shouts that Heahmund thinks he is leading this army. “How you put yourself before me, even though I am your king under god.” Heahmund quickly kneels before the king and tells him to do with him as he wishes, and Aethelwulf calms himself.
Sandi: As @SagaThingPod on twitter pointed out, the bishop quite overstepped, here.
Aethelwulf has, I think, always shown himself to be sincere in his faith. Not that he hasn't lapsed, but his convictions are true. Heahmund, after his own fashion, is another such. I really think he sort of got carried away, here.
Lissa: Björn and his crew are sticking to the ruse that they’re traders. They stride into the city, encountering a local ruler named Euphemius. The trader ruse doesn’t last long before the swords come out and it’s a Mexican stand-off, Viking-style.
Sandi: We had a lot of snarky fun with the whole "We're traders!" idea on twitter. The appearance and behavior of a trader were well known to all those with whom they dealt, in this era. Anyone posing as such would have to be convincing. I mentioned that I had a similar situation arise in my book Éire's Viking, in which my Northmen didn't want to seem threatening to the folks of Éire, so they posed as shepherds. They had to hide all the signs of "foreign Northmen" from view and walk about with a small herd of sheep.
Takes work to fake it. Ask anyone in the business of gathering intelligence.
Lissa: Euphemius breaks the tension by bursting into laughter.
Sandi: Euphemius means "well-spoken" or "of good repute". I couldn't help but wonder, when we saw him, if his name had been chosen by Michael Hirst for its meaning or its sound or if Euphemius has an anchor to the historical time and place in our story.
So, I looked him up. There was indeed a Euphemius of Sicily in the 9th Century, as it happens, and the commanded does indeed force a nun to marry him - which really wasn't done, in their world. (Ref: history files.co.uk)
More on that in half a mo'...
Lissa: Euphemius invites the Northmen to dine. While they’re munching, Euphemius tells them they’re not the first Northmen to come this way. Another ruler has some for his bodyguards and Euphemius would like to ask them to become his. Björn agrees readily. Euphemius gives Björn a kiss on the cheek and gets some epic side-eye as a result.
Sandi: Euphemius certainly seems all that a host should be, until he wants the Northmen to act on his behalf. Didn't work well a decade or so ago with the men of Wessex, and it's not likely to work here. Oh, Björn might say he agrees—he and his people might be granted a bit more autonomy if he does—but we know better than to trust this, right? Don't we?
Lissa: A beautiful woman sings for them, and they’re told that she is a nun – a very famous one who writes her own praise music.
Sandi: She looked kind of amazing, in this scene. Aloof, strong, but she also appeared a bit preoccupied. I guess if she was dealing with Euphemius's proposal in the back of her mind, that might contribute.
Lissa: Halfdan is very taken by the Singing Nun. They learn she was kidnapped by Euphemius. He was given a death sentence by the emperor for the crime. Björn finds out that Euphemius is beholden to a more powerful leader, and Björn wants to meet him.
Sandi: So that bodyguard thing? Riiiiight... The site I referenced above said that Euphemius was threatened with having his nose cut off as justice/retribution for making a nun marry him. Also unpleasant, but not universally fatal. Still, in history, he fought back.
Björn seeks the highest ground—person of influence—here as a means for not only good information but also, I think, for power. He has goals and ambitions and is willing to travel far and be less than conventional as he achieves them.
I believe, though, that he will always be a Viking, no matter what circumstances surround him.
Lissa: In York, Hvitserk goes up to the parapet and pauses in reflection.
Sandi: One could only hope, here, that Hvitserk was finally finding his clue.
Lissa: He sends up a prayer to Odin. Did he do the right thing by staying with Ivar? He begs the god to send him a sign … and is nearly impaled by an arrow which slams into the shield behind him. Apparently, the army standing behind Heahmund and Aethelwulf wasn’t merely decorative after all.
Sandi: And we're back to the Army of Purpose. So, they were doing more than making a point. Apparently, they made several.
But was one of them from Odin in answer to Hvitserk? And wouldn't Aethelwulf freak out if his arrows were thus interpreted?
Lissa: Sinric has arranged the meeting between Björn and the emir to whom Euphemius owes allegiance, but Sinric is acting really squirrelly, so squirrelly that Björn and Halfdan put a sword to his throat to ask if he’s a spy. Sinric assures them he isn’t. He’s trying to arrange the meeting. He thinks he has it arranged when a strange interaction with Euphemius and the Singing Nun seems to throw everything off course. She says to Euphemius that he must take her where he promised or she’ll leave him, and he says he will. Hearing the interaction but not knowing what’s going on, Björn asks if the meeting is off, and if it was because of something the woman said. Sinric says softly, “Yes, because of something she said.” Halfdan stares longingly as the Singing Nun sails off on a barge with Euphemius.
Sandi: Well, Sinric is squirrelly. I don't believe he's a spy, per se but I do think he's capable of turning his coat if he felt it was worth his time and he'd be safe doing so.
Hmmm...what does the interaction between the Singing Nun (can we call her Sally or would that be wrong?) leaves me very curious. I hope this is a mystery we hear the end of and that these two didn't just go sailing off into the sunset without further elucidation.
Lissa: Back in York, it’s revealed that Ivar is fooling the Saxons into thinking there’s starvation and death in the city by burning meat in braziers. Ivar and Hvitserk walk down an alley, Ivar leaning on his cane and braces.
Sandi: It is far easier, I'm sure, for him to assume command and enforce His Plan if he's on his feet rather than dragging himself around of using a wagon. Good move of his as well as the producers of the show.
Lissa: He’s getting around in them really well. I imagine that for him, it’s incredibly painful, but he doesn’t show it.
Sandi: Well, I might not go THAT far... But... he certainly does command respect. Even more from his men that were all too familiar with his earlier, ground-level approach.
Lissa: Hvitserk asks to know what Ivar is planning, but Ivar won’t tell him. Which struck me as a little reckless, considering a plan is only as good as its weakest link, and Hvitserk clearly has no idea what is going on. Ivar will only say that he once learned that the Romans were very clever, and that’s the basis of his plan. Hvitserk will find out in due time.
Sandi: And whereas I believe Ivar does indeed have a plan, his refusal to discuss it leads me to believe it either a) isn't as solid as he pretends or b) he wants to appear as if he is all-knowing and so on with the clarity of hindsight. "Oh, thaaaat. I knew that would happen. Which is why My Plan worked." Everyone says he's a great tactician, he certainly is ruthless, but that doesn't mean he's got every detail worked out in advance. Some of it has to be luck.
A good plan, one can learn, rarely survives contact with the enemy.
Lissa: In Iceland, Floki is sitting on a ridge, praying aloud. He says to the Allfather that he now knows what his purpose is. His face is alight with it, and he looks better than we’ve seen him in… episodes? Years? Excitement is a good look for him, in any case.
Sandi: The Floki journey is epic, really, and there's been no audience but us to watch it unfold. He left a man who felt he had no one. Who was throwing himself into the arms of his gods and, though he had a hope perhaps in mind, he was content to row his tiny boat with only the company of a raven. He nearly died. But. He had either an epiphany or some other heart-changing experience and now he's ready to return.
Floki is, in many ways, someone others will follow.
Lissa: He says that he’s realized what a waste it is for him to be the only human on the gods’ land. He’s going back to get more people, true believers like himself, and they can keep out strangers to make sure it stays a place of only those with faith.
Sandi: You know, Lissa, he'd be appalled at your metaphor...
Lissa: Astrid walks out to meet King Harald at the shore. He says he hasn’t seen her in days; she’s been avoiding him. Astrid says she’s come to a decision. She cannot fight fate. She will marry him.
Sandi: There is a lot of subtext happening during this short discussion. Harald's awareness that he isn't in possession of all the facts but his willingness to move forward even so . . . he's brave, here. Willing to face much to gain what he hopes for in his ambitions for himself and his people. Astrid and her evasions and the narrowing of her gaze on occasion. Is she thinking she'll supplant Lagertha or come to a more equal alliance with her?
Lissa: They wed – honest to God – inside a giant whale skeleton. (“Where did you get married, grandma?” “Inside a whale, darling.”) Out of all the bridal bowers I’ve seen, this one takes the cake. Astrid comes to her wedding dressed in what can most charitably be called a sparkly prom dress. (Oh, how I long for the days of authentically woven textiles!)
Sandi: Well, it was certainly a memorable event. And I lament the authentic textiles and epic embroidery as well. (Sigh. Please, History Channel, bring them back!)
Lissa: A blue-painted acolyte assists a priestess as they say their vows. Astrid is asked by the priestess to think carefully before she answers whether she’ll take Harald for her husband and she has a vision of herself in Lagertha’s bed. But she says she will.
Reader, she married him.
Sandi: She gives her promises with full knowledge of what is required of her, but does she intend to fulfill her role in all ways or only in her own? We won't know for a while, I'm fairly certain.
Lissa: Aethelwulf and Heahmund get word that the Northmen have abandoned York. The king, Heahmnund and his men enter York and find it in shambles inside. Broken carts lay overturned in the road and the buildings are empty.
Sandi: "It's a TRAP!" Lissa, we need to make a new file for these things.
Lissa: They make it to the cathedral and Heahmund throws open the doors, apparently expecting the Northmen might be hiding inside, waiting to attack. But all they find are a pair of surprised horses. At the horses’ feet are a dozen or so rats.
Heahmund says in dire tones, “Why are the rats above ground?”
Sandi: And we should cue the ominous music. Because rats are most comfortable under the ground where they can hide. It is their nature when in the midst of a human habitation. They come up for a gluttonous experience (which was likely, here) and/or because their own tunnels are uninhabitable.
The question Heahmund should have asked is, "What is underground now that the rats are up here?"
I am guessing we'll find out next week!
If you’re looking for incisive comments, please check out ProjectFandom. @DeeDonuts on twitter is the Shield Maiden with the sword, there, and she always has sharp things to say!
Heill þú farir, heill þú aftr komir, heill þú á sinnum sér!
Hale go forth, hale return, hale on your ways!
– Vafþrúðnismál 4