The latest episode of Vikings shows that even in the more civilised parts of this world, subtle politicking can still be overcome by a knife straight through the eye. Alex Braae recaps episode twelve of season five of Vikings.
One of the affectations that Vikings has always relied on a bit too heavily is the use of prancing, Queen’s English accents to signify who in the world is civilised and who in the world is a swaggering brute. And given that the most consequential plotlines of this season are taking place in England, expect to hear a lot of verbal monocles falling into glasses.
It seems somewhat notable that the increasingly astute and accomplished King Alfred doesn’t really talk in an impossibly posh voice – merely a possibly posh voice – and he alone among the English characters seems to have some idea of how to play the game.
The episode opens with Lagertha, Bjorn, Torvi and Ubbe all shackled up in a cage, being paraded through the streets of King Alfred’s capital. Unfortunately for them, it looks like they’ve been played. Lagertha, however, continues to trust her paramour Bishop Heahmund, and believes he really won’t sell them out. And he doesn’t. But the deal Alfred offers them isn’t quite what they expected.
Rather than being given the land they were promised in exchange for some fighting, our Vikings will have to do the fighting as a down payment on land later. Lagertha accepts on their behalf, pissing Bjorn off mightily. It pisses off most of Alfred’s court too, setting up a state of affairs in which the Vikings will probably come to be pawns in the wider battle Alfred will have to fight against the nobility, and the church. Who – let’s not forget here – are plotting to kill him.
Heahmund wants his Bishopric of Sherborne back, to get back to the simple life he once had of praying and killing heathens. But there’s a new guy in the job – a character seemingly so insubstantial that I didn’t even bother noting down his name (it’s Lord Cuthred) – who appears to want to be Bishop for the political power it confers. And that leads to a rather awkward meeting between the two, with the new guy trying to keep in Heahmund’s good books. Cuthred even hints at the plot against Alfred, but the holier man of the two is having none of it.
Also, by now Bishop Heahmund is already breaking his vows of celibacy again with Lagertha, and naturally Cuthred has hired a creepy perv to follow him around. They’re instantly caught in the act (and then again later in the episode for good measure.)
This gives Cuthred important material with which to blackmail Heahmund, but rather than taking it straight to the King, or going public with it, he decided to write a letter, which was a huge mistake. Because we’re not watching a world in which political gamesmanship can carry the day. We’re watching a world in which people with disagreements tend to simply murder each other, which Heahmund closes out the episode by doing exactly that, repeatedly stabbing Cuthred, including once through the eye, inside a church. Call it realpolitik if you like.
Meanwhile, in the other plot-lines, Ivar remains a complete bell-end. What’s more concerning for the subjects of his new Kingdom of Kattegat is that his new wife Freydis is both playing him, and also planting the seed in his head that he is a god. Ivar traditionally hasn’t paid much heed to concepts like diplomacy or rule by consent of the governed, so it’s clear that this is only going to end badly for someone.
Probably Ivar’s brother Hvitserk, who has now been elbowed out of the line of succession by Freydis getting pregnant. The supposed divinity of Ivar is important here, as it’s pointed out during the episode that he really is ‘boneless’ (hur hur hur) and the child isn’t actually biologically his – Freydis uses a random redshirt guard to get pregnant. It’s unlikely to end well for him either.
So with brotherly conflict looming there, it’s also on the way in Britain, where Alfred works on Ubbe by suggesting that he adopt Christianity, to quell some of the court unrest about pagans being allowed to roam freely. The way he does this is masterful, by playing on the loyalty Ubbe has towards his late father Ragnar.
Various suggestions get made on Vikings forums that the four surviving sons of Ragnar are meant to express some facet of his personality, and Ubbe is the closest to the version of Ragnar that was friends with the late King of Wessex Ecbert. So it makes sense that he would be more open to the suggestion of converting, even if (perhaps especially if) it goes against the wishes of Bjorn, who is all in on the old gods. Given the history that is being worked with here, of the slow but fascinating conversion of Scandinavian people to Christianity, this is a story worth following.
Unfortunately, over in Iceland, not a lot of anything is going on. Floki spends the episode asking a waterfall rhetorical questions and having a crisis of confidence, a sad fate for such a wild card of a character. Part of the problem with this setting is that it takes place in complete isolation to the rest of anything going on in the show.
Even back in Kattegat, they’re talking about what’s going on in England. But – perhaps reflecting the actual conditions of voyages of discovery – they’re all on their own. And in a show that has always been really good at weaving different plots together so that events in one will have consequences in another, this all just seems hard to invest in. But perhaps I’m wrong, and later on someone will sail somewhere to do something that matters.
Final quote: Bishop Cuthred – “And then you saw them fornicating?”
Creepy perv guy – “Yes, my lord.” Dramatic pause. “Making the beast with two backs.”
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