If people don’t recognise your power, no worries, you can always just appeal to a higher authority. Alex Braae recaps S05E13 of Vikings.
One of the things that often gets forgotten when looking at media depictions of historical events is the all-encompassing role that religion once played in political and social life. Spiritual power had a very direct and consequential role in shaping the decisions of rulers and common folk alike. The Crusades, for example, could be understood as fundamentally political wars, with kings and princes who signed on declaring their support for the Papacy, and all the benefits that gave them with their country’s powerful clergy. Arguably, there isn’t really a modern day equivalent – perhaps business confidence comes close as a covenant that modern governments aren’t often willing to challenge – but in New Zealand at least, the political power of churches and religion is much diminished.
It’s one of the things that Vikings has always understood really well, and actively played up. Sometimes their use of religion functions as a bit of a deus ex machina – a character declaring that ‘the Gods’ want them to go and raid somewhere, so that’s where the plot will go. But the latest episode has moved a long way beyond that, towards situating religion in a context that really matters for the political motivations of characters. And the title of the episode – A New God – is well chosen, in that it could easily apply to both of the two main storylines of the episode.
We’ll start in Wessex, where the young King Alfred is facing pressure on all fronts, but primarily from the church and his church-supporting nobles. The episode starts with these concerns in extremely sharp focus, with Alfred having to decide what to do with Heahmund who, if you remember from last week, literally stabbed the eye out of his replacement as Bishop. Because Heahmund manages to convince Alfred that there is a plot to overthrow and kill him – and he’s just foiled it by taking out the ringleader – Alfred has almost no choice but to put Heahmund back into the role of Bishop as a reward for his loyalty. The political ramifications of such a decision are immense, and add fuel to the continued plotting of Alfred’s remaining enemies (including quite possibly his brother Aethelred)
Then there’s the conversion of Ubbe and Torvi, which brings together both pagan and Christian political considerations. The nobles are again unhappy with the prospect of two Vikings joining their church, and the way Alfred tries to sell it to them is telling – it’s not in his own name he uses, but God’s name. It doesn’t really help with his popularity, but it does shut down the argument.
Bjorn is none too happy about the conversion, seeing it as a betrayal of their father Ragnar, and not for a second buying the idea that Ragnar’s conversion to Christianity was genuine. But again, Ubbe and Torvi realise the political situation much more clearly than Bjorn does, who seems to be formulating a plan of his own alongside another long-lost son of Ragnar (more on him later). The conversion also leads to the best scene of the season so far, where Ubbe and Torvi discuss the symbolism of their new religion, mostly with arch comments and wry grunts. It’s a brilliant example of how good the performances from the actors in Vikings can be when their scenes are allowed to breathe a little, rather than just jamming as much plot in as possible.
Back in Kattegut, Ivar has a political problem of his own. His brother Hvitserk is being rather more open-minded and outspoken than anyone else would be allowed to get away with, and it’s really starting to undermine the authority of Ivar. So far Ivar’s rule has rested on the fact that he’s an absolutely ruthless monster who kills for fun, and nobody wants to go up against him. But with Hvitserk making pointed remarks like “for good or ill, you’re stuck with me”, Ivar needs a higher source of authority to appeal to.
Fortunately for him, he’s got one, in the form of the whisperings of his new wife Freydis. She’s convinced Ivar that he is, in fact, a god, which as well as being a nice ego boost, makes it a lot easier for him to circumvent norms in his style of governance. To celebrate becoming a god though, Ivar needs to hold a sacrifice of someone important enough for the other gods to accept him. And who better to sacrifice than someone well known like…. oh, how about Hvitserk?
The spectacle of religion also offered rulers of this time a chance to display their authority, and Ivar takes the opportunity to absolutely terrify his subjects with a multi-sensory extravaganza, leading up to the sacrifice. On that point – whoever is about to be offed was wearing a hood, so we don’t know if it is Hvitserk. But we do know that if it is, his threat to Ivar at the start of the episode – that if he were harmed the people would rise up in support of him – is hollow. Because when soldiers are dragging people out of their houses, costumed animal men are screaming at children, and an armed procession is parading through the streets with the King in the middle, you know that there’s no way the people would stand up against it.
Is peace coming to Iceland? It sort of seems like something might be happening in this wasteland of both weather and plot, but then a pregnant woman goes missing and it all seems like it might be at risk again. So who knows, either way they’ll be cold and miserable.
Princess Elsewith (or now Queen I suppose) is going to be a much more interesting character than I feared. Her sharp rejoinders to Alfred on what their marriage would be like shows that she’s probably going to become a player in her own right.
King Harald is off to England to raid Wessex, and entirely unsurprisingly, arrives so alienated from Ivar that he instantly reveals that he plans to overthrown him after getting rich quick. He also fairly easily convinces one of Ivar’s close allies to join him in that effort, showing how little faith Ivar’s subjects have in the longevity of his rule. Live by the sword…
And finally, another son of Ragnar has emerged, and like Bjorn, he really hates the family of King Alfred. Their plotting hasn’t yet got beyond the stage of general airing of grievances, but you just know that something will be brewing, if for no other reason than they need to give Bjorn something to do this season.
Ubbe: “They say our new god died on the cross for our sins.”
Torvi: “What sins?” Touche.
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