“This is the beginning of something new for all of us.”
“What Happens In The Cave” opens in a cave, naturally. Floki strikes sparks, lights a guttering torch, and descends into what he, in his single-minded resolve after the self-destruction of his dream of a pure Norse colony, is convinced is the actual, physical portal to the realm of the gods. Clambering resolutely through tumbles of slaty stone, waxy formations of volcanic rock, and the increasing rumble and spray of the unstable mountain, he leaves no trail, no markers to lead him out again should his single torch die. This is a one way trip, and, for the most faithful and fanatical of the Vikings, its end will literally explode the earth.
Faith is front-and-center throughout, as characters torn between two worlds for different reasons reach out in moments of crisis and claim their gods. Magnus, clinging in sodden panic to Bjorn’s ship as Harald’s fleet founders in a terrible storm, cries out for Jesus. Hvitserk, confronted with a huffing and seemingly indecisive King Olaf, strokes his statuette of the Buddha and talks of fate. Ubbe, locked in a vicious one-on-one fight to the death against the brutish King Frodo (Gavan Ó Connor Duffy) for his father’s legacy (and his own life), prays in the last extremity to Odin. Lagertha, still and pale as a ghost, visits the chapel where Heahmund lies entombed, washes her face at the altar, and then asks her victorious son Ubbe if she can join him and Torvi in the now Viking territory of East Anglia. And, as for Floki, his own desperate, lurching quest for the pure and ultimate truth of his faith in the gods delivers him into the presence, finally, of what looks to the most steadfast Norseman of all, like the ultimate cosmic sick joke.
This season of Vikings has been perhaps necessarily scattered and chaotic. That doesn’t excuse so much as inform the difficulties creator Michael Hirst has had in maintaining narrative thrust, consistent characterization, or our interest (see: Wessex). If faith is a lodestar for these characters, then the legacy of Ragnar Lothbrok is another. Here, Ubbe finally (but for the inevitable sweep of what we know history to be) has secured, once and for all, his father’s dream, and proven himself the heir to his father’s truest self. He must almost die to do it, as befits any son of Ragnar, his battle with the one Danish king unwilling to settle peacefully in England an impressively grueling extended brawl, complete with leg-stabbing, head-butting, slashing, and enough hammer-blows to the head to send most men into the beyond. Jordan Patrick Smith has come into his own of late as Ubbe, here exhibiting flashes of his father’s cunning and wit (his smiling head fake during the fight is pure Ragnar), and, finally, lounging in bed with wife Torvi, basking in the success of the longshot gambit he’s just pulled off. Having Torvi bring him the cross he’s worn since his conversion, Ubbe, his one working eye clear and blue, tells her, “This cross means nothing to me.”
For Ubbe, the cross has become a thing, “a brooch,” as his near-death clarity about what he believes in his heart leaves him as relaxed and confident in himself as a man with multiple, life-threatening injuries can be. Georgia Hirst’s Torvi matches him with an echo of Lagertha, too, curtly dismissing the praying nuns from her husband’s sick room and curling up contentedly with him in bed. For Ubbe, his choice is a culmination of a victorious journey to further—and surpass—his illustrious father’s legacy. (The Danish troops—after Torvi quickly dispatches one of their number seeking to kill the clearly-winning Ubbe—once more chant Ubbe’s name.) He’s not bitter as he tells Torvi about his renunciation of the Christian god, saying plainly, “I wanted what being a Christian could do for me and my people.” A bargain. What he feels now is, to him, simple truth. “How could I fight for a Christ god, some stranger,” he muses, explaining that, when all was on the line, “In my heart, I called for them and they answered me.”
For Lagertha, religious faith has never been the driving force in her life as much as Ragnar Lothbrok. It’s a murky character element that Hirst has never quite clarified, how much the independent, fearsome, ambitious, and courageous Lagertha defines herself in opposition to, or in proximity to, the men in her heart. Here, she once more must bid goodbye to the warlike but stolidly conflicted Heahmund, and we see, in flashback, how instrumental Heahmund’s bloody battlefield death was in her lonesome wilderness breakdown. But then she spots the vision leading her to Ragnar that we saw last week, where the sight of her first—and, c’mon, truest—love completes her journey into temporary madness. Found by the old crone (Sandra Voe) we saw caring for Judith, Lagertha wakes only to see the old woman slicing off her long, white braid, telling Lagertha as she burns it in the fire, “Now you are reborn.” And, indeed, the Lagertha we see in “What Happens In The Cave” floats through the contentious doings around her—poor Judith’s silent death, reunion with Torvi, the decision to leave Wessex—like a figure untethered to the world, her short white hair under her cloak spectral and regal simultaneously. She fingers the scars on her face, ruminates, and chooses. Scooping up a handful of the East Anglian soil, she holds it to her face and breathes it in, thinking of Ragnar Lothbrok. “Ragnar, do you see this?,” Lagertha smiles into her fistful of earth, “Are you watching this? This is our dream.”
Meanwhile, Bjorn’s plan for a surprise attack on Kattegat incurs the furious Harald’s wrath as the remnants of his army washes ashore somewhere Bjorn is almost certain is close to home. Coming to blows in a battle for macho supremacy (complete with tough guys exchanges like: “If you make a deal with Iavr, you will have to kill me.” “I know.”), they’re shoved apart by Gunnhild who, basically, orders them to put their dicks away, at least until their mutual objective is reached. (Both Gunnhild’s dismissive, “Then fight about Kattegat, or whatever you want to fight about,” and the ensuing abashed Bash Brothers forearm bash of truce the two men exchange are genuinely hilarious.)
Finding that their bedraggled forces have landed near where Hvitserk and Olaf’s camp is set up, Bjorn comes to his little brother’s tent with a glower—and then embraces Hvitserk upon hearing of their shared plan to defeat Ivar. Here again, Vikings delivers some much-needed warmth to the incessantly dour season, with Bjorn’s fakeout smile erupting unbidden as he roars, “This is one of the happiest days of my life.” Hvitserk, his newfound (half-understood) faith lending him an air of gravitas he’s never had before, tells big brother Bjorn that he finally knows his purpose. Fate led him through his disloyalty to Ubbe and the humiliations of being slighted by Ivar, only because it’s his fate to kill his tyrannical youngest brother. There’s a smug surety to this Hvitserk, his lifelong muddleheaded also-ran status coalescing around that mysterious little figurine in his pocket. What happens to Hvitserk’s resolve once he learns about Thora’s horrific death at Ivar’s orders remains to be seen in next week’s season finale.
Ivar himself, of course, has faith only in himself, but even that is showing cracks. Confronted by Freydis about their missing newborn, Baldur, Freydis is nearly choked to death as the impotent Ivar seemingly abandons all pretense of believing his wife’s tales of miraculous, godly conception. Appearing before his assembled people in the great hall alongside the silent Freydis, Ivar rants under those suspiciously Nazi-esque banners about how the death of his boy (whose deformity he transforms into perfection) must be accepted as the will of the gods. Spinning the narrative now into a tale of the gods’ will and his own divinity, he whips his people into a slow-burning frenzy with rhetoric about having to shore up Kattegat’s defenses against all the invaders and outsiders coming to destroy their way of life. (He doesn’t start a “Build the wall!” chant, but the wild-eyed zealotry of his subjects “Odin! Ivar!” chant gets Hirst’s message about megalomaniac racist nationalism with sledgehammer clarity.) With Hvitserk, Olaf, Bjorn, and Harald as adversaries, all converging on Kattegat, Ivar’s fate hangs, seemingly, on his ability to maintain others’ faith in his own infallibility. (His very public near-fall as he effortfully walks into the hall on his braces and crutches hints at how that wind is blowing.)
Then there’s Floki. The most zealous, the most purely hostile to outside influences, the aging boatbuilder/madman/prophet yet has pursued his own occasionally bloody course not for power, but for the glory of what he knows in his soul the gods have in store for him. So when, the volcanic mountain quaking around him in deepening booms and cascades of choking dust, he reaches an impossible ray of sunlight through a crack in the cave wall, he spies the end of his quest, it destroys him. An ancient, long-abandoned Christian cross stands, scarred and implacable, in the streaming sunlight. A dented chalice is on the ground at his feet. Floki gasps, then laughs a mad giggle, then weeps, then roars in a towering outrage so mighty that the concurrent eruption of the rumbling volcano above him earns its metaphorical majesty as the manifestation of Floki’s ruptured soul. Whatever happens next will happen with the staunchest defender of the gods shattered and buried under a broken mountain.
- For the second episode in a row nearing season’s end, Vikings appears to relearn that less is more, when it comes to speeches. Ubbe’s decision to leave his adopted faith and king is handled merely with Ubbe’s line to Alfred, “You have proven yourself to be a good and wise king” as he leaves for East Anglia.
- Judith’s death, too, isn’t lingered over. Her breast cancer having attacked her with deadly speed, the sallow Judith expires with just a single, long exhale as Alfred weeps and closes her eyes.
- Lagertha bids her goodbye succinctly, too, telling the son of a queen, “She succeeded in her life’s mission,” and telling Alfred, “You have a duty now to repay her love by becoming a great king.” Lagertha’s thoughts of her own sons and their struggles to live up to her hopes exist only in Katheryn Winnick’s eyes.
- Poor Baldur, it seems, was eaten by foxes.
- Ivar’s despotic reign calls to mind plenty of comparisons, fictional (MacBeth), fictional/actual (Richard III) and actual (you know), so next week’s season finale has its templates for his fate all laid out for him. (Or, in the real-world example, rapidly encroaching fates.)