“Ragnar was wrong. It is always a matter of blood.”
Vikings has always been its best the less it says. “Hell” demonstrates that.
There’s an impressive central battle scene, as Alfred’s forces (under Ubbe’s leadership) hem Harald’s invaders in with rings of fire, flaming catapults, and guile, leaving the Norse to hack futilely at both encroaching flanks. The muddy combat cribs from Kenneth Branagh’s still-stunning Agincourt from his Henry V, with falling horses, swelling music, and crisp editing picking up each of the many name combatants in mid-slash. Even the structure of the battle, with a bloodied and somber Alfred relating the events after the fact is an echo of Branagh’s weary king intoning, incredulously, “That God fought for us.”
There’s yet some wit in the imitation, as Alfred’s tale is finally shown to be his public account of the battle back at his court, his subjects eating up the young king’s slyly slanted story. When, after extolling at length the virtues of the fallen Bishop Heahmund, he tags on a thanks to his Norse warriors, he drops in the untrue announcement that all the Vikings have converted to Christianity, leaving the newly scarred Bjorn to seethe in silence. Just as the murderous and adulterate Heahmund’s inconvenient lapses are whitewashed in Alfred’s canny myth-making, so are those of his Norse allies. Alfred, having survived his first real test as king, knows the value of storytelling.
And, yes, Heahmund is dead, his signature holy warrior swath through the enemies’ horde cut short by a volley of arrows and one final sword thrust. Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Heahmund was always an ill fit on Vikings. Between the actor’s choice to deliver every line in clench-jawed Batman rasp and the dull and unconvincing love story with Lagertha, the warlike man of god was a bore, a high-profile new addition that served mainly to signal the series seemingly irrevocable drift away from the cultural specificity that made it as good as it has been. Still, the bishop makes a good, splashy end, his dying, anguished last breath spent calling out for Lagertha. Earlier, Heahmund had awoken from a dream he called a vision of hell (complete with dog-headed Satan and a maggot-covered baby in a giant egg) to tell Lagertha that he’s decided he must renounce their love. Their exchange is marked by the rote dialogue that’s marked their relationship all along, with the formidable and charismatic Lagertha reduced to pleading, “You can’t do this to me. I thought you loved me!” while Heahmund steres stonily into the middle distance. Meyers is a fine actor, but Heahmund always functioned like a high-priced free agent whose arrival throws the existing team’s chemistry out of whack.
Lagertha is thus freed from a narrative thread that’s sidelined the former queen as a lovestruck nonentity for much of the season. Katheryn Winnick has a fine, wordless moment when, herself wounded in battle, Lagertha watches her lover’s final moments with a stoic heartbreak that speaks more eloquently about her feelings toward this man than any line of dialogue she’s had in his company. That Lagertha disappears from the battlefield after that is like an escape from narrative purgatory—as Ubbe, Bjorn, and Torvi turn over bodies in search of her, Lagertha is simply gone. Some portentous dialogue between Ivar and Freydis back in Kattegat about the coming of the Valkyries hints, perhaps, at the course Lagertha will take, but, for now, she has simply vanished.
The wordless moments work in “Hell.” Alfred, still trying out his imperious king voice in the lead-up to the battle, trailing his opulent cape heedlessly in the mud as he mounts his horse. Bjorn, receiving a near-miss slash down his right eye from the fallen Jarl Olavsonn’s shieldmaiden wife, Gunnhild, pauses momentarily to contemplate, before rejoining the fight. Heahmund’s defeat is assured when he, too, pauses in battle, admiring Lagertha’s warrior’s prowess one last time. Economy of words is a virtue on Vikings, too, as when the exhausted Alfred, slumped in his throne after the battle, admonishes Judith—eager to spill the news about the conspiracy against Alfred—with a decidedly un-regal, “Mother, I am so tired.” Or when Harald, realizing that Ubbe’s attempt at a parley was, instead, a ruse to outflank his troops, tells Jarl Olavsonn simply, “And you must forgive me, because the sons of Ragnar have already made a fool of me.”
Less salubrious are those times in “Hell” where characters are saddled with prosaic exposition. Ivar, canoodling happily with Freydis, unpacks his character arc with the sort of thudding obviousness that removes all trace of ambiguity. (Basically, he’s been angry all his life because he’s crippled, and he wanted his parents to love him. Seriously, that’s Ivar, according to Ivar.) Prepping Alfred before the battle with some more provocatively dangerous blade-training, Ubbe tells the king, “You need to find your courage,” and “You need to believe in yourself.” And, most risibly, Magnus, having thrown in with the now-defeated Harald as they row away from Wessex, smugly proclaims, “Out gods with triumph over the Christian God,” adding, “The name Jesus Christ will be utterly forgotten.” The dispirited Harald chuckles wryly at the brash Magnus’ gloating, but, ending the episode as it does, Magnus’ pronouncement plays like a clumsy punchline.
- Ivar’s rise to godhood now comes complete with a fearsome statue and a pinwheel insignia whose red-and-black motif and hanging banners have a suspiciously Nazi feel to them. Again, season five has not been Vikings at its most subtle.
- Hvitserk plays detective at the Seer’s hut, the fresh head-blood putting a crimp in Ivar’s plan to feign ignorance at the old man’s disappearance. Ivar eventually rails against those responsible for what he concedes is the Seer’s murder, the scene widening until he, ranting, is flanked by those hanging banners while his men chant “Hail, Ivar!” in martial unison. One more time—not subtle.
- There’s a deer in Heahmund’s hell vision representing Christ that appears to Alfred’s forces just before the battle. Alfred helpfully compares the animal to Christ, in case anyone wasn’t getting it.
- Torvi wants Ubbe to wear his arm ring as well as his cross into battle. Ubbe tells her he doesn’t think their gods will protect him if he’s hedging his bets.
- Vikings peppers “Hell” with gore, from a head lolling forlornly on the battlefield, to the traitorous Lord Cyneheard’s tooth being ripped out with pliers and placed center-screen for our enjoyment.
- Cyneheard gives up Aethelred as the leader of the conspiracy against Alfred, as Judith reveals to Alfred after the battle. So, more Wessex intrigue to come there.
- Just to note: The warlike Gunnhild (here taken prisoner after the battle) is played by an actress with the too-perfect-to-be-true name Ragga Ragnars.