This week on Vikings, Ivar sets a trap, Ubbe makes a bad decision, Hvitserk chooses a side and the battle of York doesn’t quite go to plan for Æthelwulf and Heahmund. This was a fun and gruesome episode featuring more action than we’ve seen in premiere episodes. It was a nice change of pace. Vikings likes to have its character stare off introspectively or talk about their ambitious so when a large chunk of time is devoted a battle you know it’s a big deal. And the battle of York was very important as it was the Great Heathen Army’s first defence against a Saxon attack (previously the Vikings had been the aggressors) and an opportunity for numerous characters to prove themselves.
Pre-battle the Saxon forces are informed that the Vikings still haven’t rebuilt the old Roman walls around York, and decide to move forward on using this as a means of attack. The over-reliance on the walls as a weakness seemed sure to backfire though and it had been constantly mentioned over the past few episodes by Heahmund and not at all by Ivar or the others. That, along with the decision to wait rather than immediately take advantage, left viewers expecting that the Ivar knew about the walls and was planning a trap.
What wasn’t quite anticipated was just how brutal the trap would be. The expectation was that maybe the Vikings would lead the army into an enclosed space and then surround them, effectively both flanking and bottle-necking the Saxon army. Instead a series of well placed spike pits and oil drops led to the Saxons practically killing themselves and having to step over the dead to even retreat. This was a great tactic because not only did they physically reduce the size of the army they’re fighting with minimal effort but it also has a demoralising effect to have to step on their brothers-in-laws. These are people they’ve likely fought with and trusted to have their backs and now they have to make a choice of self-preservation over that loyalty and camaraderie. The effect is that when the Vikings finally meet the Saxons head on, they’re fighting a smaller, traumatised army.
Of course, Ivar, bloodsoaked and laughing is also pretty demoralising to any army. It’s a testament to Alex Høgh’s acting that he can convincingly play sympathetic in one episode and utterly demented in another. And with this victory, Ivar wins over most of the Great Heathen Army, cementing himself as the de facto leader. It helps that Ubbe’s argument that he saved Ivar’s life is rather flimsy. In fact the army was going to run to Ivar’s side when Ubbe postponed them for…reasons? It doesn’t seem like Ubbe to genuinely consider leaving his brother to the mercy of the Saxons, especially not so publicly, but it appears that he must have been conflicted at least because there’s no other reason, least one I can see, for Ubbe to wait.
Of course, Ubbe is particularly sore because Ivar’s rise contradicts his own status as the eldest brother. They argue over their next move but Ubbe doesn’t trust Ivar and leaves to propose peace to the Saxons against Ivar’s suggestion. Given that Ivar is waiting for them when they return, this seems like another case of Ivar setting a trap. It’s likely that he could have stopped his brothers when they were leaving but choose to let them go because he knew that if they failed it would only serve to make his case look better.
And fail it does. Ubbe and Hvitserk get roughed up, their men killed and sent back to York with no peace and no land. Though its framed oddly within the show with the narrative jumping back and forth in time to reveal what actually happened at the Saxon camp while the brothers are being admonished by Ivar upon their return. It’s a strange deviation from linear storytelling and a pointless one since it adds nothing to the plot and is more confusing than attention grabbing.
Speaking of failure, the Saxons made a mistake of beating up Ubbe and Hvitserk and letting them go. I’m not suggesting that Æthelwulf should have accepted their demands, although he did seem to consider it (I did like Alfred suggesting that advocating giving them the land to farm given that the real life Alfred is famous for creating distinct boundaries between Wessex and the Danelaw.). Why wouldn’t they just capture Ubbe and/or Hvitserk and hold them for ransom? Ivar, for all his pomp, does care for his brothers and it would also have made Ivar look weak to his army if he didn’t want to leave York to save his brothers. As it is, Heahmund and Æthelwulf have only succeeded in further aggravating an enemy they just failed to beat in battle.
Ubbe poses the question that Ragnar would hate Ivar for breaking up his family, to which Ivar disagrees. Ragnar certainly had a remarkable love for his family (or at least his sons). But he didn’t always show it in traditional ways and it would certainly be like Ragnar to put results ahead of irritating his family. This is the same man who on more than one occasion fought his brother on the battle field. But it’s also the man who opted to choose non-aggression with Ecbert in favour of land that this people could farm. Ragnar was at many times both a farmer and a warrior and an adventurer, whereas his sons seem to represent different aspects of their father. So, Ubbe and Ivar are both right.
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