The biggest question going into Vikings Season 5 was whether the show would be capable of standing on its own without Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar Lothbrok. To those who know their history, and their mythology, it was an inevitable question. Ragnar was always going to have to die and his sons, with the Great Heathen Army at their backs, would invade England for revenge. But the question wasn’t whether it would happen but rather could any of the existing characters step up to match the enigmatic charisma that Fimmel brought to the character of Ragnar.
Ragnar was a larger than life character, capable of amazing feats and driving others to exemplary deeds, which was fitting for the semi-mythical character of history. With his death the show has passed from legend to the historical, with characters such as Ivar the Boneless, Harald Finehair and Æthelwulf all having existed in real life. (That’s not to say by the way that the show is now historically accurate. Rather that the story is now grounded in traditional historical sources rather the mythical tales of Ragnar Lothbrok. For example, Ivar’s conquest of York historically took place prior the death King Ælla and it was actually Æthelwulf’s son Æthelred who reigned at the time of the Viking invasion of Northumbria.) So, the big headline over Viking’s season 5 was undoubtedly whether it could be as entertaining without it’s big name draw?
In this humble reviewer’s opinion, the answer is yes. Vikings season 5 premiered with two entertaining episodes, drawing on the inward struggles of the Ragnarsson brothers to unite against the Anglo-Saxons. Just as there is the meta-question of whether the show can survive without Ragnar, inward there is the question of who can lead the Great Heathen Army, with Ubbe and Ivar both vying for the spot. This is where the episodes are at their strongest. The underlying tension gives every conversation between the brothers a sense of competitiveness with life or death stakes. When Ivar suggests taking York rather than East Anglia, it’s a point to Ivar. When Ubbe remembers to attack on a Saint Day, it’s a point to Ubbe.
It’s also interesting to see Ivar showing genuine remorse over the death of Sigurd. Ivar has always been depicted as the darkest, most ruthless of the sons of Ragnar, seemingly having paired the violent instincts of his father with the coldness of his mother, peppered richly with pagan devotion instilled in him by Floki. This emotion is the first time we’ve seen the character upset about another person. He certainly seems grief stricken in a way that he wasn’t by the death of his parents, although it’s possible that’s because the only person to take revenge against is himself.
Scenes with Æthelwulf and Judith living as churls in the English countryside were also interesting. Having been reduced to poverty has made the pair surprisingly amicable, especially considering how tumultuous their relationship had been in previous seasons. Though it seems unlikely to remain that way, as Judith glanced a few times at Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s Bishop Heahmund and we all know that she has a thing for holy men. Speaking of holy men, Æthelstan appears to his son, Alfred, in a fever dream and directs the West Saxons to join Heahmund’s army outside of York, setting up a large battle to come.
Despite some strong character drama, Vikings felt weakest when it was focused on Harald Finehair, Bishop Heahmund and, dare I say it, Floki. Floki is easily the most whimsical character in the series and it’s a joy to watch Gustaf Skarsgård in the role but his singular adventure to Iceland just felt like an unnecessary distraction from the main plot, as if the writers have a checklist of historical events they want to tick off. Unnecessary is also a criticism I would levy towards Heahmund. The pious but lustful character who deals with their sin by self-flagellation is an over-used characterisation and Æthelstan was already a much more complex and interesting take on the holy man. That’s not to suggest that there can never be any more religious characters in Vikings, but there should be more depth to the character. Heahmund could easily have been replaced with Æthelwulf, a character who has already been shown to be pious and has also dealt with his sin with self-flagellation. This characterisation is so over-done that Vikings has already used it twice. Still, it’s early days for season five so there’s still time for Heahmund to turn out to be deeper and more interesting than he appears here.
As for Harald Finehair, the problem is just fatigue. This plot of his to become King of all Norway has been going on since the early episodes of season four and despite a time-skip in episode 10 he has made frustratingly little traction on his goal. At this point it doesn’t really seem to matter if he marries Astrid; there are much more interesting things going on in the world of Vikings, such as Björn’s excursion to the Mediterranean. It seems inevitable that the plotting will come down to a battle and that Harald will likely win some of the lands from Lagertha and possibly even kill her, but it’s just being so drawn out with not a lot really happening in the meantime.
Overall though this has been a good premiere and that’s exactly what it needed to be. Season five had to start strong to show that, yes, the series can survive without Ragnar and can produce the same quality drama and entertainment and it absolutely did that. Now that the series has made that clear, it can get on with the story and perhaps produce some truly great episodes to rival those from seasons past. If I were to give a prediction for the season ahead, I’d say we’ll see the death of Æthelwulf and possibly another time-skip to allow Alfred to age-up.
What were your thoughts and opinions of Vikings season five premiere? Got any predictions of your own? Fire them my way in the comments below or hit me up through social media which you can find to the right of this article. Also to the right you can find the follow button, which will allow you to be notified and kept up to date with new content on this blog weekly. If you liked what you read and can’t wait that long there are hundreds of reviews and editorials in the archives to keep you busy. And if that still isn’t enough for you, you can find my own novel, Carrion Youth, online to read at swoonreads.com. Until next week, thanks for reading.