Vikings S5E5: The Prisoner
“I don’t know who I am anymore,” Floki murmurs to Lagertha in this episode of Vikings, and Gustaf Skarsgard plays the line with something between excitement and terror. And I personally can’t think of a better summation of this week’s outing, The Prisoner, and this season as a whole so far.
Firstly, I really fucking liked this episode, mainly because it didn’t bother checking in with the Harald/Astrid black hole of a plot; it seems like every week has time for meaningful movement in three of the four stories and this week Harald’s was the one that got the boot, and the episode was all the stronger for it. But let’s leave behind what the episode didn’t have and focus in on what it did.
Obviously, the York plot once again dominates this episode, as it accounts for most of our main cast, and it’s still the most compelling one the show has found this season to date. The episode opens with a grunt-heavy action sequence as the Saxon army attempt to reclaim York and fail after another one of Ivar’s plans comes through, and I think I’d be repeating myself if I said that Vikings still has some of the best fight scenes on television: bloody, brutal, and dripping in gore, they feel so raw and urgent compared to the more choreographed stuff you’ll find on superhero shows or series like Game of Thrones. But the best stuff the York plot throws up this week (apart from some more prime material for my One-Woman Moe Dunford Appreciation Society) comes in the form of Ivar and Heahmund.
Ivar and Heahmund are natural foils for each other, an easy and deft way for the show to delve into it’s themes of religious conflict and zealotry. I think The Prisoner is the first episode that really leans into this, in a sour version of the Ragnathelstan (I’m coining it, get on board) relationship that’s driven by friction rather than the curiosity that defined their predecessors. Johnathan Rhys Meyers and Alex Hogh are both prone to wild overacting but something about their shared scenes here just about balances the books and leaves the beginnings of this story between the two of them compelling instead of cringey. Both excel in their physical performances, with the high point of the episode being a silent exchange between the two of them during battle as Ivar orders his troops to spare Heahmund as the terrified bishop leaps for his sword to fend off the approaching Vikings, and their full-throttle intensity when aimed at each other just seems to make sense in a way that neither character has with anyone else before now. I love it, and I can’t wait to see where the show goes with it.
Elsewhere, Bjorn and Halfdan are enjoying their gap year – smoking dope, banging the native babes, and enjoying (uh, mostly) the local cuisine. Look, I have to admit, I’m really into the way this plot is unfolding. With the intensity of all the politics going on elsewhere in the show, I have a whole lot of time for Bjorn looking grouchy at being too warm and Halfdan giggling over eating a bit of human shoulder. Halfdan and Bjorn make a great double-act, sharing easy chemistry that elevates these stories, and the new locations, characters, and customs give these segments a fresh feel that really takes advantage of the expanded budget to create a strikingly beautiful new world for the Vikings to explore. I was also pleased that this plot delved into the Viking men’s period-appropriate not-exactly-straightness, as I felt that the show had leaned away from the casual fluidness of sexuality when it came to it’s male characters as a way of appealing to a more mainstream audience. I’m not super-compelled by this plot, to be honest, but I’m enjoying checking in with the Vikings pulling their own version of Lads On Tour – it’s sharp and well-acted and looks gorgeous and allows for the exploration of another contemporary religion (Islam), expanding the world in a way the show should be doing in it’s fifth season.
This week, we also spend a substantial amount of time in Kattegat as Floki returns to take his true believers to the land of the Gods. I just don’t have enough good things to say about this storyline, mainly because Gustaf Skarsgard turns in what has to be the performance of the season so far: you just can’t argue with his screen presence, from the OG-Vikings reunion with Lagertha to that odd, combative but playful conversation with Ubbe, Skarsgard has such a command of this character and how he functions and interacts with those around him. As the ultimate True Believer of the Vikings crew, his pure driven spirituality dovetails nicely with the politics and violence of the rest of the episode to lend the story a bit of weight instead of feeling like a lot of box-ticking to move the plot along.
Add to all of this some simply breathtaking direction by Steve Saint Leger, drool-worthy costuming, great performances, and contrasting but complimentary themes, and you’ve got a rich, full-blooded episode of one of the best shows on TV right now. It’s rare for a show in it’s fifth season to feel so brimming with promise and openness, but Vikings is pulling it off – like Floki, it doesn’t quite know what it is, but it seems excited to find out. With the death of Ragnar, they had to hit a reset button – and while initially it looked as though they weren’t going to be able to stablize themselves any time soon, this season came storming in with a vengeance and a gameplan that has me pumped to see where they’re going to take it from here.
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