After a major death last season, Vikings returns for season 5 with familiar characters and circumstances, but nevertheless feels close to a brand new series.
Season 5 of History's Vikings is the first new season to begin in the wake of Ragnar Lothbrok's death. Although season 4 soldiered on, proving the show still worked after the King of the Vikings was executed, mostly by giving his sons the urgent plot line of avenging their father and putting an end to King Ecbert, those final episodes of the season served another important purpose: they passed a number of torches to ostensibly allow History's flagship scripted series to begin again. That restart was teased at the end of last season with creator Michael Hirst giving familiar and not-so-familiar faces the opportunity to make some big moves and to ensure their place in the story to come.
That story still centers on the struggle for power and control across various kingdoms, and as it was under Ragnar, it's also interested in characters questioning whether or not the world has something else to offer them, often venturing off in search of an answer, sometimes recklessly. The two-part premiere, 'The Departed', then, is spread across a number of interconnected storylines, picking up where it left off with Ragnar's sons, Bjorn, Ubbe, Hvitserk, and Ivar the Boneless, after the latter killed Sigurd in a fit of rage at the end of season 4. But it also picks up in the aftermath of their successful raid on Ecbert's land, opening the door for the show to explore more from both Jonathan Rhys Meyers' Bishop Heahmund and Ecbert's son Aethelwulf, who has now assumed his father's place on the throne.
The premiere feels at times like a refresh of the series, but the way Hirst handles the story, the familiar beats of domination, treachery, and discovery play out with consideration paid to the show's history first and foremost. There's hardly a scene that goes by between Ubbe, Hvitserk, and Ivar that doesn't have one of them failing to mention their dear departed father. Meanwhile, Floki, who was at times Ragnar's most trusted ally and at others the biggest thorn in his side (when he wasn't busy murdering Athelstan) is perhaps the one most affected by the king's death, as he spends nearly all of the two-hour premiere literally adrift at sea before making landfall on what he believes to be Asgard. Though Vikings is now poised to carry on by following Ragnar's children, Gustaf Skarsgård and Katheryn Winnick are perhaps the biggest reminders of Ragnar's absence, which Hirst uses to his advantage by hinting they are at or are very near the ends of their respective stories.
Lagertha faces the threat of King Harald, who plotted to kill her last season and returns here to find himself briefly her prisoner. The shifting power dynamic is something Vikings has made good use of over the past four seasons, especially with regard to Lagertha's rise from shield maiden to Earl and eventually supplanting Aslaug as queen. Here, though, 'The Departed' hints that Lagertha's grip on power may have begun to loosen. After a tense scene with Harald that ends in sexual assault, the would-be king escapes and manages to snag Asplund in the process. While the other women in Lagertha's core group debate the "mistake" she made, it feels more like Hirst revealing the first leg of some greater plan to shield herself from her many adversaries.
That's smart, as Vikings season 5 has no shortage of adversaries, and none in a better position to offer a serious challenge to the three brothers' sacking of York than Meyers' Bishop Haehmund. The sketchily pious certitude of the sword-wielding man of God stands in direct contrast to the uncertainty of Floki and Lagertha, landing him among the more considerable and immediate threats in the series so far. As a man who hides impropriety behind power and authority granted to him by his role in the church, Heahmund would have felt very much in the vein of the typical antihero just a few years ago, but instead, he reads more complicated than that, making his conflict with the pillaging Vikings as morally murky a plot line as anything this show's seen before.
For some, the show's prospects may be doubly murky without the anchor that was Ragnar Lothbrok. Thankfully, though, the three Lothbrok brothers (with Bjorn headed off to the Mediterranean again) have developed an interesting dynamic set around the inevitable rise of Ivar, which is bolstered by an electric performance from Alex Høgh Andersen, who seems to have been cast in the role in part due to the intensity he brings and because he's makes being covered in blood a legitimate fashion choice. Andersen brings a murderous cruelty and uncomfortable vulnerability to Ivar that makes the character as interesting to watch as Ragnar was, and the show is wise to pin its future on him and his budding rivalry with Ubbe and Hvitserk, as well as the sure-to-be-bloody conflict with Heahmund.
In the end Vikings season 5 may feel like the show is starting over but it does so confidently, and without erasing the past.
Vikings continues next Wednesday @9pm on History.
Additionally, check out some images from History's recent promotion of Vikings in New York and Los Angeles that featured an authentic eight-foot Gjallarhorn.
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Photos: Bryan Bedder, Getty Images for HISTORY