Credit: Jonathan Hession/History Channel
S5 E9
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In the wake of battle, enemies become allies. See Bishop Heahmund, wandering child of the Christ-god, captive in another Viking camp. His wounds will heal, but what of his soul? Lagertha is intrigued by this priest; like her bygone husband Ragnar and her bygone lover Ecbert, she is fascinated by people from other cultures. She asks Heahmund about his god, learns of the concepts of agape (a great embracing love) and eros (romantic). She tells Heahmund of her way, her gods, who view acts of the spirit and acts of the flesh in much the same way. “You have no guilt?” asks Heahmund. “No remorse?”

He envies this queen, is fascinated by her. “I think we have more in common than you know,” he says. “I think we are equals.” “You really want to sin again?” Lagertha teases him, blowing out the candle in her tent. The warrior priest will offer his loyalty to Lagertha, and much more besides.

Lagertha needs allies. In Harald’s kingdom, beaten and battered, the rebel sons of Ragnar conceive a new strategy. Hvitserk sails to meet Uncle Rollo, and sails home with Frankish soldiers gathered in a great fleet of ships. “Rollo couldn’t come,” says Hvitserk. “He had too many responsibilities.” But he did sent support, and a single request: He asks Ivar and Hvitserk to let Bjorn live.

And Bjorn has a request for his half-brothers. Can they not set aside their differences? Can they not find peace? They survived the first battle, even as so many fell in their name. “For the sake of our father’s legacy!” Bjorn begs. But his plea falls on deaf ears. Ivar may have lost the battle, but the Franks have given them the numbers. Ivar Boneless is in a feisty mood: He has some men stand up behind Bjorn, ready to assassinate a prince seeking diplomacy. “It’s not our way!” says King Harald. That stops Ivar, but only for the moment. Their forces will meet on the battlefield: That is their way.

In the land of the Northmen, Ragnar’s name is much discussed. It is his legacy that defines this battle, or perhaps this battle will ruin his legacy. Across the sea, in Wessex, dead men still walk the halls of power. In the throne where once King Ecbert sat, Aethelwulf welcomes the lords of the land. He tells them they must prepare a new way forward, a new state of security: The Vikings attack Scotland and Ireland with impunity, “Like stinging hornets swarming from north to south, east to west.”

Aethelwulf was never a smart man, never the brilliant strategist his father was, never much curious in the strange ways of the world. He believed from the beginning in his Christian God, and when he sits down in his study, he believes it is his destiny to be a good king for his land. A tiny hornet lands in front of him, and when he brushes it away, it stings him. Such a little thing, but long ago the Vikings arrived in such a little ship, and look how they have grown. Aethelwulf laughs, fortune’s fool once again. Soon he is dying in his bed, laid low by an insect the size of a fingernail.

“Love one another,” he advises his family. “Do what is best for Wessex, and nothing more.” He tells his sons to listen to their mother. He tells Judith the angels are here. Blind from infection, he sees the angels, and then dies.

His family debates how to proceed. Aethelred is rightful heir, eldest and trueborn son. Judith tells him he must refuse the throne. Aethelwulf prepared his son to be a warrior king, like him; but Ecbert wanted grandson Alfred to be something greater. Didn’t he send him to the Vatican? Wasn’t he blessed by the Pope?

Aethelred is unhappy, for it was his destiny to be king. But perhaps he learned something more from his father: a kind of humility, or simply the knowledge that Judith is often right. He refuses the throne, and nominates his brother as king.

So we witness the ceremony that will make Alfred a ruler, and a great king he will be. We also see another ceremony, Heahmund promising himself to Lagertha: Finally, our wandering warrior bishop has found someone to believe in besides his deity.

Gods are fragile things, after all. In the distant land where Floki’s followers have made a home, tensions simmer and then boil as they build a temple to Thor. Eyvind and his family refuse to help, keep trying to start a fight. Floki knows that Eyvind is playing a game here, trying to instigate violence, to cause someone else to strike first. Eyvind wants to be king, and so he accuses Floki of desiring kingship.

Floki is patient. Floki wants this new land to be different, free of violence, a place of peace and prosperity. But one night, the temple burns, and the statue of Thor falls into the blaze. A fight breaks out, one of Floki’s followers accusing Eyvind’s son Bul of starting the fire. A knife appears; Bul lies dead. Even here, in the land of the gods, humanity cannot escape itself. Pity poor Floki. Did he bring his followers to heaven so it could turn into hell?

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