What Happens in the Cave represents late period Vikings as its best self. In the last four or five episodes we have, happily, spent less and less time with the trials and tribulations of King Alfred and Wessex. Instead, we have a renewed sense of how Important the Vikings of a show called Vikings still are to this epic story. Even in its clumsier moments (mostly to do with Hvitserk), we have a better sense of what drives and motivates the characters that we are actually here to see. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved Judith this season but give me Lagertha’s descent into madness any day because my relationship to her character was solidified from episode one.
We begin with Floki’s journey into what he thinks is the literal path to the gods, Hel, or both. The first image we see is of sparks as Floki lights his way through the darkness of the cave, with his own sparks of belief burning out. The Floki storyline has been a dud. I didn’t have high hopes when I realised that this is where Michael Hirst was taking one of the show’s most popular characters. Floki has basically been divorced from the main storyline and sent on his own sub-plot where not one of his settlers has the acting chops to match Gustaf Skarsgård. Floki is one of those weird presences that complicates matters, especially when he was acting as the symbol of Ragnar’s faith in the gods, a symbol that was at near constant war with Athelstan.
Yet, when it comes to the Land of the Gods, Floki is better off by himself. I mentioned when Floki first came to this place that I would happily watch an entire episode of Floki exploring this seemingly powerful place. It seems that I’ll never get that wish, but What Happens in the Cave gave me the closest approximation to it. Faith is the driving force of the episode, as many characters either affirm their faith or come back to it through transformative events. Floki’s is the most interesting due to the circumstances around it. This is his last chance to prove to himself that the gods are watching over him and he is willing to give up his life in this pursuit.
What he finds is what amounts to a sick joke. Floki’s journey throughout the series has been punctuated by loss. He has lost his wife and child, he lost his best friend to another faith before losing him through death, and he is perilously close to losing his faith, the very force that defines everything he is. Then he finds a cross. I can only describe this moment as absolutely delicious. Vikings has had some great twists in its time, and this is certainly up there with the best. There is so much potential meaning in this symbol. If it is indeed Hel that Floki has entered, then seeing the Christian cross when looking for proof of your own faith is something a certain trickster God would find hilarious. Floki himself even laughs. Then there’s the idea that this land that Floki was sure was the land of his own faith was really Christian all along. That his settlement had such bad luck and bad feeling because they were unknowingly blaspheming. It’s tempting to take this moment at face value, but we have seen so much that cannot be logically explained unless we are shown it from the guise of Floki’s mental illness. Just because he finds a cross doesn’t necessarily mean that the cross is really there. That’s the cherry on top of this amazing moment, this could all be part of Floki’s own delusions.
What Happens in the Cave doesn’t just deal with the questions of Floki’s faith, many of the character’s spiritual leanings reward them or punish them. Bjorn and Hvitserk are rewarded for finding their rightful place in the show by teaming up to battle against Ivar. Bjorn has felt himself at a loose end for much of season five, even as he realised his father’s dream of cooperation and settlements in England. Hvitserk has been at a loose end since his introduction to the show, but months of humiliation at the hands of Ivar, even though he was the only one of Ivar’s brothers to stand with him. His destiny has finally been revealed to him, he must kill Ivar. While I welcome this kind of momentum, I don’t fancy Hvitserk’s chances against Ivar. He may not be a god, but Ivar is the tactical genius of Ragnar’s sons. The last time brawn came up against brains, brawn lost.
The realisation of faith in this episode has coincided with a rite of transformation for each character. Bjorn braved the dangerous ocean and came home not only renewed but reconnecting with his lost brother. The same journey had Magnus screaming for the Christian God to save him, which will not exactly do wonders for his credibility. Floki went through the cave, Lagertha is still piecing together her own journey towards transformation, and Ubbe came back to his gods by fighting for peace between the Vikings and the English, his victory making the settlements themselves self-sustainable. The essence of great story-telling is the journey, whether it’s a physical, emotional, symbolic, or spiritual journey, you’ve got to go there to come back.
9/10 – This almost makes this season’s slow start worth it.