Thursday, April 23, 2015

REVIEW: 'Vikings' - The Vikings Mourn Ragnar's Death While Rollo is Faced with a Big Decision in 'The Dead'

History's Vikings - Episode 3.10 "The Dead"

With one last chance to take Paris, Ragnar and his Viking troops take a daring chance. Ragnar asks Bjorn for a favor that could change the course of Viking history.

The third season of Vikings has been very lethal. Siggy died saving Ragnar and Aslaug's children. Athelstan died following his re-awakening as a Christian. Thousands of viking warriors perished in the multiple attempts to conquer Paris. And now, the finale presents yet another main character facing death: Ragnar. Now, it would be a major twist and one that could completely change the dynamic of the whole show if Ragnar were to actually die. Despite all the death around the characters that establish the stakes and dangers of the world, it's always pretty reliable to bet that the lead protagonist will not die. Even when a show such as Vikings is presenting it so strongly that he will soon die, it's still too much of a plot contrivance to fully take seriously. Ragnar is the lead of the show. He is the viking with a vision for his people. If he should die, how will his people continue to evolve? They simply won't. He has been the one leading them to new opportunities. They celebrate the immense treasures they receive from the French. But does anyone other than Ragnar have a future of what to do next? Not really. They just care about the world as they have seen it for thousands of years. That's their livelihood. Ragnar changed all of that by getting them to see the larger world around them. He was willing to embrace outside philosophies and beliefs in the hopes that it would lead to further conquests. Without Ragnar, who will think with their head and lead the vikings forward on a meaningful path that Ragnar started for them?

Thusly, it would be incredibly hard to justify killing Ragnar off in "The Dead." Yes, his recent actions have been selfish, chaotic and deadly. And now, he's paying for them in his current weak state. That works and holds value with how Ragnar is trying to lead his people right now. His selfish desire for vengeance following Athelstan's death has had these immense consequences for him. Ones that he may not ever recover from. He fully believes he is dying. That's why he asked to be baptized. It was a very personal and intimate choice on his part. It was an action that alienated him from the rest of his people. Bjorn is the only one who continues to stand by his father's side on his death bed. Everyone else is outside Ragnar's tent talking about how much of a betrayal his baptism is to the rest of his people, proclaiming that him dying is the gods' way of punishing him or plotting his death to take over as king of the vikings. Bjorn is the only one by Ragnar's side. Both fully believe that he is dying. That establishes a trust connection stronger than anything else. Bjorn is the only person Ragnar can trust as he plots his next move.

Even though Ragnar is dying and now a Christian, he is still king of the vikings. His word still demands respect from the community around him - who are turning on him. Ragnar tried attacking this fortress of a city and failed. And now, he needs to think about an even stealthier way to get into the city. It's very clear what he is trying to do with the assistance of Bjorn throughout the middle stretch. Audiences have grown accustomed not to believe someone is actually dead unless they see the body. So when the camera cuts away while Ragnar is telling Bjorn what he needs him to do, it was apparent that the next stage of the episode wouldn't be quite what it appeared to be.

This plan by Ragnar to get into the city only works because information is being kept from the rest of the vikings. The audience knows that something is up. So it's not easy for the audience to believe that Ragnar is dead. The episode doesn't try that hard to convince the audience of that being true though. It instead draws the point out of the rest of vikings believing Ragnar to be dead and dealing with their feelings over his passing. Even though the audience doesn't believe, the vikings do which means the hour gets wonderful moments of grief from Lagertha, Rollo and Floki. Those three have all personally been touched and changed by Ragnar. They are his friends and gladly chose to fight alongside him. Sure, they didn't agree with him being baptized and turning away from their faith. But they still have to grieve over his passing.

Thusly, it's still a triumphant moment when Ragnar pops out out of his coffin alive and ready to take a prisoner so the rest of his people can enter the city. It's a well-coordinated attack. Because Ragnar thought about how to enter this city that Athelstan famously said was impregnable, he was able to succeed. Even though he can no longer fight alongside his fellow warriors, he's still the viking who got his people into Paris. Sure, everyone is furious about not knowing the plan but they can't forget the fact that the raid is now successful. The vikings have entered the city and are able to collect even more treasures. It's interesting, however, that they simply raid the city and don't try to conquer it. After the first siege failed, Ragnar said that he was more determined than ever to conquer Paris. His fading health is keeping him from achieving that goal at the moment. And yet, he's still capable of leading his people into the city to collect its vast treasures. That is a victory he can create right now. Hopefully he'll get another chance to return and conquer the city. He's still the king. But the people around him are still likely plotting his death following his baptism. This raid doesn't change the fact that he is now different than them. Ragnar has knowledge but he may not physically be able to fend off any kind of attack. That could be even more devastating to him in the long run.

So much of "The Dead" is about Ragnar and him fulfilling the Seer's prophecy that "the dead will conquer Paris." That does bring nice symmetry to the season. And yet, it does undercut the big decision that Rollo has to make in the end as well. The vikings do want to attack Paris again in the future. They leave now with their new treasures but have made sure to leave a presence behind to keep the French nervous. It is smart strategy and Rollo does have a reason to prove himself worthy as a leader capable of making big choices. And yet, his rule is a rushed development at the end of the finale. It was important to show that the French will continue to be crafty adversaries for the vikings and that Emperor Charles is capable of making decisions in times of war. Throughout these last few episodes, Count Odo and Princess Gisla have been the big faces of this war on the French side making sure that their armies are ready and capable of protecting the city. Charles was often hanging around in his throne room or the cathedral with the belief that whatever happens will happen and there's nothing he can do about it. He does fear the vikings though. He wants to make peace with them and continue to serve as a great emperor of France. He's willing to sacrifice his own daughter to them in order to protect that vision. That is a cold move to make as a father but a potentially vital one for the emperor. Presenting the opportunity of marriage, land and power to Rollo is a big development that only has a few minutes of screentime. Thusly, Rollo appearing in French court seemingly to accept the deal doesn't entirely feel earned by the season. Rollo is trying to find importance again. But once again, the show is much more interested in telling Ragnar's story that Rollo gets cast aside a little bit. Still, "The Dead" was a successful and exciting finale for the overall great third season.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Dead" was written by Michael Hirst and directed by Ken Girotti.
  • No cutaways to Aslaugh in Kattegat or King Ecbert in Wessex. They weren't really necessary in this episode as the conflict with the French hit its peak in a very satisfying way.
  • Apparently, Count Odo has some kinky fetishes when it comes to keeping his interest sexually. That sequence probably wasn't necessary as it only further showed how much Gisla just doesn't want to be with him.
  • Rollo is friendly to the French in the end because he's totally going to earn their trust and then turn on them once Ragnar and the rest of the vikings return in the spring, right?
  • Ragnar bluntly tells Floki that he knows he killed Athelstan which means his vengeance isn't completely finished yet.