Thursday, April 9, 2015

REVIEW: 'Vikings' - The Viking Army Attacks Paris in the Series' Biggest Battle Yet in 'To the Gates!'

History's Vikings - Episode 3.08 "To the Gates!"

The Viking army embarks and Paris goes into lockdown as the army prepares the defense, overseen by Odo. The Vikings are determined to make it through the gates of Paris and will stop at nothing to succeed.

In terms of scope, "To the Gates!" is the biggest episode of Vikings yet. The viking siege on Paris is this massive onslaught. There are hundreds of viking warriors attacking hundreds of Paris soldiers on two separate fronts - the main entrance and the walls meant to protect the city from outsiders. It's a colossial feat to pull off for television and Kelly Makin's direction does an epic job of bringing the fight to live. This episode has no desire to cut away to any storyline happening elsewhere. It is simply about the attack on Paris. The attack that Ragnar has been plotting for several episodes now. The attack that Floki believes they will win because he sacrificed Athelstan to the gods. The attack that would prove just how formidable the viking army really is to the world around them. "To the Gates!" is a terrific episode. There's a grandiosity to it that makes it feel bigger and more important than any other battle the vikings have fought in. The show has always handled battle sequences well. This episode continues that effect while also ramping up the tension and ingenuity of the two sides doing battle.

My only main quibble with this episode is that it is too manipulative of the audience's emotions in making us believe that both Rollo and Bjorn have died in battle. This first siege on Paris is meant to carry this monumental loss for the vikings. They were so confident going into the fight. And now, they are realizing just how daunting taking this city actually is. Bodies of their fellow warriors keep falling around them. The Paris army is impressive and their plan of attack isn't working as well as they hoped it would be. The number of those who perish in this episode is staggering. And yet, they are also mostly just extras sent into battle by the main characters. If the show wanted to give the necessary amount of weight to this story, it could have actually killed a main character. That would make sure that the stakes are just as high and lethal for the protagonists. That does come true somewhat. During the battle, the direction would have us suspect that Rollo and Bjorn have died. The audience sees Rollo fall from the top of the wall into the river below motionless. The same then happens to Ragnar. He survives the fall only for the camera to then widen revealing Bjorn's still body impaled by two arrows. Both are devastating moments that would later cause a lot of emotional turmoil for the remaining characters. Ragnar has to drag his son's body back to their camp. He may have lost his eldest son in this battle and the burden of that could be crippling. He understands that Bjorn made the decision to go up the wall and fight. He would die a warrior's death. And then, Rollo enters the tent still alive and Bjorn later awakens after receiving some treatment. Their injuries will likely effect them for the rest of the season. And yet, it does feel a tad bit too manipulative.

And then comes the episode's final reveal that Ragnar allowed Floki to take the lead in this battle just to make a point that the gods aren't so easily appeased. Floki has grown so demented and chaotic this season with his increasingly necessary need to do right by the gods. It's his beliefs that led him to kill Athelstan. He wanted to save the souls of all his fellow warriors. With that power coursing through him, Floki thought he couldn't be stopped. He believed the death of one man would be what led them to victory in Paris. It was then so devastating to him later to see all the death and destruction he has personally caused by the way he has led this battle. Floki believed the outcome had already been decided. He felt that they couldn't lose. He never once chose to think practically and realistically about the scale and scope of this battle. All battles have loss. And yet, this one is on such a massive scale and he has no idea why. He misplaced all his trust in the gods and he doesn't know how to comprehend things when the vikings retreat. He stands motionless in the water. It's not because he's dying. It's because he's at a complete loss as to what has just happened around him. He escapes the battle largely unharmed. And yet, his personal relationships have been uprooted. Helga can no longer stand to be with him and his narcissistic desire to make the world according to the way he sees things. It's a crushing blow.

And yet, it is also the outcome that Ragnar was hoping for. He wanted to teach Floki a lesson. He needed to reign him in a little bit. He went way over the line in killing Athelstan. Ragnar needed to get his retribution. But the collateral damage of that decision is tremendous. He went into this fight knowing that it very likely won't be successful. He still led all these warriors into battle. The warriors have placed their trust in him as their king and he simply uses their deaths in order to teach his old friend a lesson. That's a very risky move and one that could stir a lot of uproar if it's revealed to the entire population. He did it simply to avenge his friend. Lately, Athelstan was the only one he could really talk to about life. He offered him companionship that no one else will ever come close to. Athelstan opened Ragnar up to the world around him. His death has forced Ragnar into some very dark places. He asks for forgiveness for what he has done. And yet, he's unlikely to get it. He doesn't want to be a crazy person talking to himself. He wants to believe that his friendship with Athelstan is still present even if Athelstan no longer is. He needs to believe that this was all worth it. Answers aren't likely to come anytime soon for him though.

However, Ragnar also did receive a small glimmer of success in this battle. Just for a few moments, he got to see the city of Paris in all of its glory. All of the carnage around him is worth it just to see the indescribable beauty that Athelstan told him about. Those few seconds made the whole battle worth it to Ragnar. The beauty of the city is now fueling him to return and conquer. Before he was just going on Athelstan's word about the magnificent fortress. Now he has his own personal vision to drive him forward. He needs to see more of the city. So next time, he will be the man in charge of the attack and he will be the one to bring victory to the vikings. Even though they weren't successful this time, the show itself got a ton of great value over showing this battle and the emotional and profound toil the aftermath had on its characters.

Some more thoughts:
  • "To the Gates!" was written by Michael Hirst and directed by Kelly Makin.
  • The show gets away with so much meaningless death because it tells the story from both sides of the wall. To each army, the other isn't human. The vikings need to kill in order to achieve victory while the Paris army fight in order to protect themselves from these people who are more animals than humans.
  • It's interesting how Count Odo and Gisla are the proactive leaders in Paris. It's because of their careful planning and inspiring symbols of hope that their army is able to fend off this attack. Emperor Charles just sits in his throne room hopeful they'll win while still being very fearful.
  • The only familiar face who was killed in the battle was King Horik's son who didn't really have a whole lot of purpose in the last few episodes. So I didn't really care that he died.
  • I got such a good laugh out of the guy standing next to Rollo at the beginning of attack nearly being missed by an army, overly celebrating and then getting another one straight in the face. It's dark humor, for sure, but very effective.
  • The cutaway to Kattegat showing Porunn abandoning her daughter with Aslaug only really worked when Bjorn was dying. Him surviving doesn't give it the same weight.
  • Lagertha decides to be with Kalf sexually as long as he understands that one day she will kill him for usurp her earldom. She still commands so much power even though the battle she fought passionately in and was a complete failure.