Thursday, February 18, 2016

REVIEW: 'Vikings' - Ragnar Awakens in Kattegat While Rollo Further Commits to His Betrayal in 'A Good Treason'

History's Vikings - Episode 4.01 "A Good Treason"

Entry to Valhalla eludes Ragnar but as he lies in his sick bed in Kattegat events unfold beyond his control. Bjorn orders the arrest of Floki for Athelstan's murder. In Paris, Rollo betrays the last of his Viking supporters to strengthen his position in the French Court. In Hedeby, Kalf announces joint Earldom with Lagertha.

Ragnar's death loomed large over the end of the third season. He was critically injured in the battle to invade Paris. His body was failing him. But it was also something that Ragnar and the show used to its advantage. It seemed unlikely that the series would kill off its lead character. So instead, it used it as a way for the vikings to "Trojan horse" their way into the city. It showed just how calculating and wise Ragnar was despite his weakened state. And now, the show picks up in Season 4 with Ragnar back home in Kattegat still sick and on death's doorsteps. His death is still a crucial piece to the storytelling. Everyone is worried about him. Some are worried that he might live. Some are planning on what comes next should he die now. It opens up an interesting debate for the show. Can Ragnar be killed off?

It would seem incredible if Ragnar was able to bounce back from these illnesses and bodily wounds and be the warrior he has been in the previous seasons. That's not to say that he doesn't have at least one more good battle in him. It would just be such a disservice to the audience if all he needed was this long rest and he'll bounce back like nothing happened whatsoever. That doesn't seem to be the case though. Even though he isn't able to enter Valhalla, he still isn't completely back amongst the living in this premiere either. He awakes to learn of what has happened in his absence as king to the vikings. But more importantly, he is still unstable on his feet. He isn't able to walk through this world like he once was. He's still the leader of these people. As long as he's alive, his word is the rule of this land. Aslaug and Bjorn make significant actions that he has to deal with once he wakes up. He still proves his worth as leader of the vikings as well - even though the stuff happening at Kattegat isn't as exciting as what's happening elsewhere.

But again, does Ragnar need to be alive for the longevity of the show? That's becoming less of a requirement as the series has aged. In the first few seasons, so much importance was put on Ragnar. It became an annoying quality that he was always right and the people in power who opposed him were always wrong. That's how he got to be king of the vikings. Earl Haraldson and King Horik didn't have the vision that he did. The vikings have grown quite prosperous under his rein too. Bjorn returns with the riches from Paris in this episode. It's a celebration for all even though the French were very difficult enemies to fight. They were opponents who pushed Ragnar to his limits and he is now paying for those injuries. His presence still looms large throughout this universe. He will need to avenge his fellow vikings who are killed due to Rollo's latest betrayal. But that will place him right back in Paris where he almost died the first time. Ragnar's death could be a good thing for the show too. It can't just keep teasing it endlessly from now until the end of the series. The show is more popular than ever. This season will run twice as long as the previous ones. Plus, the show has filled its supporting ranks with characters who could easily step up should Ragnar perish. His legacy would loom large over the rest of this world. But that could be an exciting direction for the drama as well.

All of that is a big picture discussion though. Right now, Ragnar is still alive and ruling over the vikings. They will still follow him no matter what he decides for their future. However, this premiere largely feels like a piece-moving episode. It showcases all the ramifications of the choices the characters made at the end of last season. With some of the stories, that's a very good thing. Consequences need to be felt in order for these actions to have purpose. Floki killed Athelstan because he felt it's what the Gods were calling him to do. Him leading hundreds of warriors to their deaths in Paris wasn't enough punishment for that action though. It was a startling realization to him that he was wrong about what the Gods' plans were for him. And now, he is being punished in Kattegat for his crimes. It's Bjorn finding a way to avenge the death of his friend. But it's Ragnar's responsibility to determine Floki's fate. Arresting him showcases that Bjorn still has a lot to learn about being a leader. It probably indicates that he won't be the best to succeed Ragnar when he ultimately dies. But that still leaves Floki chained to a post and being tormented by everyone in Kattegat. Right now, that's enough for Ragnar. He wants him to suffer instead of receiving death. That's a cruel form of punishment that still keeps Floki alive for the moment - though it seems unlikely that he'll survive this season too.

Meanwhile, the action beats of this episode come from Lagertha and Kalf's return to Hedeby and Rollo betraying his people in Paris. Both are somewhat problematic stories though. It's frustrating to see so much of the action that plays out in Hedeby be centered around Kalf. Yes, he was the one plotting to take Lagertha out as Earl. But this episode largely plays as him cutting off those loose ends so that they won't be bothersome again. Lagertha has absolutely nothing to do with announcing their joint earldom or killing the people who stand against her. But she also more than makes up for it when she gets to cut the balls off of the main perpetrator. That's fun. She's a strong character who deserves more attention. The same can't be said of Rollo though. Once again, he is betraying his brother in order to get power of his own. But he's just such a hard character to understand. Why does he slaughter all of the viking warriors in the camp just outside Paris? He knows that not everyone will stand by his decision to marry Gisela and fight for Paris. But it's still a brutal and extreme display of violence without a whole lot of understanding of what's happening underneath the surface with him. Plus, he can only come back from betraying his people once. He has already done that. So the show can't just say he's doing this in order to bond with the French people and double cross them once Ragnar returns. No, he needs to stand firm with them and live or die based on that decision. It's just hard to see this as anything more than a plot development to keep the narrative tense.

Some more thoughts:
  • "A Good Treason" was written by Michael Hirst and directed by Ciarán Donnelly.
  • Ragnar and Aslaug's children have grown up more since last we saw them. They are running around together now. That's important in this episode. Though I still don't know any of their names.
  • Bjorn has decided to go off into the woods by himself just to see if he can survive a winter in the isolation. Ragnar doesn't think he can do it because Bjorn has once again proven that he's not the best leader of their people. But Bjorn wants to prove his father wrong.
  • Gisela still isn't a big fan of being married to Rollo. She fights kicking and screaming the entire way. And yet, he seems to understand that as well. He knows what's expected of a wedding night but just taunts her and falls asleep. Good thing too because this probably isn't a show that could handle the murky lines of sexual consent all that well.
  • One of the most problematic things about Rollo killing all of his fellow vikings is that now he has no one he can talk to. His wanderer friend who speaks French has also left. So now, he's all alone and doesn't understand what his new friends are saying.
  • Ragnar also seems to know that it was a bad decision to leave Rollo behind to keep their presence outside of Paris alive. That's a conflict that will need to come to ahead this season.
  • Aslaug asks the Seer if she will one day be the leader of Kattegat. All he will confirm is that the vikings will be ruled by a woman at some point in time. But I'm really hoping it's Lagertha and not Aslaug. Though Aslaug trying to manipulate things while Ragnar is sick is a more interesting detail for a character who hasn't really been all that compelling in the past.