Wednesday, January 18, 2017

REVIEW: 'Vikings' - Lagertha Makes a Sacrifice as the Viking Army Returns to England in 'Revenge'

History's Vikings - Episode 4.18 "Revenge"

Ragnar's plan comes to fruition, the Viking army lands on the coast of Northumbria.

There is a lot going on in "Revenge." It's a very crowded episode of plot. The first half really digs into the melodrama of the narrative and the family relations in Kattegat. That is never really where the show does its best work. It's a core part of the show. There are just a number of stories to keep track of and the characters still feel very new and one-dimensional. That first half includes Ubbe getting married to Margrethe and ultimately deciding to share her with Hvitserk as well as King Harald getting his own love interest and/or personal motivation. Plus, Bjorn and Astrid continue their little affair which came out of the blue at the end of last week's episode. And finally, Lagertha was carefully watching over her kingdom while many parties continued to plot to take down her and Kattegat. So overall, this episode feels like a piece-moving hour. It's the show addressing all of these melodramatic plot beats before it goes off on its grand adventure to avenge the death of Ragnar at the hands of King Aelle and Ecbert. However, the hour also gets to show the opening battle of that war. And yet, it ultimately just feels like the show is trying to cram too much into this episode because it wants to cover a lot of ground by the end of the season.

Of course, the show is still distinctive in a number of ways too. Yes, the marriage between Ubbe and Margrethe has been a main story this season. And yet, it just doesn't feel all that important. That largely comes from it not being an interesting story watching all of the brothers have sex with this slave girl. Ubbe freed her with the intention of marrying her. But it's still just maintaining the same tone of all the brothers wanting her. It seems like she has quite a transitional moment when she teases Ubbe and Hvitserk to see if they will truly be able to share her. That is an intriguing moment that says she may become a more interesting character in the future. So far, she's been defined by being weak. And now as the wife of a great viking warrior, that will hopefully change. The ceremony itself is a pretty engaging set piece. The excitement is even amped up a little bit with the ceremonial race that happens afterwards. It may be a little confusing to the audience as to why this is happening. It's largely just to figure out who will serve whom at the dinner afterwards. But still it plays into the themes of Ubbe and Hvitserk competing against each other.

And then, the hour takes a turn to the dark and brutal with Lagertha offering a human sacrifice to the gods to bless the major mission the viking army is able to undertake. Sure, it's a moment that ultimately becomes about Bjorn and Astrid sneaking away to have sex again. That is still a lackluster and very forced dynamic that doesn't really mean anything. It's important that Lagertha knows about it and largely just warns Astrid to make sure she knows what she's doing. It's much more engaging to watch the vikings come together to kill one of their own. It's a nice escalation of events. The vikings have made sacrifices to the gods before to bless their raids. The army that has been assembled to go to England to avenge Ragnar's death is larger than any previous army. So, Lagertha believes they need to make an even bigger sacrifice. It's intense to watch as she prepares to kill this man. He's not a character who has ever been seen before. It's just a brutal sequence as she readies the blade and then impales him with it. It's a sequence done with precision and love. Lagertha is there to guide this man through his death. The vikings believe he shall soon be in Valhalla with the gods. That's the reasoning behind all of this. It's thematic material the show has covered before. So, it's easy for the audience to understand and accept this level of violence.

But afterwards, it's right back to the melodrama. The sons of Ragnar are arguing over who should lead this raid to avenge his death. Bjorn is the obvious pick because he is already the leader of the vikings. He's the one who now leads the army out on raids. He's the one who just recently returned from his bold venture to explore the Mediterranean. He conquered what his father could not. His vision has surpassed his father's. But he still feels indebted to him and has to seek revenge against Aelle and Ecbert. That's why he is the logical choice to lead the raid. And yet, Ubbe and Ivar are still arguing about it. Ubbe understands that Bjorn will be in charge. But Ivar had a special connection to Ragnar that none of his brothers did. His feelings are the most important when it comes to avenging the deaths of his father and mother. He doesn't make a move against Lagertha but that's still a plot that needs to be addressed before the season is over. When the brothers all gather, Bjorn makes it known that he is in charge. This is a surprisingly quiet episode for Bjorn. The action is focused more on the other sons of Ragnar. That could be because the audience already knows Bjorn and is still getting used to these new characters. It's still an awkward battle for control though. Again, the focus is on Ivar. He's the one who can't accept Bjorn being in charge right away. And yet, when it comes time to leave and battle, the hierarchy has seemed to have worked itself out.

This episode does cover the vikings returning to England and their battle in Northumbria as well. King Aelle has found newfound importance this season. He was the man who ultimately killed Ragnar. He was the final obstacle Ragnar had to deal with in his life on Earth. That was one of the most brutal episodes the show has ever done. It highlighted just how pompous Aelle is as a character. He doesn't always see the world as nuanced as it is. That honor belongs to Ecbert. So, it should come as no surprise that Aelle is easily defeated by the viking army while Ecbert is still a future target to deal with. That makes sense. Aelle may have been the one to kill Ragnar but Ecbert is just as responsible for his death. In fact, it's even more of a betrayal on Ecbert's part because he actually loved and understood Ragnar. He handed him over to Aelle and that decision weighs on his conscience. It's still a decision that is plaguing him. Ecbert only appears in a brief scene where Aethelwulf tells him about the situation in Northumbria and asks for his love. But it's clear he's no longer the strong and confident ruler he once was. That could make him an interesting antagonist for the viking army to deal with in the final episodes of the season. It will be much more satisfying to watch the war with England when the vikings venture into Wessex. Those are the characters the audience has seen for several seasons now. That's where the stakes and tension truly lie. It is satisfying to see the sons of Ragnar stand over his grave and kill Aelle in an equally brutal and cruel way. But it should be just as exciting and personal to see what's in store for Ecbert.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Revenge" was written by Michael Hirst and directed by Jeff Woolnough.
  • So, King Harald wants to conquer all of Norway because he wants to marry a woman. It's good to have that motivation. It makes more sense and makes him a more interesting character. It gives him something more to do than plot in a corner with his brother. It's still just something minor that the show wants the audience to care about for some reason though.
  • Plus, Harald and Halfdan are still plotting to take over Kattegat as well. They make the trip to England with the sons of Ragnar to fight. Lagertha doesn't. And yet, the plans are still being comprised to break into Kattegat and take over when Lagertha least expects it. Just more plot setup for the future.
  • Aelle was so confident that he would be able to defeat the great viking army after he had taken down Ragnar. And yet, he was woefully unprepared for their arrival despite Judith's warning. That's not surprising. And perhaps the cutaway to showing him defeated instead of the actual battle was a smart move. It was also a very sudden and blunt shift.
  • Aethelwulf is aware that his father loves himself, Judith and Ragnar but doesn't know if he loves his only son. Ecbert trusts Aethelwulf to lead his army. But the question of love is still a mystery. The show doesn't make this moment easy for the audience. It truly makes us question it as well.
  • The Seer appears for just a brief moment as Lagertha notices him at the grand sacrifice before the raid. He appears largely just to make it clear once again that the characters are always worrying and focused on what their futures will be.
  • That owl perched on Lagertha's shoulder is such a cool image. It serves no purpose whatsoever. And yet, it only makes her seem even more badass and wise.
  • The sons of Ragnar arguing over who will lead the mission to England comes at the same time the show is trying to figure out who is the new lead and central focus following the death of Ragnar. It's still a juggling act that the show hasn't quite mastered yet.