Wednesday, February 1, 2017

REVIEW: 'Vikings' - Bjorn Makes a Deal with Ecbert While Ivar Plans for the Future in 'The Reckoning'

History's Vikings - Episode 4.20 "The Reckoning"

Prince Aethelwulf finds himself subject to the vikings' battle master plan. Ecbert remains behind with a plan of his own.

Ever since Ragnar's death, there has been a clear hole at the center of Vikings. It was a bold move on series creator Michael Hirst's part to kill off his lead character after four seasons. It also made sense from a storytelling perspective. It was time for Ragnar to die. The series had charted his rise and fall as a man ahead of his time. And now, it is time to pass the torch to his sons. It's time to see them rise and fall as they try to honor their father's dreams and legacy. It all works in a thematic sense. And yet, Travis Fimmel really was the central focus of the show. Without him holding everything together at the center, the storytelling has been a little more erratic and forced. It has quickened the pacing in a number of stories even though it doesn't always make sense - especially in regards to Lagertha and her rein in Kattegat. And yet, this season is about the sons of Ragnar avenging his death by the hands of Kings Ecbert and Aelle. That has been a unifying mission for the characters over the last few episodes. It's a mission that has already led to a number of conflicts with the English. And now, it has reached its very bloody conclusion. The show had to completely recreate itself after Ragnar died. It is still figuring things out in a number of ways. This finale has to ask "What next?" This mission brought the sons of Ragnar together. But what is next for them after they succeed? Will they continue together? Or will they each try to forge their own paths? It's in that question where the finale becomes a little more chaotic once more.

Of course, "The Reckoning" opens with the continuation of the battle between the vikings (led by Bjorn and Ivar) and the English (led by Aethelwulf). It's a bloody and muddy battle. It also highlights how each of the sons of Ragnar fight. It's both impressive and slightly awkward as well. There were a number of problems to be had with the big battle strategy from the vikings last week. It was oddly choreographed and made it seem like the vikings were these magical creatures who could run faster than horses and be in multiple places at once. That's still the case during this opening when Bjorn and his troops have the advantage over Aethelwulf. This sequence is more similar to the battles the show has done before. It's not trying to do anything new. It's simple hand-to-hand combat. It's a bunch of soldiers in an open field fighting to the death. It's significant when Aethelwulf is kicked to the ground and his face is covered with mud and he then looks up to see the battle unfolding. He realizes that the great heathen army is more powerful than anyone could have expected. He needs to retreat and get his father and family to safety. They need to run in order to better prepare for this battle.

That leads to the most moving story of the finale. King Ecbert has always been a fascinating character on the show. The inner turmoil of his quest for power and his respect for religion has been an interesting dichotomy. He was similar to Ragnar in a lot of ways. Their minds weren't bogged down by the traditions and ways of their times. They had the vision to change the way things were done. That led to both of them living lonely existences. Sure, they were often surrounded by family. But they were never truly understood by someone else. That's why they loved and respected each other - even though they were also enemies. Ecbert had to be there when Ragnar died even though he condemned him to this fate. So, it's only fitting that Ecbert dies not too long afterwards. It's his choice to die as well. He makes sure everyone leaves the town and that Aethelwulf is crowned the new king. He has accepted his fate. He knows he is going to die this day. The only hope he has left is being able to bargain with the vikings like he did all those times with Ragnar.

It's a fascinating sequence to watch. The army came into the town and celebrated the absence of people as a sign of victory. Of course, the war isn't over yet. They are still in enemy territory. But Ecbert walks out without a fight. He surrenders and it's up to Ragnar's sons to decide what to do. Doing the blood eagle again makes the most sense. He should receive the same punishment as King Aelle. That's what Ivar and Sigurd believe. And yet, Bjorn knows that the situation is more complicated than that. The war with England isn't over just because both of the kings are dead. They could still use Ecbert as leverage. It's only after they've been discussing this for awhile that the camera pans up to show Ecbert in a cage just like Ragnar. He chimes in with his own thoughts. He agrees to legally give them a kingdom to rule in England. A place where the vikings can settle down and farm - just like Ragnar wanted all those years ago. In return, Ecbert wants to choose how he'll die. Those are terms Bjorn agrees to because it's what his father would have wanted. It then leads to the powerful sequence of Ecbert walking into his pool and cutting his arms. It's beautiful to watch in its horror. That pool has been so significant to him over the years. He's reminded of all the interactions he has had with the vikings over the years. And in the end, it's Ragnar's voice that is there to comfort him.

King Ecbert's death is a significant moment in the finale. The sons of Ragnar have succeeded in what they came to England to do. But now, is the question of what should happen next. They fulfilled their father's legacy. The vikings will be able to farm England. And now, Bjorn wants to return to his own dreams of sailing the Mediterranean. He promises that his brothers will be able to lord over this new kingdom. And yet, Ivar has a different idea. He wants to continue raiding England. He sees this great army assembled and wants to continue what they are doing. He wants to see just how far they can go in conquering this world that they are in. It's a core conflict between the brothers and the show itself. Ragnar brought them all together. Fulfilling his legacy is now pulling them apart. Bjorn seems like the logical answer to fill the void of leading man. His mannerisms have mirrored Ragnar's in a number of ways this season. But the charisma and mystique just isn't there. He enjoys stating things as bluntly as possible. When Helga dies in the raid, Bjorn comforts Floki by saying he knew her since he was a boy. When the conflict emerges at the celebration, he states that the brothers could only come together to honor their father's legacy. Without it, they are once again bickering like before. It's an okay skill set. It's just not one that totally commands the screen in interesting ways.

If Bjorn is too blunt and straightforward, then Ivar is completely crazy and unpredictable. He quickly becomes frustrated when his brothers don't agree with his vision for the future. It's once again Sigurd who openly mocks Ivar for not fully being a man. It's a dynamic that has been common between them this season. And yet, it's largely been the only thing to define Sigurd as a character. Sigurd, Ubbe and Hvitserk are still too one-note to have a fully complicated opinion on this matter. However, this sequence is building to the shocking moment where Ivar irrationally throws an ax into Sigurd. It kills him. It's a shocking ending. But it's mostly shocking in order to have a surprising ending. It shows just how dangerous and reckless Ivar is capable of being. He didn't know he was going to do that. Even afterwards, he's surprised by what he has done. But once Sigurd collapses, he returns to having that proud, viking look in his eyes as he looks for the approval of his fellow man. It's clear the show is setting up for a future where the brothers remain in conflict with one another. It's just still uncertain if that will be just as engaging a main focus for the show as the past four seasons with Ragnar were.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Reckoning" was written by Michael Hirst and directed by Ben Bolt.
  • Helga is killed when Tanaruz stabs her with a knife and then kills herself. That story has been so weird for its entire existence. Helga kidnapping this girl and pretending she was her daughter was very awkward and seemingly had no purpose. And now, it has just gotten her killed. She has come close to dying before. But now, it has actually happened. It's not really a great or deserving sendoff though.
  • However, Helga's death gives Floki an excellent story. He has now lost everything in this world that he loved - his daughter, his wife and Ragnar. It's such a haunting moment when he says he is now an empty vessel. He will do whatever the gods command but he is no longer himself. He has died too.
  • It's great that the bishop decides to stay behind with King Ecbert because he can't allow the vikings to take all of the good wine they have in the building. It's fun watching the two drink it afterwards even though they know death is coming for them. Even with outstretched arms indicting surrender, the bishop is still killed.
  • Is there any explanation as to why Harold wishes to return to Kattegat while Halfdan goes with Bjorn to the Mediterranean? It could just serve as a way to finally separate those two so they can develop some actual personalities. It's just a strange observation that doesn't mean much.
  • There is no Lagertha at all in the finale. Her story ended for the season last week. That's disappointing. But trying to provide an update on her would have felt like doing too much in this episode.
  • The final moments of the season also introduce Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Bishop Heahmund, an English priest presiding over a funeral who then has sex with the widow under the cross and with his sword nearby. He seems like an extreme character who could be a fascinating addition to the show. It's a somewhat awkward and blunt introduction though.