Wednesday, November 29, 2017

REVIEW: 'Vikings' - Floki Sails on a New Journey While Ivar Stands Up to His Brothers in 'The Departed, Parts 1 & 2'

History's Vikings - Episode 5.01 "The Departed, Parts 1 & 2"

Tensions mount between the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok as the Vikings continue to threaten the very heart of England. As the Great Army moves to take York, with King Aethelwuf and his family still in hiding, Heahmund, the warrior bishop, must rally the Saxons to defend the Realm.

The fourth season of Vikings turned out to be quite a pivotal year. It built to the end of the conflict between Ragnar Lothbrok and King Ecbert. It was a very nuanced story where the two admired and respected each other. They viewed themselves similarly. It was a grand love story that was also built around such a vicious conflict between their two worlds. It ended first with Ragnar's death, followed by Ecbert's death in the season finale. And now, the show is essentially building a new conflict between the Vikings and the English. It's the second era of this story. The sons of Ragnar sailed to England once more with their great army. They conquered and defeated the kings who killed their father. The show now has to reveal what comes next for the lives of these characters. "The Departed" starts the season off by sending the various characters off to many different parts of this world. That has become a natural storytelling instinct of this show. It loves jumping around the globe to see what's happening in various corners. But it also makes this two-hour premiere a bit more expositional. Of course, that needed to happen as well. This new conflict between the Vikings and the English is still being defined. The sons of Ragnar got their revenge. Now, they are choosing to stay and carrying out the dream that Ragnar had many years ago. Meanwhile, the English are being led by Aethelwulf and Bishop Heahmund who believe that the heathens must pay for what they have done to their great country. The conflict is there. It's simmering. It does lead to some more action sequences throughout this premiere. But the show is still being a little patient as well. It has the luxury of time now that it is the hallmark performer for scripted shows at History with 20-episode seasons. Hopefully, it won't take too much longer before this conflict comes out in a truly unexpected and brutal way.

Ivar, Ubbe and Hvitserk are the sons of Ragnar who choose to stay in England. Bjorn believes he has carried out his duty to avenge his father's death. Now, he can once again focus on his dreams of sailing the Mediterranean. He embarks on that journey early in this premiere and is never seen again. That's not an inherently bad thing. It gives the premiere more time to spend on the three brothers who are fighting amongst each other. The last season also ended with Ivar throwing an ax into Sigurd. That's a death that is mourned at the top of these episodes as well. He is given a proper viking funeral. Ivar is trying to convince everyone that he didn't mean to kill Sigurd. His anger just got the best of him. He snapped after enduring so much teasing for so long. It's an explanation that seemingly works because the three brothers are still choosing to lead together. There is always the trepidation in their moments together. Ubbe and Hvitserk always feel like a team with Ivar being the outsider looking in. He feels like he always has to prove himself. That tension already boiled over once with Ivar killing Sigurd. And now, he's isolated once more because Floki has chosen to leave as well. So, Ivar is out to prove that he deserves to lead just as much as Ubbe and Hvitserk. Of course, Ubbe is saying all of the right things as well. He tells Ivar that they are equals in commanding this army. Ubbe listens to Ivar's strategy when it comes to deciding what to do next.

That action includes the vikings going up to York and taking the city. Ivar heard tales about its position in the country. And now, he sees it as advantageous to have a stronghold close to the city that could also one day become a key shipping port should the viking settlement actually be established and grow. The vikings are still operating under the assumption that the deal Ecbert made with them was valid. Meanwhile, it needs to be confirmed to Heahmund and the audience that it isn't because Ecbert was no longer king at that point. That's an important plot point that will define so much of this new conflict. But the story is mostly interested in the vikings taking this city using a familiar tactic of theirs. They strike while the town is attending mass. It's a pretty gruesome action sequence as well. It's not the most elaborate spectacle the show has ever produced. In fact, it seems a little rushed and easy in certain ways. But it's all building to that moment where Ivar kills the priest by pouring liquified gold down his throat. That is just so graphic. It proves that Ivar is more nihilistic and cruel than any previous character on this show. Yes, the show has never shied away from how horrible the vikings were at the time. But it's presented a more nuance conversation on the violence before. Here, it's highlighting how the vikings are once again ruled by a man who is all about violence and raiding. He just happens to also have his father's sense of strategy. That makes him more clever. But it also makes the audience more uncomfortable during moments like this.

The English side of this conflict is still being established as well. In the season finale, King Ecbert was killed but the action called attention to the rise of a new player in Jonathan Rhys Meyers' Bishop Heahmund. He is a trained fighter and priest. His introduction last year proved that he was bound to become an important player in this world. And here, more time is actually spent on him and seeing how he works. He's actually just as destructive and unhinged as Ivar is. That should make this conflict interesting. The dynamic between Ragnar and Ecbert was always very philosophical. They could respect and understand each other all while knowing that they were at war with each other. And now, Ivar and Heahmund seem like similar people who are completely devoted to their just cause. They aim to destroy their opponent no matter what. In the early going, that seems to have a little less nuance. But that may just be because Heahmund is still a new character. The English side is still full of familiar faces like King Aethelwulf, Judith and Prince Alfred as well. They spend most of this premiere removed from the action. They are stuck in hiding where Alfred has fallen ill. It's all building to a vision he receives from his father telling him where they need to go. It's the show once again delving into the mystical. That's a quality that rarely works for me. But it's still convenient to have all of the English forces converge and plan things together. The story just isn't building to that big fight by the end of this premiere. But it will happen very soon. Heahmund already has his plan of attack.

Back in Kattegat, it seems like the narrative is biding its time a little bit. It's clear that the narrative is going to eventually build to a conflict between Lagertha and Ivar. He has to avenge his mother's death as well. So, it seems incredibly unlikely that Lagertha is going to die before that moment in time. But she still needs something to do in the narrative while the sons of Ragnar are busy in England. And thus, Harald returns to fulfill his desire of becoming king of all Norway. He returns having believed his assassination attempt on Lagertha to be successful. He is surprised to see her again. He delivers the message of the successes in England and what has happened to Bjorn. He also confesses to his previous actions. But Lagertha decides not to kill him. Instead, she imprisons him. Her advisors question this decision. It seems like the show is setting up its story to have Lagertha's closest allies and the audience question if she is still at the top of her game. Is she still strong as queen? Or is she growing weak because of age and wanting to avoid killing Harald? It may just be a convenient excuse to keep this conflict with Harald going for the next handful of episodes. He escapes and kidnaps Astrid as well. That will make all of this incredibly personal to Lagertha. But again, it seems like the show is just giving these characters something to do instead of it being all that meaningful.

But the most effective story of this premiere may be what happens to Floki. It's a story that needed to deliver him to whatever destination he was bound to end up by the end of these two hours. It can only be interesting watching him drift alone at sea for so long. He needed to find land at some point. And yet, it was powerful to see the brutal circumstances he faced on the open water. He was starving and dehydrated while also battling no wind and vicious storms. But everything become even more engaging and compelling once he washed up on shore. He has no idea where he is. The show provides no confirmation for where in the world he is. It's just important that he continues to be isolated. He's not suddenly greeted by a village of people who welcome him into their community. He is still all alone with no water or food. He desperately drinks the water from the ground that he finds. He has to warm up in a cave. That only does so much in strengthening him. He is able to climb a mountain. That reveals the picturesque beauty of wherever he has landed. It's such a beautiful shot to see him on top of that mountain looking out at the landscape. It's then equally beautiful when he discovers a waterfall. That's an image that seems so majestic and gorgeous to him. From his perspective, it's a literal sign from the gods. They have tested him repeatedly over the years. And now, he has been rewarded by landing in Asgard, the land of the gods. Of course, it's very unlikely that he's in Asgard. He's just somewhere new on Earth. But it's an effective twist because of how much Floki believes in it. He's been a devout man who has lost everything over the past year. He's still alive and ready to do whatever the gods want of him. And that's a very fascinating place to find the character this season.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Departed, Parts 1 & 2" was written by Michael Hirst and directed by David Wellington.
  • Floki gets a nice viking sendoff as well. Sure, the sons of Ragnar desperately want him to stay because he is a genius when it comes to inventing whatever they need to survive and fight. But they also understand that Floki has made up his mind and is leaving on this adventure by himself. They say goodbye and the crowd of vikings all start a "Hail Floki" chant. It's a sweet sendoff.
  • The only problem with the sequence at the end with Floki discovering this new land is that the show cuts away from it. There would have been so much more power to end on that elongated sequence of Floki exploring. But instead, it cuts away to Kattegat where Lagertha's advisors are worrying about her and again to England where Ivar attempts to walk once more.
  • That final moment with Ivar building a new contraption that will allow him to stand tall by himself feels like a power move. He's standing up as a way to continue to prove to his brothers that he has had to fight for so much in his life and that he's the one truly leading their cause. It's a terrifying sight even though he's incredibly slow in the walk and he's going to be embraced by his brothers.
  • Halfdan decides to sail with Bjorn instead of returning to Kattegat with his brother, Harald. It's a deliberate action that splits these two brothers apart. It's basically the show realizing that neither of them have all that much dimension to them. Harald has always had a core drive to him. His brother was just along for the ride. He goes with Bjorn mostly to have another character of somewhat importance in that corner of the world.
  • There's also a really odd moment where Lagertha and Harald have sex. It is completely unexpected. It comes after Harald proposes marriage in exchange for an alliance once the sons of Ragnar return to kill her. But it's also a power move where Lagertha shows him that she doesn't need to entertain such a deal. It's just odd. It proves that Lagertha is in control of her own fate. She's the one driving the story here. But it's also just a way to complicate the situation.