Wednesday, December 13, 2017

REVIEW: 'Vikings' - A New Alliance Forms Between Lagertha and Ubbe as Bjorn Lands in Sicily in 'The Plan'

History's Vikings - Episode 5.04 "The Plan"

Guided by Bishop Heahmund's visions, the Saxons devise a battle plan. Ivar the Boneless strategizes one of his own as the Vikings undergo increasing pressure. Bjorn Ironside finds himself in a new territory and must convince the local commander he is a trader and not a raider.

"The Plan" is a busy episode of Vikings. It jumps around the globe visiting five different locations. As such, it never feels like any of them truly get any momentum. It's mostly the show just introducing new corners of this world or bidding its time before the later conflicts can occur. And so, this hour visits Bjorn in the Mediterranean Sea, Ubbe returning to Kattegat and Lagertha, Harald and Astrid in Norway, the vikings and saxons in England and Floki in "the land of the gods." That is just a lot of story to cram into one hour. This show is frequently at its best when it can focus on its characters. That is helped immensely by just being grounded in one location or conflict for a little bit. Right now, the narrative is so scattered with the dreams and ambitions of one set of characters being completely different from the rest of the world. It seems incredibly likely that Bjorn is going to spend the majority of this season exploring the Mediterranean. That's his grand ambition. He's sailed to conquer and explore new worlds. It's him carrying on in his father's footsteps. He has done his duty to avenge his father's death. Now, he can focus on his own ambition. But that's a narrative focus that will have barely anything to do with what's going on in England and Kattegat this year. So, it's a fragmented story that needs to build thematic links between the stories. In this hour, it's all about the characters being suspicious with each other and proving their worth. They all have dreams and desires. It's easy to understand the motivations for so many of these characters. There is just very little room for intersection. Yes, Floki is returning to his fellow vikings in order to bring back the most faithful to this beautiful island he has discovered. He's a man with a mission once more. But that mission doesn't seem like it will connect strongly with what everyone else is up to. That could become a major problem this season. There needs to be more connective tissue to the various stories.

Bjorn's adventures are the most introductory. It's a story of him landing in Sicily and learning about the political landscape of this new world. He is very fortunate to have the wanderer Sinric by his side who can serve as an interpreter. Of course, the narrative really didn't explain how Sinric came to be a part of this journey with Bjorn. It's just important that he is here now and playing a significant role in this adventure. Of course, the writing also foreshadows a major twist of betrayal happening in this corner of the world at some point. Sinric keeps going on and on about nothing being as it seems. He returned to this island believing that Euphemius was the most infamous man and the ruler of this world. He has seen the Roman Empire fall with a new power struggle breaking out. He's obtaining information in this place in order to better serve Bjorn and Halfdan. And yet, they have their own doubts. They are very cautious in this world. They are no longer a great army with plans of raiding and conquering whatever they find in this new land. They are operating under the facade of being traders. Bjorn still proves himself to be a very skilled warrior who can hold his own despite the language barrier. But it's still a very expositional story that sets up that Euphemius wants to hire Bjorn and the vikings as his personal security. He is reluctant to do what they want until a famous nun named Kassia convinces him otherwise. It's a story that proves that the women have so much power in this world. But it's still fundamentally leading these characters to yet another new location to meet even more new people.

Elsewhere, the conflict between Lagertha and Harald right now is defined through them being suspicious about their new potential allies. Harald kidnapped Astrid in order to make her his wife and queen. He needed someone to sit by his side on the throne. He wanted someone with ambition. He sees it as giving her an opportunity she never would have had with Lagertha. Of course, he doesn't know that Astrid and Lagertha were lovers. That's a powerful motivation for why she would still be loyal to Lagertha. Images of the two of them together play as Astrid agrees to marry Harald. As such, it's pretty clear that this entire story will ultimately come down to her betraying him in order to help Lagertha win. That seems a little too inevitable. So hopefully, something shocking will happen here shortly. Meanwhile, Lagertha is dealing with Ubbe who has returned and Margrethe who believes her rule over the city isn't as strong as it once was. Of course, it's hard to take the threat from Margrethe seriously because she's reduced to tears after one conversation with Lagertha. But what she's saying still ultimately gets to Lagertha. She even returns to The Seer to know if she'll ever reunite with Bjorn. He confirms that she will but grows even more agitated by how much of her fate Lagertha wants to know. That's a compelling dilemma. Lagertha is desperate for information. She needs to know that she is still strong despite these precarious new alliances. That's a fascinating place for her to be in right now. Meanwhile, everything with Ubbe is a bit more blunt and one-note. He's just complaining about Ivar and Hvitserk betraying him and wanting revenge for their behavior. It makes him a logical ally for Lagertha. And right now, more familiar characters should be returning to Kattegat.

Meanwhile, there is some narrative trickery afoot over in England. The previous episode made it clear that the conflict between Ivar and Heahmund is the driving force for the season. They are the two similar foes clashing with each other. But it's still a conflict confined to just one corner of the world. Not everything is defined by it. That's realistic. But it also just means a lot of stalling techniques as well. Last week was a very action-centric episode that was devoted to showing most of the conflict in York. And now, the show lets a little bit of time pass in order to show how both sides are faring in this war. The show is completely open and honest about everything that is going on from the English perspective. Aethelwulf and Heahmund are clashing a bit more. Reinforcements have arrived from Northumbria. The English decided to stay in their encampment near York in order to have a blockade of resources around the city. They plan on starving the vikings to death. They opt for this strategy because of a vision that Heahmund had. Now, the audience didn't see this vision. It could just be Heahmund making it all up in order to give more importance and value to his strategic mind. He's the one who wants to be leading the charge. He's motivated by killing everyone who denies their faith. That's a simple motivation that needs a bit more definition for a fascinating character though. But again, the show plays it fair with the English by being very upfront about what's going on.

Things are much more complicated on the viking side of the conflict though. There was the hope that they would be more unified now that Ivar is the official leader. But it's still a story hitting some familiar plot beats. Hvitserk is struggling with feelings of always being in his brother's shadow and being viewed more as a servant. He's praying for purpose but is continually abused whenever he speaks. The show continues to play Ivar as this brilliant tactician. It's almost crazy just how perceptive he is. He knows what the English are trying to do. He knows that they need to offer up the illusion that they are dying in this city because of the dwindling food supply. But he's not sharing these plans with anyone. The show isn't providing the audience with an explanation for how any of this is actually possible. It's just important to note that Ivar sees the world differently from everyone else. That's what makes him such a great opponent for the English while also making Hvitserk feel inferior. But this hour is building to the reveal that the vikings have just mysteriously vanished from York. Heahmund had a vision of their dead bodies laying throughout the city. When the English break through the gates, the city is just empty. He suggests that the vikings may have gone underground in order to survive. It's played as a shocking moment that reveals just how deceptive and cunning Ivar is. But the show doesn't allow the audience to be a part of the process. It just makes Ivar seem magical in knowing everything. It would be good to see him fail at some point during this war with the English. He's been proven right over and over again which has made it a very one-sided conflict.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Plan" was written by Michael Hirst and directed by Steve Saint Leger.
  • Floki's story has been so fascinating and striking all season long. And yet, it was inevitable that he would have to interact with another human being at some point. Right now, it's been a lot of him marveling at the beauty of the world and praying to the gods. That's been fantastic. But it should be interesting to see how this experience will inform his behavior once he returns to civilization.
  • Also, where is Floki going to go? Does he have the proper navigation tools in order to sail the seas more effectively? Will he end up where he wants to go? Will he return to England? Or to Kattegat? Will anyone actually join him to this land of the gods? Or will he even be able to find this beautiful place again? So many compelling questions that will need answers very shortly.
  • The passage of time has always been odd in this universe. And yet, it also does seem like the show is playing fair in making sure that some time passes in all of the stories. Days need to go by in order for Ubbe to return to Kattegat and for the English to believe that the Vikings have started starving to death. References are made about how long it has been in Astrid's story as well.
  • The show is basically saying that Bjorn and Halfdan are effectively a team now. They are the two vikings of importance in this adventure through the Mediterranean. They are the ones skeptical of this new world. They are the ones leading the charge. Of course, not much effort was put into fleshing out this friendship. It's just something the audience just has to accept. But a betrayal will more than likely come from this corner of the world at some point. It's just a mystery as to whom.
  • Margrethe really is bad about conspiring against Lagertha. She is really only voicing these concerns to Ubbe and Torvi. Both of them need Lagertha. Yes, Ubbe may be better suited to being the ruler of Kattegat than any of his brothers. That's not a bad thought to put in his head. But right now, he needs allies in order to one day defeat Ivar and Hvitserk. Meanwhile, Torvi has known Lagertha for much longer than Margrethe. Plus, she's Bjorn's wife. So, it's incredibly unlikely that she would ever betray her.