Wednesday, December 20, 2017

REVIEW: 'Vikings' - Ivar Surprises Heahmund Once More as Bjorn Explores Africa in 'The Prisoner'

History's Vikings - Episode 5.05 "The Prisoner"

Ivar meets his match in Bishop Heahmund. Floki returns to Kattegat. Bjorn receives a lavish welcome in North Africa.

It's surprising just how effective all of Ivar's battle strategies ultimately were against the English. It's surprising that Ivar ends "The Prisoner" leading the great viking army back to Kattegat with a new prisoner. That just wasn't the outcome that I was expecting from this story at this point in time. And yet, that's what makes this show so exciting. It can be easy to guess what story developments are going to happen. But it always wants to keep the audience guessing as well. This entire story arc of the vikings invading England to conquer and avenge Ragnar's death has been defined by Ivar's prowess on the battlefield. Sometimes, it has been too miraculous. One of the first battles hinged on the vikings seemingly being able to all run at miraculous speeds with the English really slacking off on the battlefield. And now, the drama presents a case of the vikings hiding underneath the city of York and still being able to surprise the English despite Heahmund having his suspicions about what's really going on. The English really did just open themselves up to attack. Of course, this episode needed to open that way. Last week's hour closed with the vikings vanishing as the English stormed the city. There was the suggestion of what happened despite the show providing no evidence for how Ivar found such a hiding place. And now, it is a story dealt with right away. It leads to another epic battle that brings this entire story arc to a close.

It's a very effective battle sequence that opens this hour as well. It's just a little too ridiculous that the English all seemingly allow the vikings to emerge from the grates that lead to the sewer without attacking them while they are still in a powerful position. Yes, the vikings have a tactical advantage because of the surprise of it all. But the English just allow them to rise to the surface once more before they ever truly fight back. That's strange and weird especially since Heahmund can literally see this attack coming. But it's still a very vicious battle. The vikings once again emerge victorious. They are the ones always in charge of the narrative. They are the ones determining when and how the war is fought. As such, it should come as no surprise that they keep on winning. If this conflict was meant to drag out, then there would have been more back and forth. This way it allows Ivar to come across as this brilliant strategist who has already earned his fame and reputation. He's a brutal commander leading his fellow vikings into battle. He has his fun as well. He allows Heahmund a fighting chance once it's clear he's outnumbered on the battlefield. But even that isn't enough to ultimately save him. He is taken prisoner while Aethelwulf needs to lead his troops far away from the city to regroup. This is a resounding victory for the vikings.

Naming this episode "The Prisoner" meant that a prisoner would likely play a pivotal role in the story. That title comes from the position that Heahmund now takes in the narrative. He has been captured by the vikings. He knows about Ivar's legend. And now, Ivar has seen Heahmund in battle and is intrigued enough to bring him along this journey with him back to Kattegat. It may ultimately be a mistake. It could be a bad decision to keep Heahmund alive considering how strong a warrior and man of God he is. And yet, it also mirrors the relationship that Ragnar and Athelstan had at the start of the series. Of course, that dynamic was much more open and loving with the two sides genuinely being interested in the other's beliefs and practices. With Ivar and Heahmund, the opposite is true. They are both completely devout in their beliefs. Nothing will ever get them to change their minds. So, it's a familiar dynamic while still feeling different. It's not a simple repeat of a story that worked in the past. It's something new that could really become anything. Ivar is bringing Heahmund back to Kattegat with him. The vikings are making this journey because Hvitserk convinces his brother he needs to become king of the vikings before Bjorn returns from his adventure. That's a promising new conflict. It pulls these characters in a new direction. But again, that's not a bad thing at all. It brings Ivar back to Kattegat and his conflict with Lagertha much sooner than anyone probably anticipated.

The intersection of storylines is also surprising when it comes to Floki. He made the decision to leave his beautiful paradise at the end of the previous episode in order to share it with more true believers like himself. He surrendered himself over to the gods and believes he was rewarded with this paradise. And now, he has become a prophet. He's removing himself from the conflicts of man. He has no stake in the war between Ivar and Ubbe or the conflict between Lagertha and Harald. Those are stories that are about to become very important this season. Ubbe aligned himself with Lagertha while Ivar may be pursuing an alliance with Harald. Those stakes are clear and powerful. They indicate a clash between vikings with Heahmund being an interesting wild card. Floki wants to be completely removed from all of that. He wants to lead a community of true believers. He doesn't have a strong vetting process for this though. He returns to Kattegat and shares his message with Lagertha. The people who listen in on that conversation seem to be the ones interested in spreading the word and going on the voyage. Floki doesn't do much himself to build a cause. That's probably because Lagertha forbids him from leaving with any of her warriors. And yet, Floki is still making his preparations. He has formed his community. He has instructed them on what to do. He presents a time table. And yet, it seems very unlikely that he is going to be able to enact this plan with everyone suddenly converging on Kattegat once more. He seems bound to get hit in the crossfire.

And finally, Vikings travels to Africa for the first time. It's really only Bjorn, Halfdan and Sinric who continue on this journey. Everyone else who left on this voyage is just somewhere else in the world. Bjorn and Halfdan are the ones now exploring this new world. It's a story that is still very much in expositional mode. It's still just setting up a lot of these new conflicts. Bjorn and Halfdan are just walking into these conflicts that have been brewing for a long time in a corner of the world they've never explored before. Bjorn wanted to be the viking that explored the Mediterranean. He wanted to travel further than any other viking. He wanted this to be his legacy. He's finally doing that after having to go avenge Ragnar's death. He's now fulfilling his destiny. But it's a mission that comes with the realization that this isn't the first time that vikings have traveled to this corner of the world. It's just the first time someone as famous as Bjorn has. His fame already extends to this part of the planet. He embarks on this journey to meet Emir Ziyadat Allah, the true ruler of this region. It's an exploration that quickly proves that Bjorn and Halfdan are at a serious disadvantage. They have no clue what's going on and are simply pawns in someone else's game. Kassia appears to be the one truly calling the shots. She's the one who convinced Euphemius to travel to this country. She's the one who creates the ruse that ultimately kills him. She's the one delivering the death sentences at the conclusion of the hour. This episode ends with Bjorn, Halfdan and Sinric apparently being killed. They likely won't be. Sinric might because he's the more expendable character. But it seems much more likely that some plot complication will arise to save their lives. They are still important characters in this world. Otherwise, it would be very anti-climatic for them to be killed just as they at the beginning of their journey in the Mediterranean. That would be weird. And so, this ending is just a little too manipulative but is still a tense closer.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Prisoner" was written by Michael Hirst and directed by Ciarán Donnelly.
  • Floki has questioned his faith so many times over the course of the series. His belief has made him an enemy to Ragnar and Lagertha many times as well. He's been a very complicated man. And yet, he's still alive. Lagertha never thought she would see him again. Neither did Ubbe. But now, he has returned with a new mission. One that is once again all about his faith. And one that is bound to have complicated consequences for him.
  • Of course, it's strange how none of Floki's new followers are any characters that the audience already knows. Everyone in that crowd is a new face. It features WWE star Adam Copeland in the beginning of a recurring role. That's an important note - though not something I picked up until after the fact. All of this basically signals that this story is really only going to be important to Floki and no one else.
  • Last week Hvitserk was really struggling with his role in the viking army. Ivar is the leader now. That distinction has been made. Hvitserk has tried to be a loyal right hand man. But his ideas weren't being taken seriously and he was asking the gods for a sign of what to do. And now, he's a confident leader and warrior of the army whose ideas are actually being heard by Ivar. It's slightly weird.
  • Ivar and Harald both wish to be king. That could be a huge complication in their potential alliance. Of course, Harald wants to be king of a country and Ivar wants to be king of a people. That's probably a distinction without a difference whatsoever. It could complicate the new battle lines that have been drawn. But that's mostly just speculation for right now. Ivar and Harald still need to have that conversation between themselves.
  • There is a sex montage in the African story. Bjorn, Kassia and Ziyadat seem to be enjoying themselves. It's much more tentative for Halfdan. It builds to an awkward commercial break with it being played as a mystery as to what happened for him. Then, it was revealed that his gift wasn't a woman. That was followed by the show being a little too awkward about whether or not that was something that Halfdan enjoyed. The show can tell gay romantic stories. It has with Lagertha and Astrid. So, it's awkward why so much is left a secret here.