Wednesday, December 27, 2017

REVIEW: 'Vikings' - Ivar Presents Heahmund with a Choice as Astrid Puts a Plan into Motion in 'The Message'

History's Vikings - Episode 5.06 "The Message"

Lagertha is betrayed. Bjorn must find a way to support the distraught queen. Floki and his settlers arrive in a new land but it is far from what they expected.

Did Vikings really gain anything from the way it handled Bjorn's story in "The Prisoner" and "The Message"? It's a story that ended on an incredibly tense cliffhanger last week. Bjorn, Halfdan and Sinric were about to be executed by Kassia. She got what she wanted from this trip to Africa. She's the one who has all of the power. Emir Ziyadat Allah is the ruler of the region but she is the one giving the kill order. It was designed as a cliffhanger even though the show was calling attention to how it could realistically have all three escape their grim fates. A storm was coming and Bjorn picked up something he could use as a weapon. This episode only could have opened on the fallout of that cliffhanger. It needed to provide resolution right away. And so, all three escaped because of cover from the coming storm. They survived because they are great warriors. It was a very cool image to see the three of them riding camels out of the storm. But it was so brief at the top of this episode. This hour really isn't about Bjorn and his adventures at all. It's instead the show redefining the direction of the season once more. Yes, it's still scattered all throughout this world picking up on various interests of multiple characters. But the pending war between the vikings is this huge focus that should define the next batch of episodes. As such, it's basically just important to get Bjorn and Halfdan out of this dangerous situation in Africa and back to Kattegat as soon as possible. But did that need to play out as a part of a cliffhanger? It didn't really need to be done that way because it was always inevitable that they would all survive. It's whole purpose is largely to show that Bjorn still has quite an army at his disposal as well. They will now be fighting alongside Lagertha and Ubbe.

The show also takes quite a turn with Astrid's story that could produce a whole lot of conversation on how it handled its delicate subject matter. This episode does confirm that Astrid is still completely loyal to and in love with Lagertha. That was always seemingly apparent. She had flashes of memory with Lagertha while she was marrying Harald. That proved where her true allegiance was despite the misdirection of the moment. The king and queen are seen frolicking through the woods at the top of the hour about to have sex before Ivar arrives. It's played as this sweet and innocent romance of sorts. And yet, every kind of sexual act that takes place here with Astrid basically has to be seen as rape. She didn't consent to any of it because she was taken to this place against her will. She's playing into the situation for her own benefit. She's putting on a more trustworthy face so that she has the freedom to ultimately send a message back to Lagertha warning her of the upcoming attack. She's played the game. She is willing to do whatever it takes for that reunion. But here, she is raped multiple times. It's definitely something the audience should be unnerved by. It was a cruel and despicable suggestion the moment it first came up. And then, it was harsh and destructive when it was actually happening.

But the show also highlights the choice that Astrid has. She is doing this to send a message. That's the most important thing for her to do right now. She could strike and kill the man who wants sex in exchange for this favor. She has already payed him well so that he and his family will never have to work again. But he wants more. It shows just how toxic, cruel and controlling the men of this world can be. Astrid has accumulated a lot of power during her time on the show. But here, she is reduced down to a sexual object for the enjoyment of men. She still has a choice. It would just be ruining her plan in the process. She is willing to endure this treatment by one man. It's just a high cost of doing business. But it's also important to see her fight back and get overpowered once more men enter the room expecting the same thing. The audience should operate on the assumption that they all got what they wanted. But it was also important not to see that. The trauma she endured with the first man was bad enough. If the show lingered in that moment to see each man getting his pleasure, then it would have enjoyed the misery of it all too much. It's still a complicated scene. It forces the audience to see just how cruel and demeaning this entire world has been for Astrid. She can put on a brave face. But it is still her against the entire world. She isn't safe in this place. She has power. Harald completely believes that she is his loyal wife who will turn against Lagertha. But it's really a cold and desolate place for her that has just hit a new low of despair. And then, the message is delivered and Lagertha has no idea of the pain it took from Astrid to deliver it. She lifts this man up as a hero despite the cruelty on display. Hopefully, Astrid gets her moment of revenge at some point soon.

As dark and despicable as what happens to Astrid is, it's largely the only action of actual consequence in this entire hour. There is also the ongoing mystery of alliance building within the vikings and whether or not the various sides can trust each other. Lagertha and Ubbe do seem united. But Lagertha still needs to exert her power whenever Margrethe foolishly decides to speak out against her. Margrethe really has no idea what she's talking about. She doesn't see the subtlety of ruling whatsoever. Neither does Hvitserk. He's really just along for the ride as Ivar and Harald are the ones making new deals. They aren't being exactly subtle with what they want out of this arrangement. But when Hvitserk speaks up, it has the potential to ruin any kind of relationship before it even gets started. He believes that Ivar wants to be king of the vikings just like his father. It's not until later that Ivar tells him that he would rather be famous throughout the world. He wants to be more famous than Ragnar. That's the ideal that he is striving for. It's just not until after the partnership is formed that Hvitserk becomes away of that. Part of that is because Ivar always holds his plans close to the vest. He thrives on the perception that he is just a crippled man. He plays into those fears that he can't be a gifted warrior. But he is. People continue to underestimate him and come up short in battle. He's vicious that way. And once again, he is proving to be playing games with some pretty severe consequences.

And so, the battle lines are drawn for this war between the vikings. Ivar and Hvitserk have sailed from England to align themselves with Harald. Ivar is ready to kill Lagertha for killing Aslaug. And now, they have recruited Heahmund to fight alongside them. Ivar presented him with a choice. He could either die now or fight against more of the vikings. That's a fascinating dilemma. Sure, the stakes aren't really that high because it always seemed unlikely that the show was about to kill off Heahmund so soon after introducing him. This is a part of the journey he and Ivar are on. Right now, Ivar is the one leading the charge. He's giving Heahmund new opportunity and exploiting his beliefs that allow him to be both a gruesome warrior and a man of God. Heahmund makes a display of seeming in charge of his own destiny. But he's still just a slave to Ivar. And elsewhere, Bjorn has sailed back to Kattegat already after meeting up with the rest of his ships that were apparently sitting idly by somewhere in the Mediterranean. Plus, Lagertha has the information that this attack is coming. She is strategizing for the best place to fight this war. Kattegat may not be the best strategic option. That's an interesting tease for the future. And finally, Floki is allowed to be completely separated from all of that. Lagertha allows him and his new followers to sail to their new home. She doubts that he has truly found the land of the gods. She's allowing these people to go on this adventure knowing they will probably return to her one day. She only wants loyal people right now. She can't focus on trivial things she has no control over. That's what makes her a good ruler even when people are constantly coming after her for not exerting her power in a brutal way all of the time.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Message" was written by Michael Hirst and directed by Ciarán Donnelly.
  • Ivar doubts Astrid's loyalty to Harald. He can see clearly that it would take a whole lot to persuade her to betray the woman she was sleeping with. And yet, he doesn't really voice those concerns in a major way. He subtly makes references to that past to make his position known. He doesn't trust Astrid. But he's not actively undermining her in this episode either. He's mostly working on his own plan.
  • In addition to all of this, the action is still cutting away to England. There, it's important to see how Aethelwulf, Judith and their children are reacting after this devastating loss. They are still operating under the belief that the vikings are strong. They don't seem to know that Ivar and Hvitserk have sailed away to fight in a different war. There are still vikings in York. But Aethelwulf probably could raise an army and defeat them before Ivar returns.
  • It's still a little difficult to tell Alfred and Aethelred apart. They are the children of Aethelwulf and Judith. Well, Alfred is technically the child of Judith and Athelstan. That's not really a secret. That has always made him the more important character in this family dynamic. He's once again at the forefront of the story in visiting Ecbert's grave and planning to leave to learn more about his father's roots.
  • Floki's followers are full of so much excitement as they leave Kattegat to visit the land of the gods and plant their crops. His followers believe him fully. They believe Lagertha spares them because she is curious herself. And then, they land in this strange and desolate place. The beauty isn't highlighted in the same way that it was with Floki. He's still leading them. But now, they are more skeptical of his promises.
  • Ivar and Heahmund's relationship deepens as well because Ivar talks about the jealousy he has for Heahmund. He is the type of warrior he aspires to be. Yes, part of this is the manipulation in order to get Heahmund into doing what Ivar wants. But it is probably based on truth as well. The only difference between them is Ivar's crippled legs. Those define him in so many ways. But he's still become such an infamous viking who aspires for even more recognition in the world.