Wednesday, January 24, 2018

REVIEW: 'Vikings' - Lagertha and Ivar Engage in Battle One More Time in 'Moments of Vision'

History's Vikings - Episode 5.10 "Moments of Vision"

A sense of doom looms over Kattegat as bloodshed ensues. As the defeated army flees in the face of the victors, a legendary warrior makes his way home.

The civl war amongst the vikings came to define the fifth season of Vikings. One's reaction to "Moments of Vision" depends entirely on whether or not you thought this conflict would come to its conclusion here. It does not. It will apparently continue in the second half of the season - which will debut later in the year. On one hand, that's disappointing because this story has been really frustrating. At times, it feels like there is too much plot being crammed into too few episodes. At other times, it feels like there isn't enough plot to justify the amount of time spent on it. And on the other hand, it allows some fan favorite characters to keep on living for a little while longer. Before this episode, the biggest death of the season was Aethelwulf, who was killed from a bee sting. That was an unexpected moment last week that proved just how deadly this world could be in even its most mundane moments. But there needed to be a cost to this war as well. Lagertha and Ivar lead their forces into battle for the second time. The first battle was marked by victory for Lagertha as well as no characters of consequence actually dying. That trend couldn't continue the second time around. And so, there are many notable deaths throughout this hour. But the mileage may vary with a couple of them because they are not all equal in terms of audience investment.

The two most notable deaths here are Halfdan and Astrid. Those are the characters of importance who perish in this battle. Those moments come after a season that has added a whole lot of depth and dimension to both of their characters. Before this season, neither of them were all that remarkable. Halfdan was living in his brother's shadow while Astrid was simply one of Lagertha's shield maidens. This season gave them new importance by splitting them up from their normal partners. Halfdan explored the world with Bjorn while Astrid was kidnapped by Harald. Both actions came to completely redefine both characters. When they returned to the characters they interacted with previously, it came with new passion and understanding. Halfdan saw things in Africa that altered his perspective and made him loyal to Bjorn. Astrid was abused repeatedly while with Harald. They are both killed here by their loved ones. Harald didn't want to fight his brother. And yet, he has no trouble cutting him down here - which isn't something that Ubbe could do to Hvitserk earlier. Astrid can't bear the agony of her pregnancy as a reminder of her torturous time with Harald. And so, Lagertha kills her out of loving mercy. Both are such tragic moments that give this episode a weight and seriousness to it that is earned and meaningful.

And then, the show kills off a bunch of random characters who've popped up a couple of times but have no importance whatsoever. Lagertha and Bjorn went into this battle knowing that they no longer had the advantage. Ivar and Harald got reinforcements from Rollo and the French. Those warriors don't even appear for the longest time. For the majority of this hour, it's still vikings battling vikings. The losses come largely from Lagertha and Bjorn's side because they have more recurring faces who could be killed off. And yet, there's simply no meaning to seeing Guthrum - the son of Torvi and Jarl Borg - die. He is killed because Torvi can't get to him in time. Bjorn later stumbles upon his body and uses the ax still in him to protect himself. He also notes that Guthrum is with his father in Valhalla now. It's certainly symbolic of relationships crafted across the generations that have developed over the show. But Guthrum was expendable. Torvi survives though. She survives to return home to her children who have not been killed by Margrethe even though she really wanted to. That's melodramatic in a way that isn't all that exciting either. Elsewhere, it's slightly surprising to see Snaefrid die. It happens in such a matter-of-fact way too. She gets hit right after mourning her father and the action immediately cuts away. It doesn't confirm or deny that she's dead until after the battle when Bjorn is leading the retreat. Her death isn't surprising because she mattered as a character. It's surprising because the show was just establishing her as a love interest for Bjorn. As it is, it mostly feels like something that happened offscreen just to give Bjorn something to do while Ubbe spent more time with Torvi. It seems meaningless now though which could be very problematic later on.

But everyone else survives. This battle is still brutal and goes on and on for these characters. It does start to wear them down after awhile. It's clear that Bjorn and Lagertha lead their entire forces right away. Ivar can just sit back and know that he has the numbers and can send in his troops in waves. So, the battle is lasting a long time. Ivar stares down arrows being shot directly at him. He orders more troops in. It's not until the French soldiers arrive that it's clear that this isn't a battle that Bjorn and Lagertha can win. They have to retreat if they have any hope of surviving. Of course, that's not really shocking. The audience and the characters went into this conflict knowing that the French would be the turning point in this war. Their support for Ivar will be the destruction of Bjorn and Lagertha's forces. They are used just sparingly though. That's the key part of Ivar's strategy. Harald rides into battle immediately. He's there in the beginning to kill Halfdan. He's there to fight and become king of all Norway. Ivar is still making big and bold pronouncements about the rousing thrill of battle. But he doesn't fight at all here. He notices Lagertha and Heahmund on the battlefield. But he doesn't have his confrontations with them just yet. Instead, they retreat to Kattegat. They end this battle still alive. That is surprising. For this entire season, Lagertha has been content with dying. She's accepted that it is coming for her soon. She went into this war knowing that it could be the end for her. She fought because she needed to hold onto her power. She would love to just go back to farming. But she is a ruler and must lead her people. She led them into this conflict. And now, she's still alive but forced to abandon Kattegat. That's a stark image that leaves her so defeated in the end. It's such a haunting visual to see her like that. It shows that there truly is a cost to this war.

However, the most interesting component of "Moments of Vision" may actually be its structure. It all starts with the calm before the storm. The fog is rolling in over the battlefield. Both sides of the vikings join in on a song. There is unity before the chaos. Then, the action keeps jumping back and forth focusing on individual characters in the battle and right before it. It's an intriguing concept. It could get repetitive and boring based on the characters spotlighted. When Hvitserk pops up, it leads to yet another conversation between him and Ivar where Ivar is saying Hvitserk must regret getting off that boat in England. That's a conversation they've already had several times. There's nothing new about it here. But this structure also confirms what's going on in Lagertha's mind right before she leads her army into battle. It confirms that there truly is a sexual component to her dynamic with Heahmund. That feels like a rushed development but Lagertha does not fear him because she knows that death is coming soon. She understands that they have different ideas of the afterlife. She's made peace with never seeing him again. And then, they both survive. It's little moments like that that allow this battle to be elongated across the entire hour. Plus, there are moments where the entire battle just disappears. It's just individual characters standing in the same physical space internalizing what this battle means for them. So for Halfdan, it's him imagining himself in the desert of Africa and its beauty in his final moments. For Astrid, there is nothing else going on in the world then the conversation she is having with Lagertha. These moments are super heightened and play on the idea that this is controlled chaos that allows these individuals to wander in and out. But it is pretty fascinating and personal as well. It's a structure that helps this hour have an identity in a way that is exciting to watch despite it leaving the main conflict ongoing for the future.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Moments of Vision" was written by Michael Hirst and directed by Daniel Grou.
  • Of course, the structure of the episode also spoils the final twist. The opening credits always change based on the actors appearing in that specific episode. So when Clive Standen's name popped up, it was clear that Rollo would be returning. And then, he's there returning to the land of the vikings at the end of the hour. That should be an intriguing addition to this main conflict in the future.
  • It's also significantly more effective when the hour keeps itself focused on one location. When it cuts away to Margrethe talking to The Seer, it's not all that engaging because she's crazy and he calls her as such while teasing that Ubbe will be king somewhere someday. But it's also lame to see how Floki's story is resolved as well. It basically ends with him deciding to sacrifice himself in order to give this community a chance at redemption. But his death doesn't occur here either.
  • There is absolutely nothing more badass than Lagertha severing someone's head completely and then using it to knock out several more warriors. Lagertha has missed out on some significant battles over the course of the series. But she has always been one of the most engaging, fun and compelling viking warriors to watch fight. That continues here despite her acceptance of death.
  • Bjorn comes to the decision that they all need to leave Kattegat as soon as possible because Ivar and his troops will arrive shortly. Where are they likely to go though? Will they simply just travel a safe distance that allows them to recuperate and then fight back? Or will they travel somewhere else in the world and leave this war behind? What options do they have at the moment?
  • Has Ivar become too one-note of a character? He is driven solely by his need to kill Lagertha for killing Aslaug. But whenever he appears here, he is just an angry and bitter warrior needing to prove himself as this great viking and strategist. He does that largely by shouting and telling people the same thing over and over again. He losses his temper and everything repeats. It's just gotten somewhat annoying lately.
  • Well, this season was certainly more frustrating than most run of episodes in this show. It still feels like the show is hitting a few bumps as it tries to find focus following Ragnar's death. It has chosen a new creative direction. It's just been overly complicated with developments that aren't always that interesting. And yet, the future is still optimistic for things to get back on track. This is still a fine midseason finale. I'm still anticipating the show's return as soon as possible.