Wednesday, January 10, 2018

REVIEW: 'Vikings' - Lagertha and Ivar's Forces Finally Meet on the Battlefield in 'The Joke'

History's Vikings - Episode 5.08 "The Joke"

The battle for Kattegat begins. As the two armies line up to fight, the Great Heathen Army must decide between a final plea for peace or all-out war. Floki faces discord amongst the settlers.

Vikings has been preparing for battle for the majority of its season. There were some battles early on in England. But it's been clear for awhile that the significant focus of the season is this civil war amongst the vikings. It was a war that could theoretically have any outcome. Yes, there are some characters who are deemed safe because they still have future roles to play in viking society. But there are other memorable characters who could be killed during this conflict. It's an exciting time for the show. And yet, the episodes leading up to "The Joke" have been a little lackluster. It's been a lot of talk and not a whole lot of action. That talk wasn't all that interesting either. It was mostly just a series of melodramatic twists. The strategizing of this war only occurred in brief moments. The rest of the time was filled with personal drama that wasn't all that engaging to watch. And now, the two sides of this conflict finally meet on the battlefield. "The Joke" should be a triumphant episode that gets the season back on track. And yes, a battle is fought with a clear victor. But it's still a pretty frustrating episode because the first two thirds are still a lot of talking to prolong this story for as long as possible. That's lame and disappointing. Again, it already feels clear what the stakes of this war are. This episode tries to fool the audience into believing that it could be resolved in another way without any bloodshed. If that was going to be the case, the previous few episodes wouldn't have built up this conflict and the polarizing ideologies so much. So, no one should be surprised that the negotiations don't produce anything meaningful in this conflict. War was always coming to Kattegat. After too long, it finally arrives in this episode.

There's the assumption in the early going of this episode that the battle is going to happen very quickly. Last week's episode ended with the two sides preparing for battle. That continues here with Lagertha, Bjorn and company saying goodbye to their loved ones in Kattegat. They made the decision to meet Ivar, Harald and their forces in the mountains. That's where they were expecting this attack to happen. And then, the action immediately cuts to the two sides staring each other down on this hillside. The narrative made a point in saying that Bjorn knows that Ivar likes to scout his battlefields in order to determine how to exploit the terrain to his advantage. Lagertha and Bjorn apparently catch Ivar and Harald by surprise by making this their battlefield. But that's not even addressed at all in the actual story of this episode. Also, it seems a little ridiculous that both sides are just allowed to camp out in these positions. That seems like a significant risk for Lagertha and Bjorn because they are allowing Ivar the time to adjust his game plan for this specific battlefield. But that's not really a concern whatsoever. Despite all of the time spent here waiting for the battle to be fought, Ivar doesn't have his usual stroke of brilliance until the warriors are charging at his troops. That's strange and makes him come across as overly confident that he'll prevail simply because he always has. He's won so many times because of his strategy. And here, it doesn't appear like he has any which does sell out the character a little bit to ensure the outcome of this battle.

And so, it becomes clear that this episode is once again employing stalling tactics to keep this conflict going for awhile. It does so in a number of ways. Once the show cut away to what was going on in England and Iceland, it was pretty obvious that this wasn't going to be the pivotal episode of the war or the season. The expectation going into the hour suggested that it was. And so, it's disappointing on that level. Plus, the stories going on with Floki and his settlers as well as Alfred and the English forces just feel too repetitive of the stories that have been happening in the previous few episodes. They don't really tell the audience anything new about what's going on in those corners of the world. They are just included to prove that they will still be important in the future. Floki's settlers are fighting amongst themselves and his ideas. Alfred has new plans for the future of the country that will annoy the people in charge who are used to doing things a certain way. Both seem important but are distracting from the story of actual substance. Of course, the viking war doesn't fare much better. It's basically the two sides going back-and-forth about the bonds they share as vikings and how this conflict will only destroy them. This war will keep them from exploring and conquering. It's a pointless distraction. And then, there's the fake out that Ivar is willing to forgive and forget his past grudges towards his family. That moment just seems incredibly pointless. It gives everyone a false sense of hope even though it makes no sense with everything that has been going on with Ivar lately.

"The Joke" really doesn't come alive until the battle of the vikings actually starts. This show can produce quality drama without having to do a heavy action episode. Sure, the action sequences are where the show frequently shines the most. The creative team always finds new ways to film the action while highlighting the smarts of its individual characters. The scale of this battle is huge and intense. And the show really needs this right now. Both sides have a ton of troops that they can send into battle on this hill. And it's noteworthy that everything goes according to plan for Lagertha and Bjorn. They worried about the decisions they were making last week. They didn't know if they would succeed or if they would just be abandoning Kattegat for raiding from Ivar and Harald's troops. And now, they have the confidence to trap their opponents on the battlefield. Bjorn leads one charge. King Svase has his warriors in the woods to stop any forces trying to come that way. And Lagertha comes up from the rear to really put the pressure on Harald. The king believes he is so smart and powerful. He believes he towers over everyone else on the battlefield. He believes he's won even when the battle is happening. He's pretty much a one-note character in that way. His defeat here is so absolute. It's a crushing loss that cuts down a significant portion of his soldiers. It's too late before anyone on Harald and Ivar's side has a smart idea on how to fight. But they are still allowed a way out of this fight. That's strange and allows them the opportunity to regroup. With enough time, they could really think of something clever that will allow them to prevail in this war. Lagertha and Bjorn giving them that option feels motivated by the plot instead of something they would desire.

Logistically, it's just strange that King Svase's warriors are in the woods that Hvitserk leads his troops through and not the woods that Ivar and Astrid go through. It feels like a convenient escape route. A way for Ivar, Harald and company to escape once it's clear that they are losing and need to retreat. It means they can go to their ships while Lagertha and her forces surveil the battlefield. It all basically means that the only complication of interest from this battle is what happens to Heahmund. Once again, he feels like a character who can't be killed simply because he is played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Heahmund has fought alongside Ivar because he has taken prisoner and had his personal views twisted. He could fight alongside the vikings because he would be killing even more heathens who don't respect his god and worldview. It's fascinating that once again he is taken down in a war with vikings. Once again, he manages to survive. There is a brief moment where he and Lagertha seem to lock eyes with the potential of him killing her before Ivar has the opportunity. But the show wouldn't rid Ivar of that moment. If Lagertha dies at some point this season, Ivar is going to be the one to kill her. No other option makes sense or would feel justified. And so, Heahmund needs to be removed from the board during this fight. But he also can't die. So now, he just has the perception of being this brave Saxon warrior whom the vikings keep showing special interest in for some reason. Lagertha and Bjorn are surprised to see him on the field. They are surprised to discover him still alive in the aftermath. They decide to take him back as their new prisoner. It's all complicated and could easily be their downfall in this battle. But does it make enough sense? Or are Lagertha and Bjorn simply acting out of what's necessary for whatever comes next in this war? Only time will provide clarity on this decision.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Joke" was written by Michael Hirst and directed by Jeff Woolnough.
  • I know that there is a name for the troops that fight under the leadership of King Svase and Princess Snaefrid. I just haven't caught how to actually spell it so that it can easily be understood in a column like this. Of course, it was always inevitable that the battle would go into the woods to see these warriors in action. The show got a couple of really eery shots out of that sequence as well.
  • No characters of note die in this battle. Again, that could be disappointing. But it also intensifies the pressure of this conflict for the future. The big battle is done and over. Now, the actions will need to be more personal and clever in order to prevail. Several of these characters succeed in that mindset. So anything can still technically happen in this war. But there is also the sense of this being the point of no return - meaning that the vikings can never be united again.
  • Alfred wants to establish a navy of ships in order to protect the citizens of England from the vikings before they ever land on their shores. It's a brilliant idea. The show introducing that plot point now probably means it will come to fruition before the next time the vikings sail west to England. The show got a lot of great use from a battle near and on water in France. So, this is very promising.
  • The characters in Floki's viking settlement in Iceland have names. The only one that I can actually remember is Flatnose because that's just such a strange but cool name. That basically defines him as well. He's the calm voice willing to put in the hard work. That story is mostly becoming annoying because of the one settler who always complains even while recognizing that there is nothing else in the world for him to do anymore.
  • Just like Ivar has to kill Lagertha should Lagertha die this season, Astrid has to kill Harald. His death seems likely because he's not the character actually driving this conflict forward. He's just an interesting complication that provides Ivar with a strong ally. But he has done some horrifying things as well that should be punished severely. Astrid is the only one who deserves to kill him right now. That would be incredibly satisfying.