Wednesday, January 17, 2018

REVIEW: 'Vikings' - Lagertha Learns More About Heahmund as Ivar Gets Reinforcements in 'A Simple Story'

History's Vikings - Episode 5.09 "A Simple Story"

The army leaders consider their options in the aftermath of the battle. In Floki's camp, all hopes of binding the community together are dashed as tragedy unfolds.

Is Lagertha being smart or foolish in allowing Heahmund to fight for her? The previous episode was defined by Lagertha and Bjorn being smarter than Ivar and Harald. After weeks of teasing this war, the bloody conflict finally arrived. They met on the battlefield with both sides experiencing lots of tragic losses. No characters of significance were killed. But it was still a crushing defeat for Ivar and Harald. Lagertha and Bjorn simply had a better strategy. Ivar was finally defeated in battle. He lost his most intriguing warrior in Heahmund as well. Heahmund was fighting alongside the vikings in this battle. He killed many. But he was still struck down. Despite how strong and capable a warrior he is, he was still injured. And yet, Lagertha chose to save his life. That decision felt like it could potentially be disastrous for her. It felt like the narrative needed to keep this character alive more than the characters wanting to save him. Lagertha has no experience with Heahmund outside of this battle. She doesn't know what to expect from him. And yet, she is intrigued. That mindset allows her to save him and have conversations with him throughout this episode. But it also feels like a decision that will still come back to hurt her. However, the tables have been flipped in this war and it has absolutely nothing to do with Heahmund. So right now, Ivar is the one operating from a position of strength while Lagertha only has Heahmund as an intriguing ally by her side. So perhaps, it won't be a bad decision to have him fight alongside her. Maybe he truly will be fine and loyal to whomever emerges victorious in this war. That makes him a compelling character even though it's still so hard to trust him around Lagertha.

Lagertha welcoming Heahmund's fealty is also somewhat awkward because it has to be condensed to an episode. She saved him in battle last week. And by the end of "A Simply Story," he needs to have healed from his injuries and be ready to fight alongside her. When he was with Ivar, Heahmund had the luxury of time to form that bond. It was a cold and isolating dynamic. He was a Saxon priest in a land full of pagans. He was a prisoner who's only way to survive was to promise to fight alongside his captors. He agreed to do so because he is a pious man who believes he should kill all heathens. He's a man who didn't care about the outcome of this war but would fight alongside Ivar without betraying him. He promised him that. That was the story for a couple of episodes. And now, it's all condensed down so that Lagertha can have her own time with Heahmund to reach the same conclusion. It is clear that time does pass in this episode. Heahmund's wounds heal while Hvitserk goes to France and back. Time would help make this feel like a decision Lagertha should be confident about. But then again, she really shouldn't be confident about anything because the war isn't going the way she was expecting after that first battle. She believed she had won. She got to hold onto her claim of Kattegat. Bjorn is still alive to continue to fight for his own dreams. They lived to continue to honor Ragnar's legacy. But things have turned so incredibly toxic so quickly in that Ivar is the threat to all that Ragnar wanted to accomplish with his life for his people.

It should also be noted that Ivar isn't the viking who comes up with the idea to ask Rollo and the French for help. That instead comes from Hvitserk. At one time, Ivar wouldn't have listened to any suggestion his brother would have. After defeat, Ivar still has a calm confidence to him. He knew the battle was over long before Harald came running down the path in defeat. Ivar still has that foresight. He still uses it to his advantage once these reinforcements arrive. And yet, it also feels like an odd sense of plotting. Rollo doesn't actually appear in this episode. Hvitserk doesn't make that plea to him for more soldiers in this war. The rationing of why Rollo would support Ivar and Hvitserk over Lagertha and Bjorn isn't clear. Perhaps that is purposeful. Hvitserk claimed Rollo would do anything for him that could connect back to his former culture. He does seem successful in that endeavor because he returns with warriors that make Lagertha and Bjorn nervous. Bjorn arrives at the camp to try to negotiate a new deal. But Ivar laughs in his face because they are now the ones with the advantage. All that Rollo has asked in return is Bjorn not being killed by the end of the war. That's the only thing he cares about. Is that something he would realistically do? It's all just so stunted and awkward. That likely stems from Clive Standen being too busy with Taken to appear here once more. But it mostly just comes across as an evening out in this war in order to set the stage for whatever comes next. It's just very expositional in that way that offers the perception of Ivar being confident with his strategy when he's not really the man responsible for it.

All of these decisions will mostly be determined as good or bad in hindsight. So, next week's midseason finale will need to provide clear resolution with this war. These decisions will need enticing consequences. As such, it's a little hard to judge the things that happen throughout "A Simple Story." Yes, there are intriguing moments. But there are also weird ones like Lagertha blowing out the candles while she asks Heahmund if he wants to sin again. That suggests that the two have sex even though the show has never been coy about that in the past in order to inform a new dynamic. It's all weird. It means the episode's big developments happen elsewhere in this world. Floki's new settlement continues to fly off the rails for him. It's the direction the story has been heading in for awhile now. But here, it finally turns lethal. Early on, Floki and Flatnose are talking about the one dissenter amongst their ranks, Eyvind. They recognize that he is trying to become the leader of this community by sowing chaos and uncertainty in the minds of Floki's followers. Floki knows he can't be wiled up by these manipulations. And yet, that's the precise twist that happens in this story. Eyvind's son, Bul, makes a big display of disrespect at the ceremony honoring the gods. And then, the temple burns down during the night. Both produce huge reactions out of Floki. The first one pushes him to the brink of violence. The second he is completely distraught and one of his followers is killed. This moment was bound to happen. Now, it has. So, it should be interesting to see how the community can bounce back from this or if Floki can continue to thrive on this mission in this new land.

Tragedy happens in England as well. Over the run of the show, stories set in England for long stretches of time where the vikings weren't there could be melodramatic and non-essential. It was the show simply keeping tabs on them in between raids from the vikings. That does feel like the case here. But the story also features a significant death. Aethelwulf is the first series regular character of the season to be killed. It happens in such a minor way too. He has an allergic reaction to being stung by a bee. He had these big plans for bringing the country together to formulate a strategy against the vikings when they return. Instead, he is on his death bed looking absolutely disgusting while offering advice to his two sons. It's such a brutal moment where the show lingers on his gross face for a bit longer than it should. After that, it's all about the politicking over who should become king. Aethelred has the strongest case as the eldest son. But Judith is pushing for Alfred because it was what Ecbert always wanted. She presents her case and gets a huge reaction from Aethelred. But in the end, it's ultimately Aethelred who has the respect of the nobleman and convinces them to all support Alfred. It's a selfless action that he doesn't like doing. And yet, he feels forced to do it anyway. It's surprising to Alfred. But now, he is king. He can implement the ideas that people in positions of power have scoffed at over the last few episodes. He may be a young king but he's bound to be the king to lead a much more successful push against the vikings once they finish their civl war. That's exciting while still being a little piece-moving here.

Some more thoughts:
  • "A Simple Story" was written by Michael Hirst and directed by Daniel Grou.
  • Ubbe and Torvi's relationship is so new. It hasn't been seen a whole lot. And yet, they apparently have grown quite serious with one another. It's enough for Margrethe to be incredibly jealous while Ubbe talks about the mistake he made in marrying young to a woman he can no longer stand. It just feels a little too random and pointless at the moment.
  • Ubbe and Torvi even worry that it's a potentially bad decision to have Margrethe looking over Torvi's young children all the time as well. The show hints that Margrethe is hallucinating the two of them together too. That's troublesome and pushes her to the brink of sanity. That is then confirmed a moment later when she tells Torvi's children that their mother is dead and will never be coming back. It's ominous but Margrethe has been so one-note that it doesn't really mean anything.
  • When Bjorn goes to Ivar and Harald to negotiate a new deal, Ivar makes a big display of power in signaling for the soldiers in the room to kill Bjorn. He does that even though these are technically Harald's men. That suggests immediately that Ivar is truly the man in power. That was always clear for the audience because Ivar is a more nuanced character than Harald. But now, it seems true in the reality of this world too. Harald is king but probably in title only.
  • This hasn't really been an active season for Judith at all. She's just been standing on the sidelines supporting Aethelwulf and Alfred no matter what happens to them. But here, she once again proves herself of being able to manipulate with the best of them. Sure, she couldn't convince a nobleman to nominate Alfred for king. But she did successfully make the argument for why Aethelred should refuse to be king. That takes skill too - even though he resents her for it.
  • The bee that kills Aethelwulf serves as a metaphor as well. The show probably lingers on that image too long too. The audience can get it right away. Aethelwulf is a strong and powerful warrior. He rules through force and is on the frontline of battle. Alfred and Ecbert weren't like that. But it's powerful imagery that Aethelwulf is taken down by a bee that goes unnoticed by the rest of the world. Perhaps that too provides some clues for how the viking conflict will turn out next week.