It’s a testament to the strength of Vikings’ storytelling that the most eloquent sequence in tonight’s episode (“Trial”) is an action scene.
After their successful raid on an unsuspecting Saxon village, Ragnar and his band emerge on the beach to find three times their number of armed soldiers standing in formation over the bodies of the two men they’d left behind. Pausing momentarily, Ragnar leads his people out into the open, throws a sword down onto the sand and, the band arranging themselves around him, grins that enigmatic Lothbrok grin. Simply speaking, the ensuing battle on the beach is a stunning piece of action staging and speaks to the show’s ongoing, gratifyingly thoughtful approach to world-building.
Confronted with superior numbers, the Vikings aren't shown simply going into cartoonish berserker mode and scattering their enemies like so much wheat. Instead, they are portrayed as experienced warriors who've clearly been at this their entire lives. Their tactics, involving a strategic whittling down of the enemies’ numbers through some shield-heavy rope-a-dope and dextrous opportunism (prior to the eventual routing melee), exhibit the level of meticulous, detail-oriented writing Vikings continues to reveal show after show. Vikings know how to fight in any situation because they have fought in every situation since they first picked up an axe. Ragnar and his men (and Lagertha) approach this seemingly hopeless battle with an efficient, workmanlike tactic made all the more terrifying by the brutal confidence of their actions. (And, as troublesome a character as Rollo has been, watching him lead a mid-battle Viking song-poem while brutally dispatching the attacking soldiers is pretty damned impressive, too.)
In each of its first four episodes, Vikings has nimbly kept us off guard regarding its protagonist. Ragnar Lothbrok isn’t Tony Soprano, a conflicted antihero taking advantage of the weaknesses of his own society for his own gain. He is living according to, and surpassing, the ideals of his own society. And by being the superior Viking he is, to those unlucky enough to live outside that society, a terrifying monster. It's to the show's credit that his behavior thus far has elucidated that paradox so well.
Look at tonight's raid on the Saxon village, which makes up the first, strongest third of “Trial”: Using the knowledge he’s pried out of captive monk Athelstan, Ragnar, knowing it’s Sunday, easily traps most of the townsfolk in the church and, after the Vikings dispatch the few men foolish enough to attack them, assures the priest that no one will be harmed if they don’t resist. They’re just there for the gold. When Floki slashes the priest's throat, Ragnar's quickly-glimpsed reaction is a perfect encapsulation of his character: He'd promised the church-folk they'd be safe if they submitted to his men pillaging the place, so when Floki goes ahead and kills someone, his order has been countermanded, bloodily and publicly. His reaction? That customary little smile never falters, even as he flashes a bemused glance askance at the ever-unpredictable Floki. A “that's Floki being Floki” shrug, coupled with an utter disregard for the life the mad ship-builder’s just ended. There's no malice in it, but no regret either. It was by his whim that these people weren't dead already, and if the priest died because he tried to stop Floki from stealing the cross, well, he didn't follow his orders to not resist. My respect for Vikings grows with every episode it refuses to undermine the dramatic and historical integrity of Ragnar’s character for our comfort.
More problematic to that end, however, is the inevitable question of rape, and here, as in the previous episodes, Vikings continues to hedge its bets. So far, the show has depicted three rapes or attempted rapes on screen. The first was an unequivocally condemned attempted assault on Lagertha by two scabby scavengers. (Lagertha quickly reveals why you don’t try that shit on a shieldmaiden.) The second is by Rollo, who, with the thoughtless abruptness of, well, Rollo, rapes a slave girl before Ragnar’s first voyage. And now, this undeniably historical aspect of Viking raiding culture is shunted off to the weaselly, traitorous Knut, the Jarl’s representative on the voyage who, finding a cowering mother and child while the others are pillaging the church, brutally rapes the terrified woman in the most upsetting sequence so far.
And then Lagertha shows up and orders him to stop.
I understand that the show has laid in a plausible reason for why she would object to Knut's actions, paralleling as it does her own assault earlier in the series. And giving the act to the loathsome Knut makes her defense of the helpless woman that much more defensible dramatically, especially when Knut turns his rape-y intentions on her. (Again, trying this on a shieldmaiden? Not smart, Knut.)
Look, it’s not that I’m dying to see Vikings turn into Rape Vikings, but dancing around the issue this way and shunting the potentially most unpalatable aspect of Viking culture onto only the most unsympathetic characters isn’t up to the standard the show’s set as far as Viking verisimilitude. Perhaps Ragnar’s higher ambitions make such acts of a lower priority, and perhaps Lagertha’s actions here can be explained by her personal experience, but the issue of whether a more audience-identified character is ever going to engage in something that, historically, he would do is going to be a dramatic test that Vikings is going to have to confront at some point if its to live up to the standards it’s set so far. I don’t envy Michael Hirst the task, but, hey, that’s what separates good shows from great ones.
Once the action shifts back home, unfortunately, the last half of “Trial” loses some intensity. Poor Athelstan, left to watch over his master’s children, is getting some of the expected insubordination from his charges. (Seriously, think about the crap you gave substitute teachers and imagine your dad’s slave was left in charge instead.) It’s a testament to young Nathan O’Toole who, as Bjorn, doesn’t overplay the brattiness here: It’s clear that he’s chafing under the yoke of this wimpy slave priest, but it’s also clear that he’s a little bit grateful for the excuse not to have to be the man of the house just yet. As for Athelstan, George Blagden has his best scene so far, fruitlessly seeking comfort from his treasured Bible and, in a speech that’s like a verse-less Shakespeare monologue, beseeching his silent God why he and his fellows have come to this sorry state. Confessing both his anger and the fact that, “For the first time, I am lonely,” Blagden’s affecting and opens the door to the possible routes his character might take.
Less successful is the last third of the episode when Ragnar, taking the heat for killing Knut, is put on trial by the Jarl. The trial scene is interesting in that it points out how tenuous the idea of power is in this society. Jarl though he is, Gabriel Byrne’s ruler must make his case to a small gathering of his people and he must make it well. He must convince his subjects that what he wants to do (kill Ragnar) is also what they should want him to do. And when (thanks to the unpredictable Rollo’s unwillingness to go along with the frame-job he thought he’d brokered) he cannot, he must set Ragnar free, and his hands are tied legally speaking. Of course, being the Jarl, that’s not the end of things. (Sorry to see you go, Vladimir Kulich.) Ragnar and his men pay a price, but as the episode ends, the Jarl, once again, must confront the terrifyingly uncertain outcome of having crossed Ragnar Lothbrok, who exiles himself to a jagged cliff overlooking the sea for days with murder in those eyes.
Again, I say, good luck, Your Highness.
- Pretty sure I heard a Wilhelm scream at the end of the beach battle. Also pretty sure that reference is played out. It really has no place in a show like this.
- Ivan Kaye plays Saxon King Aelle with that full-throated, blusterous manner common to period piece British kings. You know, as if they’re auditioning to be the next BRIAN BLESSED!
- Katheryn Winnick’s reaction after her attempted rape by/complete arse kicking of the weaselly, brutish Knut is just right. Bloodied and no doubt dazed by several brutal blows to the head, she manages to dispatch her attacker, then simply gets her breath back for a few moments. There’s no overt anger, no evidence of any strong emotion at all other than: Tough fight. Things happened. I won.
- The Jarl attempting to turn Rollo against his brother is ham-handed and obvious in a way that Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Regan would have laughed at. The over-emphatic ominous music doesn’t help, either.
- It’s a big episode for Clive Standen’s Rollo, and while he’s nowhere near the character Ragnar is, I did admire the scene where he comes across a sick old Saxon man during the raid and, for no discernible reason, pours him a glass of water. And then he steals the man’s metal cup and pitcher.
- Floki continues to exhibit a visceral antipathy toward the symbols and representatives of Christianity, his impishly volatile deeds the unknowably frightening locus of the inevitable religious conflict to come.
- The mystery of the missing shield maiden continues! There was clearly another woman with a raiding party in last week’s promo picture (look over Rollo’s right shoulder), but she’s not with the group here, and I didn’t see her last week either. Theories?