This review contains spoilers.
This week, we finally got the battle the whole season has been leading up to, but like last week with our first views of Paris, the fighting was—as Clive Standen observed in his interview with us this week—one of the least interesting bits in “To The Gates”!
And that would seem oxymoronic on a series devoted to one of the more warrior-based cultures Europe has ever seen. Certainly, that’s what a good portion of the solidly male 18-34 audience expected when they first tuned in: lots of hack-and-slash with a smattering a story to hold it all together.
But what they’ve gotten, especially this season, has been almost the opposite: strong narrative with the occasional skirmish. So while the size of this week’s battle is certainly the largest in scale, it still takes a back seat to what it means to the characters and our understanding of them.
Which is good, because despite what we’ve heard about how amazing Paris was going to be, the special effects have been only marginally tolerable. This cannot be surprising for a couple of reasons. First, while the History Channel has given the show a generous budget, it can only be generous relative to what a second-tier cable network can afford. Second, thus far, that budget has had to cover scenes in Kattegat (both interior and exterior), Wessex and Mercia, and now, France. That’s an epic scope.
But they used the money fairly well. Yes, the large-scale exterior shots—like the siege machines sailing down the Seine toward the city–almost make one long for the more honest camp of mid-80s fantasy film matte paintings, but the same cannot be said for the tighter shots of the battle scenes. These play as visceral (without falling into the trap of being too fast or confused to follow), allowing the viewer both to experience the mayhem of the battle (as when Björn and Ragnar fight on the ramparts) while still having enough distance to take in the strategy (like the Lagertha-led breaching of the gates).
Yet, as I said, the fighting is the least interesting thing happening. Instead, we are given the battle as a crucible that reveals a great deal about our main players.
Björn, who has always been a competent fighter, has now—as his father pointed out with no little pride—learned that one does not need a title to be a leader. And it does not escape us that during the scene where Björn shows that particular skill, the shots are set up to create a parallel between him and his uncle Rollo. Rollo has been so utterly lost this season. But in the same moment that Björn Ironside is discovering his strength as a leader, Rollo is re-emerging as one.
We also got a stark reminder that Lagertha, in addition to being a leader herself, is a mother, and a concerned one at that. The exchange between her, Rollo, and Ragnar at Björn’s bedside is telling though. She and Rollo are obviously worried about the grave condition that Björn is in—history reassures us he won’t die, but they don’t know that—and Lagertha blames her ex-husband, telling him he should never have let their son climb the siege tower while Ragnar insists “He is a man, so let him be one.”
Ragnar has at least three other children (even if he rejects the youngest). Lagertha, after the death of their daughter, has only Björn left and while obviously proud, is not as cavalier with his life as his father may be.
But then, Ragnar has been pretty cavalier with all their lives. In putting Floki in charge of the attack, Ragnar meant to expose his former friend, paying him back for his murder of Aethelstan, but at the cost of so many of those who looked to him, not the mad ship-builder, to lead them. As he watches the siege machines burning and Floki disintegrating, Ragnar does not step in and take charge again. Yes, he climbs the tower as a good Viking would, but he saves no one, not even Björn, really. In his desire for revenge, he has forgotten, just as Rollo is remembering, what it is to be a leader. True leaders, as Ecbert tried to teach his son last week, really don’t have the luxury of the pettiness of private motives like revenge.
Oh, and if you didn’t get the whole I-did-it-just-to-screw-with-Floki thing, we got a whole scene which laid it out for us: “Did he actually think I would let him lead without having an agenda? If I was him, I would worry less about the gods and more about the fury of a patient man. And as well you know, I can be very patient.” And this is the first time I really have to take umbrage with the series.
Why on earth was this scene necessary? I grant that some of the storytelling and characterization on Vikings has been subtle, which might be surprising for a show based on a group as little known for that quality as this one is. But that’s actually been one of the great joys of watching: we tuned in to see guys bash each other and instead got something far more thoughtful and refined. Late in the third season is hardly the time to start underestimating and talking down to your audience by over-explaining your plot.
But I guess some people just don’t get it.
And I’m putting Kalf in that category. It was certainly interesting to watch him pull Lagertha back from the breach (and hats-off to Hirst for literally not pulling the punch necessary for Kalf to do so—anything less would have been infuriatingly out of character for Lagertha) because it certainly does not benefit him to keep the ex-Jarl in play. But the seduction scene between the two, while hot on one level, actually made me laugh. When Lagertha tells Kalf that she has no problem with them enjoying each other, but that he needs to know that “one day, I will kill you,” he looks surprised and then largely unbelieving.
How obtuse is he? After her resolve in dealing with Ragnar and her revenge on her second husband, how can he doubt her even for a moment? I’m actually looking forward to her carrying through on this threat even more than I did the Floki/Ragnar face-off.
She’s not the only woman with resolve this week, either, though to vastly different purposes.
Helga has been an extremely tolerant soul. One would have to be to put up with Floki’s eccentricities. But now that he’s all but tipped over into madness (all of it self-inflicted), she’s reached her limit. Her confrontation with Floki after the battle is not surprising for a Viking woman on the show. Michael Hirst has done an excellent job of establishing that these women do not put up with men who are not up to snuff. What is surprising is that it’s taken her this long. “How am I supposed to live, knowing what I know?” she demands of Floki. But she’s known about Aethelstan’s death for a while now.
What is also a little surprising—but should not be—is precisely how familiar Floki’s own words sound to our modern ears. When Helga tells him that he thinks of no one but himself, he responds that it’s not true. “I think about every human being in Midgard.” How often do we hear something similar from religious zealots today, those who insist that, in curtailing the rights of others, they are simply looking out for all of humanity, keeping them clear of God’s (or gods’) wrath?
And finally, Þorunn. Initially, I really liked this character. In a time of income inequality, there was a lot to like about a woman who went from slave to shield maiden to de facto princess. For those of us who love Lagertha (and who doesn’t?), she was like the next generation, standing up to Björn in order to stand by him on the battlefield.
But all that changed when she was injured. Not, as with Torstein, who was pretty much incapacitated as a fighter. No, this was simply a cut to the face. A bit shocking at first, but it changed no one’s feelings for her and might even have gained her some respect had she had any respect for herself. Instead, for several episodes, we’ve watched her act as though she’s been destroyed, despite the fact that her own husband has been steadfast in his devotion to her and their child—until she actively threw him at another woman, and even then, she did not lose him. The show has done an amazing job at stressing precisely how much women in this culture are valued for a variety of qualities of which beauty is only one—and honestly, Þorunn wasn’t all that gorgeous to begin with; Björn obviously loved the whole package, not just that piece. Her decision then to abandon her child and wander off into the wilderness comes off not as heroic self-sacrifice but distinctly un-Viking surrender.
We’re left feeling that if this is all it takes to make her give up, perhaps Torvi is a better choice for him. At least she has fortitude. And definitely bears watching in the last weeks of this season.