Spoilers through Season 5 of ‘Vikings’ follow.
On the one hand, Wednesday night’s episode of Vikings was certainly entertaining. On the other hand, the more I’ve thought about it the more it lets me down.
In ‘The Joke’ the armies of King Harald and Ivar and the armies of Bjorn and Lagertha finally march against one another. Lagertha’s troops march out of Kattegat and meet Ivar and Harald on an open field. Before the fighting starts, they try to make peace talks, with Bjorn and Ubbe pleading with Ivar not to fight against his brothers, not to make Ragnar weep in Valhalla.
The peace talks never had a chance of working so they end up fighting, after all, with Harald and Ivar fleeing for their lives having been outwitted by Lagertha and the Sami.
That’s pretty much the entire plot of the episode, and it’s great. They dispense with the heavy-handed character drama that’s bogged down the rest of the season (for the most part) and just get right down to brass tacks. The battle itself is brutal and beautifully filmed. It reminded me of some of the show’s earlier battles but at a larger scale. It reminded me of Braveheart, truth be told, and was nearly as gruesome.
In other words, I really loved the exciting action and fighting and violence in this episode.
And that leads me to all the things I couldn’t stand about this episode.
The Lengthy Peace Talks
What was the point of the peace talks scene being extended? Ivar agrees that he can’t fight his brothers. He angers Harald and makes everyone think he’s going to drink to peace. Then he spits out his drink on his brother and tells them all that they’re idiots for thinking he’d ever make peace. Okay, so what’s the point of saying he will only to later say he won’t?
My guess is that they were just filling time. The battle is the most expensive part of the episode to film, so it couldn’t take up the entire episode. Instead we basically get four sections of peace talk:
- First, when Bjorn and Halfdan meet Harald and Hvitserk on the field;
- Second, when Harald tries to convince Halfdan (now his hostage) to change teams while the same thing happens with Hvitserk (also a hostage) back at Lagertha’s camp;
- Third, when they all sit down surrounded by spearmen with different colored banners (which was visually quite striking) and convince Ivar to make peace;
- And Fourth, when Ivar says it was all a joke and everyone draws swords and backs away slowly.
The whole thing just felt really over-extended and pointless, though I don’t think it would have bothered me without Ivar’s bait-and-switch, which seemed designed to fool audiences even more than to fool the other characters.
Also, why exchange hostages to begin with? What is the point of that? It serves no purpose whatsoever in conducting peace talks, and even less purpose when said hostages are family members. Hostages make sense in certain scenarios. If, for instance, the battle took place at Kattegat but Harald and Ivar wanted to conduct peace talks in their camp, it might make sense for Lagertha to take hostages before she (or her emissaries) placed themselves in danger. Had Ubbe been at all smart when conducting peace talks with Aethelwulf earlier this season he would have first demanded hostages. But since the peace talks in this episode took place on neutral ground, there was literally no point in a hostage exchange.
This show needs to do some serious soul-searching, at least in the writing department.
The Battle Set-Up
Massive pitched battles like the one in this episode were very uncommon in Medieval Europe to begin with, but especially so in the 9th/10th century. And in any case, they wouldn’t have looked like this one.
The problem with these kinds of battles is that in reality, back in those days, a major battle would almost always be decisive, with one side claiming total victory by the end of the fighting. They were also costly. Fighters must be fed and housed. Losing men and women in battle weakened leaders as there were no standing armies to resupply forces, and many warriors were not professional soldiers but rather farmers and the like. Smaller skirmishes and battles at sea certainly occurred, but much of Medieval warfare was actually just siege warfare. Vikings raided and plundered, but they rarely engaged in this scale of battle if they didn’t have to.
Meanwhile, it makes virtually no sense for Lagertha to leave her well-fortified city in favor of a pitched battle on an open field. The show tries to justify this by having the Sami ambush some of Ivar and Harald’s men, but what if they simply hadn’t sent men into the woods? Why not just send Hvitserk and his men to Bjorn’s other flank? Then the Sami would have been completely useless. I’m also not sure how the Sami ambushing a small band of enemies is more valuable than city walls and fortifications. Nor do I quite understand how scouts didn’t figure out that Lagertha had a flanking force in the trees, let alone how a surrounded Harold managed to escape.
Kattegat would also be almost impossible to lay siege to without a force large enough to both encircle the town and blockade its port. But even with a blockade, fishing would be possible making the siege much more costly. In other words, Harald and Ivar would have almost certainly had to attack Kattegat, and that would have been even more difficult for them than fighting in an open field. Why Lagertha and Bjorn decided it was a good idea to meet them on such a neutral battlefield is beyond me, but I’ll just chock it up to bad writing, something that’s plagued this show this entire season.
It’s quite disappointing actually.
When we do finally get to the battle, both sides are lined up in the open, apparently having discovered exactly where their opponents would be. I’m not sure how Lagertha knew that Ivar wouldn’t invade via the sea, or how both armies managed to get to the same place at the right time, but I guess it all just worked out. We’ll leave it at that. What bothers me more is that when the battle begins both sides just…charge at one another. Neither side forms a shield wall. Neither bothers with volleys of arrows. In other words, none of the actual, historical tactics used in viking warfare apply here. It’s all just flashy and cinematic. Our heroes charge into the fray without any sort of bodyguard surrounding them because it turns out all the principle characters, on both sides, are superheroes who can kill a dozen enemies with ease and don’t actually die or get hurt.
Indeed, the only casualty of the evening was Bishop Heahmund, and he was only brained, not killed. Everyone else survives.
So the entire battle set-up doesn’t work for me, and the complete disregard for shield walls and other historical tactics feels lazy.
As a side-note, vikings did occasionally meet up in a big open field for battle. These were like battle-sized duels took place at set times in agreed upon locations called ‘hazelled fields.’ These were big fields intentionally fenced in by hazel branches, meaning no flanking attacks would occur, and a “fair fight” would ensue. Retreat from these battles was almost impossible thanks to the fences. But this idea of two large forces joining for a major pitched battle was extraordinarily rare. Major pitched battles only became common as standing armies began to form centuries later, and even then remained fairly rare until gunpowder was introduced to warfare. Medieval warfare for centuries was comprised of small skirmishes and sieges. Speaking of sieges, Medieval rulers would not have invaded York the way Aethelwulf did a few episodes back, but would have waited until the Norsemen had surrendered. That being said, prior to the Norman invasion and William the Conqueror, England had virtually no castles. Castles were an import from France that William brought with him.
Speaking of William the Conqueror, he was the Duke of Normandy (and ancestor of Rollo) and he essentially invaded, conquered and totally transformed England from the top down, and yet he only fought in one major pitched battle over the course of that entire conquest. (He fought in smaller pitched battles back in France.) The Battle of Hastings was a massive battle that lasted almost an entire day and only ended when the Saxons were completely defeated and Harold I was slain. He later engaged in the brutal and tragic harrying of the North, burning homes and crops and slaughtering people wherever he went leading to years of starvation and abject poverty, but not even this qualifies as a pitched battle. Such battles were rare.
King Edward I, also known as the Longshanks, fought in several pitched battles against the Scots (dramatized in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart) but he was a particularly martial king, having fought similar battles against the Welsh earlier in his career. But this was centuries after Vikings takes place, and the English by this time, with heavy Norman influence, were far more sophisticated than 10th century Norsemen.
Finally, we need to talk about Ivar again. I’m just completely confused as to why he left the battle. Yes, he was going to go protect the ships, but why was he going? Why not send men back under the command of some lieutenant. Didn’t he want to kill Lagertha with every ounce of his being? Now he’s just going to skip the battle entirely? I know he’s a wild card (see the above Peace Talks section) but this is too much.
Essentially staying out of harms way and not taking an opportunity to be part of the fight, leaving that to Harald and Hvitserk, doesn’t make any sense for Ivar’s character—the most bloodthirsty of Ragnar’s sons. He wanted Heahmund to fight beside him, also, but just leaves him to fight while he runs off to the ships. Ivar isn’t a coward, and there’s just no conceivable reason for this move other than…yeah, you guessed it: Bad writing.
Meanwhile, it makes no sense for Ivar and Harald to change their entire strategy moments before the battle begins. Why didn’t they discuss the possibility of being flanked beforehand? Why didn’t they leave some troops back to protect the ships beforehand? Why just think of it now? And no, Ivar wasn’t trying to destroy Harald. What would be the point of that when he still needs him? Besides, they meet up after the battle with no hard feelings. Of course, this is when Ivar and Harald’s men should begin to question their fitness as leaders. We’ll see if that actually happens, or if Ivar really will just bounce back from this crushing defeat like nothing happened.
I know a lot of people think this is Ivar’s master-plan, to weaken both sides so he can swoop in victorious in the end, but it just doesn’t make any sense. Why even bother uniting with Harald in the first place then? And with now-demoralized warriors, how does he hope to kill Lagertha? I’ve also heard theories that Heahmund is his assassin, but how does that make any sense? Why would Heahmund kill Lagertha for Ivar? And did he just orchestrate getting knocked over the head?
The Iceland storyline continues to be kind of flat and plodding. There’s dissent among the ranks of Floki’s followers, but it’s just the same dissent as before. The only thing that’s changed is that now Floki has a pet crow. I feel like this is all leading to something, but it sure is taking its sweet time. Tension will eventually boil over (they’re hanging out by a hot spring, after all) but they need to sooner than later.
So this was a very fun battle to watch and as far as action-packed episodes go, this one was packed with action, ultra-violence and excitement. The problem is that every other aspect of the episode fell short, either ignoring how battles were actually fought or making characters do weird things. In the end, Ivar was defeated but his forces weren’t pursued, his ships weren’t burned (that we know of) and he and Harald live to fight another day. Oh joy, more of the same “kill Lagertha, become king of Kattegat” nonsense in our future. This tiresome plot needs to go away as soon as humanly possible.
Oh, and please stop having every one of Ragnar’s sons always walk with their heads tilted forward. Bjorn, Ivar, Ubbe, they all do this. It’s silly. It looks silly. It doesn’t look tough or scary or intimidating.
Oddly enough, when you combine all the pieces, this episode really was well named.
The thing is, I can forgive a lot of historical inaccuracies, silly battles and the rest but in order to do that I need a compelling story with interesting characters in interesting situations. That just isn’t happening this season.
I miss Ragnar and I miss Ecbert, but I miss the better writing this show used to have almost as much. Then again, maybe Ragnar was one reason the writing was so good. He was a fascinating character and, frankly, it was a mistake to kill him off. We watch these shows because of the characters. Killing off Ragnar is like killing Walter White in Season 4 of Breaking Bad. It wouldn’t work there and it doesn’t work here. It’s like how The Walking Dead has killed off so much of its original cast. It’s just much harder to care about the events in that show now that many of its best characters are gone. Without Ragnar, Ecbert and (for the most part) Rollo, it’s hard to care much about what happens to anyone other than Lagertha and Bjorn.
Sorry about missing last week’s review and being a bit late on this one. For some reason my TV viewing and writing schedule has just been really off as I ramp up the new year. I wasn’t a big fan of last week’s episode, either, and found the whole chess/strategy scene incredibly heavy-handed. But I did enjoy the moment between Bjorn and his mother and I liked that Alfred got some more screen time. I also enjoyed hearing Floki’s vision of a theocratic/socialist/anarchical society of self-governance and communal living. It’s great to see him try to shape the future. If only the plot would move along with the story.
What did you think? Am I being overly harsh? Let me know on Twitter or Facebook.
Powered by WPeMatico