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Vikings, S01E02: Wrath of the Northmen; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

vikings season 1Originally aired 10 March 2013
Written by Michael Hirst
Directed by Johan Renck

Starring Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen, Gustaf Skarsgård, and Gabriel Byrne

My rating:  ★★ 1/2 stars

Series still suffers from trite writing, but episode is a great improvement over the pilot.

The second episode of Vikings depicts the Northmen raiding England for the first time. The movement of the plot and the increased action make the episode better than the talky, exposition-filled pilot. However, the series hasn’t reached the point where it’s engaging; it still contains too many flaws in the writing and story development. The conflicts are trite, and the characters have yet to prove their appeal to the viewers.

One early scene does give the viewers some insight into Ragnar and Lagertha’s marriage. Lagertha, a famous sheildmaiden (female warrior) is upset that Ragnar refuses to take her on his expedition. Ragnar makes a good point—that someone needs to stay home and look after the farm and the children. He tries to dismiss her anger with humor by sarcastically suggesting that he stay home while she goes on the expedition. She does not appreciate his attempt at wit. He points out that, if they both die, his older brother, Rollo, will be the children’s guardian (Rollo being the last man in Kattegat who should be raising children). Lagertha recognizes that’s a winning argument. But, if anything, it only makes her angrier, and the two end up in a physical battle that’s part brutal, part sexual. Lagertha proves a good match for Ragnar in fighting ability, but their son, Bjorn, admonishes them to stop fighting before they kill each other.

Rollo is bitter and violent. In this episode, he casually rapes Floki’s slave girl, in the episode’s worst moment. Using rape as a clichéd way to show that a character is a bad guy diminishes a serious subject that deserves better than a brief, tired treatment. It’s cheap writing.

Rollo nurses a giant chip on his shoulder—that Ragnar, his younger brother, is more capable and more respected than he is—even though Rollo is the better fighter, as we’ll learn later. One of the major conflicts of the series that this episode develops is Rollo’s resentment that, despite all the raiders holding the notion that they are all equal, Ragnar emerges as the clear leader.

The biggest discord in this specific episode involves the journey to England, as the raiders who’ve joined Ragnar wonder if they’ll ever reach land. This type of conflict is one that writers should avoid at all costs, one caused by characters doubting what the audience already knows. We viewers know that there is an England, and that the raiders will reach there eventually. All the griping and fighting along the way is pointless to us.

The best sequence comes when the Northmen raid the monastery at Lindisfarne, just off the English coast. They experience an immediate culture clash.  Why are none of the strange men fighting back? Why are no women there? And what are the strange thin, flat things with black marks on them (pages of books that the monks were writing)? Floki tries to eat one. When he finds the vellum unappetizing, he uses the pages and scrolls to burn the monastery—as my inner librarian cries out in horror. Nonetheless, the Vikings are delighted, although surprised, to discover a wealth of treasure unguarded. Most mystifying to them is discovering that these men in England worship a dead god.

The raiders take a few of the monks as slaves, including one who Ragnar discovers speaks their language. Athelstan (George Blagden) has traveled and picked up a smattering of Old Norse, which Ragnar recognizes makes him a valuable commodity not only as a slave but as someone who can share his knowledge of England. Rollo, who is not a big thinker, doesn’t see Athelstan’s value and demands Ragnar kill him because of lack of room on the boat. Ragnar overrules Rollo, verifying, to Rollo’s chagrin, that he is the first among equals.

Back at Kattegat, Earl Haraldson terrorizes anyone he perceives as betraying him. These scenes, while possibly necessary for the plot, prove distracting when the much more exciting storyline of the raid is going on. Haraldson’s wife, Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig), despite appearing briefly in the pilot, gets her first real introduction in this episode. Siggy is one of the series’ most complex characters, but her actions in this episode suggest she is proud, vain, and superficial. Michael Hirst, the writer and series creator, should have given the viewers some hint here that there is more to her than what appears on the surface so they wouldn’t develop an instant dislike to her.

The series is already showing a great improvement over the first episode. It just needs to demonstrate a higher level of originality in the writing and to establish that these characters are ones we would like to follow for a whole series.

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