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Vikings, S01E04: Trial; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

vikings season 1Originally aired 24 March 2013
Written by Michael Hirst
Directed by Ciarán Donnelly

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

My rating:  ★★★ stars

The series finds its groove as the conflict between Ragnar and Earl Haraldson escalates.

With this episode, the series starts to get good. We finally know the characters and the situation and, now, can appreciate how the story unfolds.

The episode begins as a small group of Vikings prepare to raid a Northumbrian town. Working from information Athelstan has unwittingly given him, Ragnar leads the raiders to attack when all the townspeople are in church.

During the raid, Earl Haraldson’s agent, Knut (Eric Higgins), rapes a Saxon woman but is interrupted by Lagertha. When he attacks her, she kills him. I think this might be the moment when viewers deemed Lagertha the coolest character on the show. This will be the last time in the first three seasons that the series deals with rape, an unpleasant aspect of Viking culture.

Earl Haraldson suspects duplicity when Ragnar delivers the news that Knut is dead, especially since Ragnar takes credit for the killing. I’m not sure of Ragnar’s motivation here. He may be trying to protect Lagertha, but I doubt she would earn Haraldson’s ire. The earl has no grievance with her. He might have assumed she was covering for her husband, as he later does when she confesses during Ragnar’s trial for Knut’s murder.

The effect of Ragnar’s confessing to killing Knut is the escalation of conflict between him and Haraldson. To cause this escalation deliberately may be Ragnar’s reason for the confession. Certainly, by the end of the episode, Ragnar realizes that his enmity with the earl must end in the death of one or the other. There is a scene, late in the episode, that shows Ragnar sitting alone on a hillside, pondering. I’m not sure if Travis Fimmel is a great actor or if he was merely gifted with incredibly expressive eyes. But, during the close-ups in this scene, we viewers can almost see Ragnar’s whole thought process as he comes to understand that a showdown with the earl is inevitable.

Prior to Ragnar’s trial, Haraldson tries to exploit Ragnar’s greatest weakness, his relationship with his brother. The earl offers Rollo his daughter Thyri’s (Elinor Crawley) hand in marriage if he testifies that Ragnar killed Knut in cold blood instead of supporting Ragnar’s story that he killed Knut as he was trying to rape Lagertha. This would essentially anoint Rollo as his successor (since the earl has no surviving sons). (As an aside, I noticed in a subsequent viewing that during the earl’s proposal, Rollo throws a look at the earl’s wife, Siggy, that suggests, “Your daughter is pretty, but I’d rather have you.”)

When I first watched the episode, I felt sure that Rollo would agree to Haraldson’s offer. That seemed to be what the early episodes had been leading up to, suggesting that Rollo was greedy, self-interested, not too bright, and deeply resentful of his brother. So, I was as surprised as the earl when Rollo backed his brother’s story during the trial.

In hindsight, I realized that Rollo’s resentment was part of a larger storyline than the one that pits Ragnar against Earl Haraldson. We get the sense here that the story arc of this conflict is coming to an end. Gabriel Byrne is particularly strong in this episode in depicting the earl as a weak man who knows his world is crumbling.

The episode introduces King Aelle of Northumbria, played with great bluster by Ivan Kaye, as a new antagonist. We don’t see much of Aelle, and he and Ragnar have yet to meet, but we sense that a new conflict arc is beginning.

There are a number of nice moments outside the big plot points in this episode. I liked the scene during the raid when Rollo enters a house to find a sick, elderly man, who asks for water. Instead of killing him as we might think he would, Rollo gives the man some water—then, steals the cup. I had a nice chuckle when Floki offends the Christian churchgoers by spitting out the communion wine. What we see with these touches is the series adding texture to the story. It’s not just churning plot.

The episode’s main weakness is its lack of a unified structure. It begins in Northumbria then returns to Kattegat. It goes through three sections: the raid, the trial, and the earl’s post-trial revenge. I suppose these sections could be seen as crime, trial, and aftermath, but the episode doesn’t imbue them with that sense of unity. The episode builds well toward the final showdown between Ragnar and the earl, but it never reaches a high point of its own.

Vikings has a much looser episodic structure than other serialized dramas. The episodes often don’t stand on their own. They work only as piece of a larger narrative. Because of this, the series seems made for binge viewing. Having binged the first two seasons then watched the third season week-to-week, I can say that the series definitely plays better when the episodes are viewed continuously.

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