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Vikings, S01E06: Burial of the Dead; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

vikings season 1Originally aired 7 Apr 2013
Written by Michael Hirst
Directed by Ciarán Donnelly

Starring Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen, Jessalyn Gilsig, George Blagden, and Gabriel Byrne

My rating:  ★★★ stars

Out with the old, in with the new.

The narrative arc of Ragnar’s conflict with Earl Haraldson ends in this episode when Ragnar faces the earl in single combat. Writer Michael Hirst is careful to indicate that despite Haraldson’s advanced age, the fight will be even because Ragnar is still recovering from wounds received in the previous episode. In the past, the outcome of this fight would be a foregone conclusion; Ragnar is the main character of the series, and, thus, Ragnar cannot be killed off. In a post-Game of Thrones world, however, such assumptions are no longer certain. We viewers are supposed to believe anyone can die. Yet, here, however, as much as Hirst may want suspense, we never really believe that Ragnar will die.

The best moment in the episode immediately follows Earl Haraldson’s death. The show captures the instant of chaos after one locus of power is stripped away before another takes over. Haraldson’s loyal minion Svein (David Pearse) calls for Ragnar’s arrest, oblivious to the momentous change that is happening. Rollo responds by striking the man’s chest with an axe. Siggy, who was distraught while her husband was dying, takes the opportunity of everyone’s paralyzing confusion and fatally stabs her daughter Thyri’s odious husband, whom she was forced to marry by her now deceased father. (Thyri seems okay with her mother’s action; she was the one who passed her the dagger.)

In this episode, Siggy again proves to be an interesting character. While Haraldson was still alive, she enjoyed the power and privilege that come with being an earl’s wife. Now that her situation has radically changed, she reacts with intelligence and decisiveness. She is the one who first cries out, “Hail, Earl Ragnar!” and falls to her knees. She understands her precarious position. She and her daughter are now remnants of the old power structure and are women alone in a man’s world.

The reactions of the others to the change in leadership show an understanding of character. Floki is gleeful. Athelstan is serious and devoted. Lagertha preens with pride and informs Ragnar of her pregnancy. Rollo is jealous. He says to Ragnar, “How can we ever be equal now?

The funeral of Haraldson is the centerpiece of the episode. Naturally, a series called Vikings would want to depict a Viking funeral. The show once again uses Athelstan’s position as an outsider in order to acquaint the audience with information about Viking customs. While Ragnar shows him around the festivities, the purpose of this exercise is really to explain what is happening to the audience. For the first time, the series delves into one of the more disturbing aspects of Viking culture, human sacrifice. In order to make such an atrocity more palatable to the audience, the victim is shown to be unambivalent about wanting to die.

Siggy and Thyri don’t allow themselves a chance to mourn. Their situation requires action. While everyone else celebrates the life of Earl Haraldson, they scuttle back to their former home and pack up all the jewelry and portable wealth they can. Rollo, however, comes upon them and assures them that they have his protection. He then asks Siggy if she would like to be the wife of an earl again, signaling his ambition to equal or, perhaps, best Ragnar. Frustratingly, the scene ends before Siggy can respond. Too often, writers end scenes on provocative questions or statements instead of allowing for a complex or difficult reply.

The end of this scene leads to a several month time-jump to a single scene that takes place during winter. The only event in this scene is the explanation of Ragnarök, the Norse myth about the end of the world as we know it. Like a Viking funeral, the myth of Ragnarök is naturally something the series would want to cover. However, its placement here serves no purpose in the episode. It’s as if, Hirst thought to himself, “This episode is running short. What can I do? I know! I’ll stick Ragnarök here.”

After this single winter scene, the episode jumps to the spring when Ragnar and his warriors again invade Northumbria. There’s only time in the episode for a brief sequence showing the Northumbrian king, Aelle, reacting to news of the arrival of the northmen. He shows his followers his new acquisition, a pit of snakes, into which he throws one of his men. This act establishes King Aelle as a bad guy, so we don’t have to feel uncomfortable that the Vikings are invading his land. It also foreshadows Ragnar’s eventual death at King Aelle’s hands, as the legends indicate.

These time jumps are disconcerting. They reveal the deficiency the series has in unifying the structures of the individual episodes. This episode shows no unity in plot, theme, or time. But, had the episode not included the two time jumps, it would have been more cohesive. Instead, the viewers are left perplexed at the rapid advance of time and at the sudden shift in story.

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