Starring Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen, Jessalyn Gilsig, George Blagden, and Gustaf Skarsgård
My rating: ★★★1/2 stars
Episode about culture clash shows strong character development.
“A King’s Ransom” shows solid episode boundaries for the first time in the series. The episode features a strong story arc of a Viking raid on Northumbria and the subsequent negotiations Ragnar and his followers make with King Aelle and the Northumbrians.
Thematically, the episode focuses on the cultural contrasts and interactions between the Vikings and the Northumbrians. While some scenes of cultural contrast, particularly the feast scene in the middle of the episode, depict the issue heavy-handedly, others are more adroitly done.
In order to strike a bargain with the Vikings, King Aelle demands that Ragnar or one of his men becomes Christian so that the Northumbrians may trust his word, which they couldn’t do with a pagan. Rollo volunteers. The baptism scene is played for humor, as King Aelle and his followers take the ceremony solemnly, while the Vikings find amusement in a ritual that seems bizarre to them. Ironically, it is King Aelle and the Christians who break the pact and betray the Vikings, taking the barbarism of the Vikings for lack of intelligence.
Ragnar certainly does not lack for intelligence. By this episode, Travis Fimmel has fully created and occupies the character. Unlike many fictional characters, Ragnar does not reveal his personality or his thoughts through dialogue. Fimmel acts mostly through physicality: posture, gait, and glances. He naturally has very expressive eyes, which director Ken Girotti uses to great effect. But Fimmel also displays a fluidity and deftness of movement that distinguishes Ragnar as a character.
This episode displays a knowledge of character. In one crucial sequence, Floki chides Rollo for getting baptized as a Christian, an early hint that Floki has a deep devotion to his pagan religion. Initially, Rollo appears to brush off Floki’s criticisms. But, later during a battle with the Northumbrians, Rollo shows a fanatical drive to kill all the Christians he can find in order to prove to Floki and himself that he values the Viking gods. This action shows how easily Rollo’s thoughts can be influenced by others.
Back in Kattegat, a strong character-driven scene shows Siggy coming as a supplicant to Lagertha, asking to be her servant. Athelstan delivers a speech on how fulfilling a life of service can be. But, while Lagertha is influenced enough to allow Siggy’s request, it’s clear that Siggy has a more practical and less noble view of service. She is desperate for protection for herself and her daughter now that her husband is dead—even if she would rather be the wife of an earl instead of the servant of the earl’s wife. Later in the episode, however, when Lagertha delivers a stillborn child, Siggy comforts her, suggesting a friendship and equality between the women instead of a mistress/servant relationship.
The one player whose character isn’t well-defined in the episode is King Aelle. Ivan Kaye recalls a younger John Rhys-Davies in appearance and performance. But we don’t have a clear sense yet if Aelle is intelligent, intransigent, or devout, or of what any other of his personality characteristics might be. Even when he vows revenge against the Vikings at the end of the episode, it seems more of a plot requirement than a natural response because we don’t know who this man is yet.
The battle scenes display a good technique to mask budget constraints. The series lacks the funds to create the epic battles that characterize films and shows like Game of Thrones. (The battles in later seasons will reflect an increased budget). However, Girotti films the battles by focusing on one-on-one confrontations, which has the effect of masking the (small) number of people involved.
This episode demonstrates that the series has finally reached the point where it can draw on character to drive individual scenes and the story as a whole. It also shows, for the first time, that the series can create a balance between episodic and long-term narrative arcs. After a rocky start, Vikings has reached smooth sailing.