Starring Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen, Gustaf Skarsgård, Jessalyn Gilsig, and Nathan O’Toole
My rating: ★★★ stars
A strong series of events that never coalesces into a strong whole. But changing viewing practices may render the issue of episode construction moot.
This week is a bad one for characters played by Tadhg Murphy. In the Black Sails episode from yesterday’s review, his character got beheaded. In this Vikings episode, his character gets impaled. Some character we’ve come to know has to die in the great battle between Jarl Borg’s and King Horik’s forces, which opens the episode, or the battle would seem of little consequence. So R.I.P. Arne aka “One-Eye.”
The battle shows us clearly that Rollo is the greatest warrior of the bunch. His prowess in battle was mentioned in the first season, but here we see it on display. So significant is he that, when he drops his support of Jarl Borg, it’s enough to bring the battle to an end. The fighting stops so abruptly that the viewers are left scratching their heads. The previous season’s cliffhanger was Rollo’s betrayal of Ragnar by making a pact with Jarl Borg, and, then, that whole business is resolved ten minutes into the new season.
This unexpected turn of events demonstrates a key issue with Vikings (at least with the first two seasons)—that the standard rules of episode and season structure don’t apply. We would expect the previous season’s cliffhanger to provide a major story arc for the new season, but it doesn’t. We would expect that an episode would build to a major battle at the climax; instead, it begins with one. The series, in this way, is not built for standard viewing—one episode at a time, building week after week to spectacular conclusion followed by a cliffhanger. Instead, Vikings plays better when binge-viewed—when the episodes and seasons are allowed to bleed together in a continuous saga.
As a season premiere, “Brother’s War” isn’t wholly effective. It doesn’t set up an arc for the season. In fact, the next episode begins with a four-year time jump, so this episode feels more like the end of something than the beginning.
The episode marks the end of Ragnar and Lagertha’s marriage. When Aslaug arrives, pregnant with Ragnar’s child, it’s only a matter of time. Ragnar’s proposed solution of polygamy makes the decision for Lagertha. She packs up her belongings and leaves the next day. It’s hard for us to appreciate the difficulty of this decision. We’re used to mobility. But Lagertha must go to a strange place where she knows no one, convince someone to take her in, and begin a whole new life.
Lagertha also understands that she will probably have to go without her son. She leaves the decision up to Bjorn, who is pressured by the men around him to stay with his father. Ultimately, Bjorn chooses to go with his mother, showing his ability to withstand pressure. Throughout the first season, we’ve seen Bjorn mature from an obnoxious twit—the contempt he showed Athelstan at the beginning of the first season created a bad first impression of the character—to someone on the brink of adolescence. He has a clear mind and will of his own and can stand up to the powerful people around him. Showing the subtle dynamism of this character is a credit to actor Nathan O’Toole. (Because of the four-year time jump next episode, this one is O’Toole’s last episode, as an older actor will be taking over the role.)
Nothing in this episode endears the viewers to Aslaug. She usurps Lagertha’s position and drives out a character we’ve come to admire. Even her agreement with Ragnar’s suggestion of polygamy seems at once to be presumptuous and weak-willed. It’s hard for viewers to relate to a woman who would accept such a situation when polyamory is not involved.
Michael Hirst, the writer and show-runner, faces limitations imposed on the story by the saga it’s based on. One of those is the need for Ragnar to change wives from Lagertha, a minor character in the saga, to Aslaug, Ragnar’s most famous and admired wife. However, the popularity Lagertha attained in the show meant that many viewers would not take kindly to her replacement.
Hirst, wisely, has Ragnar indicate early in the episode that he loves Lagertha and is committed to their marriage. After Aslaug arrives, pregnant, his choice to bring her into his household seems like an action based on a sense of responsibility, an admirable trait even if getting Aslaug pregnant in the first place was less than admirable. Hirst also has Lagertha make the decision to leave, a choice that’s true to character and one that avoids having Ragnar choose Aslaug over her. As much as Ragnar’s actions infuriate us here, a decision to divorce Lagertha to marry Aslaug would have been much worse. (The technicalities of Viking divorcee seem particularly easy. All Lagertha has to do is tell Ragnar she divorces him and leave.)
The best part of the episode involves Ragnar’s dealings with Rollo. When Rollo refuses to fight against Ragnar in the battle, he becomes Ragnar’s prisoner. When they return to Kattegat, Ragnar recuses himself from judgement of his brother and deems that a trial in front of a ceremonial law-giver is needed. When Bjorn and Ragnar have a conversation about the state of Ragnar and Lagertha’s marriage and the fate of Rollo, Bjorn notices Ragnar casually playing with a gold coin. Ragnar shows him that it’s an English coin with the face of King Aelle on it and, thus, worth a fortune. No further discussion of it is made. Later, when the law-giver decides that Rollo shall not be executed for his traitorous actions with Jarl Borg, we see the law-giver holding the coin. We understand that Ragnar has secretly bribed the law-giver to grant Rollo a reprieve; we don’t need to be shown the negotiations. And we can admire Ragnar both for saving his brother and for having the intelligence to do it while saving face with his men.
The events in “Brother’s War” are interesting and well executed. Yet, the issue of episode structure continues to be a nagging one. This episode works as a series of events, but it doesn’t work as a narrative whole. Yet, as viewing habits change and binge-viewing becomes a more common way that viewers watch a series, maybe the structure of episodes becomes less important than if the episodes are viewed individually.