Sunday, April 28, 2013

Review: Vikings "All Change"

Non Spoiler Review:
All Change brings the first season of Vikings to a close on a solemn note. As Ragnar and his entourage travel to Gotaland to convey the king's message, ever-suffering Lagertha must deal with her tortured dreams of impending doom, and then face a plague outbreak at home. Ragnar finds Earl Borg unyielding to negotiation, but as he sends him off to visit a sacred ash tree, it's clear he has plans for Rollo. Bjorn desperately tries to keep his father focused on his family.

The finale was a more subdued story rather than the usual mix of battles, mythology and character development we've grown accustomed to. It really worked in this case, providing a nice book end to the entire first season. We've already had our share of viking raids so there was no need to make All Change into another big fight when so much drama was to be had with Ragnar's evolution from free spirited warrior to conflicted leader.

The growing sense of catastrophe comes to a head with the plague ravaging Kattegat, leaving Lagertha to oversee things at home (again) in her husband's absence. Only one thing felt off—considering the focus and events around Athelstan in Sacrifice, he had virtually nothing to do here and there wasn't any hint of fallout from that.

I'm quite thankful the series was renewed, as this would have been a terrible note to close Vikings on. It was a very effective and enjoyable finale, despite the dark course things have taken. This has fast become one of my favorite series, a formidable successor to The Tudors, and now it's clear we have our own Norse version of Henry VIII, as well.

Spoilers Now!
Ragnar, Rollo and Floki travel to Gotaland to the earldom of Jarl Borg, but do not receive a hospitable welcome. Borg declares the king has his land and he wants it returned. Ragnar conveys the king's desire for peace, though Horik would relish a fight if it comes to that. Ragnar's reputation has preceded him and once Borg learns who he is, he decides he will talk to him again the next day after they've had time to rest.

The king is prepared to pay Borg to renounce his claims, but the land is priceless to the earl, full of valuable minerals. Borg suggests an alternative—sharing the mineral rights or leasing it back to the king. Ragnar has not been given the authority to negotiate in that manner, so Borg asks he send Floki back to relay the offer to the king. In the meantime, Borg decides to show them a famous ash tree three days ride away, but wants one of his men to stay behind at his earldom for security. Ragnar volunteers his brother. 

After they leave, Borg provides ample food and women for Rollo, then asks Rollo how he gets along with his brother. Borg had a brother he loved once but competition for the earldom led to a falling out and his brother poisoned his entire family. Borg blinded him and burned him alive. That's what he knows of the love between brothers, he adds. Rollo believes Ragnar would never do such a thing. Ragnar is a great warrior, like himself, Borg muses, yet he's never heard of Rollo.

In Kattegat Lagertha has been unable to eat, and confesses she's had nightmares, dreading something terrible is about to happen. Siggy suggests she go to the seer. Lagertha tells him dark forms come to her at night. The seer believes they come to take something from her—her husband is in danger, but it's a danger from the magical world. He is unwilling to say any more and refuses her pleas for clarity. 

Floki arrives to convey the message to King Horik. The king isn't interested in deals and believes Ragnar will make the right decision. Floki realizes he doesn't care if the negotiations fail. 

Siggy asks Lagertha what the seer told her and learns Lagertha believes her husband is in danger from himself. Siggy has fallen ill. She visited her cousin a few days before who had just buried her son. The sickness strikes her quickly and she collapses, and soon a plague is spreading through Kattegat, striking Thyri, Athelstan and Gyda, too. Siggy, gravely ill, asks Lagertha to look after her daughter.

Lagertha oversees the funeral pyres for the mounting dead and offers a sacrifice to the gods. Siggy recovers, but finds her daughter has died. Gyda asks her mother to pray to the gods for Athelstan, who seems to be getting worse. However, it's Athelstan's fever that finally breaks, and he crawls over to Gyda to find her dead.

On their journey, Ragnar's men spy a woman bathing in the river until they're caught by her shield maidens. The woman suggests Earl Ragnar owes her an apology on their behalf. Back at camp, Ragnar is irritated he has to apologize for their behaviour, but he's intrigued, thinking the gods might have sent him a challenge and invites her to camp to join them. The woman arrives and accepts his apology. Her name is Aslaug, and he's obviously smitten with her beauty, suggesting she come along with them.

They arrive at the sacred ash and camp for the night. Bjorn thinks his father is making a fool of himself swooning over the woman. Aslaug confesses she is really Princess Aslaug. Both her parents are dead. Ragnar kisses her, and the two have sex. Bjorn wakes up and sees them.

In the morning Bjorn announces he hates his father. Ragnar explains he could not help himself and if he chooses he can tell Lagertha. Ragnar doesn't care what people think, but he still loves his mother just as he loves his son. Bjorn wants him to swear it won't happen again. Ragnar does so. Aslaug then visits Ragnar again in the night as Bjorn lies awake. Ragnar tells her no and sends her away, despite wanting her. Bjorn is pleased.

Ragnar remains torn by his word to his son and Aslaug speaks with him the next day to let him know she's carrying his child. Ragnar is grateful to the gods.

Floki returns to Earl Borg, as does Ragnar's party with Aslaug, and they learn Horik is unwilling to compromise. Borg must name his reasonable price for the land. Borg instructs Ragnar he and his men must leave there in the morning, unless Ragnar wishes to renounce his allegiance to the king. Ragnar remains silent. Floki muses that it's war. 

As Lagertha lights Gyda's funeral pyre and stares angrily out at the sea, Ragnar prays to Odin as he ponders his choices. Borg confides in Rollo the king has left him no choice but to attack, and asks if Rollo will support him. He tempts Rollo with the death of his brother and the start of his own fame. Rollo agrees.

Ragnar gets up and walks through the hall. Bjorn awakens to find him gone, so is about to go in search when he's stopped by the sight of a raven in the open window. Ragnar enters Aslaug's chamber and lays with her.

The Verdict:
Michael Hirst has done a great job taking Ragnar from the incredibly likable warrior we first met to this erratic and vulnerable, morally grey ruler unable to shake himself of his god(s) complex. This episode more than any other he looked tired and physically exhausted under the weight of his responsibilities.

The introduction of Aslaug (another historical addition) does not bode well for the Lothbrok family, and as uneasy as it all makes me feel about that situation, I'm excited to see it move forward and where Hirst will take it. Things can't remain the same, after all.

All Change sets up what is likely a civil war between Horik and Borg next season, and finally Rollo has made his choice to remove himself from his brother's shadow. Ragnar almost seems to be anticipating this given some of the looks that pass between them. Will Rollo remain close to undermine his brother back home, or will he elect to stay with Borg?

As I mentioned, Athelstan didn't get much to do here to give us any ramifications for his near sacrifice last week. I would think he would be just a tad resentful of Ragnar, but we don't see them together at all to have any sense of that. He's fine to just return to life as usual in the Lothbrok household? Perhaps he still held a flame for Thyri (for that matter, did anything else happen in Thyri's tent last episode?). His arc has become very vague in relation to the larger storylines.

Lagertha remains the more suitable ruler in her own right, presiding over the horrific plague and yet another loss of a child. I was concerned Siggy might be working against her, but this seems to have proved me wrong, thankfully. Now that both women have lost their daughters, I hope they become close allies. How will her relationship with Bjorn change now that he's the only child she has left? And that icy stare we're left with shows she's got a few issues to work out with her husband (and she doesn't even know what's transpired abroad).

Bjorn continues to excel in his role as eldest son, and his torture at being privy to his father's infidelity was well done. Could he be at all concerned with his own status in his father's life given Ragnar's drive to have more sons? He's likely to be a bit resentful of the child in Aslaug's belly. If Ragnar and Rollo are any indication, Bjorn has a right to be wary.

As for Aslaug, she's a tough sell to the audience given the enormous love out there for Lagertha, so it's not her fault. She's introduced quite effectively and seems likable enough, and certainly her goddess-like mystery appeals completely to Ragnar's sense of following Odin's plan.

It's been an eventful season, one that has successfully introduced a great cast of actors playing believable characters. Ragnar has risen to great heights and has a host of enemies at home and abroad to consider when next we find him. Vikings was a definite winner and I'm looking forward to joining it again.

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