Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Review: Vikings "Burial of the Dead"

Non Spoiler Review:
Haraldson is faced with meeting Ragnar's challenge, one which changes things for everyone. Athelstan is witness to more viking traditions. Rollo seems to be making plans for the future. In Northumbria, King Aelle is ready to face the unbeatable northmen.

Burial of the Dead keeps the series' momentum at epic levels. While a lot of it may feel inevitable, the execution of the various plot developments was immensely satisfying, and it felt more like a season finale than a regular episode. As is the trend with previous episodes, the action happens in the first half, culminating in a final half that covers a great deal of time, some viking lore, and a more leisurely focus on characters.

Prior to watching, it was announced Vikings has been renewed for a second season (a pleasant surprise given it wasn't really billed as an ongoing series). I'm quite happy to be seeing this saga continue as it's become a favorite. Given the developments that conclude this week (both foreign and domestic), the scope of the series only continues to expand with its assortment of fantastic characters. Now with some longevity, I hope more viewers will check it out.

Spoilers Now!
Floki is brought into Haraldson bearing Ragnar's message—the challenge to single combat. Svein steps in to mock him but Floki adds that if he refuses shame would follow the Earl the rest of his life. Haraldson dismisses the request, as that would mean he was an equal with the criminal Lothbrok. But Haraldson recalls the words of the seer—if Ragnar kills him he would be earl. Haraldson changes his mind and accepts the challenge.

Lagertha asks her husband to run away with her. He's still too weak to fight and she warns him never to battle unless he knows the odds are in his favor. Ragnar responds that their fates are already decided, but she knows he doesn't believe that. He does, he tells her.

Haraldson is having a similar soul searching with Siggy, and admits to her that he indeed respects Ragnar. He was right about sailing west, and he even reminds him of his younger days, but he could never admit that in public. Meanwhile, Thyri finds her new husband to be less than inspiring.

Ragnar, still limping, arrives for the challenge. Both men are given two shields. If both are broken they won't be replaced. The Earl tosses one away, so Ragnar does as well. The fight begins, and Ragnar is feeling his wounds, but takes the offensive, only to break his sword and then his final shield. The Earl obliges by throwing both his sword and shield to the ground, leading to both men getting axes. The Earl wounds Ragnar in the chest, but Ragnar gains the upper hand and slashes his back, bringing down the Earl. 

Ragnar kneels by him, whispering to him that Odin is present, waiting to see which of them he will take to his great hall. Haraldson realizes he will go to Valhalla after all and seems satisfied. Ragnar slits his wrists with the axe as Siggy rushes over to be at her husband's side. The Earl tells her not to mourn, and assures her he will be drinking with their boys that night.

With the Earl dead, Svein immediately orders Ragnar killed, but no one steps forward except for Rollo (bearing a scarred face from Haraldson's torture), who plants an axe in his chest. Svein falls dead while Siggy rushes to her daughter, who hands her a dagger, which she then shoves in Earl Bjarni's chest and kills him. She turns to the crowd and says hail Earl Ragnar. The others shout it back and the mob kneel around Ragnar and his wife.

The Lothbroks enter the great hall and he is urged to take his chair to the cheers of his men and women. Torstein is first to swear his allegiance. Ragnar advises them all they are his friends. An old man then steps forward, who swears his loyalty but asks a favor—to be taken along on the raids with them. All his friends are in Valhalla. Never once was he touched by a blade despite fighting alongside them his many years. He feels he is forsaken and begs him for the chance to die with honor. Ragnar announces come summer they will have more ships to go west and when they return to England they will take him with them.

Rollo steps forward but his brother tells him there's no need to swear, given the high price he has already paid. Nevertheless he swears to be true to him and his family. But as they embrace he asks how will they ever be equal now.

As Ragnar recovers, preparations are made for a large funeral for Haraldson. He tells the questioning Athelstan that his predecessor earned such a celebration. He takes the monk to a woman in a tent, one of the Earl's slaves, who has agreed to die with him. Her servants are preparing her by plying her with spirits.

Haraldson's body is taken to his boat with Siggy and Thyri following. There is feasting and celebrations in the village. Bjorn grabs Athelstan to get him a drink and they watch the drunk slave girl being led into a building. Bjorn explains she's having sex with the men inside. Because she will be reunited with their master in death, she will be able to carry their words to him.

Finally the woman is led to the boat. A woman garbed in a winged helmet waits for her, whom Bjorn explains they call the angel of death. The slave removes her jewels and takes a drink from a cup. She claims her master is in Valhalla and calls to her. Athelstan can't stay to watch, but Bjorn grows angry with him. He orders him to stay or his father will hear of it. Her throat is cut and she's placed on the boat. Athelstan slips away into the crowd.

Siggy asks Ragnar's permission to light the pyre. He smiles, then gives the torch to another man. She says nothing and returns to her daughter, leaving the crowd. The boat is set aflame and pushed away from the dock. Athelstan returns to watch. As they stand together, Lagertha reveals to her husband she's again with child. He gets down on his knees and tells her she's made him very happy. The seer told him it would be a boy.

Siggy and Thyri pack up their treasures to leave but Rollo finds them. She worries he's come to kill them, but he assures her he's not there for that. Ragnar doesn't hold grudges. They won't force them to leave if Rollo vouches for them. Siggy doesn't understand what he means, and Rollo asks if she would like to be married to another earl. Himself, of course.

Winter progresses and Ragnar continues to recuperate. Bjorn is anxious to go to England with them in spring, but his father won't hear of it and warns him not to be too impatient. As they gather around the fire Athelstan asks what Ragnarok is, given he's heard mention of it often but with no explanation. Ragnar indulges the question and has them spill leaves over the fire to raise a smoke. Athelstan sees a raven and the seer arrives and explains the twilight of the gods, a time beginning with three years of terrible winters and dark summers, where people will lose all hope and surrender to greed. The world serpent will come from the ocean and flood the world. The wolf Fenrir will break his chains, the fire giant will destroy the gods. Odin will ride out of Valhalla to battle for the last time against the wolf. Thor will kill the world serpent but dies from its venom. At last Fenrir will swallow the sun.

By June of 794, three viking ships sail up the rivers of Northumbria. Ragnar is aboard with his crew. Meanwhile, King Aelle is advised of their arrival, and is alarmed to learn that their ships can sail on open sea as well as up the river. He's still angry at his lords for their failed battle on the beach the year before but tells them he has something new to show them. He takes them to a deep pit full of snakes, and serves them the lord who fled the northmen's attack. He orders the rest of them to begin to prepare their defenses against the heathens and barbarians.

The Verdict:
Burial of the Dead was simply a fantastic episode, likely the best of the bunch so for. Even though the main challenge and its outcome was pretty much written in stone, Hirst executed it with style and excitement. It also brought a great end to Gabriel Byrne's character, allowing him to exit the stage with honor and sympathy, rather than a standard villain (the equally satisfying exit of the dishonorable Svein). 

The funeral was suitably grand, and what would a viking series be without sending its warrior off in a burning ship? The Ragnarok tale was a bit bizarre, and I'm sure those were more than just leaves thrown on the fire. We didn't get to see Athelstan's reaction to the Norse apocalpyse tale, and I wonder if he would draw any similarities to his own Christian Revelations.

Is it foreshadowing that Haraldson sees himself in Ragnar? Is this what an older Ragnar will become once he's worn the trappings of power for awhile? It's notable that Rollo says his brother doesn't hold grudges, yet he robbed Siggy of lighting her husband's funeral pyre. Hopefully Lagertha will be able to exert some influence as an anchor to her husband's still mysterious ambitions and dreams. What else did the seer tell him that we were not privy to?

Rollo seems to be taking the long view of things, supporting his brother in the short term with the intent of becoming earl now that his position is elevated. I admit I thought he would make a play for Thyri rather than Siggy. With events turning to Northumbria, I hope Rollo doesn't betray his brother with the enemy.

Bjorn has grown into an interesting character on his own merit. Like the seer warned, he appears to be just like his father and willing to challenge him, and he's just as quick-tempered when it comes to Athelstan. Will his family's rise in station make him incorrigible?

King Aelle is back to replace the villain vacuum left by Haraldson. Those who have done a bit of research into the historical events covered in the series will find the snake pit quite foreboding. I'm very excited to see how everything plays out now that Ragnar has returned with three ships.

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