Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review: Vikings "A King's Ransom"

Non Spoiler Review:
A King's Ransom finds Earl Lothbrok terrorizing Northumbria and his first encounter with King Aelle, whose brother leads a force against the invaders. Lagertha reigns in his absence.

This week brought insight into the English Christians (beyond what we've seen with Athelstan), providing a significant counterbalance to the heavy Norse mythology, and allowing for a great comparison of how both cultures approach war. A King's Ransom was also a change in tone as far as plotting, managing to keep things exciting throughout, rather than the previous episodes which were heavy on action in the first half, and more character driven towards the end.

The series feels like its entered its next epic phase with a confident Ragnar revelling in his new power to explore and raid new lands. However his tragic flaw is definitely hubris, which looks to have evolved into a full blown god complex. He appears blind to several potential problems, and as Floki warns, the gods may withdraw their favor, as we see by the end.

Spoilers Now!
As Ragnar's boats sail up river, King Aelle has mobilized his defense, with his brother Aethelwulf arriving to lead his forces against the northmen. Ragnar makes camp and sets up a secure perimeter to await their coming. 

Aethelwulf views the northmen camp and thinks it best to wait for them to attack, despite his men wanting to fight. Ragnar sees them watching, and also waits to see what they will do, with Rollo questioning his wisdom. That night Ragnar leads a band into the Northumbrian camp and sets it on fire, leading to a massacre of the unprepared Englishmen. Lord Aethelwulf delays in joining the battle by taking an inordinately long time to pray, allowing Ragnar's men time to take the camp and leading to his own capture.

Ragnar learns he has the brother of the king and suggests the ruler sends him to fight his battles. With dozens of horses captured and weapons made of stronger iron, Ragnar suggests they can get a king's ransom for their prisoner.

Aelle his furious his brother was defeated and likely dead. The bishop declares the northmen have been sent by God to punish them for their sins. Another of his advisers suggests it's the work of the Devil and they must resist at all costs. Another more reasonable man believes they are simply savage men interested in plunder, and recommends they pay them to leave them in peace. Others agree. Aelle opts to think on it, but meanwhile has sent envoys to raise more men to fight.

Aelle goes to pray but is interrupted that the northmen are approaching the town. Ragnar leads Aethelwulf to the gates where they're greeted by nervous soldiers. He's invited to negotiate the release of the king's brother but Ragnar simply leaves. 

Rollo maintains they should attack the town while they're weak, but Ragnar wishes to talk to their king, and see how he lives. They return, and this time Ragnar and his men are led into the great hall to meet the king. Aelle is pleased he's decided to talk and invites them to feast together. 

Back home, Lagertha is overseeing Ragnar's responsibilities in his absence, and must settle a dispute between a man and wife, who claims their child is not his own via a stranger who visited them. Lagertha persuades her that perhaps the god Heimdel chose them to visit and they should rejoice in the favor of the gods. That does little to appease the husband, but Lagertha warns him he will answer to her if any harm comes to the woman or child.

Siggy asks to speak to her and announces her wish to serve her. Lagertha does not want a slave in the former earl's wife, but she acquiesces after listening to Athelstan, earning Siggy's gratitude. But Lagertha promises she and her daughter are under her protection, and she won't treat her as a servant.

Later Lagertha assures her own daughter she need not be worried for her father. The seer predicted she would have a boy. However things do not end well as she finally goes into labor and miscarriages. Siggy comforts her.

The king presents his nervous wife and son Egbert to Ragnar as they dine together. Ragnar seems pensive when he sees the frightened boy. The northmen offend them by eating before the prayer and Ragnar comments he also has a man of God at home. Ragnar offers to discuss the terms of Aethelwulf's return — 2000 pounds in gold and silver. Aelle is not amused. His soldiers enter the hall, though Ragnar continues to eat. Aelle then agrees to the terms, but first he must return his brother. Ragnar replies he will do so only when he receives payment. Aelle concedes, but needs time to collect such a vast amount and in the meantime his men must remain in their camp, which Ragnar agrees to.

The bishop interjects and wants to baptize one of them, so Aelle can make peace with a fellow Christian and not an enemy. Rollo steps forward to accept. The next day Rollo is taken to the river and baptized, receiving the Christian name Roth. Afterwards back in camp, Floki doesn't see the humor in it, and feels Rollo has renounced the gods in front of everyone and shouldn't make light of it. Before Rollo can rise to challenge his accusations, Aelle's men arrive with the ransom and run off. The chests are empty, allowing a ruse for Aelle's men to ride in to attack.

Ragnar's camp is well fortified and the riders are stopped by barricades as the northmen organize and take the offensive. After a pitched battle in which both sides suffer losses, Ragnar is victorious. The old man who came along with them looking for an honorable death is struck down and dies with a smile on his face in Ragnar's arms. As they pick through the dead, Rollo challenges Floki to guess how many Christians he killed.

A bloodied Ragnar suggests to Aethelwulf that his brother does not care if he lives or dies. The Englishman believes he could persuade him to honor his pledge, but Ragnar suggests he should just kill him now. And so a riderless horse is sent back to the town bearing the body of the king's brother. Aelle sends out a second carriage, this time loaded with treasure, and the satisfied northmen sail for home. Aelle declares war eternal on Ragnar Lothbrok. One day he will avenge himself on him.

The Verdict:
A King's Ransom was another great chapter building up to an epic ending by all indications. With a deep look at the Northumbrians, I'm wondering how able they are to wage war. It seems out of the question that they could mount an attack on Ragnar at home, which means they'll need to fortify their lands and brace for Ragnar's inevitable return.

A start contrast is drawn between the imposing northmen and the rather meek and Christian English, which was almost funny in some scenes. That Christian mentality provokes the idea of appeasement, but does Aelle or any of his advisers really believe that will work or just encourage Ragnar to return for more loot in the future?

I enjoy Siggy's character, but I'm a bit concerned she's in league with Rollo to poison Lagertha and forced her to miscarry. One one hand it's a great scheme and makes for an inevitable clash between the brothers, but I did want Siggy and Lagertha to have some kind of genuine friendship.

For her scenes, Lagertha excels as the strong but benevolent ruler in Ragnar's absence, and is easily the power behind the throne as her husband engages in his love of plunder and exploring. How this miscarriage will affect her in the long term remains to be seen, but I hope she continues to be a formidable presence.

I get the impression the series is making a statement that the paganism of the north is superior to the Christianity of Northumbria. Their treatment of women is (generally) far more progressive, and as evidenced by the additional shield maidens present on Ragnar's voyage and Lagertha's strong leadership at home, it's clearly coming out on top.

I also loved Floki's horror at Rollo's baptism. He remains the religious counterbalance to Athelstan and his words proved prophetic. Will Ragnar listen to his counsel or side with his brother once he finds out what has occurred in his absence? While the confident and dangerous Earl Lothbrok appears to have achieved his goal, along with it is a blind pride that could easily be shaken if he feels he's offended the gods. 

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