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Vikings 2.09 & 2.10 are carefully plotted, but suffer for it

Vikings 2.09 & 2.10 are carefully plotted, but suffer for it

Vikings S02E09

Vikings, Season 2, Episode 9 & 10, “The Choice” and “The Lord’s Prayer”
Written by Michael Hirst
Directed by Ken Girotti
Airs Thursdays at 10pm EST on History

I’m a fan of Ocean’s Eleven. Ocean’s Thirteen, too, though we shan’t discuss the muddled wreck that was Ocean’s Twelve; and besides, that’s besides the point. The point is, both of these hustle films were required to con the audience by disguising their primary twist as part of their very makeup. But when a novel shortlisted for the Man Booker employs such a twist with no particular narrative reasoning, or a piece of long form television does the same, it comes as a bit of a slap in the face.

Vikings is neither written by a Man Booker winner, nor likely to be listed for the most prestigious of TV awards. It is, however, a piece of fiction I’ve invested myself in; and as such, the way it wraps up its finale and its smorgasbord of plots stings.
(Spoilers follow.)
The trouble begins with Floki. As has been speculated about in previous reviews, it’s unlike Floki to so swiftly swap sides — no matter his and Horik’s common understanding of the gods. Had Hirst laced Floki’s dialogue through with greater fickleness or clearer coldness towards Ragnar, then our lacking context for his changeover would be justified. As it plays, Floki’s watching out for Ragnar (and Bjorn, and all other related members of the Lothbrok family); and with that, the central dilemma Vikings appears to want to key up is resolved.
Not to say that we haven’t all seen this coming. I’ll confess, I’ve been discussing Floki’s motivations heartedly with my friends, having hoped that this wouldn’t be the route chosen; and while I’m well aware there were few other paths for this to veer into, the entire distraction smacks of just that: distraction. Moreover, it’s distraction that’s been partly broadcast, partly tiptoed around or hinted at, for the latter half of this season, and dramatically speaking, it doesn’t work.
We’ve known, Hirst. We’ve known.
Floki and Ragnar’s gratingly humdrum long con aside, both The Choice and The Lord’s Prayer work in quiet tandem to achieve a satisfying end to an admittedly less-than-dramatic second season. Ragnar’s enemies still suffer from a fundamental lack of grit — or smarts for that matter — and this can’t have been better exemplified than in the multiple scenes these past two episodes of Horik’s fussing over Floki’s purported loyalty, while setting the man multiple tests to prove his worth. And while consigning Horik to a heap of villains out of Batman Forever might be a little much, given that his plan of attacking Ragnar in his stronghold feels like it could be a genuine battle plan one would construct, the heap of uninspired villains with schemes that seem to run in the vein of Batman Forever-esque shenanigans could do with some slicker smarts. Plus, the man brought his family along prior to his plans — to either watch the would-be butchery, or to be butchered themselves?
If this show has a comment to make on power and politics, then it’s not in Horik. Unless the comment in question is that power’s an easily unraveled and ultimately bloody, fruitless exercise, and that’s not it either. Vikings has never explicitly celebrated savagery and its relation to power (no matter what era or time leap we’re trapped in), but it’s tended towards a quiet nodding at how the two are irretrievably linked. “The Choice” makes a point of exploring this, following their crushing loss to Eckbert’s forces. In the sequences that follow — most of them elegant, all of them indicative of the way characters fall apart — it is Ragnar’s rage at Horik’s undermining his orders that stands out. Here is a man of certain words and patience left whittled down by a lack of security in his current situation and unable to convey — or determine — his top dog position in deciding how his forces will be deployed. Moreover, the appearance of Athlestan does unspeakably more to lay open the question of calculated violence, having been subject to both Ragnar’s once-dominion, and now Ecbert’s.
Blagden and Fimmel’s reunion — which feels somehow more like a reunion of personalities, as opposed to characters alone — is the brightest light in the show’s ramp up to an end, simply for the fact that it feels the most genuine. Vikings first season owes much to the pairing of these two personalities, and indeed, could have succeeded in eking out more of the pair prior to Athlestan’s departure for England, but it’s undoubtable that he’s very happy back in Viking togs, as we will surely be with his return to Kattegat. It’s a little bit of something wanted — but not expected, and therefore pleasant — and a little bit of something human, back.
(Porunn and Bjorn’s relationship could arguably fall under this heading too.)
All other parts of Ragnar’s battle plan feel finely calculated and calibrated to meet a certain end; a satisfying end, yes, with the appropriate slaughter, wins and losses, but one that’s been predetermined and achieved.