For being a show that airs at 10 o’ clock on a cable channel, Vikings is surprisingly tame in its violence. There’s plenty of it in any given episode, but explicit images or realistic depictions of blood are rarely shown, if ever. Considering that this is a series about Vikings, you’d figure it would be one of the few shows that has a good enough excuse to go all-out on its brutality. Yet, Vikings reins in its violence so that it is respectably palatable without its battles losing any of their charge.
The final battle of “Treachery,” in which Borg seeks his revenge by attacking the B-team of Ragnar’s forces (Rollo and less abled men and women), is mostly devoid of troubling or gruesome images. Even though the violence is there, the gore is implied. That battle, though, is not only one of the best sequences in Vikings so far; it also stacks up well against other fantasy- or history-based series that try to go big on the epic quality. What makes that more surprising with Vikings is that there aren’t that many people involved in any given fight. Borg brings about 100 men distributed across five ships or so. There are fewer combatants fighting alongside Rollo. So, if you were to see a crane shot of all the action, it would probably look semi-uneventful compared to the sweeping army confrontations in the Game of Thrones episode “Blackwater” or pretty much any episode of Spartacus: War of the Damned. The intensity is still there at the end of “Treachery,” however. The moments leading up to Borg’s ships stopping just outside of the docks are tense as Rollo tries to rally his people. And as the battle commences, Borg and Rollo gravitate towards one another, interrupted by other fighters several times so that they can’t finish their individual battle. That kind of moment on the battlefield is so essential for setting up payoffs later. Borg and Rollo are now literal and figurative opposing forces, and the way the brief moments of their fight in “Treachery” are filmed generates anticipation to see one of them eventually take down the other.
The other part of that battle that really impresses me is how Rollo steps into the role of leader (there’s a Rollo/role o’ joke in there that I’m too much of a coward to make outside of a parenthetical). We’ve seen his brother, Ragnar, lead the vikings through charisma and gravitas. Rollo, though, has always been the fighter and the follower. Give him a weapon and a target and he’s good to go. “Treachery” illuminates other areas of his personality and character. With his back against the wall, he leads by example and uses strategy. His forces are nearly overrun, but he leads Borg’s men into a spear and arrow trap that picks off a few more. It’s not enough to win the battle – and, indeed, Rollo is the only one to make it out alive after fleeing – but every movement of every piece counts in warfare. A few more casualties on the opposing side means fewer warriors to face in battle the next time. Rollo, despite his nature and wanting to stay to fight until the bitter end, seems to have an inherent understanding of this and how to manipulate the home-court advantage when the odds are stacked against him. For a season that needed to rebuild Rollo’s character beyond the wishy-washy, jealous brother from last year, these first few episodes have done a fantastic job with the brother of Ragnar Lothbrok.
Meanwhile, the son and former wife of Ragnar Lothbrok, Bjorn and Lagertha, find themselves in different but still dire circumstances. Lagertha’s new earl husband not only strikes her, but he refuses to let Bjorn go off to the mountains to train his body and mind to withstand the elements. He does this, of course, all while professing his love for both of them. Until we see more of Lagertha in this situation, we might withhold judgment or criticism. But my immediate feeling was of confusion. Lagertha is the definition of a strong female character. She may be headstrong, but she is also just plain strong, capable of holding her own in battle and being both an intellectual and physical challenge for Ragnar. We didn’t see what happened in the interim during that huge time jump, so it might be that Lagertha was tired of having to fend for the two of them all the time and settled into the role of earl’s wife, but it goes completely contrary to her character that she does not strike the guy back. Bjorn, though, feels very much like an older version of the kid we used to know (and he sounds a lot like him, which is a brilliant turn of casting and/or acting). He has his father’s blood in him and that he originally made the decision to stay with Ragnar before changing his mind shows that he will always be drawn to his father. I’m really excited about this storyline as a parallel to the main one. It was a smart decision to split the family and to fast-forward enough to make Bjorn a real warrior. We’ll see these plots come together at some point, I’m sure, but Lagertha and Bjorn have always been capable of making their scenes interesting without Ragnar.
All this, and the A-story of “Treachery” – Ragnar’s – seems kind of mundane. The vikings continue their invasion of Wessex, taking a bunch of treasure and lives in the process. This battle, while not as emotionally driven as the final one of the episode, is also very well executed. Ragnar’s crew kind of cuts through everyone like a warm knife through butter, but any excuse to see that wild look plastered across Floki’s face is a good one. Additionally, there’s some interesting conversation in the aftermath, such as Floki continuing to tease Athelstan about his English and religious origins as the former priest struggles with his identity crisis. Ragnar and Horik’s discussion is especially crucial, as it introduces the idea of the vikings coming to live in England because of how agreeable the land is for farming. Always the forward-thinker, Ragnar recognizes the utility in a situation beyond what’s shiny, giving each episode of Vikings a quality that elevates it beyond a romp into another intelligent cable drama.
[Photo via Jonathan Hession/History]