Typically, the hour before a season finale is spent building the foundation for whatever the last hurrah of the year will be for a television series. “The Choice” is as good an example as any of defying that convention. And while going against the grain is usually something to be commended, I’m not sure this episode succeeds as a ninth episode of a ten-episode season, although it still has plenty of merit as an individual episode of Vikings from this season. The strangest part about “The Choice” is that it appears to mostly resolve the largest tensions between characters, taking away momentum rather than building it. I tend not to watch the “Next time on…” segments for series, so I may very well be eating these words come next week, but the largest source of conflict that remains–now that relations between Ecbert and Ragnar are relatively and/or momentarily peaceful–is Horik trying to turn Floki against Ragnar, clearing the path for the king to take unimpeded command of the vikings.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. The Horik-Floki plot has not been one of the more interesting aspects of the last few episodes, but both Donal Logue and Gustaf Skarsgard are great in the roles. So, if the drama revolves around them as antagonists in the finale, there is still a lot of fun to be had with that (I don’t think Logue is such a premium actor that he’s above having a regular spot on this series, but it feels like he’s following in Gabriel Byrne’s footsteps as having a great, short presence in Vikings, and that’s totally fine; if Horik makes it out of the finale alive, I’ll be surprised). Ragnar is tuned into what’s going on, as he makes clear by questioning how trustworthy Floki is to his face, causing Floki to be the most interesting piece of that triad. His allegiances are the ones in question, since we’ve seen him express disappointment with Ragnar as a leader but not to the extent that he’s actively trying to end the Lothbrok era like Horik appears to be doing. There has been some highly improved character work done in Vikings this year, but Floki hasn’t received enough of it. That said, a couple of his scenes–such as his reaction to being told he will be a father and his wedding ceremony–have made him feel more important as a character, generating enough investment that the viewers actually care about what happens to him beyond what a shame it would be to lose Skarsgard.
Again, though, it’s so strange how much of the season-long conflict “The Choice” resolves. That resolution is certainly entertaining, if oddly placed. The battle we get between the vikings and the English is the best fight sequence of the series so far. There’s very little strategy used (Ecbert essentially flanks Ragnar and Horik’s forces, which is Military Tactics 101), but the choreography and stunt work is wonderful throughout. What’s more, this is a battle that Ragnar cannot win. Some series suffer from making things far too easy for their central character(s) (the first two seasons of House of Cards are uniformly guilty of this), so making Ragnar suffer through defeats between his victories is not just a way of challenging him but it makes the series more believable. Of course, many of its characters would believe that the warriors have nothing to do with the outcome of the battle–that it is up to their gods to decide their fates. But as a television series, making life difficult for a protagonist is almost always the right call.
In the aftermath, tons of things happen, the most important of which for the series overall is that Ecbert and Ragnar come to terms. The injured Rollo is released into Ragnar’s care, Princess Kwenthrith of Mercia conscripts to warriors to her cause and Ragnar gets his shot at tilling new land in England (also, Bjorn is dubbed Ironside for being favored by the gods in battle). What the means going forward is intriguing and worrying. If Vikings has repeated a plot beat to the point of annoyance already, it is how back-and-forth some characters are in terms of the deals they make. Season one’s Rollo was a prime example of this. So, if Ecbert is only allying (to some extent) with Ragnar just to turn on him several more times in the next season or two, then that narrative decision is a bust. But if there are other, larger forces ahead in the world of Vikings, giving the two leaders greater reason to work together, then that’s a huge pay-off if done well. Whatever the case, Ecbert probably won’t be taking too kindly to Athelstan going back with Ragnar. Where this is concerned, though, the viewers don’t care. The Ragnar-Athelstan relationship has been the easiest one to root for in this series, making both their conversation together before Athelstan returns to tell Ecbert the vikings’ response and Athelstan’s return to Kattegat two of the largest highlights in “The Choice” (which is, presumably, titled mostly after the decision that Athelstan makes, if also partially because of other characters’ decisions).
And even though the shift was incredibly rough and could understandably take viewers out of the flow of the episode, the scene we get with Porunn and Aslaug is among the better ones in “The Choice” (this, too, feels like set-up for next season rather than for next week’s finale). Aslaug makes Porunn a free woman, allowing the later to literally shed her former identity, take a swim in what is probably ridiculously freezing water and return to shore as a new woman altogether–one that will feel less shy or ashamed about her feelings for Bjorn. Since the Rollo-Siggy love story has more to do with convenience than romance and since the Ragnar-Aslaug-Lagertha love triangle is of little interest, that makes Bjorn and Porunn’s relationship the one viewers should be able to gravitate to easiest, since it falls closest in line with traditional concepts of television romances. That doesn’t make it interesting or effective by default, but it’s hard not to want Bjorn to feel the happiness he feels when he’s with Porunn (or maybe I’m just a sucker). Based on this, then, maybe the point of “The Choice” isn’t to set up conflicts for next week but to give off the impression of certain areas of Vikings being idyllic just for them to be broken down and ripped apart. That would be unfortunate, wouldn’t it?
[Photo via History]