Warning: Full spoilers for the episode follow…
“Brother’s War” dives directly into the conflict that the Vikings Season 1 finale “All Change” introduced. The seeds of change were planted in last season’s closer, but they really played out in tonight’s entry. There were so many profound shifts in the character’s lives, in fact, that the premiere may have left some viewers with a bit of emotional whiplash.
Part of the nature of this series is that it moves through time rather quickly. Vikings is condensing months, and sometimes years, into just a handful of episodes. Because the show is basing the characters on real-world figures, and aiming to touch on specific historical events, it occasionally seems as if there’s a race to get through what are in many ways the most significant portions of these character’s lives.
Of course we’ll want Ragnar to get back on the open water; back to his exploration and raids, and the show can’t very well linger on the years that it would take them to prepare for their return journey West. There are certain key character interactions that may have been nice to play out a bit more, though. We were set up for a huge showdown between Rollo and Ragnar, and we did get some of that, but Rollo’s nearly immediate submission on the battle-field felt abrupt. This was really more of a Brother’s skirmish than war.
It may have been more effective if we’d spent some time with him while he was away from his brother. “There was no sunlight when I left your shadow,” Rollo says later in the episode. His story would have been better served if we’d seen some of what it was like for him to struggle to make his own mark. If we’d seen that, in truth, at this point in his life Rollo needs Ragnar. That he doesn’t have the leadership skills, not the vision, that his brother has. That would be a hard truth for Rollo to face, and an engaging arc for us to watch unfold.
Additionally, the negotiations after the initial fray seemed fairly easy and quickly resolved. It left me wondering why they didn’t have this very rational conversation before they started wielding axes at one another’s heads! Being Vikings, they may have needed to taste the bite of blood and death before they were willing to settle in for a nice chat, though.
As to the action, I enjoy the raw, brute combat on the show. This isn’t about stylistic flourish, but efficient, gritty, and no-bs death-dealing. There’s something that feels more real, more dirt, and grit and Viking-like about the way they simply launch at each unassisted by heavy CGI. This is not the fanciful version of Vikings that we may have imagined or seen previously, but a far earthier look at men and women who survived by force of will and the ability to kill for what they needed. I will say that shaky camera does occasionally make it difficult to see what’s happening, though.
The tension and sense of relentless violence might be elevated with a few more camera angels, inserts of an arm being broken or torn apart, a face being sliced in half…things like that. Though, I must say that poor One Eye on a stick like a human shish kabob was viscerally fierce, wretched, and cruel. That one act of madness gave us a sharp window into Rollo’s state of mind. He was lost to blood-lust, grief, regret, and desire for what he was not able to attain – his brother’s greatness. Perhaps in that moment, he realized that he’d gone too far, and had no desire to go further.
There were several effective individual scenes and moments in the episodes, but as a whole, the story was dealing with major, life-altering events in what felt like a cursory manner. It’s as if the show was saying, “Okay, we know we need to address Gyda’s death, so we’ll give Ragnar this beautiful moment of grief, but we won’t delve too deeply into the hole that the loss of a child would leave.” It’s true that death was far more common for these people, but a moment of shared intimacy with his wife over their little girl’s death may have heightened the stakes, given that their marriage was about to dissolve.
Some of the most evocative moments on the series have been Ragnar sitting in quiet contemplation. However, if Ragnar and Lagertha had fought not just because she was jealous, but because he was sleeping with another woman while she watched their daughter die, it may have given their sexual re-connection more emotional heat and a far deeper meaning. If we’d truly felt their shared bond, then their separation would have hurt them, and us as the viewer. all the more.
In truth. Ragnar did marry Aslaug, so the series needed to go there, but it could have made those final moments between Lagertha and Ragnar, the longtime friends and lovers, sting all the more. I enjoyed the humor in the scenes between the three, actually. I just felt it could have been seasoned a bit with some deeper expression. As it was, their goodbye was moving, it inspired sadness and hurt, but it also left me wondering why he would abandon one woman and child so easily, for another one who he hardly knew. I did appreciate that Lagertha left, though, as that was in line with the woman we’d known her to be.
That little conversation between Bjorn and his father in which Ragnar tells his son, not pitilessly, but just with a sense of practicality, that their life is a harsh one, that happiness is not a guarantee and that, essentially, you must grab onto moments of pleasure as you can, was beautiful. It was a gorgeous exchange because it showed his father’s desire to raise this boy, to ready him for the world, but also his desire to explain a complex situation, a choice that he’d made. Of course that choice, to invite Aslaug into their lives, would rob Ragnar of his chance to watch Bjorn grow into a man.
Perhaps the biggest strength of the series is its world creation. It’s as if we get a little snapshot of what a Vikings life may have looked like. The show creates a stunning sense of expanse with its visual aesthetic, and a very grounded sense of place with the attention that is given to even the most mundane details. As to small details, I nearly missed that a Ragnar – who is as driven by a sense of fate and the Gods as any of his people – was still willing to bribe the lawgiver to save his brother.
“Brother’s War” speed its way through some of last Season’s big questions and conflicts, but it set us up for a new year of fresh storylines. Lagertha is a standout on the series, so we’ll need to see how her life with Bjorn develops just as much as we’ll want to trace Ragnar’s increasingly bold raids. The series greatest strength is the sense that we’re visiting a culture, a people that has been so mysterious; that we’re seeing both the mundane and extraordinary aspects of what a Viking’s life may have been. I look forward to 9 more episodes of exploring that world.
What did you guys think?