Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

vikings Archive

Tuesday

10

January 2017

0

COMMENTS

Vikings Boldly Lets Go

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Vikings has always managed to walk the line between fun and serious better than most shows on television. It doesn’t shoot for the awards circuit quite like Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, or Wolf Hall, but doesn’t go completely over the top campy like Reign, The Bastard Executioner, or Xena: Warrior Princess either. It also has a strong chance to go down in TV history as having the best action sequences of all time.

The second half of season four put forth a test that few shows ever want to face. Could Vikings survive without its lead? Ragnar Lothbrok’s death made sense from a historical standpoint, fitting given it airs on the History Channel, but Travis Fimmel brought an unexpected emotional complexity to the character that wasn’t completely needed for the show to be a hit. His absence is a big loss for the show, which makes it peculiar to state that it’s also for the best.

Vikings became a great show because of Ragnar and will be better off moving forward without him.

To say that there’s nothing left for Ragnar to do is sensible, but slightly problematic. The show could have easily invented a new plotline for Ragnar, even if it wasn’t directly tied to Bjorn’s or another invasion attempt, and Fimmel could have stayed on the show. Even if this possibility makes you roll your eyes, it’s important to understand that Vikings wasn’t completely backed into a corner with Ragnar. Killing him off was the right decision, but killing off the star is never easy.

Ragnar lost his elasticity as a character. Not completely as Fimmel was still able to command the audience’s attention with his broken character. The value of Ragnar shifted in his final few episodes. As an outgoing lead, Ragnar’s interactions with Ivar eased what is naturally an uncomfortable transition. The second half of season four drastically alters the focus of the series, making Ragnar’s four children with Aslaug main characters.

Keeping Ragnar around would have likely involved the character morphing into the television version of Stannis Baratheon post Battle of the Blackwater (full disclosure: I am a devoted book supporter of Stannis and have published several articles critical of his TV direction). He’d be there on the screen, existing as a shell of himself pining for a future the audience knows isn’t going to happen. Few TV shows succeed when they spend their time reminding audiences of happier seasons. A clean break from the character was much more beneficial to the wellbeing of the show.

Showrunner and writer Michael Hirst deserves a lot of credit for “Crossings,” the first episode of the post Ragnar era. The show still feels like Vikings, even if we’re not entirely sure what direction the show is going to take. We don’t know which characters will be retained, or what role Jonathan Ryers Meyers will play when he joins the show in season five. The show’s relatively high cast turnover rate makes it likely that at least one of Lagertha, Rollo, Floki, or Bjorn will depart in the not so distant future. If “Crossings” serves as any indicator, it’s that the show still has a lot of gas left in the tank.

Shows evolve or they get stale. There’s only so many times you can build up a character and break them down again without the lingering feeling of familiar territory. TV provides entertainment, but also comfort in the sense that the audience gets to spend time with characters they’ve grown attached to at a specific time of the week. Many shows fade with age as the relationship between comfort and entertainment often erodes into a burden.

By killing off Ragnar, Vikings hopes to avoid many of problems that age inflicts upon TV shows. It won’t be as comfortable, more like a longship voyage to Wessex. It’ll be different. That’s why we watched it in the first place.

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Friday

6

November 2015

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COMMENTS

Breaking Down Why The Bastard Executioner Is So Unwatchable

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We’re living in a wonderful time for the action/fantasy costume drama. There’s never been so much to choose from. Regardless of whether you want to watch something that’s going to be a Emmy contender (Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful, hopefully Outlander next year), something with well choreographed fight scenes (Vikings, The Last Kingdom, Black Sails), or merely something to fall asleep to after a second nightcap (Olympus), there’s something for everyone.

The Bastard Executioner should have been a welcome addition to the second tier. A historical drama created by Kurt Sutter, the man who brought us Sons of Anarchy, had all the makings of a show that would fit in well with the current mix of offerings.

It doesn’t. It’s not just a bad show, it’s a downright unwatchable travesty. Calling it worse than Marco Polo is almost insulting to the underwhelming Netflix entry to the genre.

It took me a few weeks to figure out why this show is this bad and it’s not because the show had perhaps the worst name in television history. It’s not even that the show has bland characters and feels highly derivative. The Last Kingdom has essentially the same plot as Vikings and is still an excellent new show (worth noting that TLK is based off of a series of novels by Bernard Cornwell, which makes the similarities more acceptable).

I’ve seen four episodes of the show and I’ve found it hard to care about anyone on the program. Even Stephen Moyer, who can’t seem to make anything work with the bland writing. As much as I enjoy Katey Sagal, her character is unbearable with that completely baffling accent. Her character looks like something out of The Legend of the Seeker, which is hardly a compliment for a show on a network like FX (though I enjoyed Seeker and The Sword of Truth books its based on).

The show has no obvious likable characters. No Tyrion, no Jon, no Ragnar, no Floki. Just a bunch of crappy generic characters with generic names. There’s no fun to be had at all with this lot.

Some shows take time to develop, even the ones that were good from the get-go. Game of Thrones, Vikings, and Outlander are all different programs now than when they started (which would be a bit unusual in Outlander’s case if it wasn’t following its source material). Problem is, The Bastard Executioner makes it downright impossible for you to actually get through the episodes.

As we learned with the last few seasons of Sons of Anarchy, Kurt Sutter is not a man who likes to be edited. Since 2012, SOA episodes almost always ran for at least 90 minutes on commercial TV, often longer. This trend has unfortunately continued with The Bastard Executioner.

It takes the saying “too much of a good thing” to a whole new level. It’s too much of a terrible thing. A show trying to work through its growing pains doesn’t need to air episodes that are longer than most HBO shows on a regular basis. I assume Sutter has a fair amount of pull at FX. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work to the benefit of the show.

While I’d say the long run times are the show’s biggest problem, the fight scenes are very subpar. They’re sloppy and have way too much gore. You can’t exactly blame the budget either, when fellow non-premium cable show Vikings produces the most consistently great fight scenes on television.

I’d imagine that Sutter set out to beat Vikings at its own game. I don’t think he seriously expected a show with the title, The Bastard Executioner, to be an Emmy contender. While Vikings isn’t going to challenge for Best Drama either, it has grown into one of the best shows on TV with amazing visuals, great action, and most importantly, compelling characters.

The Bastard Executioner has no redeeming qualities and that’s a shame. Sutter should have been able to do better than this. If his ego is half as bloated as his show’s run time, it’s possible he’s oblivious to how terrible the finished product is.

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Saturday

25

April 2015

2

COMMENTS

Season 3 of Vikings Raises the Bar, Struggles With Its High Ambitions

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Ten episodes is not a particularly long length for a season, though it’s fairly common for costume/period dramas. Vikings handled this quite well with a relatively small cast and fairly linear plotlines over its first two seasons. Throwing that out the window, or perhaps over the side of the long ship, was a risk. One that paid off handsomely in season three.

This season of the History Channel’s flagship (no pun intended) drama featured two massive storylines. Starting in Wessex, Ragnar and co. had a bunch of exciting battles before returning home to Kattegat. After King Ecbert betrayed the Vikings, we naturally would expect Ragnar to sail back for vengeance. For a show that’s been fairly predictable, it was surprising to see that this was not what happened.

Taking on a Paris campaign with only four episodes left in the season was no easy task, especially when the show was rapidly shedding old characters and introducing new ones into the fray. It might not have been surprising to see this fail as badly as the first siege on Paris, especially when the show continued to feature the Wessex characters, who no longer seemed to factor in at all.

Maybe it did to some people. The season finale did leave a stronger feeling of “that’s it” than the previous two. Part of this is only natural as cliffhanger endings are an easy way to cap off a short season.

While it’s clear that the Paris and Wessex storylines are not complete, the brevity in which Paris was handled has made me question whether or not it should have been held off until season four. Doing so would have allowed for proper closure on the Wessex storyline and also would have given Ragnar enough time to deal with Floki for killing Athelstan. I originally suspected that Athelstan’s death was forced because of the actor’s commitments to other projects (George Blagden will play a main role in the upcoming series Versailles), though interviews with creator Michael Hirst suggest that it was in fact a creative decision.

The trouble with prolonging the Paris storyline is that it would have prevented the show’s most ambitious action sequence. “To The Gates!,” was the most impressive television battle since Game of Thrones’ “The Watchers on the Wall,” and even gave the HBO powerhouse a run for its money. It’s hard to reasonably advocate against such an achievement.

The simple solution to the abrupt ending would have been to increase the episode count by one or two episodes, which would have prevented this season from feeling rather incomplete. I wrote an article a couple weeks ago suggesting that The Walking Dead alter its episode count for this very reason. I cannot reasonably suggest that as viable when it comes to Vikings.

The difference between the two is that Vikings isn’t one of the most popular shows on television and the History Channel, even with the support of foreign networks, is likely spending all it can on Vikings. The production quality this season greatly improved. If more episodes were financially feasible, we’d likely get them. It’s not fair to criticize Vikings for circumstances that are out of its control.

Season three of Vikings ended with plenty of loose ends. While it’s annoying that we have to wait a year for resolution, that doesn’t change the fact that this was an outstanding season. Choosing to focus on the shortcomings ignores the fact that this show is doing amazing things with limited resources. It has a stellar cast, top-notch production quality, and arguably the best action sequences on TV. Few shows are perfect and that’s okay. Unless you’re Floki.

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