The #ShieldGeeks Review #VIKINGS "The Joke"

“100% more evisceration talk than expected.”

“These chicks are machines!” 

By elithanathile on Tumblr

Heillir! The Shieldmaidens of History (Protecting the Innocent from Anachronisms) welcome you back to our series on the History Channel show Vikings. 

We—Lissa Bryan and Sandi Layne—are two historical fiction authors with a serious thing for Vikings. And for VIKINGS, the amazing series that is going to begin its fifth season on HISTORY CHANNEL.

Follow us on twitter, #ShieldGeeks where and Sandi and I will be live-tweeting during each episode, as has been our custom since Season One. We follow up with a more detailed discussion on our websites the following day.

We are SO excited! So, Warriors and Shieldmaidens all, get your weapons and armor ready, because it’s going to be an amazing season!


Historical fiction author Sandi Layne is with me again to discuss the historical aspects of the show. Sandi has written her own series on Vikings, both well-written and carefully researched. (You can read my review of the third book in the trilogy, Éire's Devil Kinghere.)

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Lissa: The episode opened with Ivar crawling toward a longship. We decided that he must have abandoned his braces and crutches for balance issues while at sea. Hvitserk helps him inside. Ivar is bubbling with excitement. “Now I can finally fulfill my promise to kill Lagertha!” 

Sandi: And this is the thing to remember in this episode, no matter what he says later: Ivar has never wavered from his desire for vengeance. It is a bit odd to see how excited he can get over it. 

LissaHvitserk asks him about their brother, Ubbe. Would Ivar kill him if he had the chance. Ivar answers with a rhetorical question, “Wouldn’t my fame be assured?” 

{EDITED TO ADD: It was Hvitserk who said the line about fame.}

Sandi: Hvitserk is rather torn, it would seem. One theme that runs through this episode is the concept of "Brother against Brother." Björn mentioned this as well, but it is clearly illustrated in conversations and confrontations between different brother-pairs in the course of this episode.  

LissaHe gives Heahmund the sword that was taken from him when he was captured, which was a thing rife with symbolism in the era. It was like giving Heahmund back his honor, his pride. He tells Heahmund its magic only works for its owner. 

Sandi: A sword such as Heahmund's was the product of long and costly labor, so it was inherently valuable. It conferred rank/respect on its possessor as well, making it doubly valuable. That Ivar returned it—even with the remark about its magic—was a sign of his respect for the man. Ivar will never forget Heahmund is a Christian; this isn't a replay of the Ragnar/Athelstan bromance in any light. But it is a show of respect to a degree. Even if he didn't see to it that his captive would have a shield . . . At least he could fight. 

LissaAstrid, wearing armor, meets up with Harald on the docks. She insists she’s going, despite his protests and worries about her pregnancy. 

When she pushes, he says “Your wish is my command.”
Sandi: There were numerous reasons Harald could have given Astrid to get her to stay, but he seemed to take a breath, get a lay of the land (so to speak) and seem to bow to his wife's will. A queen—especially a breeding queen, crass as that sounds—carries weight.  

Lissa In Kattegat, Björn and Torvi say goodbye to their younger children, who will be watched by Margrethe, apparently. (Should we worry?) 

Sandi: When Björn leaves young, motherless progeny behind, it hasn't always been a good thing! (I will never, ever forget Siglet's death. Never.) I am hoping that Margrethe, for all her grasping ineffectiveness, will be a good aunt and watch over her charges faithfully . . . unless she decides they're threats even as illegitimate children to her hoped-for future status as Kattegat's queen and mother of the next king . . .

I'd worry. But then, I'm kind of a pessimist. 

LissaBjörn tells Torvi’s eldest son, Gunthrum, that it’s a proud day when a father takes his son to his first battle. He must be saying that Björn is Gunthrum’s father in every way that counts, since he’s not Gunthrum’s biological father. Gunthrum beams at him. Torvi and Björn walk toward the ship, side by side, partners again in war, if not in love.

{EDITED TO ADD: It was Ubbe she walked with, not Björn.}

Sandi: Yeah, I think Björn took on the role of "dad" for Torvi's eldest, here, before proceeding to have two more sons by her. A good-sized family, considering the union was never formalized.  

LissaBut as the armies gather on the field, Lagertha has second thoughts. “The sons of Ragnar should not fight!”

Sandi: I basically slapped myself on the forehead when I heard this. "Really?" I asked Lagertha from the comfort of my basement, mead at my elbow. She's not foolish woman. She's not one given to what is deemed "missish" behavior (squeamish, sentimental, affectedly demure). She's a shield maiden and never lets anyone forget it, right? So here? Insincerity abounds, and not just with her. I see this as all as staged while she gets a handle on the opposition. She's just seeking strengths and weaknesses, not peace. Could not believe anyone went for it, even for show. 

LissaShe orders them to parlay. The boys meet on the field and exchange emissaries. Hvitserk goes to Lagertha’s camp, and Halfdan goes to Ivar’s.

Sandi: The exchange of emissaries (prisoners? sometimes...) is, of course, a practice of longstanding. 

Lissa Halfdan is reunited with Harald, who tries to talk him into coming back to Harald’s side. Halfdan tells his brother that Björn saved his life. Harald tells him he puts far too much importance on that. Blood is what is important. Ivar, overhearing, says he only cares about winning this war and Halfdan has to choose between a friend and his own blood. Outside the tent, Heahmund begins to pray in Saxon.

 Sandi: Brother v. Brother. Again. Ivar is all about triumph and showing himself as superior to basically anyone and everyone around him. Halfdan is in a tough space, but the choice was not a surprise to him; he had to have known he would have to make it. 

Sometimes, a man has to make a choice that is at odds with his family. It takes strength to do so. Right or not, I have to hand it to Halfdan for taking a stance.

And I have to hand it to History Channel for once again giving us the pleasure of listening to Saxon from the mouth of Bishop Heahmund. I do like these touches!

Lissa Ubbe talks to Hvitserk about whether the gods intended this for him, and seems to be making some headway into Hvitserk’s mind. He begs Hvitserk not to sacrifice his life for Ivar’s. He pleads with Hvitserk to stay with them while Harald makes the same plea to Halfdan.

Sandi: Ubbe's level of intensity was clear, here. He's not only got a role to fulfill (eldest of the Aslaug-sons!) but his personality requires him to do his best by his younger brother. He wrote Ivar off a long time ago. He cannot have forgotten the axe-murderer of their childhood.

Lissa In a square of flagged spears, the brothers, Lagertha, Halfdan and Harald, and Joan Jett gather. 

Sandi: Oh, it looked very elegant. All the lovely banners and guards facing out to keep the peace within the square. This reminded me more of the idea we have of a medieval battle council than what might have actually occurred. I do wonder if there was an historical image History Channel used to create this, or were they going for the later-medieval look popularized through the centuries.

Lissa Lagertha tries to talk some sense into the group. 

She is the rightful Queen of Kattegat. Here they have a massive army. It makes little sense to waste it fighting over land they already possess, when they could use it to conquer new worlds. The war would do nothing but create more wars, wars of revenge undertaken out of a sense of obligation to avenge the deaths of the various people standing there.
Sandi: This all sounds good, but remember she is a queen and warrior (see somewhere above) who knew this was coming. All of this has to be a ploy. 

The word "joke", I found when I went looking about, originated as it is in English in the 17th century. It is all about wordplay, as taken from the Latin "jocus". This meeting here on the battlefield? Wordplay. The Joke is about how the main characters use words in ways that aren't exactly on the surface. 

LissaLagertha speaks to first to Ivar. She tells him there’s no way to win out of all of this. If he actually manages to defeat her and kill her, he’ll be regarded as a usurper, a brother-killer many times over. 

Sandi: She makes this sound as if he'd mind. Do you really think he would? 

(Me, neither.

Lissa If he loses, there will go all of his support. Everyone will believe the gods have abandoned him, and Ragnar in Valhalla will weep over them.
Sandi: Yeah . . . I still see this as something she is enacting for show. "Look, I tried to get him to stop this. I did. And if Ragnar were here, he'd see this and know I tried to save the lives of his sons!" She is, after all, a woman in her fifties (as per the timeline of the story) and the afterlife has to be part of her thoughts. 

She could conceivably die at any time. At the hand of one of Ragnar's sons! 

LissaShe then turns to Joan Jett. She says it’s wonderful to see her again and she doesn’t want to kill her. 

LissaJoan Jett is happy to see Lagertha, too, but she’s married now, to King Harald, and the implication is that she is honor-bound to fight at his side. “Queen Astrid, then,” Lagertha says.
Sandi: And the look on Lagertha's face. Subtle, but there. A bit of an ouch present, but with a stubborn stiff-upper-lip as well. 

No mention is made of the pregnancy, here. Lagertha's response would have been interesting, to be sure. Shock? Despair? Resignation? Betrayal? Alas, we'll never know because wisdom prevailed and this particular vulnerability was not publicized.

LissaBjörn turns the plea to his brothers. If they decide not to fight, there’s nothing Harald can do about it. He leaves the question to Ivar. 

Sandi: I see Björn's plea as more sincere than Lagertha's myself. Yes, he and his mother are in cahoots, but they are very different people, for all their renewed camaraderie. 

 Ivar breaks away from his martial stance. He says he doesn’t want to fight against his brothers. He hates himself for killing Sigurd and can’t kill any more of his brothers. Harald is outraged and tells him he can’t make that decision for them, but Ivar seems heartsick. He renounces his promise to kill Lagertha. Says she can have Kattegat; he doesn’t want it. 

Sandi: Back to "The Joke" again. More wordplay. If anyone actually believed Ivar, I've got a bridge on SimCity I could sell them . . .

LissaThey call for horns of mead. But as they raise them to drink, Harald pours his on the ground.

Sandi: Actions, they say, speak louder than words. Dumping the contents of one's mead horn is far from peaceful. It's insulting. On purpose. Harald handles it with class. Aggressive class, but class. The same cannot be said of everyone. 

LissaIvar flings the contents of his horn in Ubbe’s face. He asks what color his eyes are. Ubbe says they’re blue, and Ivar asks him if he remembers when they used to monitor the color of the whites of his eyes, because if they were bluish, he was at risk for breaking a bone. He may break bones, he declares, but he will never break a promise, and he has promised to kill Lagertha. 

LissaHe tells Ubbe he’s no longer his brother. How could Ubbe think he would forgive the way Lagertha killed Aslaug? He will kill her. 

Sandi: The eye-color thing was well done of the writers. They've not emphasized that weird Dune Spice thing with his eyes overmuch of late, so this was a timely reminder of different aspects of Ivar's condition. Though there is a bit of an awkward segue involved, Ivar's sincerity here is clear.

He doesn't get how his eldest-full-blood brother can forgive Lagertha for the murder of their mother. It shows, I think, how little Ivar truly cares for the viewpoints of other people. 

Lissa Lagertha, who’d paused with the cup at her lips, now pours it out, telling him he can try.

Sandi: And . . . we're all back to the basic honesty of forthright hostility.  

Lissa All of the men plus Lagertha and Joan Jett, have drawn their swords. The spears, cheerfully bedecked with their side’s colors, are lowered and the points surround the tense group. Harald turns to his brother and makes one last try, asking him if he’s sure. Halfdan repeats that Björn saved his life. Harald punches him and vows to kill him.

Sandi: The turning of the honor guard is a clear indicator that someone (or multiple someones) tipped the hat to them before the conference began. "Look nice 'til we do this, and then, show those spears, warriors!" Both sides do this but—out of chivalry? on orders?—none of them make a more aggressive movement yet. 

Lissa  And so it will be war. 

Sandi: The audience clearly was ready for hostilities to begin in earnest; History Channel's been building up to it in virtually every episode this season!

And . . . they continued in a masterful job of keeping the tension going just a bit more. 

LissaLagertha holds back Ubbe and tells him, “Not here.” They will meet on the field. The group slowly breaks apart, walking toward their armies. Joan Jett slides her sword back into its scabbard. She has drawn it in defense of her husband – or was careful to be seen doing so, that is.
Sandi: Astrid committed herself to fighting when she insisted her pregnant self accompany her husband, so . . . yeah. She's gonna make it good, I think. I do see her as more transparent, perhaps, than others. She wants to fight. 

Someone. She wants to fight someone. 

LissaIn Wessex, Aethelwulf and Aethelred are sparring in the courtyard while Alfred and Judith watch from the ramparts. Judith is wearing an olive brocade gown, and if it wasn’t for the sweetheart neckline, it would have been a nice change from the “prom gowns” we’ve been seeing, because it’s more toward period than many. Her hair is styled to hide her missing ear. Alfred’s hair hangs down around his face, less kempt than usual. 

Sandi: Brocade, as a fabric, emerged in the Middle Ages (Reference: Empire Textiles blog), and it was worn by the elite of society. Not sure why the costume designers have to include sweetheart necklines, though. *sigh* 

Alfred looks a bit off balance. He's been making a lot of strong statements of late. As a mom of sons, I can say that this is not uncommon for men in his time of life. He is asserting himself and taking stances that are important to him, even when they're at odds with his father.

Or brother. Remember the pervasive theme, here . . . 

Lissa Judith asks about Aldred’s trip to Lindisfarne. Alfred says he was disappointed in the monks and the way they taught. He tells her he told the abbot he should be teaching in English. Judith asks how he took that. Not well. Alfred says he also tried to advise the abbot who was only protecting his monastery from the Vikings with prayer. Judith asks what he would do, a hint of amusement in her voice – arm the monks? Alfred replies that he wants to build a navy to protect his nation from the Vikings. Judith says he should speak to his father about that. Alfred reminds her his father is dead. He says Aethelwulf is too busy trying to shape Aethelred into a king and too set in his ways, just like that abbot, and will refuse to listen.
Sandi: Alfred's recent wish to emphasize his true father is not, again, uncommon in terms of his age and abilities. It does feel disrespectful, but he's a strong-willed fellow in an age of other strong-willed fellows. 

LissaIn Iceland, Floki tells his True Believers that what they need to do is build a temple. Eyvind points out they haven’t even built houses for themselves, and now they should devote their efforts to a temple? Kjetill Flatnose interjects and says that Floki can build the temple on his land.

 LissaEyvind accuses Kjetill, in much more crude terms, of being an apple polisher. He stresses that their situation is still dangerously uncertain. His daughter is pregnant and he fears the child has no future. What will they do? Once they eat all of their animals, they will starve, because there will be no food for the winter. Floki tells him if he’s unhappy, he can go home, but Eyvind says that there’s no way to do that. They have left their homeland behind, abandoned their queen. For better or for worse, this is their home for now. 

Sandi: I refer once again to SagaThing on twitter:

Lissa The armies are amassed on the field and the brothers stand at the heads, glaring across the field. 

Sandi: I was not the only one that saw echoes of Braveheart in this sequence. Intentional or not.  

LissaIvar worries their ships are vulnerable, so Harald tells him to take some of their army back to protect them. He asks Ivar to take Joan Jett with him and picks her up to stuff her into the back of Ivar’s Roman-style chariot.
Sandi: This is Harald getting his own way, sorta. "Can't keep her at home, but I can get her out of the fighting. Yep. Gonna make it happen." And that Ivar went along with this was interesting, too. I wondered what advantage he saw for himself, here? To leave a battle where he might have slain Lagertha? 

LissaHarald tells Joan Jett that he couldn’t stand it if anything happened to her. He puts a hand over his heart in salute to her as Ivar drives off. Then sends Hvitserk into the woods to flank the opposition. With a roar, his third of the army rushes into the fray. 

Sandi: Finally, the collective fandom says in a breath.

LissaA battle scene ensues, and as always, the History Channel does its battles beautifully. The action is close and chaotic, and bloody. One man’s arm dangles down where it’s been mostly severed, and a woman’s spine is severed when the sharp edge of a shield is slammed down into it. 

Sandi: So we were waiting for eviscerations and we got amputations. Worked for me. I think the depictions of violence are always on target, here. I don't feel it's gratuitous but rather descriptive. The body language of each main warrior, their facial expressions, and their fighting styles are all clearly individualized and I really enjoy the spectacle. 

LissaThere was one interesting moment… When Heahmund catches sight of Lagertha fighting on the other side of the field, the sound vanished for a moment. And then he was clobbered.

Sandi: Right! So this was significant. Now, an outcry might happen if Lagermund (yep, the ship has a name and it's not even a thing here yet) proves to be valid, but the work up to it here is not unnoticed. Indeed, it is significant to the story. 

LissaIvar pulls his chariot up short. 

LissaWhen Joan Jett questions him, he says he has to listen. He tells her to wait; good things happen to those who wait. Which is a line that was coined in 1892, but okay.
Sandi: Yeah . . . well . . . for all the brilliance with battles, the dialogue isn't always what we would call On Point, Lissa. Alas.

And I loved the Worse Uber Ever tweet. :) 

LissaIn the woods, Hvitserk hears a noise, but the warning comes too late. A salvo of tiny poisoned darts slam into his men, pricking their chests, necks, and cheeks. It’s Princess Snuffles’ Sami warriors. He orders his archers to shoot back, but they cannot see where the darts came from and their arrows fly uselessly into the foliage. Another barrage of darts strike and his men fall from the poison. Hvitserk turns to retreat and is hit from behind. And then rope traps start stringing up his men. The survivors try to flee. 

Sandi: Guerrilla warfare: Freaking out warriors since the dawn of time. Well done, Sami warriors! 

LissaA horn sounds, a plea for reinforcements from the battlefield. Joan Jett says they need to go and help, but Ivar snaps at her that they’re already too late. 

Sandi: So, this made me squint a little. "Withdraw to the boats to make sure they're okay (really, Ivar?) but be ready to join us at our signal." 

Which happens. And no one shows up. 

Fatal to the morale, possibly, and this could seriously damage their alliance, I think. But that is in another episode. I hope. 

Lissa Harald sounds the retreat and his surviving men flee from the field. Lagertha and her warriors stand aside and let them pass. They pick over the battlefield, identifying the dead.
Sandi: Yeah, a messy business, that. But it was noble of Lagertha to allow her enemies to retreat. She has, after all, lived to die another day. (Yes I said that.) And there is the post-battle business that has to happen. 

LissaLagertha comes across Heahmund and asks who he is. She rolls him over and he coughs, alive for now. 

Sandi: Harald had said he was dead, earlier, but clearly this is not the case. I believe, though, that Harald believed his words to be true. This was not a case of playing with words, here. Not intentionally. 

 LissaShe’s told he’s a Saxon priest, and stops Ubbe from killing him. She says to keep him alive if possible. 

Sandi: And so Lagertha gets the pleasure (?) of bringing another Christian priest into her home as a captive. 

Somewhere, I imagine Ragnar is making that small smile of his and shaking his head. 

Next week, it's the penultimate episode of this part of the season and I cannot wait to see how they will set up the final one! Remember to find us, the #ShieldGeeks, next week on twitter! 

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Thanks for joining us! Tune in next ODINSday for another episode!

If you’re looking for incisive comments, please check out ProjectFandom. @DeeDonuts on twitter is the chick in charge, there, and she always has sharp things to say!

Heill þú farir, heill þú aftr komir, heill þú á sinnum sér!

Hale go forth, hale return, hale on your ways! – Vafþrúðnismál 4

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