Saturday, May 03, 2014

Goodness and greatness

Vikings concluded season two this week. In general, I think the second season was not as good as the first season. (Although Fimmel's acting is stronger in season two.) I think the basic problem is that the raw material is not that promising. I'm reminded of something Bill Vallicella said:
If the aim is to depict reality as it is, why select only the most worthless and uninspiring portions of reality for portrayal? Why waste brilliant actors on worthless roles, Paul Newman in The Color of Money, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in The War of the Roses, to take two examples off the top of my head from a potential list of thousands. The Grifters is another example. An excellent film in any number of respects. But imagine a film of the same cinematic quality which portrays in a subtle and intelligent manner a way of life — I avoid 'lifestyle' — that has some chance of being worth living.
I'm also reminded of something Dan Henninger once said about The Sopranos. Although it was about as good as it could be given the subject matter, it had limited interest, limited dramatic potential, because, in his words, "these are small people."
He meant morally small. Crooks. 
There's a certain irony about great directors who make great films about crooks. And there's certainly a place for depicting depravity. But, hopefully, we find that tiresome after a while. Would you want these people to be your friends? Are their lives really that intriguing? How great can something be unless it's good?
That's the problem with Vikings. How far can you develop a drama with such unappealing characters? Their outlook on life is so one-dimensional. 
There's a scene in the season finale in which Ragnar asks Athelstan to teach him a Christian prayer. Athelstan kneels, and has Ragnar kneel. That, itself, is probably an unusual experience for a proud pagan warrior. He then teaches Ragnar the Lord's Prayer.
Ragnar's interest in Christianity isn't necessarily pious. He's disappointed with the Norse gods because they haven't given him enough sons. A warrior's lifestyle is hazardous. The heir apparent can die in battle at any time. So Ragnar needs several potential heirs waiting in line so that if the leading candidate is slain, there's always another one right behind him to move up. (Of course, that's a recipe for fratricide, as rival heirs eliminate the competition.)
So Ragnar's interest in Christianity is probably pragmatic. Will the Christian God give him what the Norse gods have failed to supply? In paganism, prayer is not about submitting your will to God, but submitting God's will to you. 
At the same time, it creates an ironic and dramatic point of contrast. If Athelstan's Christian faith is wavering in a heathen direction, Ragnar's heathen faith is wavering in a Christian direction. Will the Viking become more Christian as the monk becomes more heathen? 

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