There’s plenty of heartbreak to go around this week—some in a Mexican restaurant, and plenty more in Jarl Borg’s mead hall.
Who could’ve predicted that Community and Vikings could collide in the world of emotions? Well, it happened. This week’s Community cleared the relatively low bar set by this season’s new showrunners, while the season finale of Vikings was a total doozy, setting quite the stage for next year’s return.
Community – “Basic Human Anatomy”
Often times, the high-concept, “bit”-based premises of each episode of Community can outshine the rest of the plot and characters. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. Part of the issue is that Community exists somewhat apart from other sitcoms, in that it inhabits the realm of meta-commentary. It treats pop culture from a remove while existing within it, creating memorable catch phrases—like Magnitude’s exceptional and nonsensical “Pop pop!”—while pointing out how utterly arbitrary and meaningless they actually are. It’s the kind of formula that was never, ever built to last, and the fact that we’re here watching a fourth season of this show is actually kind of miraculous.
All that aside, despite the post-modern shenanigans the show so frequently dives into, the characters still inhabit a world in which what they do and how they feel matters. So this year’s experiment with a prolonged romantic relationship between two characters, Troy and Britta, was interesting in terms of what it was trying to do, and whether or not it actually mattered as a source of stories and character development. It’s ironic, then, that the best example of the show making the relationship work is the episode in which the couple breaks up.
Early on, Abed and Troy engage in a “Freaky Friday” style bit where they pretend to swap bodies — and do so on the date of Troy and Britta’s one-year anniversary. From a purely technical standpoint, this shows off the acting chops of Danny Pudi and Donald Glover, with each actor doing an impression of the other’s character. Even better is the brief moment when Abed and Troy — having switched bodies — pretend to still be in their actual bodies. In essence, Glover was acting as Troy acting as Abed acting as Troy, and vice-versa-vice with Pudi’s characters. In short, it was a testament to how defined these characters have become, and how skilled these actors are at inhabiting them.
But even better is the scene in which Britta and Abed-as-Troy break up during their anniversary dinner. Despite the strange set-up to their encounter, the moment carries plenty of heft, and longtime fans are rewarded with a genuine moment of homage to the body-switching category of pop culture, but also a completely satisfying resolution to an on-screen relationship. Not every episode works the way we’d like it to, but “Basic Human Anatomy” seems like it’ll be one of the more memorable examples of the season four creative team getting it right.
Vikings – “All Change”
Of course, there’s no room for such tomfoolery in medieval Scandinavia, where people are basically just hacking each other to bits with axes and swords and whatnot. There, if you tried to pull a “Freaky Friday,” you’d probably get exsanguinated, and no one would give you a passing glance. But despite the absence of wacky one-liners and Alison Brie, the season finale of History Channel’s Vikings was riveting, and the kind of episode that will reverberate in the series for years to come, should it continue past 2014’s forthcoming season two.
On a mission for King Horik, the show’s protagonist Ragnar is visiting the mead hall of Jarl Borg, trying to convince him to settle with the king over a disputed piece of land. Vikings being Vikings, Borg isn’t having any of it, and would rather negotiate a deal with Horik so that both sides come out happy. And kings being kings, Horik won’t make a deal.
While this is the driving force of the episode, there’s plenty more conflict to go around, though. Ragnar finds himself seduced by a beautiful woman who is not his wife, much to his son Bjorn’s chagrin (and he’s going to apparently have a new baby brother out of the deal, so that probably doesn’t help). And on the subject of Ragnar’s wife, she’s got problems of her own. Lagertha rules over the village in Ragnar’s stead, as a disease sweeps through and kills off lots and lots of folks. And that isn’t even it! Ragnar’s jerk of a brother, Rollo, is seduced himself, succumbing to the offers of power and glory from Borg, when it’s decided that a war between the two factions is in the cards.
Ragnar has plenty of power, and it’s clear that he’s ready and willing to go to war for his king. But how will he feel when he discovers that his village has been ravaged by sickness while he was cheating on his wife? And how will his wife feel when she finds out too? It’s not like he went out of his way to keep his dalliance secret — everyone sleeps in the same room, for crying out loud. And Bjorn is obviously not happy with his father’s impropriety. Will he stop following Ragnar and join up with Rollo when it all goes down? It’s impossible not to be intrigued by the conflicts and questions set up in this finale — which, obviously, is the point.
“All Change” works really well in terms of setting up the conflicts we’ll see explored when the series starts up again next year, but also on the smaller-scale. It can be a little tough to keep track of who is who, but context clues often fill in the gaps and help viewers who’ve lost the thread catch back up and stay glued to the screen. Vikings is sort of a mix between The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, with a dash of Mad Men’s emphasis on entrepreneurship for good measure, and the result is surprisingly enjoyable.
Hopefully if the show continues to do well, people will start sporting Ragnar’s hairstyle. There is no possible downside to this.