[I don’t usually throw up a SPOILER warning before a review—I mean, who reads a review without watching the episode first, really? But, yeah, SPOILERS ahead.]
When Siggy died a few episodes ago, I was taken aback because the character’s journey, as ancillary as it had become, seemed to have some storytelling life in it. But tonight, Athelstan’s death at Floki’s hand was a genuine shock, because the former monk, from the second episode on, has been our eyes into the Vikings’ world.
Granted, Athelstan has become a less central figure over time, his mixture of horror and fascination—which mirrored viewers’ own—receding as he, and we, became more acclimated to Norse ways that at first seemed so alien. But Athelstan’s struggle to reconcile his faith with the undeniable lure of new gods and new people was always present and, in George Blagden’s touchingly open performance, always deeply affecting for how guileless it was. As Ragnar says to the dead monk as he lays him to rest in a lonely grave on top of a hill (“as close to your God as I can get you”), “We had so much more to talk about.” As someone who’s watched Athelstan’s quiet importance through the series, I was right there with Ragnar—it seemed that there was a lot more for him to say.
The Ragnar/Athelstan friendship has been one of Vikings’ quietest, but most compelling, joys throughout, and tonight sees the unlikely friends at their closest. Planning the siege of Paris on the beach, they are like two excited boys making sandcastles, a bond Rollo ruefully envies later when he sees their stone and sand model of the city abandoned to the tides. When Athelstan has his epiphany, being laid out by a beam of light he believes the word of God, he re-baptizes himself in the harbor and tells Ragnar of his reaffirmed faith in the Christian God, and Ragnar accepts his friend unreservedly, even when Floki spreads the word that Athelstan threw away the bracelet Ragnar had given him as a sign of their kinship. Even as he explains unequivocally that he cannot believe in the Norse gods any longer, Ragnar’s only response is to ask Athelstan specific questions about the experience. For Ragnar, the gods are a lot more accessible, and his inability to fully comprehend where Athelstan is coming from (“What did he look like?”) doesn’t keep the two men from enjoying the conversation about it—as they’ve come to do about so many things. As Ragnar explains later in his matter-of-fact conversation with his dead friend over the grave he’s dug, “You saw yourself as weak and conflicted, but to me you were fearless because you dared to question. Why did you have to die? We had so much more to talk about.” Again, indeed.
“Born Again” benefits from a return to the show’s intermittent economy of storytelling as well. Not only is there a leap forward of—judging by Porunn’s delivery of a baby girl here—about seven months, but Ragnar’s final hike up a mountainside to lay Athelstan to rest comes, as Athelstan’s death did, before we expect it. There’s also a nifty misdirection in that we’re led to believe Ragnar is secretly burying the body of the farmer he killed in secret early in the episode—something we’ll get to in a moment—instead of it being Athelstan. This season has seen the series settle into a more straightforward, linear plotting, so it’s refreshing to see Vikings engage in the sort of “catch up if you can” excisions of extraneous scenes. We know time has passed because Porunn has her child, and because Ben Robson’s Kalf shows up having traded his trim courtier’s beard for an approximation of a shaggy warrior’s whiskers (although the usurper still looks like a pretender). And after the striking, drawn-out scene of Athelstan’s murder, the cut to Ragnar taking the body into the woods is of a piece with both Ragnar’s (mostly) unsentimental words and actions, and the world of the show, where, as Ragnar says, “I always believed that death is a fate far better than life, for you will be reunited with lost loved ones.” It’s not that there won’t be repercussions for Floki’s actions—it’s that the show chooses to let the way the events are presented echo its protagonist’s approach to death. It’s lean, crisp storytelling.
The scene where Floki—after a vision (or is it?) of blood pouring from the figurehead he’s carving—sails secretly to Kattegat and, seemingly unseen by all, stalks to Athelstan’s cabin and kills him, is another of Vikings’ strikingly conceived and directed wordless sequences. Like its protagonist, Vikings is at its best when words give way to enigmatic action, and, apart from the matter-of-fact exchange between the beatific Athelstan and the glowering, resolute Floki (“Floki.” “Priest.”), the only words are the mingled cadences of the Viking singer on the beach and Athelstan’s prayer song kneeling before the cross he’s constructed in his hut. As Floki approaches in inscrutably steely progress, the words of the two songs are discordant with each other, mirroring the incompatibility of faith that Athelstan thinks he can reconcile—and Floki knows he cannot. Blagden and Gustaf Skarsgård are exceptional here, their faces registering their inevitable clash in mesmerizing contrast. As Floki viciously strikes the monk down, Athelstan smilingly commends his soul to the God he’s rediscovered, and Floki’s face—smearing Athelstan’s blood on his forehead and in his mouth—speaks to his unwavering certainty that this sacrifice (as he sees it) is unquestionably his gods’ will. As Ragnar says wryly at his friend’s grave later, “I never knew what a martyr was—I still don’t.”
After the burial, Ragnar’s final words are, “There is nothing that can console me now. I am changed. So are you.” As he bloodily shaves his head in the nearby river, he places Athelstan’s crucifix around his neck and stares into the distance, and the future. As ever, Travis Fimmel imbues such actions with an enigmatic power that remains one of Vikings’ chief strengths. As when he asked Athelstan to teach him the Lord’s Prayer before the battle in the season two finale, there’s no sense that he’s becoming a Christian by doing this (or by marking Athelstan’s grave with a makeshift cross)—but there’s the real sense that, going forward, his resolution will partake of many things those around him (and viewers) simply do not understand.
- Apart from the poor Athelstan’s departure, the episode moves the pieces into place for next episode’s assault on Paris. Lagertha (looking more like the rough farmer’s wife of season one as she attends Porunn’s labor) circles the betraying Kalf, clearly biding her time. Floki builds ships. Kalf joins Ragnar’s feasting, and looks untrustworthy.
- Meanwhile, Bjorn continues to be a weak link in these episodes, his struggles to prove himself a man continuing to echo tinnily as the imitation of his father that he is. Tonight, after the disfigured—and, to be fair, immediately post-delivery—Porunn rejects his drunken groping, he follows her advice and ends up having sex with Torvi (Georgia Hirst), the widow of Jarl Borg and current wife of the late King Horik’s son Erlendur. Again, more details when they become interesting.
- Back in Wessex, Judith is publicly tortured by Ecbert and Aethelwulf for her adultery with Athelstan until she confesses that her newborn son is his. While both Wessex and Kattegat present parallel examples of brutality in the name of religion, the extended mutilation of Judith come across as crueler (and more gratuitous), especially since, with Ragnar’s sights set on Paris for the nonce, the Wessex intrigues are far less interesting.
- Ragnar’s marriage to Aslaug continues to deteriorate, his anger at both her dalliance with Harbard and her neglect of their sons provoking a proportional response from Aslaug in the form of one of the most convincingly brutal onscreen slap attacks ever.
- Floki’s incursion into Kattegat is marked by two tantalizingly ambiguous visuals. When he alights from his boat, the shallow tide on the flats makes it look as if he’s walking on water. And the editing of him eluding Rollo makes it appear he turns into a dog for a moment.
- Ragnar murders the one farmer who’s managed to return to Kattegat with news of Ecbert’s murderous betrayal. The episode goes to great lengths to make buildup to the act as palatable as possible, with the poor, old man tearfully telling of the murder of his wife and children, the drowning of his remaining son on the journey back, and his exhausted wish to join them in the afterlife. Still, when the moment comes, Ragnar’s act is still shocking, as he strangles the man to death directly after tenderly holding him in his arms and comforting him—while sussing out that no one else knows of the massacre in Wessex. Fimmel, as ever, sells Ragnar’s inner torment without fully explaining it, his closeup seeing Ragnar’s every conflicting thought and emotion warring in his features. It’s a defining characteristic that Ragnar always has his sights set far ahead of everyone else—but for all that, his expedient solution here is as cold-blooded as we’ve seen him be.
- In a heavy episode, Ragnar still finds time to deliver some signature physical laughs. His double take at the huge warrior Kalf’s brought with him, and his deadpan “I confess I am a little…caught off guard” when meeting the widow of the man he gave a blood eagle to, it’s his amused response to Athelstan saying he’s been born again that gets the prize. “What do you mean born again…like a baby?”