Beginning with his introduction in Vikings’ second episode, the relationship between Athelstan and Ragnar Lothbrok has been viewers’ entry point into the show’s world. After the pilot laid out the main Viking players, Ragnar’s first raid on England brought the unworldly monk back as a captive—and as the mouthpiece for our questions as the show introduced more of its compellingly alien culture. As a storytelling device, it was a little obvious—Athelstan started out asking as many questions as a Doctor Who companion—but he was quickly established as a viable character in his own right.
George Blagden gets much of the credit—from the outset, his often-bewildered monk let an eager fascination show in his face as he, like the viewer, was both attracted and repelled by the strange, savage world of the Norsemen. And the growing friendship between Athelstan and Ragnar, the Christian and the pagan, provided the core of Vikings unexpectedly thoughtful nature. Sure, the show’s always known where its bread is buttered, action-wise, but it was in the slow, enigmatic thaw of this relationship that the series made room for much of its protagonist’s character development. While there was always an entertaining touch of The Dread Pirate Roberts about Ragnar’s curiosity at the beginning (“Good night, Athelstan. Good work. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning”), it’s his gradual acceptance that his pet monk and the monk’s culture might have some things to offer which signified Ragnar’s ascendance as a character. Alone among his people, Ragnar saw value in exploration beyond mere plunder. Athelstan became both the symbol of his otherness and, eventually, his friend.
Which is why it’s been a little disappointing how Athelstan’s absence has been handled this season. It’s a promising setup—the monk, finally deemed ready to raid with the Norsemen, is captured by his former people and put to work as English King Ecbert’s translator and confidant. But separating Athelstan and Ragnar hasn’t produce the dramatic stakes it should have. Indeed, there is something fairly drippy about it—the constant swapping of the bracelet Ragnar bestows on the monk after Athelstan’s first successful battle (in which he saves Ragnar’s life) often plays like melodrama. And while Athelstan’s coddled life under Ecbert allows Blagden to play out his conflicted loyalties affectingly, too often they are visualized in clichéd terms. Meanwhile, Ragnar suffers the loss of his friend in typical Ragnar fashion, steadfastly defending Athelstan’s reputation against Horik’s false accusations of treachery, but otherwise not letting on how much that loss affects him.
So in “The Choice,” when Ragnar finally sees Athelstan, come to deliver Ecbert’s offer of truce, it’s an opportunity for both Blagden and Travis Fimmel to re-establish that relationship, and it’s handled by both with a signature, affecting understatement. Ragnar accompanies the monk at least partly so Horik’s inevitable treachery (there’s an archer in the bushes) won’t put Athelstan down, but their sparse recapitulation of their former relationship is touching in its simplicity. No manly hugs, just Ragnar’s “It is good to see you.” And then Athelstan’s heartfelt expression of his cultural confusion to the one man he’s ever met who can understand it. “I wish it was so simple. In the gentle fall of rain I still hear my God. In the thunder I still hear Thor,” followed by Ragnar’s “Perhaps someday our gods can become friends.” And that’s it. As written here, it may sound, again, drippy. But as delivered between these two characters in this moment, it’s just right.
Which isn’t to say that a lot more doesn’t happen in “The Choice.” It’s that the titular choice, when finally made by Athelstan, is the episode’s dramatic heart. And, perhaps, that there’s a lot of other elements of the episode that are dramatically more troublesome as Vikings heads toward its final installment.
As Ragnar’s chief antagonist this season, Donal Logue’s King Horik continues to underwhelm. I brightened considerably when Horik was introduced at the end of season one, with his cagey gamesmanship appearing more sophisticated than the mustache-twiddling that often marked poor Gabriel Byrne’s Earl Haraldson. (Plus, I usually perk up when Donal Logue pops up anywhere.) There was an air of intelligence and ambiguity about Horik in his brief appearances last season, which has curdled into something like stock villainy—and inconsistent villainy at that. (Team with Jarl Borg, dump Jarl Borg, we need Jarl Borg, etc.) Introduced in season two as wholly on board with Ragnar’s goals, he has bogged down in a morass of sulky resentment and obvious plotting, his recent seduction of the formerly steadfast (if loopy) Floki being the worst example. So here, when he throws his “I am the King” card and leads the assembled Viking raiding force into an open field despite Ragnar’s advice, there’s no question that what happens is going to happen.
The Vikings get creamed.
It’s the first time that we see how Vikings respond to true defeat, and the whole, lengthy battle sequence is both thrilling and a bit of a letdown. The battle itself displays the sort of action storytelling Vikings has gotten so good at—in their various approaches to different combat situations, characters are given the space to reveal themselves. We see Lagertha’s first impressive foray into battlefield leadership, Bjorn’s youthful desperation to prove himself (nice drop kick, kid), Erlendur’s growing viciousness (pounding some Brit’s face with his shield), and Rollo shedding his conflicted recent role for the more focused and comfortable one of invincible arse-kicker (getting the series’ first on-screen decapitation, if I’m not mistaken). And we see Ragnar’s anger at Horik’s leadership, even in the rare moments when he’s not cleaving someone. That all being said, there’s a predestination about the battle that robs it of some of its power. The Vikings are already in the clearing when Ragnar suggests taking a minute to think, with the unseen English already massed on all sides. I’m not expecting Gettysburg-level strategic detail here, but it’s just another setup for Ragnar to be right and Horik wrong.
That continues into the post-battle negotiations, where Horik keeps getting set up as the straw man against the storm of implacable rightness that is Ragnar Lothbrok’s vision. The season has played around with undermining that vision, and it’s looked good on the character—here, his mockery of Horik after the battle (“Well… King. What are we fated to do?”) removes the ambiguity. When Lagertha joins with Ragnar to accept Ecbert’s offer of a truce (along with 5,000 acres of English farmland and employment as mercenaries for any Viking interested in helping out in the brewing civil war), it’s presented as the only right choice, and Horik’s sulky, scheming response as the clearly wrong one. If there’s a central weakness to Vikings, it’s that Ragnar’s goals, for all the cleaving, are ill-defined and rosy, bordering on facile. Here, the conflict would be over—if that dastardly Horik weren’t planning to muck everything up. It’s a more complicated situation that that. (Are the Vikings to simply colonize those 5,000 acres and coexist peacefully with their new English pals and employers? Unlikely.) It’s not that Ragnar doesn’t necessarily recognize that this truce is likely a respite until both sides decide how to play their next move—it’s that Vikings presents the conflict as if he doesn’t, in order to set up the dramatic conflict between Ragnar and Horik that will play out next week.
I don’t want to sound to down on “The Choice.” There’s a lot to like here, but the fact that much of those things are going to be covered in the stray observations points to the fact that the bigger picture of this season isn’t cohering as much as we’d been led to hope. Still, when the titular choice is finally made and Athelstan—his monk’s robes traded for rough Viking togs—alights back in Kattegat, looks around and smiles, it’s undeniably affecting (Blagden’s great here). Hopefully, the monk’s return will restore some of the show’s thematic richness—perhaps in time for the end.
- Man, do I continue to not buy Floki’s betrayal for a second. Introduced abruptly and shored up with Horik’s talk of “understanding the same gods,” this development not only derails one of the show’s most interesting and entertaining characters, it smacks of dramatic contrivance.
- So (just to continue), now Floki is going to kill Bjorn? The Bjorn who worshipped Floki all his life and who Floki has been shown to genuinely love. That Bjorn.
- Also, Floki’s visceral antipathy toward the trappings and followers of Christianity was a whole lot more evocative and interesting before he started saying things like, “Christians are vermin.” Presented from the outset as a sort of madman/shaman, Floki used to function as an enigmatic avatar of the Norse religion. Now he’s just Horik’s sneering hate-puppet.
- I really can’t overstate how little I care for this Floki situation. (Hoping against hope that when the time comes, he’s just going to giggle his Floki giggle and stab Horik in the back with a crazy-eyed “Just fooling.” It wouldn’t fix all that’s been done to him, but it’d be something.)
- Signifying his villainy, Horik gets in some Viking gay-bashing on Athelstan.
- Genuinely thought Rollo could die there for a second. Well done, show.
- Seeing Athelstan again for the first time since he was a child, Bjorn proves he’s inherited Ragnar’s gift for improbably affecting terseness: “I wanted to kill you when I was a child and then I loved you.”
- Speaking thereof, Ragnar was passive-aggressively noncommittal when he clearly wanted Athelstan to return to Kattegat with him to fight Jarl Borg earlier in the season. Here, when Athelstan faces a much bigger choice, Ragnar simply says, “I want you to come back.”
- Can’t say enough about George Blagden in this episode. Throughout the season (and indeed the series) we’ve been left to wonder about his true desires. Bounced around as captive to first one, then another powerful man, there’s always been the possibility that Athelstan is partly biding his time. Here, praying earnestly to his Christian God, he reveals that he has felt the presence of both Him and the Vikings’ gods. His genuine confusion makes his eventual decision that much more meaningful. Blagden plays Athelstan in this episode with a strange, beatific smile, as if he’s hiding something but it turns out that he is, as ever, fascinated by both cultures. Like Ragnar, Athelstan wants, more than anything, to know.
- Porunn’s a free woman now. Bjorn still loves her. More details when they become interesting.
- Who wouldn’t want a big, splashy naked bear hug from King Aelle? Anyone?
- Princess Kwenthrith’s continued unhinged sexuality remains cartoonishly out of place on this show.
- Horik’s “You always think you can second guess the gods, Ragnar. What happened today was fated it had nothing to do with you or I” receives the signature Ragnar sneer. There’s a whole essay to be written about this, but I’ll leave it here. Ragnar’s rejection of Horik’s (and the Vikings’) view of predestination sets him apart as much as anything else.