The element of Vikings I’ve come to appreciate more and more is the series’ elastic portrayal of time. The driving force of the show is the story of Ragnar Lothbrok certainly, but that story’s telling is not nearly as straightforward. When the show began, I often took its narrative jumps for choppiness, but as the season has gone on, each episode has exhibited a unique flair for slowing down or speeding up to just the right pace to convey what’s important.
I’ve made much of the series’ welcome briskness. It’s a pleasure to watch a show which seems to trust me to catch up when it wants to arrive at the next necessary point, and to trust me to follow it into a more contemplative sequence which is in its own way just as vital. It’s like following Ragnar Lothbrok’s tale on an axis: We may think we know where this first season is heading, but the journey, in Michael Hirst’s hands, keeps us off guard, swooping us ahead before we expect it, and then camping out where we’ve landed for longer than we imagined. Again, it’s very welcome.
Take for example tonight’s episode “Sacrifice.” At the end of the thrilling last episode, Ragnar has mopped the Northumbrian fields with King Aelle’s soldiers and set home with what looks to be the better part of the king’s treasury, while Lagertha, shockingly, has miscarried the son who’s imminent arrival she and Ragnar had been so joyful over.
As “Sacrifice” begins, Ragnar’s already home, Lagertha’s up and resuming her duties as Jarl’s wife, and the the Lothbrok clan is preparing for its pilgrimage to the holy site of Uppsala to make sacrifices to the gods. There’s no explanation, no rumination (that, Vikings’ seems to say, is what the “last week on Vikings” is for). What we get instead, is the refreshing challenge of piecing together how the past affects the present by observing how the characters act as they move forward. It may seem a simple concept, but this streamlined combination of character development with action makes me impossibly thankful. It fits the characters, it fits their world, and it makes for exciting, vibrant storytelling. Even when the episode contains nary a battle scene and essentially spends its entire time camped out in the woods.
Uppsala is where Ragnar and his people go every nine years show devotion to their gods through a series of sacrifices, and, as the episode begins, the grieving Ragnar asks captive priest Athelstan to come along. The relationship between these two very different men has often presented the core of Vikings’ drama, with Athelstan’s outsider status serving as our eyes into this alien culture, and into Ragnar. And here again, their interaction keeps the priest, and the viewers off guard as Ragnar on the one hand speaks to his slave like an advisor, while on the other, his perpetual air of bemused, enigmatic menace asserts their vastly different stations.
Travis Fimmel and George Bladgen excel in these scenes, and it’s a good thing, too, since “Sacrifice” pays off their story in surprisingly subtle ways as the episode goes on. (Ragnar seems genuinely interested in knowing “what Christians do about such pain,” and genuinely disappointed in Athelstan’s biblical “all things must pass” platitudes. The fact that Athelstan himself seems to find his words inadequate here speaks to how far he’s come.) When Ragnar asks the priest to accompany his family to Uppsala, he seems genuinely pleased when Athelstan accepts-before smilingly revealing that he would have made him come anyway. It’s a tribute to how successfully the show and these actors have sold this fascinatingly ambiguous relationship that it is able to carry the load of what gradually becomes all too apparent.
Ragnar intends to sacrifice Athelstan to the gods.
Dramatically, this shouldn’t work as well as it does. Athelstan is a major character after all (and Blagden is so good in the role)-there’s just no way that he’s going to get killed off, right? Well, right, of course not. (I discount Gabriel Byrne’s recent exodus from the cast, since the sneering Jarl was pre-ordained to be deposed from the first moment we saw him.) And since there is no way that Athelstan is getting the chop, no matter how many sidelong glances or ominous music cues get thrown his way this episode, the tension and drama of the situation should be dissipated significantly. The fact that it is not, to the extent that it is not, comes down to two factors. One-there’s an ever-present suspicion that Ragnar has brought him there as some sort of ritual conversion to true Viking/freeman status (underscored throughout by Athelstan being questioned repeatedly about his faith). And two-Vikings has never let viewers get too comfortable guessing just what is going on inside Ragnar’s head.
It’s true he’s developed something like a friendship with the priest, and that he values his insight and companionship. It’s equally as true that he has never tipped his hand about what Athelstan’s ultimate fate as a captive amongst a people who view their captives as expendable will be. Like I said, it shouldn’t be a real dramatic question, but the groundwork has been laid so skillfully that it is, and the big reveal (that Athelstan is to be sacrificed, but that his unwillingness to give up his faith and die freely disqualifies him) seems not like a cop out, but like the culmination of the two men’s journey.
Ragnar chose Athelstan to be his sacrifice because he has truly come to regard him as a friend, if not necessarily an equal. When John Kavanagh’s Pale Man-esque Seer pronounces the priest an unworthy sacrifice to Odin, it’s not because Athelstan’s a mere slave, it’s that he, revealed as conflicted about his place in Viking society, cannot truly understand the sacrifice he’s being asked to make. If there were any doubt about Ragnar’s regard for Athelstan, it’s erased when the stout Lief, loyal and brave warrior that he is, stands up to take his place.
Diarmad Murtagh’s been a background presence for me throughout the series, but his scene here, placing his hand on a frailer Norseman about to volunteer and speaking plainly about how he chooses to die “for all the humans of Midgard, and for my friends,” had me as near tears as the poor, conflicted Athelstan. Like Athelstan, I cannot truly understand the motivations of these people but, like him, I am enthralled by the unknowable, terrifying purity of their commitment to who they are. It’s a stunning scene, equaled only by the episode’s last when Leif, strong and proud and fearless, lays himself down on the blood-caked altar and nods in assent to the visiting King Horik, who’s wielding the blade. In each of these sequences, the show slows down to take in nearly everyone’s reaction, and each actor imbues his/her character with such specific expressions that each shot proves as eloquent and revelatory any three pages of dialogue.
As is Vikings’ way (and to its enduring credit), we might not be able to put into words what Leif’s sacrifice means to each of them, but their wordless, enigmatic eloquence simply feels right to each. And if we, like poor, helplessly bereft Athelstan can only wonder at the final repose of stout Leif, hung upside down amongst the similarly butchered livestock with clear, dead eyes and a smile full of unfathomable purpose, well, that’s a testament to how well-drawn the alien world of Vikings truly is.
- A few things cost this episode a half-grade. At the Sturgis-esque pre-sacrifice bacchanal, both Lagertha and Siggy lay some tediously conventional guilt trips on Ragnar and Rollo, respectively. Lagertha, especially, is too interesting a character to get saddled with feeding soup to the kids and casting disapproving looks at Ragnar for wanting to go out and have fun.
- Also, after a potentially fruitful development last week when she seemed genuinely moved comforting the bloody Lagertha after her miscarriage, Siggy is back to her old tricks, Lady MacBeth-ing a petulant Rollo against Ragnar’s advancement. It’s like the unwelcome return of the Jarl’s yawnworthy ghost.
- Rollo’s dialogue in this scene is the most prosaically limp in all of Vikings, as under-imagined as any nighttime soap’s. “Why do you keep pestering me. I am who I am. And I won’t change, not for you, not for my brother, not for anyone!” C'mon...
- While Athelstan’s mushroom-induced hallucinations aren’t original enough to earn a place on this list, Blagden compellingly plays the accumulating weight of all his fears and suspicions in wordless closeup. (But seriously-sitar music?)
- Plus, shrooming with Vikings has to be stressful.
- Ragnar is the only one who doesn’t flinch his eyes closed when being “baptized” with blood.
- Ragnar makes his kids watch Leif’s sacrifice, but hugs them both to him.
- The show continues to look stunning, with the rugged, waterfall-splashed Irish coast subbing manfully for ancient Scandinavia.
- The passage of time continues to be tellingly reflected in Athelstan’s evolving hair. By this point, he’s sporting a rakish beard whose Norse trappings almost, but not quite, make him look like the others.
- I haven’t mentioned Vikings’ new cast member yet, but Donal Logue’s King Horik is a welcome upgrade in the “recognizable guest star/possible antagonist” department over Byrne. Affable bluster with dangerous eyes, this king seems a much more worthy adversary to Ragnar. As the two square off, with Ragnar pledging his fealty and the king gratefully accepting, Fimmel and Logue convey their characters' mutual awareness that they’re playing roles here, speaking words, exchanging twinkling glances and enjoying their gamesmanship as much as they’re looking past it to the seemingly inevitable conflict to come.
- It’s a cliche to have Ragnar and Horik face off over a board game (Viking chess? Anybody?), but I could watch Fimmel and Logue take each others’ measure here for a good, long while.
- I should have known it’d be Leif when he comforts the balls-tripping Athelstan: “On this great journey you have begun, you must finish it.” Athelstan: “If you let go of me I will fall.” Leif: “No the gods will hold you.”
- According to Wikipedia (and my Norse scholar wife) the whole human sacrifice thing is hotly debated. I’ll leave this debate to the comments for those inclined.