‘Vikings’: ‘Sacrifice’ tests Athelstan’s faith while Ragnar and Rollo make political alliances

Lagertha, Ragnar, Bjorn and Gyda in "Sacrifice."

Lagertha, Ragnar, Bjorn and Gyda in “Sacrifice.”

In what has been the most hotly anticipated episode of the season so far, Vikings raises the bar for itself in “Sacrifice.”  During a traditional pilgrimage to the sacred site of Uppsalla, emotions run rampant as Ragnar, Lagertha and their family struggle to cope with Lagertha’s miscarriage, tensions run high between Rollo and Siggy and Athelstan faces the most enormous test of faith that he has had to endure so far.

The most initially striking things about the pilgrimage to Uppsalla can be divided into two groups, one of which is the visuals.  Like most everything on Vikings, the scenery and cinematography in this episode was simply breathtaking.  From the outdoor environments to the interior of the temple, nothing was without a sort of astonishing beauty or impressiveness.

The second of the most striking things about the pilgrimage was watching the interactions between some of the primary characters, particularly Ragnar’s family, and the gods, both because of what it tells the audience about the characters and about the gods.  Lagertha, still stricken from her miscarriage, approaches an idol to the god Frey, who is associated with fertility, and asks him for a son.  Bjorn approaches Odin, asking for his love and for strength, reflecting his own wishes for approval from Ragnar.

Only once the others have finished does Ragnar approach Odin, asking him first to “show me your will,” and asking him if the seer told the truth about his having many sons, and if so, who would be the one to bear them.  For those viewers familiar with the sagas, this is a major warning sign, and even for everyone else, it’s still a moment of “Come on, Ragnar, don’t be an idiot – you and I both know that what you’re thinking is a bad idea.”

It was interesting watching the other characters as well.  Floki approaches the gods with his characteristic reverence (I think the gods are one of the few things that Floki does approach completely seriously), and Helga, who is there for the first time, approaches everything with a sense of wide-eyed curiosity.  Rollo seems to, as Rollo is prone to doing, approach the whole thing as an opportunity to run amok and womanize a bit.  One of my personal favourite things was watching Siggy and Thyri smiling and seeming to be, for the first time since Haraldson’s death, at least somewhat happy.

However, underneath the religion and the festivities, the political cogs are always turning, and the political intrigue that has existed from the first episode continues in this one.  Aboveboard, Ragnar meets with King Horik, swearing fealty to him in exchange for his support in the Western raids.

Meanwhile, tensions rise in the Siggy-Rollo alliance, as Siggy calls Rollo out on his womanizing, and when Rollo gets confrontational, she taunts him about the fact that he wasn’t invited to Ragnar’s meeting.  This, more than anything, hammers home a very specific point to Rollo: Siggy is not to be trifled with.  She not only is able to get information that Rollo clearly cannot, she has ten times the political strategy that he does and knows how to use her brain to the best effect (something Rollo is clearly not always adept at).

Athelstan in "Sacrifice."

Athelstan in “Sacrifice.”

The main event of this episode, the person who had everyone on the edges of their seats both before and during, was Athelstan.  While over the week between episodes, lots of jokes were made about his newly acquired facial hair and hairstyle (with George Blagden defending it on Twitter as “He’s the new kid trying to fit in, give him a break”), the humour was underscored by a growing sense of unease about Athelstan’s future.  I was no exception to this, and while I was thrilled to see where this episode would take us in terms of character development, I was also worried for Athelstan – not for his life (I had worked out that he wasn’t going to die early on), but for everything else about him.

From the beginning, we see marked changes in Athelstan when compared to the terrified monk who was brought to Ragnar’s farm on a leash five episodes ago.  First of all, he demonstrates a fairly decent working knowledge of the gods, which is far more than he had even two episodes ago, and secondly, he is open to visiting Uppsalla, to experiencing their ceremonies and observing their beliefs in action.  This is a far cry from the man who was horrified at just the idea of there being more than one god back in episode three.

Starting from the moment that he sets foot at Uppsalla, Athelstan’s faith is put to the test.  He observes a ceremony that is not his own, and becomes aware that the sacrifices to the gods – nine of each kind of animal (a number that is also important in Christianity) – include humans as well.  In one of the more alarming moments, Athelstan, after a moment with Leif that was clearly meant to be foreshadowing (if the line “If you let me go, I’ll fall again” isn’t symbolic, I don’t know what is), appears to, after Leif lets go of him, break his vow of chastity.

Whether or not he actually does break his vow and sleep with Siggy’s daughter, Thyri is left extremely ambiguous, and I find myself very torn on the subject.  On the one hand, I almost like the idea of Athelstan and Thyri; both of them have been in positions of powerlessness in which they have been used as pawns, and in a way they’re both very alone (though Thyri does have her mother, at least), and I feel like that gives them some common ground.  However, at the same time, it makes my heart ache to think of Athelstan’s vow being broken; I never expected to be so emotionally invested in someone’s vow of chastity, but that’s Vikings for you.

Apart from this, the first major breach in his faith happens during the meeting with King Horik, who asks him if he is still a Christian; Athelstan denies that he is, but says nothing else on the topic.  Then, when he is taken to meet privately with one of the priests, he denies his faith two more times – something which fans of biblical allusion won’t be able to help but notice as a clear parallel to the three denials of Christ during the crucifixion story.  As this occurred, a scene from earlier in the episode, in which Athelstan goes to read his rescued copy of the Gospel of St. John only to have it fall apart in his hands flashed before my eyes, and I couldn’t help but hold my breath to wait and see what would happen.

However, when he is informed that he is to be sacrificed, his hands involuntarily fold, revealing his crucifix still wrapped around his wrist, as well as revealing that for all of his doubt, his Christian beliefs still hold sway over him.  Fortunately, this makes him an unsuitable sacrifice, as a human sacrifice must both be of the proper faith and perhaps most importantly, they must be willing, and Athelstan is neither of these things.  Unfortunately, this means that another sacrifice must be found, and eventually it is Leif, one of Ragnar’s close friends, who volunteers, and immediately a look of guilt sweeps over Athelstan.

In one of the most affecting scenes in the series thus far, the episode closes with the sacrifice of the human participants to the eerie accompaniment of a female singer who stands by as the priests go about their work.  Finally, with a stunned, grief-stricken and guilt-ridden Athelstan looking on, Leif presents himself to be sacrificed for the good of his people and allows himself to be killed.  Once again, I swore up and down that George Blagden’s ability to portray a range of emotion in miniscule facial movements will be the death of me, because the way in which Athelstan’s feelings are displayed here is absolutely painful to watch.

Next week is the season finale and who knows where we’ll find the characters at the end of the season.  Did Athelstan break his vow, and will he hang onto his faith?  Is Ragnar going to seek out another mother for his foretold sons?  What exactly are Siggy and Rollo up to and will Rollo finally listen to her?  Let me know what you’re thinking in the comments!

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