Best Episodes Ever: The Death
Sorry for the delay between this new episode and the last – my family were visiting and also to be honest I just spent a lot of time this last week face-down in my cats belly fur. But we’re back, and this time we’re looking at something good and jolly: death. Lots of shows have tried to make death impactful – from the emotional success of American Crime Story to the shock of How to Get Away with Murder to the failure of The Walking Dead, the relative success or lack thereof can make or break a show.
The episode I’m getting into this week is the season three entry to Vikings, Born Again. Now, I’ve written a ton about Vikings in the last couple of years, and while I think the show has gone off the boil in the last season or so, I truly think it has one of the most singularly satisfying and well-acted arcs on TV in the form of Ragnar Lothbrok, and this episode is a central part of that arc. If you haven’t seen it, please consider skipping out this entry in to the Best Episodes Ever list, just because this is the kind of thing you want to come to fresh and I’d hate to spoil one of the best moments of television of the last few years for you. Alright? Alright. Let’s get into this.
There are three things an episode featuring a major character death needs to explore: the impact of the person dying, on the person doing the killing, and on the people left behind. And Born Again, in a fifteen-minute third act, nails it.
The major conflict of the first three seasons of Vikings is faith, as it relates to our lead character, Ragnar Lothbrok (the exceptional Travis Fimmel). On one side, he has his traditional Viking upbringing and the almost triumphant relationship surrounding death, violence, and war that comes with it – this is represented with Floki (a Gustaf Skarsgard unrecognisable from his current turn in Westworld), his long-time friend and pagan zealot, a man who translates his evident mental illness through the Gods and his dedication to them. On the other side is Athelstan (George Blagden), a young Christian monk kidnapped by Ragnar on an early raid to Lindisfarne – obviously, Athelstan represents the conflict of another religion, but more significantly to Ragnar, he is a mirror for our main character, a man torn between two cultures and unwelcome in both. Across the show’s run, the Athelstan/Ragnar relationship is perhaps the most important in the show, the closest thing to an uncynical loce story that it’s ever really come. But of course, this love story comes with a love triangle, with Floki violently and openly resenting Ragnar’s acceptance of Athelstan’s faith and their closeness in general, and it was only ever going to end one way.
That’s a lot of background to say: in Born Again, Floki murders Athelstan after the latter embraces his Christian faith once more, and Floki believes the Viking Gods are urging him to kill the monk. But let’s get into the nitty-gritty of why this episode works, starting with Athelstan, the man who takes the axe to the face in the climactic moment of this episode.
Athelstan is one of the great tragedies of modern television: torn from his Christian home, he eventually finds kinship in the Viking world is he stolen to, but finds constant resistance from most of the people in it – an eventual return to England sees him literally crucified and turned away from his previous home, but he finds hope and love with Ragnar, enough for him to form an uneasy truce between his values and the Viking culture. The fact that he has consistently questioned himself, his faith, and the moral value of the lifestyles around him means he’s never been welcome anywhere, in a world of absolutes, of pagans and Christians.
His final scenes in Born Again – from where the episode gets its name – feature him embracing his Christian faith once more. If you’ve read any of my Vikings recaps over the years, you know that I have a hard-on for the art direction in this series that knows no end, and this is really just a magnificent example of how superb the show can be when it’s got something big to hinge it on: the cross on Athelstan’s shrine seems to cut him down the middle the first time we see it, and he recites his Latin prayers over the soundtrack of Vikings performing a sacrificial ceremony nearby. To the end, Athelstan is torn between two cultures, visually and even aurally. And yet his death, when it comes, is something he embraces: he asks God to recieve him and allows Floki to swing the axe, welcoming his end at last. For Athelstan, his death means at last accepting who he really is, and finally finding peace with that, and that’s a damn satisfying end for such a significant character.
For Floki, it’s not quite as clear-cut. His sequence begins as he is carving one of his boats, and sees the wood begin to bleed: he takes this to mean that the Gods want him to spill blood, and he parlays this into believing he must kill Athelstan. But there’s a reason that Floki has taken so long to off the errant Monk, and that’s because he knows that to kill Athelstan would be to kill his friendship with Ragnar. Ragnar is his friend but also his leader, and undermining him in this way will lead to violent and convoluted retribution, which Floki understands is the risk he runs. But he chooses the Gods, or his interpretation of them, over his friend, and murders Athelstan, a figurative purging of Christian influence from his zealotry. The moments after the murder, Floki is tearful and trembling, frightened by what he’s done and what it means: if he’ll do this for his religion, what won’t he? This death has a profound impact on Floki as a character, in a way that we’ve never really seen with a character this violent before. Floki has killed dozens of people on the battlefield and elshewhere, but this is the first time we’ve really seen that impact played out.
And finally, we have the man in the middle of it all: Ragnar. Vikings is at it’s best when it’s letting Travis Fimmel talk to the dead, and Born Again is no exception. After the murder, we cut to Ragnar carrying Athelstan’s body to be buried as he speaks to his deceased friend. And, in terms of really leaning into the impact of a death on the characters remaining, this is the scene I always come back to: Ragnar mourns for his friend, because he knows that this is the last he will ever see of him. In Viking faith, death is a victory, as it means seeing your lost loved ones in the afterlife – but since Athelstan subscribed to a different religion, he won’t be waiting in Valhalla to meet him. Ragnar tells Athelstan, as he buries him at the top of a hill, that this is the closest to Athelstan’s God as he can get him, but it’s also the closest Ragnar will get to his God, too. In Vikings, death is embraced, pursued, and so this raw, solemn moment of grief as Ragnar comes to terms with the fact that he will never see his best friend, his soulmate, again, is crushing. Athelstan’s internal conflict might be over, but Ragnar’s continues in tumult, worse than ever.
And that’s what makes Born Again such a fantastic death episode. Lots of shows try to pull them off and make them stick, but the way Vikings draws together a huge range of themes and character arcs into this one pinpoint moment has stuck this episode in my brain ever since. Ugly and beautiful, violent and tender, cathartic and frustrating all at once, Born Again is the how-to of making death matter.
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(header image courtesy of vr-rooms.com)