“The things I do for you,” says the live man to the dead one.
They are always talking to each other, these two. They have so much to say. We begin with them in the dirty sand along the fjord. Athelstan the Conflicted describes Paris to Ragnar Lothbrok. The River Seine. The city on an island. The walls and towers, the bridge. “This city is impregnable,” says the monk-turned-slave-turned-Viking. King Ragnar smiles. No wall has been built that won’t someday crumble.
There is happy news for the family of Ragnar. Thorunn, beloved of Bjorn, goes into labor. She does not want the child; she believes it will be weak, deformed. “You will love it just the same,” says Aslaug; somewhere in Kattegat, little Ivar sleeps peacefully, bent but unbroken. The child appears: a daughter, the first grandchild of Ragnar and Lagertha. “I would like to call her Siggy,” says Bjorn—a final honor bestowed upon an old, dead friend.
Between episode 5 and 6, we appear to have skipped over a long winter, to judge by all the births in this episode. It must be spring: Surely that explains the sight of Rollo, resplendent in fur, standing tall again. He is born again.
But the same cannot be said for the far-away settlement in Wessex. A lonely old man arrives in the city, with a tale of woe. He disturbs Ragnar’s slumber, in the most hilarious way possible:
The settlement has been destroyed by Aethelwulf the Dull. “The slaughter was great,” he says. “All our men. Their wives. Our children.” The story continues: A few lonely survivors, stealing a ship from the Christians, blown off course to a frozen bay, foundering on the ice with land in sight. “I saw my eldest son die before my eyes,” the man says. “And here I am, my lord, a broken man who only wants to die and rejoin his family.”
Ragnar cries for his dead people—and for his dead dream of a farming colony. Floki is angry, but triumphant. He tells Ragnar that their adventure was doomed from the start. Ragnar promises vengeance on Aethelwulf and his father. “And Athelstan?” asks Floki, murder in his eyes. Ragnar is horrified. “If anyone is to blame, it is me,” he tells Floki.
The ship-builder walks away, angry. Ragnar turns to the old man. Has he told anyone else his story? The man says no. Ragnar hugs him, kisses his forehead—and sends him to meet his family, in whatever corner of Valhalla the gods reserve for men born to suffer.
And yet in death there is rebirth. For across the sea, Lord Aethelwulf welcomes a new son. Well, “welcomes.” Once the princeling confirms that his wife is healthy, he sends in some monks who look like the Observers from Fringe. The monks bring her to the town square, where the mob awaits her. The bishop reads her sins: Adultery. Her punishment: Her ears cut off, her nose removed. “Our Lord Jesus never advocated such barbarism!” says Judith, clearly a progressive Biblical scholar. “Please, husband! Please, father!”
Her awful screams echo throughout Wessex. Her father-in-law, Ecbert, begs her to reveal the father of her child. Perhaps he is remembering better, quieter moments: A bath among friends, a warrior woman with hair blonde as sun, a strange little man who walked between two worlds. (Ecbert has never been more powerful; has he ever been less happy?) Judith refuses. And then Michael Madsen cuts her ear off, to the tune of “Stuck in the Middle With You.”
“Athelstan,” she says, a scream but also a whisper. Ecbert hears her. He confers with his idiot son. “I cannot blame my daughter-in-law for being attracted to such a man of God,” he says. “In my own mind, there is no doubt of Athelstan’s deep spirituality, and his close relationship with God.”
Aethelwulf is getting the picture: “You think God had a hand in this conception?” Maybe Ecbert does; maybe he just doesn’t want his daughter-in-law to lose another ear. For whatever reason, he declares Judith’s son to be a special child—comparing the princess to the blessed virgin. “There will be a christening after all. And the boy’s name will be Alfred.”
As Vikings writer Michael Hirst told me in a post-show Q&A, that little boy Alfred will indeed grow into someone very, very special. Perhaps God did have a hand in Alfred’s conception. In distant Kattegat, Alfred’s father has a vision: A light in the darkness, a voice in the silence.
NEXT: A sign from above [pagebreak]
“I was dead, but I’m reborn!” says the live man, killing himself.
Athelstan’s entire life since Vikings began has been defined by confusion. He was a man of God, but God abandoned him; his life was saved by a pagan who became a King. So he was a follower of the pagan gods; he was crucified, and saved by a Christian King. Powerful men from very different cultures recognized a kindred spirit in Athelstan. He was curious—and frustrated.
But now, Athelstan’s confusion is gone. He has been given the gift of sight, the gift of faith. “Father, hear my prayer, and let my cry come unto thee!” he says, narrating his own Terrence Malick movie as he walks into the water.
Across space and time, Don Draper joins him in the Beach Of Metaphorical Baptism:
Athelstan runs to see his friend, Ragnar. He tells him of his epiphany. He has been born again. “Born again?” asks Ragnar. “Like a baby?” Ragnar is happy for his friend—but when Athelstan threatens to leave, Ragnar is furious and sad. “You cannot leave me! I love you, and you’re the only one I can trust.” Ragnar promises his friend that no one will hurt him—a promise he certainly cannot keep. Poor Ragnar Lothbrok: A mighty King in the North, blessed with two wives and many sons and many warriors, and the only man he can trust is a follower of the Christ-God from the land across the sea.
Warriors arrive; the season of raiding will begin again soon. Here is Earl Kalf of Hedeby; here is Earl Siegfried of Bicepville; and here is King Horik’s son and Jarl Borg’s widow, the Season 2 Big Bad Henchman Alliance. “I have to say,” says Ragnar, “I’m a little caught off-guard seeing you here.” Bygones must be bygones; so Horik’s son wanders into the village where his father died, so Jarl Borg’s widow walks past the spot her husband died, his ribs cracked open, his lungs open his shoulders. “How’s the settlement in Wessex?” asks the son of Hork. “Good,” says Ragnar. “Better than good,” he adds, “Super good. Great. Spectacular. You’ve never seen a settlement like the settlement in Wessex. Actually, the settlement’s doing so well, they built 450 Launch Arcos and achieved the Exodus Event, and now they’re so bored that they’re starting fires just so they can put them out. Great settlement! Welp, off to Paris!”
A great feast in the throne room, old friends and allies and enemies and lovers. Earl Kalf the Usurper sees Lagertha the Usurped, and promises that their destinies are locked together. Bjorn Ironsides sees his wife, Thorunn, and begs her to lay with him—but she begs off, suggesting he visit with Torvi, wife of two of Ragnar’s worst enemies. (Bygones = bygones.) Athelstan appears, and all goes quiet—for Floki saw him throw his arm ring into the water.
Rollo seems to be threatening violence—but Ragnar brings his Christian friend back to meet a guest. The Wanderer Ragnar has always talked about, who first guided the young farmer to England. He speaks the language of the Franks; he knows how to find the mouth of the Seine.
Outside, the singers sing, the dancers dance. Torvi finds Bjorn, sitting alone on the beach. She will come to Paris, she says; she will not be left behind. “You’re brave,” says Bjorn. “I’m Viking,” she says. “I love my wife,” says Bjorn, kissing the woman who is not his wife.
Not for Floki, the celebrations of friend and ally. In the forest, Floki works hard on the figureheads for his ships. He carves into one—and blood flows down its forehead. A vision, he is sure: Perhaps now is the special season when the walls between the worlds crumble, when the gods speak more clearly. This is the sign Floki has been waiting for. Some men lust for women, others gold; Floki only wants to please the gods.
He tells Helga that he has a secret mission; no one must know about it. Helga is confused, worried; Floki grasps her neck, makes her promise not to tell anyone. “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” he says. “No,” says Helga, “But I think you mean to hurt someone.”
The men of Kattegat sing a song in the square. A fire burns. Athelstan sits in his home, praying before a small cross, praying in the words his old masters taught him, when he was a monk lo those many lives ago.
“Floki,” he says.
“Priest,” says Floki.
They see each other, in the darkness. They are men of gods. They have received messages from beyond. Or anyhow, they have chosen to interpret their visions as messages. One god demands blood; another, acceptance. If all this spiritual stuff is too woozy for you, you can choose to read this scene as an expression of the rivalry between two very different men: One man who believes in peace, the other in war. Or maybe it’s even more accurate to read this as a kind of revenge by a spurned lover—for once upon a time, no one was closer to Ragnar than Floki; and now, it is Athelstan who has Ragnar’s ear.
Regardless: Athelstan raises his hands outward, in the sign of the cross, and Floki hacks into him. It’s all very Apocalypse Now—and after Athelstan dies, Floki rubs his blood across his forehead, and tastes it on his tongue.
It is later: the next day, perhaps. Ragnar rides his horse up a hillside; another horse follows behind, with Athelstan’s body wrapped up tight. The road runs away; Ragnar climbs up the hillside. “The things I do for you!” the live man tells the dead one. “For such a little man, Athelstan, you are terribly heavy.”
So King Ragnar Lothbrok carries Athelstan the Christian up the mountain outside Kattegat, until he finds a spot high above the matters of men. The sound of the water, the wind through the trees. “This is as close to your god as I can get you,” says the King, who digs the grave himself. He sticks one long stick into the ground. He tells his friend:
Never knew what a martyr was. I still don’t. You were a brave man, Athelstan. I always respected you for that. You taught me so much. You saw yourself as weak and conflicted. But to me, you were fearless, because you dared to question. Why did you have to die, hmmm? We had so much more to talk about. I always believed that death is a fate far better than life, for you will be reunited with lost loved ones. But we will never meet again, my friend. I have a feeling that your god might object to me visiting you in heaven.
“I hate you for leaving me,” cries Ragnar. “There is nothing that can console me now. I am changed. So are you.” Ragnar tied another long stick to the stick in the ground, and so formed the sign of the Christ-God. His friend Athelstan was crucified upon a cross like that, long ago, in the land across the sea. The cross couldn’t kill him; but no man lives forever.
The King lingers for a moment in the stream. He cuts his hair bald—a tribute to his fallen friend, who was bald on top when they first met so long ago. “Forgive me my friend,” says Ragnar Lothbrok. “Not for what I have done, but for what I’m about to do.” The blood falls down his face, like tears. And there are tears, too.