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Vikings, S01E08: Sacrifice; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

vikings season 1Originally aired 21 Apr 2013
Written by Michael Hirst
Directed by Ken Girotti

Starring Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Clive Standen, Jessalyn Gilsig, George Blagden, and Donal Logue

My rating:  ★★★1/2 stars

Unsettling but powerful episode.

This episode is easily the most disturbing and hard to watch episode of the series (at least, through the first three seasons). It features the aspect of Viking culture that is the most repulsive to our sensibilities: human sacrifice.

Ragnar and his people travel to Uppsala to attend a ceremonial festival that occurs every nine years to honor the gods. At that festival, nine of every kind of animal will be sacrificed, including humans. Ragnar has brought Athelstan as a sacrifice, unbeknownst to Athelstan. It is cowardly of Ragnar not explain Athelstan’s purpose at the festival to him, but Ragnar is powerful enough that no one calls him on his cowardice, even when his plan goes wrong.

Throughout the episode, Athelstan demonstrates that he has assimilated in to Viking culture. He now wears his beard in beads. His copy of the Gospel of John has crumbled. In the sacred temple at Uppsala, he praises Thor effusively.

Yet, he is still a newcomer but, initially, a willing one. He hesitantly partakes of the hallucinogenic mushrooms. Later, he lets Thyri seduce him. He asks her why she wants to have sex with him, and she obliquely responds, “I have to.” He doesn’t know yet that he is being prepared for sacrifice and that it’s Thyri’s duty to show him a good time.

The orgy scenes are filmed in a disjointed manner to reflect Athelstan’s confused perception under the influence of the mushrooms but, also, to align with basic cable standards of what can be shown.

The next day, when Athelstan learns he is to be sacrificed, however, he recoils in horror and turns for comfort to his Christian faith. When the Viking priest sees that he has not fully renounced Christianity and that he is unwilling, the priest rejects him as a sacrifice. Ragnar whispers to him, “Your god finally came through for you.” Athelstan shoots him a look of contempt in return, the closest that he gets to upbraiding Ragnar.

I wondered why Athelstan was chosen as the sacrifice. His status in Ragnar’s household has risen since he was first taken as a slave. Ragnar, Lagertha, and the kids treat him as a member of the family. However, he’s not a fighter, and, although the reasons for choosing him are not discussed in the episode, I suspect that’s what makes him the most expendable. Ragnar feels the sacrifice is important after his and Lagertha’s child was stillborn; he feels he must appease the gods.

Someone from Ragnar’s band must be sacrificed, and the priest asks for a volunteer. In a scene filled with tension, the camera pans around the room, focusing on the various men each in turn. Rollo looks down; he will not volunteer. Ragnar knows that his position makes him too indispensable. Floki begins to stand, but Helga stops him. Finally, Arne aka “One-Eye” (Tadhg Murphy, who, in real life, is blind in his right eye) reluctantly starts to rise. But Leif (Diarmaid Murtagh), volunteers instead. I suppose it’s probably difficult as an actor to play the emotions that a character experiences while volunteering for human sacrifice, but Murtagh didn’t seem up to the task.

The actual sacrifice scene is highly stylized, showing a lot of blood dripping in slow motion. It cuts back and forth from the sacrifice altar to the reactions of the crowd, particularly to Athelstan and his combination of horror and grief. Afterward, the sacrificed men are strung up on wooden frames along with the animals.

The notion of human sacrifice is grisly. The depiction isn’t. Yet, while the inclusion of human sacrifice may be historically accurate, I have a hard time reconciling it with the concept of entertainment. This is the second and last (through the third season) presentation of this subject, but it’s far more unsettling than the first, when the slave girl was killed during Earl Haraldsson’s funeral. We didn’t know that girl. Leif, along with Arne and another warrior named Torstein, was present throughout the first season without having a major role. As much as I found this episode disturbing (so much so that I didn’t like to revisit it), I must acknowledge the show for causing such a powerful reaction.

The sacrifice is such a monumental occurrence that the other happenings in the episode fade into the background.  Yet, a new regular character appears in this episode, King Horik (Donal Logue, who is perfectly cast). Horik appears very different from what we’d expect a king to look like. He dresses in drab clothes similar to what the slaves wear and is not at all distinguishable from the rest of the Vikings. The priests even try to throw him out of the temple before they know he’s the king. So far, the only other king we’ve seen is King Alle of Northumbria, who is better groomed and, certainly, better clothed.

Horik asks to meet with Ragnar, ostensibly to praise him for sailing to England. Throughout the meeting, the two men feel each other out, both being cagey and not speaking directly. Ragnar shows deference, pledging fealty. He asks Horik for help in making a bigger raid and, perhaps, going beyond England to a rumored larger, wealthier kingdom called Frankia. Horik agrees but slips in a warning, saying, “As a king, naturally, I’m not in favor of men or even earls acting independently.”

Horik seems to decide that he can trust Ragnar and asks him for a favor. He wants his new earl to meet with a rival of his, Jarl Borg of Götaland (in modern-day Sweden), to solve a property dispute. This request sets up a conflict that will drive the next set of episodes.

Absent from the meeting is Rollo, who was not asked to attend. Instead, he returns hung over to his tent, where Siggy berates him for his wanton behavior at the orgy. Like a total reprobate, he tells her that if she doesn’t like it, she can leave. But, then, he yells that he’ll be “a great man” someday, and she’ll regret leaving. Siggy’s response is pleasantly refreshing. She could have punched him in the nose or kneed him in his privates, and I’m sure the audience would have cheered. She could have stormed out. She could have meekly acquiesced. She could have yelled or screamed. But she did none of these things. First, she unmans him by telling him that Ragnar was meeting the king and that, not only was Rollo not invited, he didn’t even know about it. Then, she suggests that if he ever wants to be “a great man,” he will need her. In Rollo, she sees her best chance to regain the standing she lost when Earl Haraldson died.

Like Siggy, Lagertha, too, was left alone by her man during the orgy. We saw her early in the episode beg the gods to make her fertile again. Ragnar, however, asks the gods that, if the prophecy is right and he is to have many sons, who is to be their mother, signaling that he’s willing to consider other women.

These conflicts—Rollo’s ambition, Lagertha’s infertility, and Ragnar’s dealing with Jarl Borg—all appear prominently in the next episode. In fact, this episode could have served as a season finale. It is transitional, bringing the first part of the story to a close and introducing new conflicts. The episode that follows feels like the beginning of something new.

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