Vikings: Born Again Review

Michael Hirst's revisionist approach to the portrayal of Viking culture is just one of this show's many fascinating facets...

This review contains spoilers.

For the last handful of episodes, Vikings has been drawing a parallel between the Vikings and Christians. This has created a rather interesting dialogue.

The Vikings have been the victims (if it’s possible to think of that culture as victims) of an unusual historical phenomenon. We frequently say that the history is written by the victors. But despite the fact that the Vikings were, largely, the victors wherever they went, most of their history (as we laypeople understand that term) was written not by them—since they were an oral culture—but by those they triumphed over.

So it’s hardly surprising that our view of them is that of savage marauders, hell-bent on destruction and completely without mercy for the defenceless.

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This is likely why Michael Hirst’s series has gone to such lengths to (there’s not really a better word for it) civilize them. Yes, of course, they are still the ruthless warriors we would expect; after all, that’s part of our fascination with them. But he has also given us a people who laugh, who love deeply, who have desires that have little to do with war, and who look, at the right angle, a lot like us. In fact, he’s done such a great job at it that we identify with the Vikings on the show, much preferring them to the British.

Which is fine. Because virtually all narratives work by making us identify with the protagonist(s) even when we would normally think of them as alien to ourselves. And so we have come, if anything, to perceive the Vikings as more civilized than their Christian counterparts on the show, despite what our history books have suggested.

We have seen this in previous weeks, and there’s still some of that in “Born Again.”

It is certainly suggested by the parallel in the Vikings and Saxon birthing scenes. Vikings has already conditioned us to see the Norse culture as more like our own when it comes to sexual matters but now we also feel a greater kinship to them when we view the product of that sex. While men are noticeably absent from the Saxon Judith’s birth chamber, Bjorn and the women assisting Þorunn seem totally comfortable with the father striding into the Viking birth chamber and holding the baby right there, much as we expect modern fathers to do.

And certainly what follows the birth of Judith’s child is about as foreign—thankfully—from our experience as we can imagine. The sheer barbarism not just of the Christian punishment for adultery but of the public way it’s done largely make us echo Judith’s feelings on the subject: how is this anything Christ would condone?

But that barbarism pales when we see the hand behind it all. The wisdom of waiting to see if Judith’s child was male was wise, of course. And once Ecbert ascertained that he had the heir that it seemed his son was not going to produce on his own (which explains the king’s almost-encouragement of Judith’s crush on Aethelstan), he needed to goad his son and his people into accepting the child as legitimate despite Alfred’s obvious status as a bastard. But if Ecbert could trust his half-witted son to pull off the subterfuge of the Viking colony massacre, there was no reason to think he could not have included Judith in his plans for the child and spared her ear. I suppose one could argue that she might not have seemed authentic in her screams if she knew she’d be saved the moment she said Aethelstan’s name. But it was a rather large (and utterly heartless) risk for Ecbert to take. After all, what if she had decided to accept her martyrdom, believing that confessing her adultery would mean death for her child?

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The Viking way of dealing with adultery seems so much more elevated by comparison. In another parallel, Aslaug is confronted by her own husband with her dalliance with Harbard, Ragnar telling her that he doesn’t really care who she screws so long as she keeps his children safe. Like Aethelwulf, he’s not in love with his wife, that lack of love reducing Aslaug to the role of breeding stock she’d be as a woman of noble Saxon birth. And when she takes the realization of the meaning behind Ragnar’s word’s out on him, beating uselessly at his chest, it’s hard not to be reminded that his true love, Lagertha, would have done him serious damage in Aslaug’s place.

But if all of this has worked to hold the Vikings up as superior, cracks are showing in the veneer.

One of the things that has elevated the Vikings in this narrative is the say that each person has in choosing his or her own path. We have seen this again and again: people are not compelled to sail west or compelled to fight—no Viking’s life is seen as being at the behest of another unless he first places it there. People are not, as Ecbert sees them, disposable.

Until this week. When the man returns from the colony in Wessex to report what Ecbert has done, Ragnar knows that if word gets out, his plans for Paris will be put on hold and he will be facing demands for an all-out war with the Saxons—one that will come at great cost to his people. By the rules of his own culture, he must accede to those demands. And so, for the first time, we see him acting as his Christian counterpart: he kills the messenger in order to keep the fate of the colony secret and his plans for Paris on track. That is, he sees one of his own men as subservient to his own goals to the point of cold-blooded murder.

And he’s not the only one who is acting more like a Saxon than a Viking.

Floki’s hatred of Aethelstan is longstanding, and I’m sure we all imagined that we’d eventually see the face-off between the two. But Floki’s murder of the priest this week is disappointing not only because Aethelstan was a great character, caught between two worlds and thus largely a stand-in for us. The bigger disappointment was in the distinctly un-Viking way in which Floki killed him.

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One of the great things about Floki is that rather than being a jack of all trades, he really is a master of them. Not only is he a great ship designer and builder but, for a skinny man among so many of bulk, he’s an excellent fighter—one of the best—and one who takes great pleasure in the battlefield. More importantly, more than perhaps any other character, he takes pleasure in being a Viking and all that that means. And sneaking in under cover of night to murder a man you know has little chance of beating you even if you offered him a fair fight, all in such a way so you could later deny you had anything to do with it?

What could be less Viking than that?

But even if Aethelstan’s manner of death and loss to the programme were disappointments, they brought us something beautiful: Ragnar’s farewell to his friend.

Ragnar has been watching his relationships—with his wives, his sons, his brother, his friends—all rapidly falling apart. Only Aethelstan has remained solidly at his side, helping him to find his way. And the Viking king has rarely been more lost, more in need of his friend, than he is now. The gorgeous scenery as he carries the body of the priest to the top of the mountain to bury him frames something that we rarely get to see on the show: Ragnar’s heart. It’s been a long time since he confessed his love to or of anyone, but as he sits at Aethelstan’s grave, we watch him pour it all out.

Travis Fimmel has gotten more than a bit of razzing for the gimmicky way he tends to play Ragnar: his weird smiles and ambivalent looks. But all that disappears here and we see a man in pain, about to set sail on the greatest journey of his life without his anchor. I wish they’d give Fimmel more such moments.

But I doubt we’ll see a lot more introspection in the weeks to come. The Vikings are getting ready to head off to Paris and they carry with them explosive cargo in the form of Lagertha & Kalf and Ragnar & Erlendur. Even odds on whether, all things considered, they even make it to the city on the Seine. 

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