— By Carly Twehous —
[The following review contains major spoilers for Seasons 1-3.]
Everyone had that favorite time period and culture in history class. You know the one. It’s the subject that inspired enough genuine curiosity that it would rouse you from your regularly scheduled third period nap and give you the inexplicable superhuman strength to listen to Mr. Anderson’s monotonous lecture, whilst simultaneously scouring the textbook for some tidbit of information you didn’t already know.
For some, this favorite topic was World War II or the Bolshevik Revolution or Ancient Rome. For me, though, those subjects were just more of the same thing we studied every year: Hitler killed people in droves, the Romanovs were brutally executed and Anastasia almost certainly did not escape, and Rome fell. Besides, there were countless books and credible sources on each of these historical events, so if the curiosity bug struck, I could find out whatever I desired on my own time. Therefore, I could never justify missing my third period nap for something as well-documented as these.
Vikings, however, never failed to pique my interest. They were explorers and warriors. Women fought alongside the men and their mythology held a myriad of untapped potential stories. All in all, the Vikings were awesome and the history books didn’t seem to understand that they deserved a hell of a lot more than a few paragraphs of consideration.
Luckily, even before Marvel made Viking’s cool again, the History Channel jumped on the idea of a show starring Norsemen. Vikings, though fictional, gives a historically accurate view of this particular culture.
Ragnar Lothbrok, a farmer turned explorer turned king turned traitor, is a real historical figure most famous for “discovering” England. Along with his shield-maiden wife, Lagertha, brother Rollo, and Floki, the mystic-slash-boat-maker, Ragnar embarks on a seemingly doomed sea voyage to find new farmland.
Lo and behold, they stumble upon Northern England and find a group of Catholic monks already living there. After an insanely brutal massacre, most monks are left dead, and the Vikings have their green pastures.
Amidst the blood and the turmoil and the high from victory, the show introduced one of the most fascinating dynamics ever seen on television: one priest survives and, for whatever reason, Ragnar decides to take him back to Kattegat as a slave. The relationship that develops between Athelstan and Ragnar Lothbrok—the priest and the pagan—is something that keeps the show moving forward and gives it an emotional component beyond the fascinating historical backdrop.
Athelstan becomes Ragnar’s confidant, personal philosopher, moral conscience, and ultimately, his brother. The show opens on Ragnar’s noticeably brutal and amoral life. He kills without thought and occasionally for fun, he’s culturally unfaithful to his wife, he lusts for strength and power, and, for a time, he becomes a cruel and heartless leader. Then, Athelstan comes in, Ragnar stops him from becoming a ritual sacrifice to Odin, and suddenly this show becomes about saving the soul of Ragnar Lothbrok. It becomes about the brotherhood between the priest and the pagan.
For the first time, we see Ragnar carrying the burden of choice. He questions the way of life enforced by his own gods and takes up a fascination with Athelstan’s God, who preaches about mercy and forgiveness, rather than wrath and selfish glory.
Then, someone in the writer’s room thought it would be a great idea if they killed off Athelstan and threw Ragnar onto a who-done-it revenge path. Naturally, after this episode aired, Vikings lost a significant chunk of its loyal viewers.
Granted, many people started this show because of historical curiosity, but everyone had at least an unconscious understanding that this was a fictionalized story. What most people don’t realize is that fictional storytelling carries a greater significance than any one historical event ever can: it holds an emotional responsibility to the truth, aimed at the discovery of something primal within the human person. Fictional stories are about the exploration of the human soul, rather than the bland, Mr. Anderson-esque recitation of historical facts.
For Vikings, that journey into the human soul was meant to be seen through the relationship between Athelstan and Ragnar. The fictional story that they were trying to tell amongst the inherently fascinating historical backbone became instead a crime against fiction, rather than a quote-on-quote tragedy.
By killing Athelstan, they killed the heart and soul of this show and with it, any hope of retaining the viewers they once had in the first few seasons. Revenge is nowhere near as fascinating as redemption, and to see such a regress in Ragnar’s character leads one to believe that there was never any hope of saving his soul to begin with. Without that primal hope, there is no longer any point in watching the show. We’re no longer rooting for the salvation of a character, nor are we rooting necessarily for vengeance, because, somewhere along the line, Athelstan’s morality convinced the audience that vengeance reaps nothing more than pain.
Don’t get me wrong: Vikings is still worth the watch, crime against fiction and all. It’s gory and awesome, full of strong female characters and immensely fascinating dynamics between opposing moralities. If you’re even remotely intrigued by this time period—or just have a fascination with characters who start with nothing, rise to power, then become their own downfall—it’s worth the watch.
This show gives flavor to history and gives these characters a real, human soul, even if only to rip it out in the end.