Subtext and Subversion: Update

The Vikings season finale just aired this week, so I figured it’s time for an update on the show’s amazing, and in my opinion groundbreaking, central male/male relationship, which I commented on last summer. Our pair, Viking king Ragnar and his constant companion Athelstan, a former Christian monk captured in a raid in season one, have been through a great deal over the course of the show so far, and this season only upped the stakes–to a significant degree.

Will get into the spoilery details below, but the short version: The narrative of this relationship continued doing what it did all through the previous seasons: hitting trope after trope of a kind almost always found solely in stories of romantic love. While still maintaining a tiny shred of plausible deniability for those drowning in heteronormativity, it even crossed lines I never expected a show like this would cross. I have to give showrunner and sole writer Michael Hirst a lot of credit. There are things about this season that I really, really hated, but he did actually Go There in a lot of ways that we simply never see for shows in this genre. For that, he deserves a lot of respect. More on this–and a detailed analysis–to come. For now, allow me to illustrate the greatness.

With the same episode-highlights format I used before, here’s a rundown of what happened for Ragnar and Athelstan in season three:

Athelstan’s Journal

First, let’s get back up to speed with seasons one and two. Fortunately, Vikings made it pretty easy to do that this year!

Happily for us Athelstan fans, the show shot a series of webisodes/mini-episodes, formatted as journal entries. The first eight installments of this were recaps of season one and two: Each segment had Athelstan poring over a drawing and an entry he made about a featured character and what happened over the course of 2-3 episodes. These were bookended by a theme of Athelstan trying to decide where he fit; what he “really” was: Christian or Pagan; Englishman or Northman.

They also did quite a lot to explain how Athelstan felt about Ragnar.

In the first installment, Athelstan strokes a picture of Ragnar, and speaks of him over a montage of scenes from episodes 1-3 of season one: “Pious reflection and contemplation were my life before . . . before Ragnar. For many moons now, the answers I seek have come from him.”

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Over scenes of the raid on his monastery at Lindisfarne, he says this: “So much blood. So much death. It is their way. And yet something about these ways–about him–fascinated me. As the blood they spilled roused them–so brutal, so primitive–so, too it roused me. And I was shamed. Once I worshiped only the blood of Christ, but then I saw the blood of men spilled on Earth, and I became a servant to another master–a master I did not yet understand.”

Later on, in an installment which covers the events at Uppsala, where Athelstan was nearly sacrificed, but saved at the last moment by being still Christian, he talks about sin, in a way that has all sorts of double meanings: “Who would not rejoice at being cleansed of his sins; renewed and made whole again? . . . But what if there are some sins–some desires–that cannot be purged; that are a part of us, like some poisonous shadow? What if the cost of purity is too high?”

Moving on to season two. In a montage of scenes of Ragnar being reunited with Lagertha and Bjorn, Athelstan talks of family: “Family is a blessing–one I did not have. I had faith and books and prayer, but it wasn’t until this place that I truly had family, a family I would do anything for, even turn against a faith I devoted my life to. . . . The family I found in this place embraced me heartily, and I reveled in that warm embrace. And it may yet kill me.”

This recap section of the journals ends with Athelstan, still questioning himself, turning to an unlikely source for advice: The Seer. The next five installments in the series cover season three, so I’m going to skip over those for now, and will return to them at the end!

At the end of season two, Athelstan had come back home to Kattegat after spending nearly a year as the virtual prisoner (albeit one in a velvet cage) of Wessex’s King Ecbert. In his time there, he had returned more or less to Christianity and wore the robes of a priest again, though he still also believed in the Norse gods–in, as he said in episode nine, what Ragnar believes.

Ragnar, who has always been fascinated by other cultures, also developed an interest in Athelstan’s religion, and in the final episode of season two, this manifests in their sharing a Christian prayer at a lovely, remote spot by a waterfall near Kattegat. What follows is Ragnar’s violent revenge on evil King Horik–with Athelstan in attendance–and him assuming the role of king in the wake of that.

On to season three!

Episode one opens with Ragnar adjusting to life as king and having some domestic trouble, as Aslaug is exhausted from managing four children, including the youngest, Ivar, who has a severe physical deformity and a lot of pain from it. Ragnar–he’s an anti-hero, remember–is kind of a dick toward her about it all. She asks him if he loves her. He doesn’t answer.

Shortly after that, we get an idea of whom he does love instead. Athelstan stares out the door of the great hall, deep in thought. Ragnar–while getting the evil eye from Aslaug–approaches him. He gently takes Athelstan’s hand, stroking the crucifixion scar there.

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“I know you well, my friend,” he says, “and I know what tortures you.” He explains that he understands Athelstan’s feelings of being torn in two–of trying to reconcile belonging to two faiths and two cultures. He understands this, he says, because he feels the same way. Reassuring Athelstan, he says that they will return to Wessex (to establish a settlement there, as negotiated with Ecbert last season), and that Athelstan will be his John the Baptist: “Where ever you go, I will follow.”

In just these few lines, we get an idea of exactly how important the two are to each other. That the scene follows closely on Ragnar’s spat with Aslaug helps make it clear that Athelstan is more important to him than even his wife. But the moment as aired in most of the world isn’t the whole scene. In the uncut international version, which aired on HBO Nordic, among others, the scene begins very differently: Ragnar opens the conversation by calling back to a moment from season one: “If Lagertha and I were to invite you to share our bed today, would you still refuse as you once did?” Yep, he brought up the threesome proposition, something that people who deny the romantic aspects of this relationship like to forget. Athelstan’s response to this is to grin coquettishly and look away.

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Later in the scene, after Ragnar pledges to follow Athelstan, he also notes, “maybe I’ll even cut my hair like a monk.” Then he beckons Athelstan to come inside and get warm. As they go, Ragnar tails him closely. “What are you doing?” Athelstan asks. “Following you, John,” Ragnar says, with a cheeky grin.

It’s fascinating to me that this scene was so truncated in the version aired by History. They trim the episodes for length, to include time for commercials, but also for content. Some of the more graphically violent shots get cut, as does any nudity or explicit sex. That they surgically excised just a few lines from this scene, however, is odd. What about those extra lines would be inappropriate for American basic-cable audiences? If there’s nothing homoerotic about the scene and the lines, then why cut it? The cut lines amount to only about a minute of runtime–something that could easily have been trimmed from elsewhere if time constraints were the reason. No; there was something about the content of these lines that they decided needed to go. The show’s hero essentially reiterating a proposition for sex with another man (sex that, as he and Lagertha are divorced, couldn’t include a woman anyway) is something that History’s macho-dude core demographic would not have been able to handle. The fact that last season they also cut a 10-second shot of Aslaug in bed between Lagertha and Ragnar, and a female/female kiss this season, yet did not cut a couple of extremely suggestive and kinky male/female sex scenes tells me that yep: they’re cutting out anything that can’t be read as 100% het. Well, as much as they can, considering that a male/male romance was about 70% of their lead’s character arc this season. Heh.

Moving on to talk about more of that romance!

In the second half of episode one, the company sails back to Wessex, to negotiate how the settlement will go. At a dinner to welcome them, Ecbert notes that they’re still having trouble securing neighboring kingdom Mercia for Princess Kwenthrith, the puppet ruler he wants to install there. He asks if Ragnar’s company will assist in a final effort to capture the country. Ragnar and most of his warriors grudgingly agree. Lagertha agrees to stay behind to manage the settlement, and Ecbert requests that Athelstan, too, stay, to act as translator. Athelstan hesitates, and leans over for a quiet conference with Ragnar. “I trust you more than anyone,” Ragnar says, “I think you should stay.”

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The next few episodes, our pair are parted and kept busy with their respective duties. Ecbert starts hitting on Lagertha (in some amusing scenes with Athelstan playing intermediary) and then Athelstan gets hit on himself. Princess Judith, Northumbrian King Aelle’s daughter who married Ecbert’s son Aethelwulf for political reasons, is alone, her husband going off to fight in Mercia. Her attention lands on Athelstan, much to his confusion.

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An awkward (and frankly kind of implausible) courtship follows, and eventually the two do end up having sex (as do Ecbert and Lagertha.) Judith is clearly besotted, but Athelstan is less so. Immediately post-coital, she tells him she loves him. He says nothing. She prompts him. “Do you love me?” He hesitates, but then says he does, though not at all convincingly.

Meanwhile, back in Mercia, the battle has been brutal and deadly. Torstein, one of Ragnar’s closest friends–and Floki’s dearest–has died, in a particularly gruesome way. In his grief, Floki returns to the anti-Christian–and by extension, anti-Athelstan–animosity we saw in season two. Back then, it seemed like it might have been part of the ruse to ensnare King Horik, but it’s now apparent that the hatred is genuine. Viking blood is being spilled on Christian soil for a war that is not theirs, and, Floki argues to everyone who stands still long enough, Athelstan is the one to blame for dragging them into this mess. Rollo blows him off, Bjorn disagrees, and Ragnar, of course, tells him to shut his face, for he won’t hear a single word against his beloved.

At the party to welcome the warriors back from their successful mission, Ecbert, playing schmoozer, tells Athelstan that he needs to stay–Judith is fascinated by him, he says (supposedly knowing nothing about their tryst.) Athelstan, however, is less than comfortable with the whole thing, and says he needs to talk to Ragnar first. On spying the man in question across the room, he hops up from his seat, leaving Lagertha to wrangle the drunken, handsy king, and beelines for Ragnar.

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“They’re trying to make you to stay,” Ragnar, ever observant, says. He looks up, noting where Athelstan is staring. “There’s something between you and that girl.”

Athelstan rolls his eyes. “Yes,” he says flatly.

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Ragnar chuckles, in a “hey, you got some!” sort of way.

Athelstan shakes his head. “You don’t understand,” he whines.

“Nobody understands,” Ragnar agrees. Getting serious, he leans in and gentles his voice. “We are all free to do as we please,” he says.

Athelstan looks up at him, and his voice takes on a teasing tone. “Are we still talking about women?”

Ragnar throws him a naughty grin and moves off, and Athelstan looks happier than he has in three episodes.

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Two scenes and an awkward kiss with Judith later, Athelstan is cornered by Ecbert, who demands a decision on whether he’s going to stay.

“I have made up my mind, “Athelstan says decisively, to Ecbert’s anger. “I will go back with Ragnar. All my future lies with Ragnar.”

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And so it does.

I want to back up here for a moment and discuss a costume piece Athelstan is wearing in these scenes (indeed, in most of this season, actually.) That blue tunic with the embroidered neckline is something he wore in the final scenes of season two, after choosing to go back to Kattegat with Ragnar. Having lost his original Viking kit when he was captured 2×04, and then being dressed in clerical garb for the rest of his time in Wessex, he needed something else to wear on the boat back home. It’s not spelled out in the show how he happens to get new clothes, but a sharp eye explains it: The tunic is one of Ragnar’s, though something he hasn’t worn since early season one.

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Simple explanations for this would be just costume recycling or hand-me-downs but 1) no other costume pieces are shared by characters in this show, and 2) Athlestan has an entirely new wardrobe for season three. Why, then, is he still wearing this one old shirt of Ragnar’s? And why so often? Costume pieces aren’t chosen at random. They tell a story just as much as the script and what shots the director chooses. What story is this choice telling us?

Back in Kattegat

Moving on: Our next episode (3×05) opens with them on the ship back home. Ragnar is grumpy about returning home to Aslaug, and wants something to distract him.”Tell me about Paris,” he says to Athelstan.

Athelstan smiles. “Again?”

“Please!” Ragnar begs.

Athelstan then proceeds to tell a blissed-out Ragnar (seriously, he basically has chibi-heart eyes) all about the beautiful city he visited when he was a young monk on a mission to Frankia.

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Looking at this cozy scene from another boat, Floki’s face is a mask of disgust. “Look at them, huddled together. It sickens me,” he says to a confused Rollo, speaking for all the homophobes in the audience. Sigh . . .

On returning, Ragnar and Aslaug have a further falling out, this time over her infidelity with a wanderer (who may also have been a god–long story.) Meanwhile, Athelstan sits around the fire in the Great Hall with Lagertha, Floki and his wife Helga, and gets a face full of invective from still-nasty Floki (much to Helga’s annoyance–she still likes Athelstan and always has.) For once, he actually dishes it back. “It’s true. I don’t know why Ragnar listens to me. Not when he can listen to you, Floki.” Ouch.

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He bids the women good night, and leaves.

Later in the episode, Ragnar has decided he wants to attack Paris, having heard about it from his dear Athelstan, and announces this at a gathering in the Great Hall. He addresses some of his talk to Floki, who seems thrilled that Ragnar’s finally giving him some attention. But then Ragnar directs his gaze to the one who’s really important.

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Floki doesn’t take this well, as one might expect. Trimphant after the crowd’s excited response to his plan, Ragnar slings an arm around Athelstan, and they prepare to leave the hall together (before Lagertha gets in the way for an unrelated reason.)

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Other drama ensues, including a horrible surprise attack by Aethelwulf, Ecbert’s son, on the Viking settlement back in Wessex, and then we’re back with our pair at the opening of episode six.

Playing in the sand on the beach, the two discuss the layout of Paris, as Athelstan remembers it, and plan how best to approach it.

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The city is, as Athelstan says, “impregnable,” but of course Ragnar sees that only as a challenge.

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Spying on this cozy scene, of course, is Floki, once again drowning in jealousy. His animosity for Athelstan seems to be growing larger by the moment, and that’s only about to get worse.

Floki brings a new arrival to the king: An old man; one of the sole survivors of the attack on the settlement. Ragnar is of course shocked and horrified at the news, but he becomes scared and defiant when Floki lays the blame for all of this on–who else?–Athelstan.

“Athelstan is not to blame, Floki. If anyone is to blame, it is me, do you understand?”

“Look at what the gods are trying to tell us!” Floki insists.

“Me!” Ragnar reiterates, tears in his eyes.

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In a panic about word of the settlement attack getting out, Ragnar sends Floki away, and kills the old man (this isn’t as bad as it sounds; the man had lost his entire family and wanted to be reunited with them again. In killing him, Ragnar not only sought to control the spread of the news, but also to grant the man mercy.) It’s all to no avail, however, as the wheels are already set in motion.

Early in the morning, Athelstan awakes to see a beam of light shining in his room. Something about it compels him to seek out the source. A bit of FX later, we learn: The light was a sign from God; Athelstan has been born again. He takes to the water, reveling in God’s creation. Giving himself back to his faith, however, requires that all Earthly ties be broken. In an act seen by Floki (who’s more or less been stalking him), he pitches his arm ring into the fjord, thereby renouncing his citizenship as a free Northman.

Thrilled about his spiritual epiphany, he comes to Ragnar to tell him the news. Ragnar is confused about the details at first, but seems pleased to see Athelstan so joyful, when he was so conflicted before. But then Athelstan springs something terrible on him: “I can no longer acknowledge your gods. I suppose it is better that I leave Kattegat now.”

Ragnar is already aware that Athelstan is in danger, and that once the news about the attack on the settlement gets out, he will be even more so. Now that he has returned to Christianity and no longer has the legal protection afforded by the arm ring, his fate is basically sealed.

Realizing that his beloved is more or less a dead man walking, Ragnar of course, panics. He leaps up, grabbing Athelstan by the shoulders. “What do you mean? You cannot leave! You cannot not leave me!” Then his voice softens, and his heart is laid bare. With a level of raw, vulnerable sincerity he’s never shared with anyone else, he confesses: “I love you.”

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“And you are the only one I can trust,” he continues, heart rapidly breaking, “so you must stay.”

Athelstan is taken aback by this. Though still riding on his spiritual high, this declaration seems to have made him realize that there is still one Earthly bond left that he cannot yet bear to break.

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Ragnar, still in bargaining mode, embraces him tightly. “I am happy that you have found your God. And while you here, no-one will ever hurt you. I will protect you.”

Athelstan pulls back, and smiles, with love in his eyes. “It does not matter where I go. What matters to me is where you’re going.” We know at this point that Athelstan, like Ragnar, knows his days are short. But though he has resigned himself to that imminent fate, he also realizes he doesn’t want to go to the afterlife without the promise of seeing Ragnar again. He will hold Ragnar to his pledge of following where ever he goes, even if that means spirtually, too.

Ragnar makes a small, helpless noise, and clings to Athelstan again.

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After this, we’re on countdown. Floki presents Bjorn with the arm ring, which he has fished out of the water, and tells him to inform the rest of the town that Athelstan has renounced his citizenship, so to speak. This results, unsurprisingly, in Athelstan’s shunning. At a gathering to welcome allies for the journey to Paris, he’s harassed by most there, and confronted by Rollo, who points out his missing arm ring. (Interestingly, neither Aslaug nor Lagertha participate in this; I think that they still consider him one of the family, even if they are confused and wary now.) Ragnar comes to Athelstan’s rescue, shooting Rollo a look that more or less translates to, “Dude, why are you kicking my wounded puppy?” and steers Athelstan toward the back room, where he has a special guest waiting.

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Reclining on a pile of cushions is an interesting looking person: Sinric, Ragnar introduces him; a wanderer he met years ago who told him about England, and who knows the way to get to Paris. Fascinatingly, Sinric appears to be what Viking culture called an argr; an unmanly man. His hair is styled like a woman’s, he wears makeup, and moves and speaks in a decidedly effeminate fashion. In modern culture, we would probably consider him on the trans* spectrum, though within the show, they do use male pronouns for him (hence why I’m using them.) Why Michael Hirst chose to create this character, I don’t know, but I love him. Even more fascinating is the fact that neither the show nor the other characters mock him for who and what he is. He’s simply allowed to exist as he is. Bravo on that, Hirst.

Sinric illustrates the way to find the mouth of the Seine, as Athelstan and Ragnar watch, pleased. They look at each other, smiling.

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This is the last time they will do so.

Driven by what he interprets as a sign from the gods, Floki comes to Athelstan’s room. Athelstan is waiting for him. He knows fate has come, and who is coming for him. He has already administered last rites to himself, and opens his arms. “Lord, receive my soul,” he says, as the axe descends.

Daytime again. Ragnar takes a journey through the woods, leading a horse on whose back is a body, bundled in a white cloth. At the base of a hill, he takes the body himself, slinging it over his shoulder, and musing, with sad humor, on the weight of Athelstan’s body, and the things he does for him.

At the top of the hill, the landscape opens up. It’s their special place: the waterfall where they shared the intimate prayer at the end of the last season. Laying the body gently on the ground, and reclining next to it, Ragnar catches his breath. “This is as close to your God as I can get you.”

The body now in the ground, Ragnar fashions a cross for the grave while delivering his eulogy: “I never knew what a martyr was. I still don’t. You’re 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, hm? 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. What am I to do now? I hate you for leaving me! I ache from your loss. There is nothing that can console me now. I am changed. And so are you.”

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There is no way text alone can convey how intense this scene is. This is the most broken we have ever seen Ragnar. As he says, he is changed, and in a moment, his transformation is complete.

At the riverside, he shaves his head–calling back to the tonsure Athelstan had when he was still a monk–and cleans the blood from the cross pendant he wore.

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“Forgive me, my friend,” he says as he slips the pendant over his head. “Not for what I have done, but for what I am about to do.”

It would be reasonable to expect that this love story is more or less over, now. Half of the couple is now dead, and though we expect that the other might try to find his murderer and seek revenge–something perhaps foreshadowed by Ragnar’s last words of the episode–we expect that he will move on soon. He’s the show’s lead, after all, and a king. He has things to do. He has Paris to raid and a son to groom to take his place. But Athelstan’s part in this story is hardly over, and instead his presence is felt, strongly, throughout the rest of the season, in a way virtually always reserved for classic tragic romances.

Before we continue, however, I want to return to the Journals.

As originally aired, the final five installments in the series were previews for upcoming episodes; The Seer is telling Athelstan–and the audience–what to expect. The whole thing, however, was re-edited into a single, hour-long special that aired after this episode, and some of the episode-preview parts were cut. This is a pity, I think, because there’s something the Seer says in the cut installment titled “Love” that I think is fascinating in light of Athelstan’s spiritual rebirth and martyrdom: “Before one can choose his place in the next world, he must first defy Earthly temptations . . . I do not speak of the pleasures of the flesh . . . I speak of the shackles of the heart. The truest test of a man is for whom his heart beats. And you, priest, must choose between Divine love, and the Earthly love of another soul.”

In the context of the original segment, this is supposedly about Judith, but in context with the rest of the season, it has to be about Ragnar instead. Athelstan readily ditched Judith to go back home with Ragnar (though that had some dire consequences for her–albeit ones Athelstan never knew about); her “love” had absolutely nothing to do with his readiness to return to his faith. The only thing standing between him and God at that point was Ragnar.

The extra v/o bit over the compilation-edit’s depiction of his murder scene I think makes this clear. The book he sets at the base of his cross is the journal; the words are his final entry:

“For so long, I have hungered for my place in this world and the next, and now, by His abundant grace, I am saved. But so, too, I am not worthy of the love and kindness shown to me by these good, pagan people. No greater family on this Earth could be wished for; no stronger embrace. Perhaps even they are of His bounty, for my struggles at their side have only brought me back to Him. And I am blessed, by His love, and theirs.”

This is Athelstan’s verbal response to Ragnar’s confession of love. This is his, “I love you, too.” Undoubtedly there were others in Kattegat who were important to him. He was especially close to Lagertha, and loved Ragnar’s children as if they were his own. He even had a decent relationship with Aslaug, and Helga and Torstein always treated him with kindness. Still, the screentime he had with these other people was marginal, at best. There was but one person in Kattegat who truly had his heart, well above all others, and the same was true in reverse for Ragnar. If it wasn’t evident in the episodes up to this point, it’s about to become even more so in the rest of this season.

Post-mortem: The love that will not die

Episode seven opens with Ragnar and Floki staring at each other on the boat to Paris. Going by the look on Ragnar’s face, it seems likely that he knows what Floki has done, but it’s still ambiguous. A voice calls out, and Ragnar comes to the front of the ship. As the city comes into view, Ragnar cradles the pendant, and then tucks it in his shirt, pressing it close to his heart.

3x071Later, as the Vikings are setting up camp on the banks of the Seine, Ragnar sends for Floki.

“I miss him–Athelstan,” Ragnar says while toying with a snake and its rodent prey. “I wish he was here with us.”

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Floki, unflinching, says, “Since you carry his cross, he still is here with us.”

“He would have been useful,” Ragnar says.

Floki looks annoyed. “We will manage without him.”

“Well, we have no choice now,” Ragnar says bitterly.

Later, Ragnar comes to Floki again. To Floki’s delight–he’s finally getting Ragnar’s attention again!–he puts him in charge of the raid. Everyone else is bewildered by this, but goes with it.

Night. A hilltop overlooking the city. Ragnar is alone. He gazes at the lights, and smiles sadly while again clutching the cross.

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The rest of the episode covers business in Paris and back in Wessex, where Athelstan’s presence is also still being felt; Judith has borne a son by him–and lost an ear for her infidelity–and Ecbert has declared that, as the child was fathered by a man of God, he must clearly be blessed. (He will become, eventually, Alfred the Great.)  Back at the Viking camp, however, there’s one signficant event: Floki, in ecstasy as he builds the siege towers to assault the city walls, confesses his crime to a horrified Helga. Their relationship continues to disintegrate over the remainder of the season, as she bears the burden of this knowledge, and pulls away from him.

Episode eight: The siege begins. Ragnar clutches the cross once again, and takes his sword.

The battle goes horribly. The city, as Athelstan had promised, proves impregnable. Rebuffed both at the walls and the tower and bridge, the loss on the Vikings’ side is great. Floki, having been in charge of the fiasco, hides like a coward inside a burning siege tower, blaming himself, the gods, and, of course, Athelstan in a frenzy of panic and frustration.

Ragnar has held back for most of the battle, simply observing; noting where defenses seem weaker, noting how the plan is–or isn’t–working. But when Bjorn heads up a tower, he follows. He hacks his way over the wall, and then, over his shoulder, he spies the heart of the city: On a hill in the middle sits a beautiful cathedral. The action slows. The sound drops out. The music changes to a high, mournful violin. He has seen it: the ethereal vision Athelstan told him about.

Vikings_3x08_1080.mkv_snapshot_27.46_[2015.04.25_11.09.04]

With a wild howl, Ragnar hurls himself off the wall, painfully bouncing his way down.

Night again. The battle is over; failed. Bjorn has been seriously injured, but is alive. Ragnar is injured himself–he’s urinating blood, and clutching his side. Bjorn, waking, asks him what they’re going to do next. “Before I decide,” Ragnar says, “I must speak with an old friend.” He wanders alone into a clearing.

“Ah, Athelstan. I hope you can hear me, Athelstan, and I’m not just talking to myself.” He sits on the ground, still holding his side. “What? Do you think I went too far with Floki? Can you actually believe that he thought I would let him lead without me having an agenda? If I was him, I would worry less about the gods, and more about the fury of a patient man. And as well you know, I can be very patient.” He coughs hard, spitting up blood, and lies back, grunting in agony. “I wish you were here,” he says sadly. “Paris is everything you told me it would be.” He smiles through the pain.

Vikings_3x08_1080.mkv_snapshot_43.30_[2015.04.25_11.15.48]

“And I am bound and determined to conquer it.” It is a promise, this attack on Paris. It was the city they were supposed to be in together. Without Athelstan there, he must still hold good on his pledge. He will take the city not for himself, but for his lost love.

Episode nine: Ragnar is in bad shape, still peeing blood. He speaks with Floki, who is hiding out in his work area, confused and upset about why his plans failed. He notes that the others will try again to breach the city. And so they do. Lagertha and her shieldmaidens approach in the night via the river, attempting to take the bridge from beyond the tower. They nearly succeed, but the forces they let in are rebuffed by the Parisians’ superior battle tech.

Ragnar, nearly delirious, watches all this from the hill overlooking the city. He vomits, and falls to the ground. He sees a vision of Odin coming for him, and looks away, anguished. More battle, and then back to Ragnar. He crawls, groaning, and then, to his shock, sees a figure approaching in a halo of white light and a veil of rain. It’s Athelstan, who with a gentle, loving expression extends a hand. Ragnar reaches for him.

Vikings_3x09_1080.mkv_snapshot_15.30_[2015.04.25_11.30.43] Vikings_3x09_1080.mkv_snapshot_15.33_[2015.04.25_11.43.50]

Then thunder rolls. The vision switches to Jesus, then Odin, then Athelstan, and, in a halo of red, back to Odin again. Ragnar collapses in a puddle of blood. Athelstan. Jesus. Odin. Jesus. Athelstan . . . He fades back, into the blurry, white light. “Don’t abandon me!” Ragnar begs. A beast comes; a demon, to remind Ragnar of all the blood on his hands. He stares down at himself. And Odin comes again.

Consequences of the second failed attempt at taking the city. There is an execution of an earl who, along with Sinric, was trapped inside the city. Paris is then beset by a plague and lack of fresh food. The emperor decides to try to pay the raiders to go away. Back at camp, Ragnar is curled up on his bed, sweating and shivering from fever. He stares at the cross. A few more days pass. Ragnar is a little bit better, though hiding that he is still in serious pain. He acts as king again, berating everyone for their failures, and reiterating that he will make the decisions. His decision: To meet the Franks to negotiate a withdrawal.

The next morning, Ragnar and Sinric leave earlier than the rest, to meet alone with the representative from Paris. Ragnar isn’t interested in treasure, however. “The offer is not enough,” he tells them. “There is something I also seek that has no tangible worth, but to me is far more precious. I want to be baptized. I am a dying man, and when I die, I want to be reunited with my Christian friend, who happens to be in your Heaven.”

The bishop attending the talks sneers, telling Ragnar he will not go to Heaven. Ragnar, enraged, storms up to him. Stroking his face, he says, “That is not your decision to make.” He demands that he be baptized right then and there, in the river. And so he is. As he goes under the water, Lagertha, Floki, and Rollo approach, shocked by what they’re seeing.

Vikings_3x09_1080.mkv_snapshot_43.14_[2015.04.25_12.08.18]

And now, the finale.

Ragnar is back to being in bad shape again. Rollo is at his side, reporting that the Franks have brought the payment. Ragnar cradles the cross again. “It makes no difference to me. I am dying, but at least I know I will see Athelstan again,” he says.

Vikings (2015) S03E10,1080p WEB-DL NL Subs SAM TBS.mkv_snapshot_03.54_[2015.04.25_12.12.34]

As he convalesces, the others talk about his conversion.

“The priest poisoned Ragnar’s mind, and now we see the fruit of it,” Floki says to Rollo.

“It’s true,” Rollo says, “and now I have a heavy heart. ”

Lagertha approaches.”I cannot believe that Ragnar is truly a Christian. Not in his heart.”

Rollo shrugs. “You saw what you saw, and I heard what I heard.”

“But you, too were baptized,” she says, recalling his faux baptism from season one. “It did not change you?”

“I did not want it to change me. The gods protected me from the Christian magic. They refused to protect Ragnar.”

“Why?”

“You know why,” Rollo says. “His name is Athelstan.”

A month later, as the Vikings have still not left, an envoy from Paris comes to their camp to ask why. Bjorn tells them that the king is too sick to travel, and that Ragnar has a request: when he dies, he wants a proper Christian burial, on consecrated ground. The envoy agrees.

Floki, as requested, builds Ragnar one last boat–a coffin–and Ragnar is laid within it. Floki and the others speak to him in death, confessing their hearts. Rollo is surprised that he was not taken first. Lagertha is sad that they will not see each other again if Ragnar goes to Heaven, and believes Odin will come and take him to Valhalla anyway, where they can drink, and fight, and love each other again.

Floki, however, reveals his own, darker truth. “I made the boat that took you to fame, and now I have made the boat that will take you to your Heaven. Give my regards to Athelstan, by the way,” he snarls. “You betrayed us. You betrayed your heritage. You betrayed our future. You betrayed me! I loved you more than anyone. I loved you more than that priest ever loved you. But it made no difference. You always thought, oh, it’s just Floki. No need to bother about Floki. He’s just a fool.” Raging, he pounds on the coffin. “I hate you Ragnar Lothbrok! And I love you with all my heart. Why do you tear me away from myself?”

No. Floki’s murder of Athelstan was not driven by the gods. It was driven, as this makes clear, by his own seething jealousy. He was the one who should have been Ragnar’s closest, not this foreigner, and like many a jealous ex, he thought that removing his rival from the picture would solve the problem. It didn’t. It only drove the object of his obsession further away–now to a place where he can never be reached again.

The coffin is borne to the cathedral. The funeral mass begins. The coffin’s lid bursts open, and Ragnar jumps from it. Still obviously unwell, he nonetheless manages to lead an attack with his pallbearers. He kills the bishop who told him he would never again see Athelstan, and takes the princess hostage. Dragging her to the gates, his small company opens them, and Bjorn, who had been told of the plan, waves in the hordes. Ragnar collapses in his son’s arms while Rollo, Lagertha and Floki, all furious at the betrayal, walk past him and into the city.

The ruse is a success. They pilfer what they wish, and then prepare to leave. But they want to raid again in the spring, and so leave behind a contingent, headed by Rollo, who is then bribed, with the promise of marriage to the princess, to instead fight for the emperor when Ragnar’s forces return. Ah, the brothers, always set on opposite sides.

Night. On the boat back to Kattegat, Floki sits alone among the sleeping passengers. His name is whispered; Ragnar beckons him over. With a cold, even stare, and a tone laden with threat, he tells Floki what he has always known: “You killed Athelstan.”

Vikings (2015) S03E10,1080p WEB-DL NL Subs SAM TBS.mkv_snapshot_43.26_[2015.04.25_12.31.15]

And thus ends season three.

Analysis

This recap, I hope, should give a good idea of why I still think that, despite losing half of the couple in the middle of the season, the relationship is still one of the strongest forces in the entire show. Indeed, it’s the vast majority of Ragnar’s character arc, especially in the second half of the season. That it ended on a semi cliffhanger says we’ll still be feeling the effects of the murder, and thus Ragnar’s feelings for Athelstan, even next season.

This is not without its bad aspects, of course. There is a well-known trope in pop culture called Bury Your Gays, which addresses the unfortunate trend of LGBTQ characters being killed off or otherwise experiencing tragedy, especially in the context of relationships, as they are seen as inherently lesser, or otherwise expendable. While the show has not to date confirmed that Ragnar and Athelstan had a specifically sexual relationship, nor that either of them were bisexual, from a relationship and gender-role standpoint (especially in Athelstan’s case), they do qualify for this trope. Killing off the gentle, soft-spoken priest who so deeply loved another man is yet another example of that unfortunate trend.

Likewise, Athelstan was also, as another trope goes, “Fridged.” This usually happens to women characters, but Athelstan again fills that role in this case: He was killed in part to further character and plot development for a more traditional hero. (Still, as irritating as I find this, it’s also subversive in its own way, because it puts a man in a role traditionally played by female characters.)

Even after the events of this season, many people of course deny that there are any romantic overtones to this relationship. Heteronormativity, in its declaration that male/female friendships are inherently laced with romantic tension, and same-gender ones are inherently platonic, means people presume all m/m relationships, even one as close as this, aren’t romantic unless there is overt sexuality present (because of course sex is the only reason queer people love each other, right? Ugh.) Bisexual erasure also contributes to this. If a person has any genuine, demonstrated other-gender interest, then they’re of course completely straight. There is, as I’ve illustrated both in this and previous posts, definitely some sexual tension between Ragnar and Athelstan, particularly from Ragnar’s side, but with everything else, the sexual aspect is really kind of irrelevant. This story isn’t about what happens on a wedding night. It’s about the elements of love that keep a marriage going beyond the honeymoon.

If one were to keep everything about this relationship exactly the same, but switch Athelstan’s gender, there would be absolutely no question at all that this is a romance–indeed, one that qualifies, in my opinion, as a classic tragic love story. It’s especially interesting how closely the story resembles some of the true classics of male/male love: Achilles and Patroclus. Alexander and Hephaestion. Our hero, on losing the sweet young love of his life, goes into a grief-fueled frenzy of war. As a history buff, there’s no way Hirst wasn’t aware of these stories when he wrote this. It had to be deliberate.

It’s also not like exclusive cisgender heterosexuality is the only thing that exists in this universe. In fact, there are three canon bisexual characters: Lagertha, Aslaug, and Kwenthrith. Lagertha and Aslaug shared a bed with Ragnar in a cut scene from 2×10, and Lagertha and Kwenthrith had a kiss (again, cut) in 3×04. Add in Sinric (who I hope comes back for season 4–I love him), some very fuzzy lines around monogamy, and some definitely non-standard sexual practices, and one simply can’t argue that it’s impossible for Ragnar and Athelstan to be in romantic love in this story.

Hirst would not, given the constraints of working for a basic-cable channel with a primarily redneck viewer base, have been able to give us more physical intimacy between the two than we got. If the channel is going to cut a mild, more-or-less meaningless kiss between a couple of pretty women, they’re certainly not going to approve of one between two men who actually love each other. But he did walk right up to that line, and with the help of Travis, George, and his directors, particularly Helen Shaver, who directed episodes 5 and 6 this season, put a toe firmly on it. In this show, and hundreds of other standard pop-culture stories, audiences are expected to see romantic overtones when a male and female pair simply have extended eye contact. In fact, there have been half a dozen instances of exactly that in this series: Rollo and Siggy, Torstein and Helga, and Judith and Athelstan, to name just a few. Meanwhile, Ragnar and Athelstan have a degree of physical and emotional intimacy that’s closer than any other pair for three seasons running, and it’s still just platonic? Riiiight.

The truth is that if one judges romantic chemistry without heteronormative blinders, the spark between these two was apparent from literally their first scene together, and it’s gotten to downright towering-inferno stages over the course of the story. Honestly, who actually changes religion, abandoning all other loved ones, just for a chance of seeing a “friend” in the afterlife?

It’s frustrating to me that we never could have had the kind of evidence that those mired in denial need as “proof” that the two were in love. Without at least a kiss on the mouth, if not a full-blown sex scene, everything else apparently doesn’t count. I can only imagine how subversive this relationship could have been had Hirst been able to go there (and I do think he would have; Travis and George, given what they’ve said about the relationship in interviews, wouldn’t have hesitated for a second to fulfill that, either.) But still, at this point, there really are only a handful of people, largely those with deep-seated homophobia, who aren’t seeing this for what it undoubtedly is.

Ragnar and Athelstan’s relationship was one of the most beautiful, if unfortunately doomed, romances I’ve seen in contemporary media. I mourn the loss of it, because I think there could have been so much more–not even crossing that stupid line–that we could have seen from them in future seasons. Athelstan, instead of being forced to choose between faiths to resolve his dilemma, could have been shown to embrace his inherent duality, and become a proper minister in both–perhaps an agent who continued to blend and integrate the Vikings with the Christian world, as happened historically. And for Ragnar, he could still have played the role of a teacher, a guide, a spiritual and academic mentor. He could have taught him more languages–taught him to read. He could have still played third parent to Ragnar’s children, and taught them, too, the things they would need to be strong, wise leaders. And yes, he could also still have given Ragnar the love beyond women that he needed to stay strong and whole. The show, I feel, will be poorer without him. His gentle, academic, and artistic presence provided a needed contrast to the wall-to-wall testosterone fest it will otherwise become in his absence. Even with the women in the show being wonderfully diverse, they still couldn’t bring to it what he did, and that makes me both sad and angry.

Still, even though I will probably never forgive Hirst for killing off one of the best characters in contemporary media, I nonetheless have to give him a great deal of respect for what he did do with that character–and this relationship–even after Athelstan was gone. I have never seen another male/male love story of this depth, power, and scope in mainstream pop culture, and I suspect we’re not going to see another one for a long time to come. I only hope that more people get around to seeing the show sooner or later so they, too, can experience what a beautiful thing this love was–and is.

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About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
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9 Responses to Subtext and Subversion: Update

  1. swanpride says:

    I actually think that the actors are the ones which deserve the credit. I read in an interview that Travis insisted on the speech at the grave, for example. I somehow doubt that Hirst saw Athelstan ever as more than a handy tool, but Bladgen managed to make it so much more. But not even he could sell the awfulness which was the relationship with Judith.

    Sigh…the third season really ruined the show for me. The only reason to stick around is Lagertha, and I still don’t get what the point was of depowering her, especially since this storyline lead to nowhere.

  2. jumbo cat says:

    Love, love, LOVE this blog post. I agree with everything you’ve stated here. I would also add that, IMO, the m/m arc is even more complicated than you’ve implied. It’s quite obvious that King Ecbert is competing with Ragnar for Athelstan’s affections. There are plenty of scenes that allude to this, but, just to point one out, during the feast in ep 04, seas 3, when Ecbert comes from behind and puts an arm around both Lagertha and Athelstan, kissing Lagartha on the cheek briefly, and then sweetly kissing Athelstan as well (his two loves). He is completely infatuated with Athelstan. And I believe that Ecbert’s reason for killing and murdering the settlement lies with his anger and jealousy with Athelstan for not staying and instead leaving and choosing Ragnar. The settlement happened because of Athelstan, and was killed off because of Athelstan. I got the impression that Ecbert would not have killed off the settlement had his love chosen to stay with him. Later, after Judith gives birth and confesses the child to be Athelstan’s, Ecbert then steps in and saves the child’s life BECAUSE he’s Athelstan’s. He also consequently takes up with Judith, perhaps because Athelstan found her interesting enough to have sex with.

    Another thing I was hoping you might elaborate on is the meaning behind what the seer said to Athelstan?

    Oh, and one more funny thing. There was an interview after season-1 with Travis, George, Clive, and Gustaf, where Travis spent the entire interview with his arms wrapped around George, and jokingly kissing him. He also said he’d read ahead on the S-2 episodes and said to George that he becomes his “sex slave” and “dungeon monk”, both being hilarious comments, but also alluding to the fact that both of them were completely aware of the innuendo of the character’s relationship. ;)

    Thanks for a great and enlightening post!

    — Judy

  3. jumbo cat says:

    What’s even worse is finding out in S4 that Ragnar apparently takes up with a new slave. — Of course a woman. I would so much prefer that Ragnar not fall in love again, and instead goes to his grave still mourning Athelstan. I too have been deeply moved by their relationship in this show — to tears even. I’m not quite sure why. I know it sounds silly, but I’ll feel simply horrible if Hirst screws this up.

    Thank you so much for you analysis. It has been so very insightful and emotional to read.

  4. Wayne says:

    Couple problems I have is..WHY did no one but Ragnar mourn Athelstan? no one, even talked about him getting killed or mentoned it.

    Sadly, Hirst is bringing on a very similar chatacter in female form as Ragnars love interest, a slave, teaches Ragnar her religion…sound familiar? No sign of him wearing the cross in seres 4 either> I HOPE Athelstan is not forgotten about or no longer spoken of.

    another point..I think Ecbert had a serious crush on Athelstan as well :) i,e his obsession with Alfred.

  5. Superjulzable says:

    Love the article, agree with everything in it, and also agree King Ecbert was infatuated with our boy as well. I was heartbroken for Ragnar and his loss. I could feel his heartbreak, because lets make no mistake here, he was and i believe still is heartbroken from Athelstans death. But just to continue on about the new slave girl, I have two thoughts on this. 1- that she is of foreign extraction and clearly weell educated and well bred suggests to me that Ragnar is discontented amongst his own people and feels that he cannot truely relate to them (with the exception of Bjorn- i love the man he has become) they are too (for lack of a better term) narrow minded and consumed in their own culture, and cannot feed Ragnar’s thirst for knowledge the way other, more sophisticated and better educated people can. They cannot interact with him on the same intelecual level slave girl and Athelstan, and even King Ecbert can. Even Sinric seems to feed him in ways his own people can’t.
    2- I believe new girl didn’t last that long, not only because of the whole drugs thing, but because she couldn’t fill the void left by Athelstan. I think Ragnar had hoped she would make him feel whole again, and when he realised she could not, he killed her. It wasn’t personal, she just couldn’t make it right for him.

    On an unrelated note, i admire that Ragnar does not wear any kind of crown and that he is very humble, cutting down trees and hauling boats etc. I love this show. I love the complexities of the relationships and hierarchies.i hope it continues for many seasons with the same quality of content it has shown to date.

    • Virgo says:

      I have to say as a Athelstan fan I am not happy at all so far with season 4.

      1. Ragnar does not wear Athelstans cross anymore, nor has it ever been explained where the heck it is.
      2, His desire to get into heaven to see Athelstan has disapeared judging by his vision of wanting to get into Vahalla.
      3, He got MAD at bjorn for arresting Floki for murdering Athelstan.(WTH?) Ragnar did not really want to pinish him which is a stark contrast o Season 3

      4, by the end of the 10 episodes, evreybody forgot or could care less Floki killed Athelstan and were friendly with him again. INCLUDING Ragnar..

      ….among other things.
      I thought Hirst really erased/dropped a lot the great stuff in late season 3

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