Sunday, April 21, 2013

Review: Vikings "Sacrifice"

Non Spoiler Review:
Sacrifice is an intimate episode coming on the heals of Ragnar's battles overseas as he learns of the death of his unborn son. Everyone embarks on a pilgrimage to a mountain temple to give offerings to the gods and meet a special visitor. Athelstan finds himself a participant in the festival as he struggles to hold on to his religion.

This week was a considerable change of pace, jumping ahead an unknown amount of time (given Athelstan's jarring change of appearance) and a pensive Ragnar who is wondering what he's done to offend the gods. If A King's Ransom focused on the new foreign enemies he's made, Sacrifice showed the trouble brewing at home.

It was a dark but very interesting look at Norse culture and religion, far more focused than the tales and prayers we've seen so far this season. It was an episode steeped in mysticism and politics as Ragnar lays out the new direction for his ambition. But do we like Ragnar anymore? This week was the first time his actions felt overtly nasty in his treatment of Athelstan and Lagertha. But that could be the point Michael Hirst wants to make in his rise to power. Now that the second season is assured, I'm curious to see if the season ends on any sort of cliffhanger.

Spoilers Now!
Ragnar explains to Athelstan that every nine years they travel to their temple at Uppsalla to give thanks to the gods and offer them sacrifices. This year he was not going to go, but given his unborn son was taken from him he now wonders what he did to anger the gods. He asks Athelstan what Christians do to deal with such pain. Athelstan explains all sorrows will pass. Ragnar will take the children for the first time, and asks him to come along. Athelstan retrieves his Bible from beneath the floorboards, only to find it rotting and brittle.

As Lagertha and her children receive the offerings for the gods from their people, Ragnar sits and drinks. She asks her husband if he's happy they're going, but he is bitter that the gods made him earl and took his son. She reminds him they can have more sons, but he dismisses that they've tried in the past.

Ragnar and his entourage make their journey to Uppsalla as Lagertha tells her daughter she has been there once before, and the gods granted her her every desire. The temple is atop the mountain and they receive the blessings of the priest, including Athelstan. Lagertha prays to Frey to give her a son no matter what the cost to her, while Ragnar prays to Odin for understanding of his will, and if he will have more sons as the seer told him. He plans to offer him a sacrifice to learn who will bear him his son. Athelstan wanders the festival, and notices all the penned in animals. Ragnar explains nine of every kind they've gathered will be sacrificed. But there is also a pen for the humans that have been chosen.

Lagertha heard King Horik himself is attending, and Ragnar confirms it. As they eat, she sees he wants to go out and participate in the revelry, but she asks him to stay. He goes anyway. Lagertha lays awake listening to the commotion outside and Gyda comes to her and says she is bleeding. Lagertha explains she's a woman now, but admits it will be hard to let her go.

Rollo offers Athelstan mushrooms, and soon he's in the midst of a hallucination. He wanders through the festival in a fugue. Leif finds him and explains he is on a great journey that he must finish. He walks on to Thyri's tent, who says she's been waiting for him and kisses him. She takes him inside and bathes him. He asks why, but she replies she has to.

Come morning, two men arrive, one with a chicken he tosses among the sleeping revelers. The priests awaken and begin to beat him. The other man orders them to stop it at once, as the man is King Horik. Ragnar calls Athelstan to come with him, and he's taken into the tent of the king.

The king explains his reputation proceeds him, with tales of how he killed the earl, built a new kind of ship and defeated a king of England. Ragnar recounts how Horik gained the throne by killing his brothers who murdered his father, how he is a just ruler and lawmaker. Ragnar offers him his fealty and service. The king accepts and asks what he can do in return. Ragnar wants them to join forces, as he remains unsatisfied with his raids. He wants larger parties to plunder and explore further into new lands. He introduces Athelstan, who explains his history in England and life as a missionary. The king is familiar with his type and asks if he remains a Christian. Athelstan says no. Horik gladly joins forces with him as he is not in favor of individual enterprise, but is happy to have his name linked to Ragnar's.

The king is anxious to exploit Ragnar's skills by dealing with Earl Borg who is disputing Horik's claim to some lands. He needs him to travel there as his emissary to settle the issue and earn the king's gratitude. Ragnar agrees.

Siggy finds Rollo eating, asking why he bothered to come back to their tent, and how many women he has been with during the festivities. She thought they came there together, and Rollo explains to her they are together and to stop pestering. He won't change who he is for her. She suggests if he truly wants to be a great man, he should be meeting with King Horik like his brother is. Rollo wasn't invited because he was too stubborn and drunk, she chides, and Siggy could have told him. He needs her as much as she needs him, she says. 

Athelstan encounters the seer, who tells him to come with him into the temple. Ragnar has told the priest of his story and he asks if Athelstan remains in his heart a Christian, but Athelstan says no. He makes him renounce his god three times. The priest informs him he's been brought there as a sacrifice to the gods, which stuns Athelstan, and he loosens the grip of his hand. The priest finds he still holds his crucifix and Athelstan runs out.

The seer tells the gathering the sacrifice of Athelstan will not please the gods. He has not renounced his god and his heart remains corrupt. Ragnar mocks Athelstan by whispering his god finally came through for him. Instead, someone else must take his place or the gods will punish them all. There is silence as everyone considers it, but Leif rises and announces his desire to be sacrificed for the sake of all his friends. 

As the day arrives, the chosen are washed and prepared as the animals are killed first. Then the human victims lie down and the king cuts their throats Athelstan watches in horror and weeps for the dead. The sacrifices are then hung upside-down and bled, and Ragnar weeps for them, too.

The Verdict:
Sacrifice was unsettling and forebodes dark times ahead. The time jump brought a new look for Athelstan and we join Ragnar in the midst of his brooding and a strained relationship with Lagertha. Ragnar continues to grow ever more detached and ambitious, and his prayer to Odin to advise of him who might mother his son was alarming.

To add to Ragnar's dangerous turn is the way he kept Athelstan in the dark about his fate, especially since he's made him pretty much a part of his family over the last year. As his prayer to Odin suggests, he was ready to offer up Athelstan without hesitation, which means having more sons is going to trump everyone else in his life (as I'm sure Lagertha is soon to find out). It appears as though the people in his life have become tools for his ambition.

I guess if the notion of sacrifice is held in such high regard, then Ragnar would look upon it as a gift and an honor, but he also reacted very indifferent when Athelstan failed the test. But he does shed some tears at the end, so he's not beyond redemption yet.

I find it odd that no one, including Floki, brought up that the gods might be angry because Rollo converted to Christianity? With all his lamenting, Ragnar doesn't appear to have considered that aloud. Nor has he had much conversation with his brother since killing the earl either, even to comment on his relationship with Siggy.

I don't trust either Horik or Ragnar's motivations at all in their new friendship. The King looks to be keeping Ragnar close and use him to do his dirty work, and if Ragnar should die, then he'll be rid of a rival. Does Ragnar seek the throne now, or is he happy to plunder and explore new lands? I think it's the latter, as he certainly couldn't do both if he were to be ruler.

Finally, Sacrifice really made me like Athelstan's character now. I've been indifferent to him, but I certainly felt his pain and sense of betrayal at being manipulated by someone he looks to as a friend. His struggle to cling to his past, while being fascinated with the culture he's been immersed in feels very real. How will he engage with Ragnar now that he knows he could be so easily cast aside at his master's whim?

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