Season 3: Episode 6 “Born Again”
By Matt Fowler
Warning: Full spoilers for the episode follow…
“Born Again” gave us the surprising death of Athelstan, whose spiritual rebirth (and ditching of Ragnar’s special friendship bracelet) came at a truly unfortunate time as it coincided with Floki learning about the farms in Wessex getting obliterated.
It’s interesting to examine all the wheels that are currently in motion right now for Athelstan’s martyrdom. Because his visions also coincided (at least in the way the episode was edited) with the birth of his son overseas. And we watched poor Judith, who’d basically been encouraged by Ecbert at times to make a go of it with Athelstan, get tortured into revealing his name. All part of Ecbert’s devious plot deem the child a blessing from God, and Judith to be the chosen womb. So now Ecbert’s rule has been strengthened by a “sign from a above” and a holy heir.
And the scene was quite brutal. Honestly, I wasn’t sure why Judith didn’t give up Athelstan’s name right away. You’d think just hearing that she was about to lose her ears and nose would be enough to break her. I guess I just never really bought her falling so deeply in love with Athelstan that she’d protect him that firmly. She had to lose an entire ear before screaming out his name.
Anyhow, back to Athelstan himself. Having just seen Odin make an appearance on the show, it was only fitting, I suppose, that the Christian faith get a time to shine. Literally in this case, as Athelstan was sent reeling by a beam of light. And the distinction made between the two “visits,” from the standpoint of the separate belief systems, was quite cool. “What did he look like?” Ragnar asked. “Did he speak?” But Athelstan’s divine moment was unlike Aslaug’s.
So while we didn’t see anyone or anything concrete, what Athelstan experienced was still enough to fully convert him back to Christianity. In an instant, he found himself believing in something as strongly as Floki believed in things. Different sides of the fence, sure, but when Floki came upon Athelstan, he could see Athelstan’s devoutness. Probably for the first time with such strength. And Athelstan knew what Floki was there to do, as if he’d expected it.
So there were definitely some interesting things going on in “Born Again” with regards to how Athelstan was being falsely built up by Ecbert as a sort of puppet savior, and how Athelstan, thousands of miles away, was actually experiencing an awakening.
Truthfully, I never cared for Athelstan. I don’t mean I disliked him, but I’m not mourning his death really. Especially since, in this final episode he changed, more or less, into a totally different person right before our eyes. What I cared for, overall, was how much Ragnar cared for Athelstan. And the best part of this episode was the final moment involving Ragnar carrying Athelstan’s body up a hill and grieving over the fact that he’d lost the one person he enjoyed speaking to. “We had so much more to talk about,” he sighed, also acknowledging the sad fact that they would probably never see each other in their respective after-lives. Great moment.
This chapter was busy with other things as well (Ragnar strangling that poor farmer, Bjorn getting with another woman – at his wife’s request!) but it was the Athelstan story that resonated the most. And I especially admired the dichotomy between him finding his faith and him being an unwitting pawn in Ecbert’s scheme to rule with righteous might.