‘Vikings’ kills again: A talk with the departing actor
The bloodiest season of Vikings continues. On this week’s episode, “Born Again,” one of the show’s most beloved characters experienced a religious epiphany. Unfortunately, another beloved character experienced a very different religious epiphany—and the results were fatal.
SPOILERS FROM HERE—
because it’s time to talk about Athelstan. The English monk has risen to prominence across the past three seasons. He was Ragnar’s slave, then his close friend; he became a warrior, and then a close confidante of King Ecbert of Wessex. He fell in love. He dabbled in polytheism, but ultimately rediscovered the Christian God—a moment of religious ecstasy which also led to his death at the hands of the pagan Floki.
We talked to George Blagden about the death of Athelstan, and the character’s evolution.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you first hear that Athelstan would be dying this season?
GEORGE BLAGDEN: I remember the moment, actually! I was driving up to my mum and dad’s house in Yorkshire. I got an email whilst in the car from Michael Hirst. It’s not often that you get an email from Michael in between seasons. I pulled over and thought, “This is probably quite important, I should read it.”
Lo and behold, it was a five-page email. [laughs] He explained his desire to kill Athelstan in season 3. He was very passionate in writing for television about not overextending character arcs. The worst thing you can do for a character is make it try and exist past the point where it needs to. He felt it was the moment, this midpoint in season 3. I totally agreed with everything he said in his lovely email. How he’s progressed through the start of season 3 with Athelstan, it feels like a perfect moment.
This is a character who’s been on a real journey, physically, spiritually, emotionally. How do you feel now, looking back on how he changed from his introduction to his death?
It’s the perfect actor’s showreel! [laughs] He’s been through so many changes throughout the two and a half seasons that he has existed. In season 1, he was the eyes of the audience, enabling viewers to learn a lot about Viking culture through his eyes. In season 2, we see him become much more pagan, and have to go through that whole dark conflict, ending up in Wessex, with the crucifixion and Christianity forced back on his life.
When we get to season 3, we see this man finally come to terms with this difficult feeling of the In-Between. He’s found comfort in the discomfort, between these two religions. And just when he arrives at that point, it’s all taken away from him.
Michael explained to me that Athelstan would be reborn into this realization that he has always been part of the Christian faith, and has found God again. The fact that Athelstan has this epiphany kickdrives Floki into action. It’s a moment where these symbolic people of these two separate religions both have a moment of heightened interaction with their own religions.
In the moment where it happens, [Floki and Athelstan] both have an understanding of one another. I hope in the moment you see a connection between the two of them, an understanding.
In that final moment, Floki is the aggressor, but it feels like Athelstan is the strong one in, or the one in control. Were you playing around with that?
Absolutely. Once Athelstan has had the epiphany that he has—from that point on, he has that air of knowing that everything will be all right, no matter what. From that point on in the episode, you see Athelstan accepting death, and maybe knowing that it’s coming. And when it does arrive, it’s like he’s already accepted it.
In the first part of this season, he experienced a profound relationship with Judith in Wessex. Were you surprised when Athelstan decided to leave her?
A lot of people have asked: “Was he really in love with Judith? What was the deal there?” I remember rationalizing it in the actor’s brain that it’s like being a teenage boy with his first love. Maybe there’s not a full comprehension of the word. There’s an element of being caught up in the moment, and a realization afterwards this was never going to be a situation that worked.
The most tragic thing in the whole situation is that moment in episode 5, when Athelstan tells Ragnar: “At least you have children.” Athelstan becomes a father, but he will never see his child. That’s the most heartbreaking thing in the whole situation.
Athelstan unfortunately won’t go with Ragnar to Paris, but you wound up there for the new series Versailles. What was it like going from the historical period of Vikings to the era of decadent French royalty?
The main thing I noticed was hand care! I’m not joking. I got makeup tests and hair tests for Versailles, and the main thing they were obsessed with was that my hands were disgusting. I had three years of Irish dirt under my nails. I had to have manicures and everything.
It was a nice little symbol for the whole change. I’m not in Ireland anymore with shields running around like a little boy. In August I was a Viking in the year 810 or something in Kattegat. A few weeks later I was in Paris, playing Louis XIV.