Michael Hirst knows his history. The British writer rose to prominence as the screenwriter of Cate Blanchett’s two Elizabeth movies and as the creator of Showtime’s swaggery royalty soap The Tudors, not to mention his work on papal-mafia saga The Borgias and Starz’s Arthurian retelling of Camelot. But that was mere prologue for Vikings, a bold and bloody epic focusing on the plunder-ful age of Scandinavian expansion, which starts its third season tonight on History.
As with The Tudors, Hirst writes every episode of the series. When chatting to EW by phone, he has to laugh a bit at his workload: “I spend so much time alone here, in my little hutch in my garden in Oxfordshire.” His writing retreat is decorated with pictures of Henry VIII, John Lennon, and W.B. Yeats—not a bad summation of the influences that produced Vikings, a series that’s equal parts brash warmongering, rock ‘n’ roll swagger, and poetic inquisition.
EW: As of the final moments of season 2, Ragnar has become a king. What is King Ragnar’s first move in season 3?
Michael Hirst: Ragnar has never wanted power for its own sake. It’s not the only thing that matters. This isn’t Game of Thrones. Ragnar had became Earl, and then King, because he had to, in order to overcome the forces who weren’t going to allow him to do what he was interested in. Season 3 really starts with this question of: What does it mean to be King? Why do you want power? How do you use it?
Ragnar answers his own question: “Power allows me to try and establish that settlement in Wessex, on the the land that King Egbert has given us.” It’s kind of unsexy! It’s not the sexiest thing that any lead character has ever done. But boy, is it real. That’s what the Vikings were interested in. Ragnar’s not interested in plunder. He’s interested in settling his folk. He’s a farmer—and there wasn’t rich agricultural land in Scandinavia.
He’s also driven, as always, by his curiosity. He feels that he’s related to Odin, who’s the god of poetry and curiosity. He lost an eye to look into the well of knowledge. Ragnar wants to look into the well. He wants to know what’s on the other side. England is the first stop. Now he wants to go to France. He’s heard about Paris. It intrigues him.
On a narrative and a purely geographic level, this show has gotten bigger every season. Were you concerned about expanding Vikings further by sending them to Paris?
I was concerned about the production. In America, if you’re doing a TV series, each season is cheaper than the last. Because you’ve built the set. If you think of the West Wing, they had three sets, and they built them in the first season. But every season for us is more expensive! The Vikings were travelers. They built boats, and went to different places. We’re taking the audience with us on this voyage of exploration.
And Paris is the next place we’ll go. And I hate to tell you this, guys, but the Vikings attacked Paris with a hundred ships and three thousand men. And [the studio is] going, “Yeah, but in the first season we had one boat and thirty men.” [laughs] We don’t use a lot of CGI, compared to other shows. Our actors fight, and row boats, and ride. I can’t wait for you to see it: We attack the walls of Paris, with all these ladders and hundreds of extras, and people going up the ladders, and we set the ladders on fire.
In terms of rapid character development, it’s hard to compete with Lagertha—who has risen from being a farmer to being an earl, with a couple marriages under her belt. What has it been like developing her character, especially now that she’s come into power on her own?
There’s no one like her on network TV. A woman who’s a wife, a mother, and who kicks ass on a regular basis. She’s Ragnar’s equal. She saw fit to divorce him because of his betrayal. This is something that Viking women could actually do [back] then. We get into season 2, and for the sake of her son she marries another Earl, who’s an abuser. I remember Katheryn [Winnick, who plays Lagertha] saying to me: “I’m not sure my fans are going to take this very well.” I said: “You are representing women! Women today and way back in the Dark Ages had the same issue.” She trusted me to take her through that. The thing about Lagertha is, for a woman then as now, there is no easy ladder to climb. Every time you get into a position of authority or power, there’ll be some male bastard who wants to bring you down.
I like writing female characters, because I kind of got slightly well known writing Elizabeth. I also did my research at university in the short stories of Henry James. James wrote Portrait of a Lady, and he said he preferred to write about female characters, because they are more complex.
You’re wrapping up production on season 3. In an ideal world, do you have a sense of how long you’d want the show to run?
I feel I’ve only just started. I always thought it was very clever of me to choose Ragnar as a central character. I knew he had lots of sons, and I knew that his sons did amazing things. So I knew I had a long, long story to tell. If we get picked up again next season, we’re going to go for a lot more episodes. I’m already writing on the hope that we can go forward for those new episodes. I’m into season 4. There are amazing things that happen.
They have asked me when the show should end. I said: “It ends when the Vikings discover America.” That’s the final shot.
Vikings returns Thursday at 10 p.m. ET on History.