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Vikings creator on the show's new era

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Jonathan Hession/History

Vikings returns tonight at the dawn of a new era for Ragnar Lothbrok and his kin. The midseason finale jumped forward in time several years. Ragnar has returned to Kattegat, an old man left behind by history. His sons are grown men now, preparing to set off on their own legendary adventures.

What’s ahead for the Northmen? We got on the phone with Vikings creator Michael Hirst to talk about what comes next.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve always said that Vikings isn’t just Ragnar’s story, but the saga of Ragnar and his sons. Did you always envision the time jump occurring in the middle of the fourth season?

MICHAEL HIRST: Historically speaking, you make the cut between seasons, which I didn’t want to do. We didn’t do it before when Bjorn grew up, we did it during the season. I’ve wanted to do that again, because it seemed to be bolder, and somehow not cheating. And it was a perfect moment do to the cut. Ragnar had lost a huge battle, and traditionally in Viking society, if your king had lost a battle, he would have been killed. But because Ragnar was so famous, that couldn’t happen. So he’s kind of left a town in a vacuum, a throne in a vacuum. He probably never intended to come back, because of the shame attached to him. But he has two reasons to come back. One is: We know he cared deeply about his sons. And he has unfinished business in Wessex.

We saw in the midseason finale that Kattegat has grown in Ragnar’s absence. How has Viking society changed when we return for the new episodes?

One of the great things about writing longform TV drama is that you develop not only characters, but cultures and societies. Obviously, you don’t do that in fantasy, because everything stays the same. People never get old, societies don’t change. Vikings is a study of people and societies in change, underpinned by this conflict between pagan and Christian religions. It’s a very volatile, very changeable world. We’ve come a long way from when we first saw Ragnar as a farmer.

Ragnar was a farmer. He started with a very low position. He had to fight his earls for some independence to get anything. His sons are privileged members of a society that is growing in power. His sons have grown up with a sense, in some ways, of privilege. A dynamic will come into play: How the Vikings, in their newly empowered state, react to other cultures. Are they gonna follow Ragnar’s vision, which is settlement abroad, finding rich arable land for other people? Are they going to follow Ivar’s vision of Viking life, to be successful warriors, raiders, and armies? All this is up for grabs.

There’s been a step change from the Vikings world we’ve known up to now. These people are more powerful. They’ve discovered some of their own power. They talk as kings, not farmers.

We ran a clip from the premiere a couple weeks ago that showed Ragnar apparently trying to take his own life. What’s going through his mind in that moment? Given his troubled religious background, does he still believe that any afterlife is awaiting him?

I think this is one of the few occasions when pagan religion and Catholicism are as one. I’m sure that the Viking who commits suicide will not get to Valhalla, just as a Catholic suicide does [not go to heaven].

The despair that Ragnar feels when he comes back… he’d like to right the wrongs of what happened to his settlement in England. It’s very hard for him to recruit people to go with him. Viking leaders have an aura about them, of success. When he loses that, there’s a big superstition about the gods having turned away from him.

Some of the most moving scenes [in the new season] are when he’s with Lagertha and Floki. And people, of course, have moved on. People’s lives have changed. He can’t just walk in and expect that everyone will just pick up the reins. There’s a huge reverence still, I think, but he has the smell of defeat about him.

Is there a scene from the new season that was especially exciting to write?

The scene between Lagertha and Ragnar was heartbreaking and wonderful, and it was strangely easy for me to write this really heartfelt dialogue, that heartbreaking dialogue between them. No regrets, but every regret. I felt that for him. I could feel that on my own pulse.

Vikings airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on History.

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