Warning: Major Spoilers for the latest episode of Vikings are ahead.
Characters have died on Vikings before — main characters killed by other main characters, major political figures cut down to make way for a new generation, and great warriors dying brilliantly in battle. But this week, the show cut down its most legendary figure. King Ragnar Lothbrok – who sailed across the sea to raid Northumbria and Wessex, who brought ships to the great walls of Paris, who wandered the world for long years after his humiliation and returned to his home to complete one final quest – is dead. Held high in a cage in the forest, he was dropped into a snakepit, his death witnessed by his nemesis King Aelle and his slightly-more-friendly nemesis King Ecbert.
Anyone familiar with the sagas from which Vikings derives its narrative knew that Ragnar would die eventually. You might be surprised, though, to hear that this death was originally going to happen much earlier. “I was meant to die at the end of the first year,” says Travis Fimmel, the Australian actor who played Ragnar. “I ended up staying around for three more!”
Fimmel filmed his death scene a year ago, and he has a playful perspective on his character and his time on the show. He jokes about the show’s famously outré hairstyles: “The hair, for the first couple of years, was pretty embarrassing. I was asking them to get my head shaved for awhile.” He remembers his reaction to the show’s trademark battle sequences: “I was always trying to get out of the action, because I’m too lazy.” And he recalls some of his struggles with playing his larger-than-life character over the course of his mythic lifetime. “Early on, he was too much a hero, too nice,” says Fimmel. “It’s very hard to play a man without any flaws. I begged all the time in the first couple years: ‘Make me horrible, and then let me overcome it.’ You feel a lot more getting booed than cheered, you know what I mean?”
Vikings creator Michael Hirst, who writes every episode of the show, always pictured the series as a generational saga: not just about Ragnar, but about his sons and how their adventures shaped the world. “Ragnar is now a part of history,” says Hirst, “a part of our history. I was never afraid of killing him off, but I wanted the death to be monumental.” Hirst describes his collaboration with Fimmel as “a wonderful and intense relationship,” recalling how the actor would discuss scripts with the writer word by word.
Their relationship climaxed, appropriately, with Ragnar’s final scene: a legendary speech, delivered to his enemy King Aelle and various assembled citizens, with Ragnar held aloft in a cage moments away from his poisonous execution. “It was shot in the deepest winter,” Hirst recalls, “in the harshest conditions, with Travis absolutely suspended in this cage, above a muddy field, in torrential freezing rain.”
“It was just cold,” deadpans Fimmel. “Everybody was freezing that day.”
Fimmel initially felt uneasy about Ragnar’s big speech, a florid declaration of the brilliant afterlife awaiting him in Valhalla. (Sample line: “It gladdens me to know that Odin prepares for a feast.”) “I hate speeches,” says Fimmel. “It was written to be a big thing, and I didn’t want him to say all that. Me and Michael argued about it.”
“It became a huge moment,” says Hirst. “He was very worried about giving the last speech from the cage. Drenched to the bone, having to say things…it wasn’t that he didn’t believe them, it was that he said, ‘My character doesn’t give speeches.'”
Hirst laughs recalling the tense scene, claiming that at one point Fimmel was yelling “I hate f—ing Michael Hirst” while rattling the cage. “The fact that he was so passionately engaged, so angry, so involved, so worried made the performance brilliant,” he says. (Fimmel also laughs at the memory: “I always gave him s—.”)
What won Fimmel over was the idea that Ragnar’s words aren’t representative of his thoughts, but are intended as a message for his warrior sons. “Me and Michael spoke about how the kids will find out what he said. It’s all for them, he doesn’t believe it.”
Over the course of four seasons, Ragnar converted to Christianity and struggled between different religions: What did he believe, by the end? “He’s a definite atheist,” says Fimmel. “I’m a big atheist, so I always pushed for that at the end.”
Hirst notes that Ragnar’s struggles will reverberate through Viking culture. “The sons are still arguing about whether their father renounced the gods,” he explains. “That’s the history, you know? Ultimately, the Vikings did renounce their pagan gods. So Ragnar has set in train a big argument that continues through the whole Viking age.”
That age will now continue on the show without Fimmel. “There’s no let-up in the drama,” says Hirst. “Ragnar is dead, but Ragnar lives on. (You can find out more about the show’s future, including this season’s climactic showdown and a key new character, in next week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly.)
Fimmel is optimistic about how the series will progress without him. “It’s a great energy injected into the show,” he says. “Four years into it, some shows get boring. [Ragnar’s sons] go on to do better things, you know?”
Fimmel credits History with letting Vikings grow in its own particular fashion. “We were very lucky over there. We didn’t have the normal, ‘THIS is how it has to be done.’ So many shows are exactly the same.”
Laughing, he mentions another current TV show known for epic battle sequences. “We shot everything in Ireland, you know? That’s the only thing I’m jealous about Game of Thrones, they get to go to Spain all the time.”
The actor has a couple projects coming in the new year: The film Lean on Pete from director Andrew Haigh (Looking) and Finding Steve McQueen, a bank-heist comedy based on a true story. He just starred in Warcraft, the big-in-China video game adaptation; he hasn’t heard any talk of a sequel.
Looking back, he recalls his time on Vikings with nonchalant relish. “I was meant to be doing another movie before Vikings came on,” says Fimmel. “Had to go and live in Ireland and play in the mud. It was great. It’s been so beneficial to me. I miss the people tremendously.”
Michael Hirst is already deep into production of Vikings season 5. “I’ve just finished 516,” he says (meaning the 16th episode of the season). “There are people walking around the studios going, ‘Who’s Ragnar?'”
When asked if he has a final message for Fimmel, the usually loquacious writer pauses and considers. “Just say,” he concludes, “‘Michael says he loves you.'”
Later, Fimmel smiles when he hears the message. “It’s over, Michael!” he responds. “He’s great. Amazing man.”