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Vikings creator Michael Hirst talks building up 'The Great Army'

Updated

Jonathan Hession

With just a few episodes left to go in Vikings‘ fourth season, “The Great Army” began pulling the show’s far-flung cast together. The sons of Aslaug sought local vengeance against their mother’s killer Queen Lagertha and simultaneously built up a great army to seek national vengeance against the Saxons for the execution of their father. Bjorn Ironside returned from the Mediterranean, leaving his Uncle Rollo behind in his adopted Frankish home. And while Lagertha builds up the defensive walls around Kattegat, the ambitious King Harald began actively plotting a coup against her. We spoke to Vikings creator and writer-of-every-single-episode Michael Hirst about how “The Great Army” sets up this season’s big climax. (We’ll be talking to Hirst after every episode for the rest of the season, so come back every week for a deep dive into the world of Vikings!)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I have to ask about the moment that ended the episode, with Bjorn kissing Astrid. We’ve seen some tangled relationships within the Lothbrok family, but this definitely took me by surprise!

MICHAEL HIRST: Bjorn is struggling with the impact and consequences of his father’s death. He’s been trying for quite a long time to be his own man. Ragnar used to tease him, and he was quite cruel. And Bjorn has found it difficult to escape from the shadows of both his father’s and his mother’s fame. I actually feel sorry for him in that respect. To me, it’s like the son or daughter of a famous rock star. How do you deal with that legacy? If you do the same thing, you get compared, and it’s usually a bad comparison.

So when he gets back to Kattegat [in this episode], he’s back in a family situation, where his mother is now powerful. His mother has become Queen. She never mentioned this, she never shared the idea that she was going to take over Kattegat. She just did it. And he’s going to live with the consequences.

Now, she’s got a female lover. He loves his mother, but part of him is saying: “I can take this woman away from you. You can’t dominate me. I’m as strong as you are.” He does that — I think, I may be wrong — he does that to prove a point. He’s not gonna just sit at her knee. He’s gonna take what he wants. And I think that that’s an issue that Bjorn is gonna struggle with and finally resolve. But for the moment, he’s still in the shadows of his father and mother. He’s saying, “I’m gonna take what I want! I’m Bjorn Ironside!”

I want to talk about the earlier scene between Lagertha and Ubbe, where she tells him that he looks exactly his father did at his age. What is Lagertha trying to communicate with that comment?

I don’t know who first said it to me, but on the set, someone said: “Doesn’t [Jordan Patrick Smith, who plays Ubbe] look like Travis [Fimmel] used to look? The moment someone says it, you realize you’ve been half-aware of it, but now it’s sort of in the open. You realize, “Yes, he does!” That’s an extraordinary thing, and it chimes very much with a lot of the ideas I already had for Ubbe’s character. All the sons inherited different aspects of Ragnar, his psychology or his philosophy or whatever. Ubbe, for me, was always going to be the closest to him, psychologically, and the one who was going to be most compelled to try and achieve his vision of a settlement in England, or somewhere else. It was in my mind that Ubbe was the inheritor of Ragnar’s philosophy, and in strong ways, his temperament. Jordan’s also Australian [like Travis], so he does have a slightly more laid-back atmosphere about him. I think Lagertha recognizes a lot of those things anyway, about Ubbe.

She knows that she’s in danger from the sons. She knows that she’s done something which demands revenge, and so in a sense, she’s reaching out to him. She’s hoping, perhaps, that he’s not going to be like Ivar and insist on her death. In a sense, what’s going on beneath the surface is a plea not to kill her, or at least not to kill her too soon. She’ll accept her fate, of course she will, but she’s reaching out to Ubbe, because Ubbe reminds her the most of Ragnar.

In Viking society, if just one person wants to avenge themselves upon you, that seems like a problem. Right now, Lagertha has a whole generation of Ragnar’s children who may seek vengeance against her. What’s her strategy with Ragnar’s sons going forward?

I don’t look at social media myself, but of course people report to me about what the conversation is. And apparently, a big conversation is that quite a lot of people didn’t like what Lagertha did to Aslaug. If you’re brought up on Westerns, you don’t shoot someone in the back. It’s just the unwritten code, you know? And they’re applying it to the Viking period.

But it’s an important point. Obviously, Lagertha didn’t need to do it. She knew very well that by doing it, she was putting herself in huge danger. But I think that, apart from the need to avenge someone’ death in Viking culture, there’s another huge part of that culture: pride. Pride in your own achievements, in your courage. For her own pride, because of what Aslaug had done to her, Lagertha couldn’t let her just walk away. Whatever the risks, whatever that led to, she made a determination that Aslaug had to die for the tremendous hurt and humiliation that she’d heaped on Lagertha.

So I think Lagertha’s left with an understanding that she probably will be killed by the sons, or one of the sons, of Ragnar. And she’s prepared to accept that. But all she’s trying to do in the meantime is to carry on being a good queen, being a good ruler, doing the things she wants to do, doing the right things, and accept things that are the will of the gods. In a sense, she’s fatalistic about it, but she’s still canny enough to try and get sympathetic allies, like Ubbe.

Watching this episode, I thought a lot about something you’ve said about the future of the show: Ragnar is dead, but Ragnar lives on. The sons all learned about Ragnar’s death last week in a sequence that was very impressionistic and hyperreal and even mythic. Why was it important for you to create that sense of the brothers all learning about Ragnar’s death at the same time?

As is very common with me, it starts with one of the few bits of actual history that we know, or that we think we know: the reaction of Ragnar’s sons to the news of his death. I kind of changed some of them a little bit, but I was informed by the history that — I can’t remember which one, maybe Sigurd — was working on a lathe when he heard the news, and cut his fingers to the bone.

If I have a real bit of history, I really like to use it. I don’t want to waste it because I can always point to the fact that the show is as real as I can make it. I wanted to show the sons’ reactions to their father’s death. But I also wanted it to be as emotional as it could be and as significant as it could be. One of the things I do like to do in the show is to mess around with time or mess around with the way that we might shoot scenes.

One of the great female directors we have, I do very expressionistic things on the screen with her because she loves to do that. I’m very open to suggestions from the cameraman or the director about doing things in a hyper-realistic way. But as it’s never fantasy. It’s not escapism. It’s not trying to evade the logic of life or the logic of experience. It’s a way of emphasizing that people have experiences in different ways. To hear about the death of your famous father is a huge thing, and you want to mark it in a significant way visually, as well as dramatically. I was looking for ways to convey that reality and how each of the sons probably felt it in different ways.

But you’re quite right about episode 417, because it’s all about Ragnar. It starts with that great exchange between his sons. They’re thinking about revenge, so Ragnar absolutely dominates that conversation. He’s still living in the minds of his sons. And it’s behind the build-up of the great army, which I have to tell you, has got such an amazing payoff in episodes 19 and 20. It’s just astonishing.

I’ve always enjoyed Jennie Jacques as Judith, and this episode spent a lot of time with her. Can you talk about her journey home, and why you wanted to have those sequences with her family?

Judith is one of those characters who, as a writer, sneaks up on you. She started life as a character who has a function, and then you realize that she’s more than just a functionary. That she’s in an interesting place and she ought to have interesting things to say. The character has almost insisted on being explored and being on screen. It might have been easy, in some ways, to minimize her role. I think it’s an amazing role, I think she’s an amazing actress. And whenever the Americans tell me, MGM or History tell me, “Oh, can we have a little more Viking, and slightly a little less Saxon?” I say, “It’s the same story, really! It’s all part of the same story.”

I love that exchange when she goes to see her family because it works on a couple of levels. One is she’s genuinely trying to warn them. Judith has a very fine sensibility. We’ve noticed that before, she senses things, she’s very aware, she’s slightly witchy, we’ve seen her making potions and all that. She has a dreadful sense of what’s coming, which her father blithely ignores. She is genuinely wanting to warn them. She also wants, genuinely, to visit the site of Ragnar’s death, because Ragnar made an impact on her, too, as well as on Ecbert. It’s a pilgrimage for her, too, in a small way.

The other thing that’s so good, I think, is the nascent feminism. The way that she talks to her father, I was really proud of those lines. I’ve had so many comments from the women involved in the production about [how] they love that scene when she tells her father off. And she tells her sister to be liberated and read a book. Maybe she’s slightly a prototype feminist. We know that Ecbert wanted to set her free. That was the deal, that he wanted her to learn things, and to develop herself as a person, and this is what the result is. She’s a very independent mind.

I marked down the line she tells her father: “You may enjoy the erudities of heaven without my discomforting presence.”

I enjoyed writing it because it just had a very tiny echo of T.S. Eliot. I don’t think I ever write totally realistic dialogue. Just about everything I write is shot through or informed by poetry, or by the rhythms of poetry. Everything that I write is very slightly hyper-realistic, or super realistic. When I was younger, I always hated those kitchen-sink dramas in England.

And I’m not a great fan of gritty realism. I’ve always been drawn to something slightly higher than that, without ever going into the world of fantasy. What I write, and what interests me, is real life. But it’s real life like when you’re in love. Your sensations are heightened. I’m writing about people whose sensations and their expectations are very heightened, and I like that.

Floki and Helge are characters who used to seem rooted in the Viking culture, but they are both reacting to their recent journey in a different way. In the last episode, we saw Floki’s reaction to the religious ecstasy in the mosque, and now we see the fallout of Helge adopting the orphan girl. How did you decide to push the characters in this direction?

We start with history. It’s widely known that Bjorn Ironside sailed ‘round the Mediterranean. I’ve interrupted his first adventure to bring him back to deal with the death of his father, but one of the things that he has inherited from his father is his curiosity. He’s curious about other cultures. He’s felt that very strongly, and we’ve followed that a long time. He’s following what he thinks of as his fate.

And Floki is going with him, but Floki someone who is increasingly in a crisis. And the crisis almost comes to a head when they are attacking Moorish Spain. With the death of Ragnar, Floki has been almost more deeply affected than everyone else. It’s f—ed his mind, really. He and Helge are going through difficult times. It’s quite natural that Helge would want to adopt someone or replace the dead child she had and go on with life. But Floki seems to feel that he can’t just go back to his old life, that he can’t repeat his life, that things are falling apart too fast. These strains on the relationship, these changes — they’ve become rather separate individuals. It will have very dramatic outcomes.

Floki is trying to deal with the consequences of Ragnar’s death, and he’s trying to find out who he is.

This episode left Rollo back home with his family. I think I’ve asked you this for at least two seasons, but is he still a part of this saga as we continue forward?

I don’t want to say too much about it, but the answer is very definitely yes. Rollo — and not just in spirit — is still very much a part of this series, a part of this show, a part of the history of the Vikings going forward.

Last question. I think it’s one of Chekov’s rules of drama that if you see someone building up a major defensive fortress outside of their town, then they will have to use that fortress for defense. We’re seeing so much of Lagertha’s build-up of Kattegat’s defensive infrastructure. Can we expect that’s going to play out in a violent fashion?

Absolutely and brutally, yes it does. And of course, it really comes back, as so many things do, to the ambitions of King Harald. When we first met King Harald, the very first time, he rode into Kattegat and told Aslaug he was going to make himself King of Norway. Whatever it took. And you must never forget that.

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