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Vikings: Michael Hirst on that big death, 'truly awesome battle sequences'

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Bernard Walsh/History

A brutal season of Vikings took an epic turn this week, as the Great Heathen Army set sail on their quest to Northumbria. The episode was called “Revenge” — you can read the full recap here — and in some respects, it marked the end of a story that goes back to the very first time Ragnar Lothbrok sailed across the sea. In a very spoiler-heavy conversation, we talked to Vikings writer Michael Hirst about saying farewell to one character — and the mystery of Ragnar’s body.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: King Aelle was an actual historical figure, but the historical reports about his death seem to change depending on which side was telling the story. Anglo-Saxon history claims he died in battle, but in the Norse Sagas, the sons execute him using the blood eagle method, which is how it happened on the show. Given the ambiguity of the historical records, what made you decide to dramatize his death in that way?

MICHAEL HIRST: I first came across the term “blood eagling” from a description of what the sons of Ragnar did to Aelle. So I always knew that I was going to do that to him eventually, even though we then went on to have a blood eagling earlier on in the show. It was always going to be the end of Aelle, the worst thing that the Vikings could imagine doing to someone, this showpiece of punishment in the Viking age. Poor Aelle! It completed the circle, too, that it happens where Ragnar died.

For most of these things, there’s usually some other possible explanation, because the information is so brief and often so confused. You have to make a judgment. I will always go for the most dramatic interpretation of any given situation.

When the sons look into Ragnar’s grave, his body seems to be gone. Where do you think it went?

That’s a very good question, because I hadn’t really thought about it! I suppose we could have had a look in at the decomposed body, which I wouldn’t have liked very much. You might interpret it as: He’s risen again from the dead! Like, “He wasn’t in the cave when they opened the cave in the morning,” you know?

I hear it’s fueled quite a debate on social media, people speculating that Ragnar will come back and he isn’t really dead. Which is, I think, quite a lot of wishful thinking!

When Bjorn gave that speech to his brothers about why he should lead the Great Heathen Army, I thought about what you said last week, how Bjorn is still struggling in his father’s shadow. There seems to be something almost petty about his actions and how he speaks to his brothers in that scene.

I think that it referred back to how Ragnar behaved before the attack on Paris. He made it absolutely clear that it was his army, that he was in charge. I could hear, in Bjorn’s voice, echoes of Ragnar.

I wonder, myself, whether he still isn’t trying a little too hard. I do think that Bjorn is still an evolving character. He has to go on proving himself. It’s one of those terrible things, Eldest Son Syndrome. I know that syndrome pretty well myself! You are never really let off the hook. People always compare you to your father.

Conversely, Ivar seems to suffer from Youngest Son Syndrome, which I know pretty well myself. In that scene, the look on his face makes it seem like he expects the whole world belongs to him.

I’ve always thought of Ivar as someone different from you and me. He just will push things to unendurable levels. He will not recognize normal social interactions or limitations. There is nothing really that prevents Ivar from being Ivar. When Freud talks about ego and stuff, it’s like: The ego socializes the id, because the id is just about “Take What You Want.” I’m not a Freudian, but Ivar is like the expression of the id unsocialized by the ego, and it makes him a dangerous figure to everyone.

He sounds like a pretty typical modern politician!

[Laughs] We have an unrestrained id going into the White House.

King Harald is a character who we’ve mostly seen in a violent and ambitious light, plotting against the other characters and seeking great fame. I thought it was interesting that you provided us with some real insight into his emotional state, as he met his long-ago beloved princess and realized that she had married another man. What made you decide to start exploring this side of Harald’s personality?

This is the beginning of accessing deeper levels of Harald’s character. It’s historically true (if such things are) that Harald Finehair had told this young princess who’d turned him down that he’d make himself King of Norway to be worthy of her. The history books don’t tell us what actually happened to that relationship. I just thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if she turned up, and she was married to someone else. How would he behave?

He’s not your average Viking. In subsequent developments in season 5, you see a lot more of his interior life. One of the things that [this plotline] sets up is his sense that he’s very unlucky with women. [Laughs] Peter [Franzen], who plays him, is just an amazing actor. I like him so much as an actor and as a character.

We saw Ubbe marry Margrethe, and then on their wedding night, they shared their bed with Ubbe’s brother, Hvitserk. This is by no means the most tangled love affair in the Lothbrok family this week, but can you talk a bit about what led the characters into this arrangement?

It’s part of my belief that, however different on the surface Viking society was, we’re all the same, really. We’re human. People remain people, and everyone is concerned about love, and jealousy, and so on.

But still, Viking society was different. Slaves were actually treated worse than dirt. At least the sons of Ragnar seem to rise above that, and certainly they treat Margrethe differently. And I had that [moment] in season 1 when Ragnar came back with Athelstan and offered him to share the bed with Lagertha. I was making the point that maybe their morals were somewhat different. They’re not Christians, they’re pagans. Their moral framework is different, which is why it’s interesting to compare it to the Christian moral framework. Then we see the difficulties that Judith has, and Ecbert, and Aethelwulf. Their triangle is a very different triangle.

That scene with Aethelwulf talking to Ecbert was just so beautiful. I find I’ve always liked Aethelwulf on some level, possibly because I’m also a tortured Catholic, and I thought Moe Dunford’s performance in that scene was lovely. 

That’s almost my favorite scene, when Aethelwulf is able, at last, to ask his father if he loved him. Most of us can, I think, relate to that in some ways. My father was a pretty Victorian guy who was never emotional with me, and I’m over-emotional with my son as a result, I think. This scene was beautiful, but it could never have been written without the fact that Moe has become such a good actor during this show. I’m not saying he wasn’t good before, but he just got better and better.

When Aethelwulf asks his father if he loves him, Ecbert doesn’t say anything. Do you think Ecbert loves his son?

I wouldn’t altogether pretend to know the absolute truth. My feeling was always that Ecbert found it difficult to love anyone. He used people. It was something he learned at Charlemagne’s court. He became very cynical in France. The French are cynical! [Laughs] He came back absolutely determined to grab power, and to do whatever it was he needed to do.

And I don’t think he loved his son, particularly. He did recognize ultimately that his son was a formidable warrior. I think that these questions embarrass him, toward the end of his life, and make him confront things he’s shut himself away from. For some curious reason, he’s been able to articulate his love for Ragnar and Athelstan, but he still found it difficult to embrace his own son.

Can you talk a bit about what’s next for the Great Heathen Army as we wrap up this season with the next two episodes?

Everything ramps up. Even considering the attack on Paris, and how wonderful that was, nothing prepares you for how amazing the battle sequences are between the Great Army and the Saxons. These are truly awesome battle sequences, but beneath that, there’s a huge amount of emotional life. It’s full of surprises. And death. Death comes to important people.

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