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Bjorn Ironside has sailed down rivers and across the sea on quests of conquest and plunder. But this season on Vikings, the heroic Northman (played by Alexander Ludwig) will find himself in water so uncharted that it’s not even water.
“I always knew the real Bjorn Ironside went into the Mediterranean and found himself in what is now Tunisia, on the edge of the Sahara,” explains Vikings creator Michael Hirst. “One of the things that was constraining us was that we couldn’t reproduce the Sahara desert in the west of Ireland.”
But for the show’s expansive fifth season, the Irish-based production shot sequences in Morocco, with Bjorn riding a camel through a radically new geographic (and political) landscape. “When you see the Vikings in the Sahara, in these sand dunes… you’d never seen that palette on the show before. It’s exquisite and wonderful. ”
Back in England, the fratricidal Ivar Boneless (Alex Høgh Andersen) takes over the city of York, leading him into rainy conflict with the warrior bishop Heahmund, played by new series regular Jonathan Rhys Meyers. “We built the city of York on the backlot, with all its winding street and narrow lanes,” says Hirst. “The backlot occupies several acres, so it’s huge. The town of York just went on and on.”
For the writer, the journey to York was a journey into national and personal history. “York I know very well because I was brought up right near there,” he says. “It brought back my childhood of wandering down these very narrow lanes.”
Hirst says that the rain in this sequence was real but the emotions ran fiery, particularly in a scene that renders Ivar seemingly helpless. “He’s given a chariot to travel around in, and being Ivar, he travels around in it completely recklessly, and crashes it at a very inopportune moment. The moment he’s crashed it and leans up against the wheels, he realizes he’s surrounded by Saxon warriors.”
Being Ivar, the young conqueror doesn’t beg for mercy. “He laughs at them and he taunts them,” Hirst says. “He is Ivar the Boneless, and it doesn’t matter how many arrows they shoot, they cannot kill him.”
The writer has high praise for Andersen, who joined the show in the second half of season 4 and now takes over from his father as the reigning Viking terror in England. “He’s a very, very powerful presence,” says Hirst, who promises that the massive York battle will background a more personal duel between Ivar and his new primary opponent. “A certain amount of mutual respect will eventually develop between Ivar and Heahmund,” he explains. “The battle is completely dominated by the personalities of these two great and formidable warriors.”
The desert, the city, the new faces: It’s all part of the evolutionary nature of this new season, after the season 4 deaths of Kings Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) and Ecbert (Linus Roache.) “It’s part of the growing ambition of the show,” Hirst says. “You always need new blood, new places. These things rejuvenate the show and everyone in it.”
Well, except for the people who are going to die. And this is Vikings, so expect that, too!