'Vikings' postmortem: Creator Michael Hirst talks about season three
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen Thursday night’s season finale of Vikings, “The Lord’s Prayer,” stop reading now and come back when you’ve done so. Those of you who already know what went down in the final hour of History’s epic series, come join me in your pain and sorrow…
What a ride. Those are the exact words I used when I spoke to creator and executive producer Michael Hirst, having had the opportunity to preview the finale ahead of time, but I think they ring true for all Vikings fans right now. The final episode of season two was both intense and emotional — King Horik [Donal Logue] finally got what was coming, there were some surprising lines drawn in terms of loyalty, and just where does that put everything as we head into season three? EW spoke with Hirst to find out exactly that, and to get his take on the season as a whole. Read on for more — although we may not return to Vikings-land until 2015, we can already promise you it will be worth the wait.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First of all, let me congratulate you on an amazing run of episodes. Retrospectively, how do you feel about this season as a whole?
MICHAEL HIRST: I have to say, I felt good about it from the start because I had these established characters and I had some fairly worked-out ideas about where I was going to take them. As a production, you feel that the first season there’s always something…you’re finding your way and you’re trying out things, but the second season, we went into it with a lot more confidence. We had three boats in the first season, we had eight boats in the second, and so on. So it did feel like a much bigger show, but I felt as well that the actors and their storylines were all interesting.
Speaking generally, where do the events of the finale put the group in terms of what’s coming up in season three?
Obviously, the main thing about the finale is that the people you think have betrayed Ragnar don’t betray him. And that’s not necessarily altogether a good thing for them in some ways. I think part of Floki’s dissatisfaction doesn’t entirely go away. A lot of what he says about Ragnar and why he didn’t invite Ragnar to his wedding is quite true, that he feels slightly undervalued by Ragnar. And although he wasn’t going to fall for Horik’s blandishments, I think it still leaves him in a position where he’s agitated and somewhat unhappy about the way things are going. And I don’t think that Siggy is in a very comfortable position, either. It’s not all neatly resolved and it wasn’t all a lovely sweet plan.
And King Horik is now dead by Ragnar’s hand — although he did have it coming…
He [Donal Logue] was fantastic. That was great casting. When he first came into the show, he was going to be a very sympathetic character. He brought this openness and freshness and he was treating Ragnar as an equal, and at the end he’s trying to kill everybody.
But of course, his death now makes Ragnar the new Vikings king.
It’s part of Ragnar’s great intelligence that he worked out a way of diffusing and defeating Horik, but a lot of the issues that came up and the way that he dealt with his son and his wife…it’s one of those things that as a writer you want to do. You want to resolve it at one level, but you don’t want to resolve it at every level. So there’s plenty of meat on the bone, and there’s plenty to start discussing in the new season. I think that there’s a lot of potential conflict that actually wasn’t resolved by Ragnar becoming king, and when we revisit, we’ll move forward perhaps a year in time. But not very much, because they have to go back to Wessex. I think there’s a lot of stress and strain, and a lot of emotions that aren’t reconciled that will come out. So it makes them all vulnerable to other seductions, other opportunities, and other things that might happen.
Most of season two has been about Ragnar’s struggle for that ultimate power. Now that he has that power, will we see him change at all?
That’s an interesting question. Ragnar in some ways is a wonderful mystery, even to me. I still think we did wonderfully well to cast Travis [Fimmel]. But you know, there was a lot of uncertainty when I wanted to cast him, because he was unknown and so on, but he didn’t fit the bill for a Viking. He wasn’t loud, he was counter-intuitive, he was thoughtful, he didn’t always speak, he had a strange smile. And I said, “I don’t want a cliché Viking, I want a thoughtful Viking.”
How has his understanding of the character play into shaping it over these two seasons?
Travis and I have a good relationship — we discuss all the scripts and he’s very thoughtful. I don’t know if you noticed, because I slipped it in without many people noticing, but one of the things that Travis said to me as we got to the last episode was, “I don’t know if we can swing this, but all I want to say in the last episode is the Lord’s Prayer. So I’m gonna be in loads of scenes, but I’m not going to speak. The only thing I’m going to say is the Lord’s Prayer.” And I just thought that was so cool.
That’s unbelievable. And I have to admit, I didn’t notice until you said it.
Because he’s there, he’s present, and there were lots of lines that he had about going back to England and the farming. But Bjorn says them all. Which is a good thing for Bjorn, too, because he’s giving him responsibilities. But the fact that this Viking leader only says the Lord’s Prayer is so mysterious and wonderful and challenging and fantastic that I just thought it was cool. I said, “I can’t tell anyone I’m going to do that, but I am going to do that.” And as I said, you don’t notice because he’s still present.
One of my favorite things about the show is how you’ve been able to showcase these strong warrior women, and I have to say that this season has been exceptionally great for Lagertha in particular.
I’m very pleased with the storylines, with Lagertha being such a real character to people. When I was trying out ideas for what happens to Katheryn [Winnick] this season, she was very hesitant. And she said, “I’m not sure that’s good for me, because I’ve got a fanbase, I’ve established myself as a strong woman and a warrior. And yet here I am being beaten up by my husband and a victim.” Imagine having a circle of Vikings that now have this huge female fanbase — it’s fantastic.
You’re known for being closely involved in the production of the show — from the writing to the research to the directing. Do you have a favorite moment of the season that you can share?
The blood eagle. I wanted to do it, and I wanted to do it very particularly, because it’s not just a scene of horrible and extreme suffering. It’s a scene about extreme spiritual belief. The Vikings actually blood-eagled several Saxon kings later, but in this case, it’s one of their own. It’s another Viking, and he knows he can’t show any weakness or he won’t go to Valhalla. So it’s a strange psychological moment filled with tension and spirituality. And when we shot that scene, it was extraordinary. It was shot at night, we had this great female director with hundreds of candles, and Thorbjørn Harr, who plays Jarl Borg. Everyone who was here had a very profound experience, because it wasn’t for effect. I wasn’t trying to shock people or get a cheap hit on that. It was extreme human suffering and extreme human spirituality. And I was so proud of it. I was so proud of all the people who’d managed to find a way to shoot it because there were questions about “you can’t shoot it, you can’t show that on American network TV.” But we did.
Talk to me about season three — how far along are you right now?
We start filming on June 2. We’re well underway. It’s exciting, and I love these characters, and I hate having to kill them off. And you have to kill them off sometimes, and that will happen again in season three. What’s always nice to me is I’ve hardly killed anyone off who didn’t come to my office at the studio begging not to be killed off. Thorbjørn, he’s a famous actor in Norway, he stepped aside from a big show at The National Theatre in Norway to be on Vikings, which was amazing. But he didn’t want to die, and he pleaded with me for awhile, and he said, “look — I found an example of a Viking leader who was going to be killed and yet he escaped. And then he wandered around the world for a few years, and then he came back, so I could be that!” And I said, “Well, Thorbjørn, that’s fantastic except I would have to photograph you wherever you went.”
What do you think the viewer reactions will be in the wake of Horik’s death? I think even if people predicted it was coming, they’re still going to be shocked at the way that it happened.
I imagine people will be perhaps disturbed by how frenzied Rangar gets. Travis wanted to play it that way, and he wanted to play it that way because of his feelings for his children. Travis, who has no children, talking to me, who has a lot of children, said his character is totally committed and involved with his children. So there were two people who threatened them: Jarl Borg and King Horick. And he just absolutely slaughters them. So that’s his mindset, and it’s great, because it’s authentic and it’s what he feels.
You mentioned earlier that we’re time jumping again when we come back, so does that mean we can expect to see new locations next season?
We’re in a new place, because Ragnar is a king now. Halfway through season three, we’re going to attack Paris — there’s a famous Vikings attack on the city of Paris. And they attacked with 120 ships. So this new season, we go from eight ships to 120 ships. You have to go up in scale. One of the wonderful things about the show is how it truthfully began with small undertakings, like one ship traveling, trying to find England. In the second season, there are bigger attacks on England, and then season three, halfway through, we’ll be with 120 ships attacking Paris. So we have this new scale, we have Ragnar as a king with everything that entails, in terms of responsibility and his own wishes and desires. And so for me, it’s another great wonderful challenge, because the two main things in Vikings which run parallel are the visceral element of it, and the battle of politics. And the other side of it is the personal side and the family side. And Ragnar being a family man, and his wife and ex-wife being inextricably linked. And all those things go on again side-by-side.