A main character dies. The show's writer explains why it happened.

By Darren Franich
Updated March 26, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT
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The good news: Vikings just got renewed for a fourth season. The bad news: One of the show’s original cast member won’t be around for season 4. Just a couple weeks after losing Jessalyn Gilsig’s Siggy, Vikings sent another character to the gods.

Or rather—SPOILERS FROM HERE—to God. For after many years of internal struggle, former monk Athelstan was born again into Christianity—an epiphany which led to his death at the hands of Floki, who was always suspicious of the monk’s religion and his hold on Ragnar. We talked to Vikings writer/showrunner Michael Hirst about what led to Athelstan’s death and what it means for Ragnar’s future. For more, check out my recap of the episode and my conversation with actor George Blagden.

And if you’re a Vikings megafan, keep in mind that, from 6:30-7:30 ET on Friday, EW will be hosting a Facebook Q&A With George Blagden. Head to EW‘s Facebook page and leave questions for Blagden in the form of comments—he’ll personally respond to those questions on the page!

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Athelstan’s been a central character on the show practically since the beginning. How did you arrive at the idea to kill him? Did you know he was going to die before you started writing this season?

MICHAEL HIRST: This was the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make, and one of the hardest episodes I’ve ever had to write. Before kicking off any episodes, I write a bible for the new [season], and outlines for all the episodes. I realized I would need to resolve Athelstan’s major issues. I couldn’t have him flip-flopping between one belief and another.

He’s been crying out for God to give him some kind of symbol. God sent him no symbols, any kind of token. He was persuaded that God didn’t exist. He’s now chosen to be with the pagans. He had a big decision to leave after setting up the settlement. Ecbert really wanted him to stay. He was in love with Judith. But he decided to go back with Ragnar. He decided, in a way, to go back and live with the pagan gods. And it’s at that moment that God speaks to him, or that’s how he understands it. And it brings him joy!

So I’m following the logic of this. I’m thinking: His joy must be an extraordinary thing. Here is a young man who, for most of his life, has been in a monastery, has been [focused on what] to do with his belief in the presence of God in his life. God has returned into his life. The relief that he feels, the joy that he feels, the certainty that he feels that God is alive and with him—it resolves a huge part of his agony.

The next step was to say: “What do I do with this? Is it plausible that he could exist within a Viking context, believing as he does?” He has a conversation with Ragnar. They’re very close. Ragnar loves him. And Ragnar doesn’t want him to leave. If you think about it, Ragnar’s lost most of his close friends. Athelstan is one of his truest, closest friends now.

So Ragnar begs him not to leave, and says he’ll protect him. But that would be impossible. There were so many people who had a reason to get rid of Athelstan. Floki was putting the word around. Even Bjorn was really concerned about what was happening to his father.

So there was a logic to [Athelstan’s death]. It was a poetical and a plausible and, for me, a great resolution. But at the same time, it was very hard to kill the character off. And to tell George—who has been a huge part of the show, who I think is a wonderful actor, and who’s grown during the show.

George told me that you sent him a five-page email to explain why you were killing him off.

It was partly guilt! I knew he would be upset. I wanted him to understand what the logic was. It was terrible. On the other hand, if you compare it to other deaths on Vikings, it was beautiful. He willingly embraces martyrdom. He knows it’s coming. When Floki appears, he’s not surprised. He’s very joyful to go and meet his maker.

Was Ragnar being somewhat naive, asking him to stay? Athelstan tells him, “I’ve had this epiphany. I should leave now,” and it feels like Ragnar being somewhat weak in that moment, insisting that his friend say with him.

I don’t know that he’s weak. I think he’s selfish. The other thing to bear in mind is: Where, plausibly, could Athelstan go? If he walks out of Kattegat, he’s at the prey of every pagan in Scandinavia. It’s implausible that he could get on a boat and sail himself to England.

What he was really saying to Ragnar was: “I’m content to die. So I would leave here and die in the wilderness on my own. I don’t want to cause you trouble.” And Ragnar doesn’t want him to do that, probably for selfish reasons, but also because he knows that there’s nowhere for him to go.

Even more moving than Athelstan’s death is the part that follows, with Ragnar carrying him up a hillside and burying him. Where did that sequence come from?

When I initially wrote that episode, I’m not sure that scene was in it. I seem to remember that I discussed that at length with Travis [Fimmel, who plays Ragnar]. Travis said, “There’s got to be some goodbye.” So I said, “I’ll make it as difficult as I can.” [laughs]

There was a Japanese film many years ago about young guys who have to take their dying fathers to a mountain, where they died with the gods. I often have a kind of movie or cultural reference for scenes I write. And I liked the way that Ragnar says: “Now look what you’ve made me do.” It’s typical Ragnar! He’s profoundly upset, and yet he tries to joke. It was also very like Travis, he insisted on carrying the body up that steep slope. It nearly killed him!

As you pointed out, Athelstan was really Ragnar’s last friend, or at least the last person he could completely trust. How does Athelstan’s death affect him going forward?

It’s inevitable that Ragnar is a darker character. Light came into Athelstan’s world, but light went out of Ragnar’s world. Moving forward, his relationship with not only Floki but some of the other people around him just gets more difficult. I don’t necessarily want to get into it, but the immediate effect is that it informs his way of behaving, and ruling. And actually, when they get to Paris, that comes out in unexpected ways.

The episode ends with Ragnar painfully shaving his head, with blood running down his face. How did you decide to end the episode that way?

It refers to what happened to Athelstan, when he was first captured and taken to Kattegat, and initially became Ragnar’s slave. In those first few episodes, Athelstan was very distressed. And one of the things that distressed him very much was that he lost his tonsure. Athelstan steals a knife, and we think maybe he’s going to commit suicide with it, or maybe he’ll kill Ragnar with it. Instead, he shaves his hair to try and get the tonsure back, to try and become a monk again. It’s a bloody affair—just a bowl of cold water and a knife. Ragnar and Lagertha discover him doing this, and they laugh.

So now, Ragnar is doing that to himself. It’s like a tribute to Athelstan. But it’s also, I think, Ragnar saying: “I am now a changed person.”

In first few episodes of this season, it felt like we were seeing a clash of civilizations. But the clash was very positive: People from the pagan and Christian cultures came together as friends and lovers, and they founded an agricultural colony. It was optimistic. In the last few episodes, it feels like we’ve seen a decidedly more pessimistic perspective on that culture clash, with the colony destroyed, the murder of Athelstan at the hands of Floki.

It’s important to Ragnar to make treaties with foreign kings in order to get land for his people. Partly because he’s a farmer, partly because he’s very far-seeing. It’s not a sexy subject, in a way! If you think about most of the shows that are around, people aren’t interested in farming, and plows. But it was a very important thing for Ragnar, and it was important for the show to demonstrate that that’s what the Vikings were about.

Of course, historically speaking, that’s actually what happened. Over the four centuries of the Viking period, they settled in Normandy, in France, in wide swaths of England and Ireland. And they intermingled with the population, and became farmers and settlers and so on. So I wanted to show that from the beginning, that that was in their minds, or in their minds of Ragnar, the most far-seeing of them.

At the same time, it’s not a surprise that these early settlements were bound to fail. A culture like the Saxons is suddenly confronted by these extraordinary and fierce warriors. You give them land. You give them money just to stop them killing you! is it really plausible at this stage that they’re going to honor treaties with pagans?

It seemed to me it wasn’t, really. I wanted to show the effort. But I thought it was completely realistic that that first settlement was doomed. It wasn’t really until the Vikings mustered bigger armies to go raiding, that they were able to winter in hostile countries and then to settle.

It’s the beginning of something that did pay off. But I think I was being realistic in saying: It’s too early. Ragnar’s being too optimistic. He’s trusting Ecbert too much.

In the same episode where we lost Athelstan, we saw Athelstan’s son born back in Wessex. It seems like the implication is that his son will become the future King of Wessex?

Not only a future King of Wessex, but the future King of England! He is Alfred the Great. And the real Alfred the Great, who was born to Ecbert’s son, ended up fighting against Ragnar’s sons. So all that’s to come!

But his son is Alfred the Great. Our little monk! God knew that he was special!

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