Vikings season finale: Writer Michael Hirst on 'a final reckoning' in season 4
The third season of Vikings sent King Ragnar and his followers on their most far-flung adventures yet. They fought alongside the forces of Wessex to bring the kingdom of Mercia to heel. They attempted to create a sustainable colony on English land—a personal dream of Ragnar’s, who was a farmer long before he was a legendary warrior and ruler. And although that dream failed, a more magnificent ambition rose in the back half of the season: to bring a massive army of Northmen through the walls of Paris.
In Thursday’s season finale—SPOILERS FROM HERE—that ambition was achieved, as Ragnar led his men into the city following a nifty bit of coffin-assisted espionage. But it’s unclear what the future holds for Ragnar. The King himself is still sick—and he has many enemies, in other countries and in his own family. (You can read the full finale recap here.) We talked to Vikings writer/creator Michael Hirst about a season of expansion, and tried to discover what awaits the Northmen in season 4.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This was the biggest season of Vikings yet. We lost a few major characters, and met several brand-new major characters. Looking back, did the season turn out the way you were expecting?
MICHAEL HIRST: I’d always planned that it would get bigger. It reflects what actually happened, historically, to the Vikings. They did begin with initial raids, with just one boat and 30 warriors, on isolated monasteries along the coast. It didn’t take them very long, once they’d found these locations, to send more boats, and more ambitious raids. We’re reflecting that in the show. It’s the beginning of what became known as the Viking Age.
I’m just incredibly thrilled that the production was able to go with that vision, and to meet my requirements. Suddenly instead of two boats or three boats, we had 50 boats on the river, and 3,000 men scaling the walls of Paris. We’ve started shooting season 4 now, and I’ve just been walking around the sets and the backlots. We’ve grown again!
Also, I was sitting watching the monitors yesterday, and I was looking at Ragnar, Travis [Fimmel]. I turned to someone and said: “Travis doesn’t look like he used to look. When we started, he was a pretty fresh-faced young guy. He looks much more mature. He looks like a King.” And that’s the metaphor for the show. We’ve matured. We’ve got more ambitious. We’ve gone from being a farmer to being a king.
Ragnar’s baptism, which was so controversial among his fellow Vikings, was revealed in the season finale to be part of a plan to sneak into Paris. When he was baptized as a Christian, did he always intend to do the bit of subterfuge with the coffin? Or did he think he was dying, and genuinely want to be reunited with Athelstan?
There’s no simple answer. He was certainly prepared, when he first got [to Paris], to allow others to fail, so he wouldn’t be blamed. And even Travis goes along with that interpretation. He gave Floki charge of [the attack], and Floki spectacularly failed. Because Athelstan had told him that Paris was probably impregnable. In the back of his mind all the time was: “I’ve got to come up with something clever that’s going to get me inside this city.”
But there are two things about his baptism: One is that it’s sincere, and the other is that it’s cynical. It’s sincere, because he does want to see Athelstan again. And if that’s what it takes, he’ll do it. He loves Athelstan. Athelstan was really the only guy that he could talk to, openly. It’s cynical in the same way, because he knows how seriously Christians take the idea of being buried in consecrated ground. Especially, for a convert. This was the policy of the Christians: to try and convert Vikings. That was one way of trying to overcome them. And in the long term, that’s actually what happened, historically speaking!
But as I say, it operates on many levels. Part of it was totally sincere, and it’s the sincere bit that obviously shocks his fellow Vikings.
The moment when he jumps out of his coffin reminded me of something you said before this season: How so much of the power of Viking warriors didn’t come from numbers, but from shock and awe. In the scene when he emerges from the coffin, one of the Parisian women actually faints!
The Parisians are terrified of them. The Christian peoples were very superstitious. And here is a man, as far as they can see, coming back to life. So that adds to their sense of awe. It gives Ragnar a fighting chance of getting back to the gate.
The most striking sequence, on an emotional level, came when Rollo, Lagertha, and Floki talked to his coffin and said goodbye to Ragnar. Lagertha’s words especially were very emotional. Where are Ragnar and Lagertha in their relationship now? How does she feel now, knowing he probably heard everything she was saying to him?
I’ve always thought that he was lying in there with a little smile on his face!
I’m like most of the fans. I would love to see them get back together. It’s a great love story. They came from virtually nothing. It was a very passionate, close, loving family.
Whether they’re apart or together, they’re still always in each other’s consciousnesses. They’re always thinking about each other. However, ironic Ragnar is sometimes—he jokes about Lagertha’s ambitions and being an Earl. But of course, he’s proud of her. He still cares.
They’re still very involved. How much more involved they’re going to be, I’m not going to say. [Laughs] They’ll never not be closely involved.
Speaking of Ragnar and his various women problems: When we last saw Queen Kwenthrith in Mercia, she was holding a young child who she said was Ragnar’s son. There seemed to be some skepticism about whether the child was actually Ragnar’s. What do you think?
My best guess is that it is Ragnar’s child. The skepticism was justified, but that child will be an important child.
This was a transformative season for Rollo. One of the standout scenes was his conversation with the seer. At the time, he was a man who seemed to have nothing left. But now, in Paris, his legend seems even larger than Ragnar’s. Can you talk about where his journey will take him, going forward?
The conversation with the seer was critical and vital. It’s also one of the best moments for Clive [Standen] in the entire show. We happened to have a great female director [Helen Shaver] at the time, and I think she encouraged him to give a really emotional, deeply felt performance. And he was saying: “I’m worthless. I’ll always be in Ragnar’s shadow. It’s not worth me being alive, frankly.” And the seer told him: “If you know what I knew, you’d be dancing naked on the beach.”
So Rollo’s been on a private journey to work out what the f— that actually meant. For a long time, he can’t figure it. The raid is so disastrous. So many things go wrong. He has a glimpse of the Frankish princess. For some reason, he’s drawn to her. And when they come to him with this offer, I think that the pieces start to fall into place. He thinks that this is why he should dance naked on the sand. He is being given the opportunity to be his own man.
What he said to Ragnar in the coffin was: “I’m surprised that you went first. And I’m sure you are, too. We all thought the gods favored you, and not me.” Here, it looks to him—reading into what the seer said—that the gods, at last, are favoring him. He’s come out of that in a totally extraordinary way. He is on the verge of a big, huge change in his life.
Which is a good setup for the new season. And of course [laughs] if anyone wants to read the history books, they can find out how important Count Rollo was in French history.
Earlier this season, it felt to me as if, after many years of turmoil between them, Rollo and Ragnar were very much united. Could he once again turn on his brother?
I think he knows that that is what his part of the bargain is. It’s costing the French Emperor a lot of money. But it’s a very clever move. How do you beat a Viking? You hire another Viking to do it.
As far as the brothers are concerned, Rollo has confessed to what he thought was a dead Ragnar that he’s never got over his jealousy. So Ragnar knows. And remember, it wasn’t Ragnar who let Rollo stay. He was too sick to make that decision. It was Bjorn. Ragnar, I don’t think, would have ever allowed Rollo to stay. And I don’t think that Ragnar ever forgave Rollo. He just let him go because he was blood. I really don’t think that Ragnar felt able to forgive Rollo.
We began Vikings back in season 1 with just one major setting, Kattegat. This season, there were three centers of action: Kattegat, Wessex, and Paris. That’s a broad swath of the known world to cover. With only 10 episodes, were there any story lines you wanted to feature more than you could, or geographical setting you wanted to explore more?
At one stage, I was considering going to Ireland. Which, of course, was quite ironic, since we make it in Ireland! [Laughs] We’re here anyway! I definitely want to take them to Iceland, and possibly even Greenland. They colonized those places! That’s the amazing thing. Iceland is still basically Viking, and very proud of it, actually.
And then, my plan was always to take them to North America. The last scene is the sons of Ragnar, in an open boat, dying of thirst and hunger. They’ve been at sea for a long, long time. And then suddenly this land comes up on the horizon. This green, misty, wonderful verdant land. And that’s the end.
The other thing that’s in the back of my mind: Bjorn is famous for having sailed around the Mediterranean. He went to Spain. He attacked what he thought was Rome. In subsequent seasons, if we get there, there’s amazing things we can show. I read the other day that they found a little statue of a Buddha in a Viking grave in Russia. It’s amazing! They just got everywhere!
When the Vikings go to new places and then leave, Vikings doesn’t leave those places behind. This season, we kept returning back to Wessex, and seeing the ripple effects of Ragnar’s people being there. Are we going to see more of England in season 4?
Ecbert is one of my favorite characters, and Linus Roache is one of my favorite actors. He brings a lot to the show. So, of course, I have no intention of letting that world go. There is unfinished business. It’s always on Ragnar’s mind. One day he’s going to go back and try and settle it. Someone has to pay for the destruction of the settlement.
What being a King meant to Ragnar was not power, it was the opportunity to go to new places, and also to try and find better farming land for his people. That, as a farmer, always meant a huge amount to him. And that dream was snuffed out. So what happens in Wessex still matters, and will continue to matter.
We end season 3 with a very tense moment between Ragnar and Floki. Ragnar has said that he knows he killed Athelstan, and Floki has seen him baptized. This is a relationship that goes all the way back to the start of Vikings. How does their relationship move forward now?
Floki started out, in a way, as someone about whom you could say: “He’s eccentric, but harmless.” Now, you wouldn’t dream of saying: “He’s just eccentric, or he’s harmless.” He’s definitely a dangerous person. A dangerous person is wonderful to write about.
So all I can say about that is that it’s a situation that has to be dealt with. We know that. We know that you can’t just leave that open. So look out for the new season. It’s attended to, but in a lot of unexpected ways. It’s not simple.
Speaking of “not simple!” This season especially, Vikings is a show very much about religion, with characters who explore different spiritual questions in interesting ways. On the show, we see evidence that there is a certain reality to these religions. There’s a certain reality to the seer’s premonitions, say. On the other hand, there are moments like the Christian monk in Kattegat, who had to experience the harsh reality that his faith did not make him invulnerable. How do you approach the religious aspects of the show, especially when different spiritual traditions clash onscreen?
It was one of the motivating factors for me writing it! I wouldn’t have wanted to write the show without the spiritual aspect. It’s something that always interested me. The Tudors was about the Reformation, and the destruction of the Catholic faith, and I was deeply interested in that.
Paganism is something I’ve been interested in for a long time. There’s Roman paganism. And the Scandinavian version is, in some ways, even richer. It’s bonkers! If you read the sagas, they’re compelling, and a lot of them are very weird, and absolutely wonderful.
I’m not making a point particularly, except I’m saying that these people genuinely hold these different beliefs. This is what Christians believed at the time. This is what Scandinavians believed at the time, and very powerfully belief. I don’t think you’ve ever seen on TV before what pagan practice was. This is the best we know of it.
Someone once said that Vikings is the only network show that takes religious beliefs seriously. I don’t know about all network shows. [laughs] But I certainly take it very seriously. It’s part of the fabric of the show. I think it gives the show depth.
Each season, Ragnar’s ambitions have grown. In this season, there was the ambition to put down roots in England, followed by the primal urge to accomplish what no other Northman has ever done, and attack Paris. What are his ambitions now?
We leave Ragnar at the end of season 3, hovering between life and death. That’s very important for a while: Finding out whether he actually survives. But the other thing is that, because of what we saw happen to Rollo, I think we can surmise that one of the big events of the new season is going to be a final reckoning between the brothers, on just a much bigger scale than the first time around.
It’s not necessarily an ambition. It’s fate.