And how season 4 was influenced by Hemingway, Tarkovsky, and Nicolas Roeg
Credit: Bernard Walsh/History

The midseason finale of Vikings was a bloody, shocking thrill ride. And all that was before – SPOILER ALERT – the massive time jump forward. Ragnar Lothbrok led his Viking warriors into battle against his traitorous brother, Rollo, and despite promising that one brother would die in the ensuing showdown, both great warriors survived the day. But their positions have changed. Ragnar slumped home to Kattegat, defeated. Rollo returned to Paris, triumphant.

Years passed. While Ragnar disappeared, his sons grew to young manhood — and certain revelations about their father’s past led a couple of his sons to declare their intention to kill him. They got their chance when Ragnar returned, older and seemingly waiting for someone to kill him and claim his throne. We caught up with Vikings creator/writer Michael Hirst to talk about the first part of season 4 and what awaits us when Vikings returns later this year.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When we spoke a year ago, you promised a “final reckoning between the brothers” in season 4. Ragnar promises Rollo that one of them will die. Does he want to kill Rollo? Or does he want to die?

MICHAEL HIRST: You can read that in different ways. We know that Ragnar didn’t want power, he didn’t choose power. He’s not going to Paris to raid. He’s not interested in trinkets. He feels deeply that his brother has betrayed him, like a lot of people have betrayed him. He’s a very sensitive guy, and you feel the struggle he has had to stay in power. The drug-taking was a way of masking these psychological problems.

He’s deliberately, it seems to me, focused on the personal. It was always going to be between [Ragnar and Rollo]. But who knew that Rollo would look strong and fit and be really supercharged, and would motivate his people? Ragnar’s not motivating the Vikings, and I think there’s a slightly suicidal sense about going into battle in that way. He wanted to get into a personal battle with Rollo, and I think he would have been happy if they both died. That’s my feeling, that that would have been a good ending for him.

On that note, there was a moment this season that I found intensely moving, when Ragnar has a vision of his past life on the farm, long ago.

You know, that’s my favorite scene of the whole show?

I can understand why! How did you conceive of that scene?

This is serendipity, but I took a little time off at one point, and I wrote a script for Mariel Hemingway about Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, the last book Hemingway wrote. It was based on when he was a young man, first married, way back in the ’20s, and he went to Paris to discover whether he could be a writer. He was in love with his young wife, and they had a baby there. At the end of A Moveable Feast, his book was published he was going to be famous. He’d lived in Paris in poverty until that. But he’d been so happy! As an old man looking back at that, he remembers the last time he saw his first wife and his little son together — he was going off with his new mistress — and he said, “That was when everything went wrong.” When he became the famous, rich, iconic Ernest Hemingway. He f—– it.

I was writing that, and then I thought, well, Ragnar has always talked about himself as a farmer. He’s always talked about the simple things in life. He didn’t want to stoop down to pick up power. So that’s a beautiful scene in which he could see what might have been, possibly, was more important to him, than what actually happened.

Ragnar was always very curious about the rest of the world, and it always felt to me like that curiosity was powering him, even more than any of his ambitions. This season, a lot of his energy has seeped out. How did you come up with that direction for this season?

It was the rise and fall of the hero. I was keen to show that, and I felt very strongly the audience would go with me on the descent, and wouldn’t keep insisting that he won everything. I wanted to remind them, from time to time, that he was the same bright, intelligent person. When he took them over the cliffs, that was Ragnar. But it is a decline. That puts challenges on the actor. I can’t say how wonderful Travis [Fimmel] was, as we developed that character, and that side of him.

What I will say is: Anyone who thinks that what has happened in [the midseason finale] is the end of the story is completely wide of the mark. Ragnar’s story is not told. Travis’ performances in scenes to come are some of the most extraordinary I’ve ever seen, so deep and moving. This is, and always has been, the story of Ragnar and his sons. I was very anxious of the sons to be there, present, right at the end of the episode. We can look forward to following them. But Ragnar’s story isn’t over by any means.

Did you always anticipate the big time jump happening here in the middle of season 4?

I always anticipated the time jump. It was inevitable, because I wanted the sons to grow up, and I wanted them to become active young men. I wanted to change it up when Ragnar is at his lowest, you know? That’s the end of a big part of Ragnar’s story.

People have asked me, like, “What is the time jump, exactly?” I don’t know, exactly! It was just enough time for the boys to grow up. Whether it’s six years or seven years or eight years didn’t worry me particularly. It did have, of course, ramifications in terms of: “What’s happened to the other characters? Do they look older?” One of the great shots is that visual effect when Ragnar comes back into Kattegat, and Kattegat has changed. It’s a huge town. He’s a stranger in this place, now. The sons have seen all this change, lived through that.

We’re told Ragnar has been wandering for a long time. Will we learn about those years between, and what he’s been up to?

Ragnar’s come back for a purpose. He has to fulfill that purpose, and he does fulfill that purpose. That’s a big part of the narrative. The sons, it’s slightly different. They have to consistently deal with the fallout of Ragnar leaving. When Ragnar left, there was a power vacuum. Who could fill that? In the medium term, Aslaug has stepped in, made herself the Queen. But these issues of power — who rules in Kattegat, what is the legacy — these are real issues.

Some of the sons are prepared to accept what happened to Ragnar. There are other sons who are implacably pissed off with him, that he’s betrayed them.

I have a very close friend, Nic Roeg, the director, who had triple heart bypass surgery. He’s 89. I went to see him. He really, in a sense, ought to have died during the surgery. I started to talk about it, and he said, “I don’t want to talk about it. There’s nothing to say. I’m just in a state of being.”

That’s what Ragnar is. What could he say? “Oh, I went here, or there.” What would that mean? Nothing? “I am here. I am still alive. I am in a state of being. You have to deal with it.” That’s what that wonderful end, when he’s confronting everyone: “You have to deal with me. I’m back. I’m Ragnar Lothbrok.”

Travis is so charismatic. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent with him just going through what he should say, what it means when he comes back. He wanted the backstory; he wanted to know. But for him, as a character, it’s forward. “I’ve changed. I’ve been defeated. But I’ve still got this vision. I’ve got this thing to do.” He has to go back to England. He has to confront Ecbert again about the destruction of the settlement. He has to make a full circle of his life. It drives him.

I love Nicolas Roeg films. I’m glad to hear the surgery was successful! I was just recently watching The Man Who Fell To Earth.

He’s my mentor. I love him. If you notice, there are many homages to Nic in the show. The first real lovemaking between Rollo and Gisla, that is set up like the lovemaking in Don’t Look Now. There are a lot of references in the show. A lot of references to [Andrei] Tarkovsky, because I love Tarkovsky.

What is your favorite Tarkovsky film?

Andrei Rublev. There’s quite a lot of quotes from that.

We leave Rollo at such an emotional climax. Is this the end of his journey on the show?

No, I couldn’t bear it to be the end. Rollo’s coming back, and I’m sure the fans will be delighted to know that.

Lagertha had some major moments in this run of episodes, but it felt to me like we saw less of her than in years past. Are we going to see more of her in the next half of the season?

Lagertha’s a very important character, as [Katheryn Winnick, who plays Lagertha] keeps reminding me. And quite rightly! She’s been on an incredible journey, from the beginning, really. I think it’s, I don’t know, the great female journey from early love, children, happy family to betrayal, divorce, abusive relationships, then to a taste of success. Usually, her success is compromised by men. However strong she becomes, somehow men succeed in taking things away from her. But she’s a huge part of the story going forward. There’s something she does which is so unexpected, but when you think about it later, you think: “No, she had to do that. That is Lagertha.”

She is always on my mind. She’s become the kind of soul of the show. She doesn’t just challenge the other male characters on the show. She challenges me.

It was interesting to see the actors playing Ragnar’s sons after the time jump. The actor playing Ivar, Alex Hogh Andersen, really stuck out to me. Is it crazy if I think he looks a little bit like Jonathan Rhys Meyers?

He is a great find. He’s a tremendous actor. Considering he’s playing a cripple, he has to play a lot off his face; his face is as expressive as Travis’. There are some great scenes between him and Travis in [the second half of the season]. He really is someone who’s going to take the show forward.

[At this point, Hirst talks a bit about Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ role in season 5. He is NOT playing an older version of Ivar, is all we can tell you.]

So much time has passed on this show, in a way that I think is unusual for television. We’ve talked in the past about your vision for the show. Do you envision a time when Vikings has moved past Lagertha, Ragnar, and the characters we began the show with?

I still want to, if I can, end it with the discovery of America, and at least one of the sons of Ragnar being there. There is talk of a spinoff series, which would be called Valhalla, in which we would have all the characters I’ve killed off meeting again.[Laughs] What I want to do is disprove this idea, which used to be mentioned, that once Ragnar is dead, that that’s the end of the show. It isn’t! That was never going to be the end of the show. We are going to power through. Mind you, Athelstan is dead, but he hasn’t quite disappeared. My characters hang around a bit.

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