Major events happened in the second season finale of "Vikings," which aired Thursday on History. Don't read on unless you've seen "The Lord's Prayer," but if you want to hear from creator Michael Hirst on what happened and what's to come next for Ragnar and his warriors, keep going.
Were Floki and Siggy going to betray Ragnar? Would the earl and his family perish as part of a calculating plan cooked up by King Horik? What would be the outcome of the power struggle that drove much of Season 2? Well, as the final shot of the finale indicated, Ragnar is now king, and as Hirst said in the interview below, the ambitious Viking now has the reach and the power to make some of his dreams of conquest come true.
So what's next for Ragnar's band of marauders? How's this for exciting: One of the next stops on the "Vikings" world tour is Paris. Yes, Paris! Hirst talks about the Vikings' French adventure, and you'll also find out what happened to Horik's son and whether King Ecbert is coming back. I also asked him about the origins of the show and got his thoughts on one of my favorite characters, Athelstan, and Hirst also discusses the intense Season 2 moment that made History executives very nervous.
Were you ever tempted to keep King Horik alive?
No, I felt from the first time that they met that Horik [Donal Logue] was going to take out the potential rivals of his throne. However sympathetic he first appeared -- and I wanted him to seem very generous and welcoming -- it wouldn’t be long before he set his mind to destroying Ragnar [Travis Fimmel]. Because in a sense, everything in the Viking world -- not everything, but a lot of their attention -- was about fame. I mean, not about celebrity, but about real fame – it’s what you actually do.
We know from the sagas that the Vikings valued fame above everything else. And the only thing that Ragnar was really concerned with was that his sons would ultimately become more famous than he was. So this fame thing was already in the background of this relationship. When Horik is just meeting Ragnar for the first time at the end of Season 1 -- he’s a king, but he’s meeting a young man who’s just become earl. Ragnar's actually more famous than he is. So I always assumed that they would be in conflict and that Horik would have a showdown with him and would try and destroy him. That’s pretty true to Viking experience.
My only problem is that we keep casting people who I think are so wonderful, and it’s horrible and difficult to kill them off. You know, "blood eagling" Jarl Borg [Thorbjørn Harr] -- it was worse for me than it was for Ragnar. I love that guy. And Horik similarly was a great, great actor, and it’s difficult to kill them, but mind you, it is a show called “Vikings.”
In the final image of the season, we see Ragnar sitting on that lofty place. Does that mean he’s now king?
He is king.
And I would assume that that only multiplies his problems; it doesn’t decrease them.
Of course being king makes it even more difficult and problematic. I’m in the middle of writing Season 3, and being king also brings with it some opportunities [regarding] the dreams he’s had about establishing colonies elsewhere and getting his folks farming in different places. He’s very serious about that. It’s not the sexiest idea in the world, but it’s a real thing for him. One of the greatest things about the character is that he takes his social responsibilities seriously, and he’s never been interested in just pillaging. Being king does give him the opportunity to try and make some good aspirations come true.
But on the other hand, Ragnar -- and I certainly think this about Travis -- never wanted to be a king or an earl, per se. The trappings of power, you know, the ambitions of that -- it doesn’t appeal to either of them. Travis drives our wonderful costume designer completely bonkers because he won’t wear ermine. He doesn’t want to appear grand.
Did Horik's son die?
No, Ragnar saves him.
Did a couple of Horik's daughters live?
No. [Ragnar's warriors] killed all of Horik's family except his son Erlendur [Edvin Endre]. The women who survived were the slaves. They killed the daughters.
But Horik’s son did get away.
Yeah. Ragnar reprieved him. I don’t know whether it’s still in [the U.S. edition of] the show. There is an American version of "Vikings," and then there is a European/world version, which is longer and has other scenes in it. Anyway, Erlendur has been impressed by the idea of going to farm in England. And in his pocket he has a handful of mud, earth from England. When Ragnar sees him with this handful of dirt, he knows that he’s thinking along the same lines, that they’re connected in some way. So he spares him. But, of course, that turns out to be a terrible decision in the end.
We saw Bjorn all grown up this season, because there was a time jump between Seasons 1 and 2. Will there be a similar jump between Seasons 2 and 3?
I kind of want it, because I want to get Ragnar’s sons established -- they’re going to become major players in the future. But every time I think of a jump forward in time, I think about what I am going to miss, and I don’t want to let go of anything -- these people or their histories or their experiences. And if I go forward five, six, seven years, everyone is going to say, "Well, what the hell happened in those intervening years?" So I suspect that I won’t skip forward in time.
One aspect of the show that's unusual is that it takes spirituality seriously and it doesn’t make light of it. The show not only takes people's relationships with divinities seriously -- it actually makes those connections a primary driver, in some ways, of people’s actions.
That’s something I’m interested in, personally anyway, and [the former monk] Athelstan is this kind of wonderful character who is caught between cultures and religion. You can imagine at the time how serious religious belief was. If you’re confronted suddenly with another extremely compelling system, it might screw with your mind.
I’m writing the outline for Season 3 now, and I decided for some reason that’s not even clear to me that in the end, Athelstan [George Blagden] becomes born again. He was always a more convincing monk than he was a Viking, and I thought, yeah, he rediscovers his faith, and how extraordinary is that in a Viking context? And he suffers for that undoubtedly, but I feel that trajectory is his life. But it’s certainly an ongoing struggle. It divides his soul.
He’s taken under the wing of both Ragnar and King Ecbert, and Ecbert of Wessex [Linus Roache] is also a very interesting and intellectual and sophisticated guy. So to have these guys fascinated by him is a very, very difficult position for poor Athelstan to reconcile. But he’s been a great character for me, because he helped me to take the audience into the Viking world.
And their beliefs so obviously inform so many of their actions -- even the bloodiest ones. This season's "Blood Eagle" episode reminded me of Season 1's trip to the temple of Uppsala. There's such lyricism and sadness and brutality all at once in how everything came together.
I think it's one of the great pieces of television history -- not because I wrote it, but because of the way it was shot. It wasn’t done for effect. It was incredible physical suffering, but it was also spiritual suffering. It had a point. I like to think that everything about the show if you analyze it, it works psychologically. It’s not done to shock anyone. It tells a story and it’s as real as I could make it.
That Jarl Borg sequence, to me, had all of the hallmarks of the things I like best about the show. It did have a deeper meaning and you could read it a number of ways. It was this almost wordless, beautifully shot moment in which the whole community was taking part. You could view it as everyone making this member of the community pay for his crime, but they’re also trying to help him arrive at a better spiritual afterlife. It was moving.
We shot that over a whole night, and I don’t think anyone who was there will ever forget it. We had a great female director called Kari Skogland who brought such intensity and lyricism to the show. History was very, very alarmed at the idea of shooting that scene. But I think that we managed to do it in a way that more is suggested than you actually see. And it’s not cynical, you know. It’s a beautiful thing in many ways. It is a beautiful scene. It was fantastic. It was a huge privilege to be there and watch it.
Going back to the origins of the show, did you have an interest in this time in history or in the Vikings, or did you have an idea about depicting a clash of cultures, maybe particularly a monotheistic culture versus polytheistic culture? What led you to delve so deeply into this particular subject?
After I’d written [the movie] “Elizabeth,” I was asked by Working Title to write a script about a medieval English king called Alfred the Great, who fought against the Vikings. I started to do some research, and it was the Dark Ages and there’s not much to find out about them. But [I did learn] about the sagas and the gods and the stories of the gods and the religion that’s much, much older than Christianity. It’s fantastic and the gods are crazy. I mean, for the Vikings, the gods just live among you and they behave in extraordinary ways. So I was really, really interested in Viking culture.
And also there were other things that were interesting. Their attitude toward women was fantastically enlightened compared to the Saxons and the Franks at the time. Women could divorce their husbands and own property and fight in the wars and rule, and the society was much more democratic. Nothing happened with that Working Title show, but ultimately I was offered the opportunity to write about the Vikings, and it’s been an enormous joy and pleasure.
Looking ahead to Season 3, is King Ecbert going to be back?
Oh yeah, Ecbert is too great a character not to bring back, as is Princess Kwenthrith of Mercia [Amy Bailey].
She’s quite a handful.
She is quite a handful, yeah. They’re too good not to bring back. There’s an ongoing situation in England where, of course, Ecbert has huge ambitions to be the king of kings, the ruler of all England. He’s trying to use the Vikings to be part of that -- they're part of his ambitions. That will be a big part of Season 3, even before the Vikings go on and attack Paris.
The attack on Paris is a very, very famous event in history. Paris was this extraordinary city that the Romans had built, and [at that time, it was] on an island in the middle of the Seine. It had walls around it and towers and everything. And the Vikings attacked it with a hundred ships.
It was an extraordinary event. The siege of Paris lasted a long time and led to many, many unexpected things. I’ve warned everyone in production -- "Hey, guys, I’m afraid in Season 3 we attack Paris with a hundred ships. So I hope you’re ready."
It seems as though you're opening up the scope of the show more and more each season. Was that always the intent?
Yes. I’ve said that the show is not going to end until we discover America.