The recent death of a major Vikings character won’t slow the momentum of the History Channel series—or of the 9th Century explorers and raiders it portrays.
[Spoilers ahead if you aren’t caught up with Episode 15 of Season 4.]
In the recent “All His Angels” episode, Northumbrian King Alle (Ivan Kaye) tosses Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) into a pit of vipers after torturing him for days. The scene was insanely difficult to watch because of the brutality, but also for the loss of both Ragnar and Fimmel.
“Vikings” creator, exec producer and writer Michael Hirst understands that fans are upset by Ragnar’s death. He, too, was sad to see a character he had come to love go—not to mention his main star.
But in a recent phone conversation, Hirst explained that he never planned for “Vikings” to be just about the first great viking leader. It’s the story of Ragnar and his sons.
“This is a show about real people, and real people do grow old and they do die,” he said. “We have to face up to that. Ragnar dies, but he lives on through his sons.”
Boy, does he live on. Historically, Ragnar’s sons take the vikings to new lands and greater conquests. Hirst plans to show them fulfill their destinies in as much dramatic detail as he told Ragnar’s story.
And he’s wasting no time. In the next episode. Bjorn Ironside (Alexander Ludwig) leads the vikings as they raid the Spanish coast on their way to the Mediterranean. Back in Kattegatt, Ivar the Boneless (Alex Høgh Andersen) begins plotting to avenge the deaths of Ragnar and of his mother, Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland).
Nope, “Vikings” is going to be anything but boring in the future.
Hirst and I talked more about saying goodbye to Ragnar and Fimmel, how Ragnar’s death moves the saga in new directions, and who that one-eyed man sailing to Kattegatt is. (He appears again—in several places at once—in “Crossings.”)
“Vikings” airs at 9/8c Wednesdays on History. Watch Ragnar’s defiant final speech in the video above. You may hear it again soon.
Congratulations Michael. You just keep topping yourself.
Thank you. I have to say that I’m surrounded by a lot of talented people over in Ireland—a fantastic crew. They rise to the challenge, you know? I try and set them kind of challenges I don’t think that they could necessarily meet, and they always do meet them. They go one better. We’ve hauled boats up cliff faces for real.
We stood on a muddy mountainside—that must have been around this time last year actually—and watched Ragnar dangling in his cage after three days of rain. It was just awesome. It was amazing.
Speaking of that recent event, had you always planned to go all the way with him and the sons and really hit the entire vikings’ saga as opposed to the Ragnar saga?
That goes back to very early discussions with my historical advisor and trying to find a lead character who could take us deeper into the viking story that wasn’t just all about him. Ragnar was a sort of godsend—the first great viking leader to emerge from myths and legend. He had many sons, some of whom did actually become more famous than he did. I had heard a little bit obviously about Ivar the Boneless, so it was wonderful to find out these people were real and they could take me where I wanted to go basically.
Originally you had planned to kill off Ragnar much earlier?
I had. Well, when you start writing about these things and you’re writing a bible, which is really a pitch document, you’re trying to make it as exciting as possible. You’re stuffing things in that you think are going to be well received. I was four years premature thinking about when Ragnar would die. But yeah, in my very first bible that we pitched to the History Channel, he died at the end of Season 1, but not before he’d attacked Paris. You can imagine how many great, glorious events happened in the very first season.
That would have been a very different show.
You discover it stops being an idea and becomes real when you have real actors and you have the beginning of a story to tell. It becomes organic and in a way has its own pace and—as a writer and as an audience—you become more invested in these characters. You don’t want to get rid of them. You want to live with them and find out what kind of people they are. TV drama is just brilliant for that. You have the time and the opportunity to explore them in ways you never have in movies. You get to examine their contradictions as well as anything else.
Ragnar, as we’ve talked about a lot, always seems to be one step ahead of everyone else. How did you come up with the idea that he would orchestrate his own death?
Well, it seemed fitting that he would. I was always looking for the type of things that he might do despite the agonies that I knew he would have to go through. These were almost like redeeming moments for him, although his great redemption is dying well, I think, in the great viking way.
To some extent, these things came out in extended discussions between me and Travis. Travis became very involved, very engaged in his own death on screen. We went through every line, through the whole scenario—because he wanted to feel completely comfortable with what his character was doing. I wanted that character I’d lived with and loved—for 4 1/2 years for goodness’ sake—to actually go out well. There were many twists and turns along the way. We had other ideas at some point, but the idea that despite being a captive and helpless and in a cage, Ragnar still was exercising free will and still having a big say in his own death and what the consequences of his death would be. That seemed really cool for such a great character.
And to the end he was maneuvering the pieces, wasn’t he? Did he plan all along to kill everyone in his raiding party?
I’m not sure. I think there might have been different scenarios. I think that he knew that his destiny lay somehow in contact with, conversation with, confrontation with Ecbert. He felt somehow there was just a lot of unfinished business. However that came about, that was what he was looking for. Whether he had to fight a battle before that came about, it was still going to be really the same outcome, because in some way I think Ragnar was weary and he had done more or less everything he wanted to do, He was ready to die, but he wanted to die purposefully.
Wherever he’d been on that long, lonely sojourn, he could have faded away. But he came back and he wanted to make some kind of impact. He could maneuver his way around circumstances, but certainly he wanted Ivar to experience England. Ragnar wanted Ivar to know about the people, about the countryside and things. He had a feeling that Ivar might be the one to revenge him, because I think he knew he was going to his death.
Of course, it’s the great irony on the show that he finally chose to be accompanied by his crippled son, by the one least likely to be able to revenge him, but the one that Ragnar had chosen and the one he felt would definitely organize his revenge.
In the short time we’ve seen it this season, their relationshipreally resonates. I remember as a child he shunned Ivar and was going to kill him. When he came back he seemed to recognize a lot of himself in Ivar straight away.
He recognized a lot of things in Ivar, but what I think he admired about him was that he’d risen above his disability. Also, his anger could be turned into something useful. I think a lot of Ragnar’s virtues and strengths and so on were distributed amongst his sons. We’ve shot almost 25 hours of the show after Ragnar’s death, so the boys are developing differently and you can see in Ubbe many facets of Ragnar.
Ivar’s just one of the ones who’s inherited some features, but certainly in terms of being ruthless and lethal and able to carry through a monumental plan, yes, Ragnar recognized that Ivar was the one to choose.
How do the deaths of Ragnar and Aslaug affect the brothers and others?
Well, it can’t be a secret that they collectively feel the need to revenge the death of their father. Vengeance is just in the DNA of vikings; you had to get revenge. They form something that the Saxons called the Great Heathen Army. They called it the Great Army—a bigger army drawn from all parts of Scandinavia. No larger army had ever been assembled than the one that was going to fall upon England and avenge Ragnar’s death. That’s the storyline that was triggered immediately after Ragnar’s death, as he knew it would be. And that starts immediately.
In fact, I went on a archeological dig last summer in a place called Repton in the Midlands [of England]. It used to be the capital of the biggest Saxon kingdom called Mercia. Now it’s just a small, drive-through Midland town. But the Great Army wintered there, building a camp around the ancient Saxon Church, and burying their dead in the churchyard. And it’s possible that this was the last resting place of Ivar the Boneless.
I was digging up viking graves. I found two viking arrowheads in a grave, and it was absolutely amazing. Anyway, that was cool.
I bet it was.
To be that close to the history that I’m actually writing. But beyond that, … this show always has followed the trajectory of the age of the vikings that starts in a modest way with one or two ships raiding along the coasts of England and Scotland, Ireland, and Francia and attacking these unprotected monasteries. They get more ambitious then, with more ships and bigger armies attacking Paris and further afield. I needed to take the show to many places including Iceland and the Mediterranean, and this season we’ve done that. We actually shot in different countries and different circumstances, and it’s been absolutely awesome.
Are the sons going to also try to avenge the death of their mother?
Oh yes. We’ve got a lot of stuff coming up. It’s very important to make the point that because this for me is always the saga of Ragnar and his sons, I didn’t want to end a season with Ragnar’s death. I didn’t want signal, “OK guys, that’s the end of the main action.”
The pace never slackens; the drama doesn’t slacken. Ragnar, although he’s physically dead now, never goes away. He continues to live obviously through his sons, through his fame, through his influence, through his dreams and his passions and the way that the sons try to interpret and fulfill all that. Just like Athelston, Ragnar will be there to the end of the show. He’ll be a presence in the show to the very end of it.
I had a conversation on Twitter yesterday with a fan who’s really upset that Ragnar is gone. She doesn’t understand why he’s been killed off. I said, “Well, it’s history.”
This is a show about real people and real events, so it’s not fantasy. There are other shows on TV where people never grow old or change or do anything. …
She said she doesn’t think she’ll watch because he was the reason she did. I tried to explain that Ivar and Bjorn do amazing things and she is likely to find them just as deep as Ragnar.
Alex, the young guy who plays Ivar, is barnstorming. He is incredible. You will not want to turn away from Ivar the Boneless. His story, which I’m still deep into writing, … is just incredible. People should keep watching because the show keeps giving.
Will you miss Ragnar?
Well, of course. But it’s a long time ago for us now. … The good thing is we’ve still got Lagertha, we’ve got Bjorn, we’ve got Floki. A lot of the original cast [members] are still major players. But we have new blood and young guys. We have a lot of new energy and that’s important for a show. We’ve been going now for 4 1/2 years. …
I think Ragnar felt that it was his time to go, and I couldn’t have added any more to his story. To me, that was a natural and beautiful end to his story, which sets up the next part of the story. I have no regrets about that. When I stood there on that rainy Irish hillside watching his death, I wept. Obviously it was a big moment for me, but we move on. That’s life.
When Ecbert, wearing the disguise, watched Ragnar die, I felt like maybe he was your proxy—Michael’s proxy.
Sure, but he’s wearing Athelston’s robes, so Athelston is kind of also there. And Athelston has also been my proxy, you know? He’s the character who I took from a Christian community into theviking community to explain to modern audiences what the vikings were like, so in a sense he was me. There he was again watching Ragnar’s death. It was a beautiful, completed circle somehow in those moments of passion and that Christlike ending for Ragnar.