History's “Vikings” returns on Thursday (February 19) night for the start of what looks to be its most ambitious season to date.
When we left Travis Fimmel's Ragnar last season, he'd completed his ascension to king, but he still had lots of unfinished business, particularly Across the Pond with Linus Roache's King Ecbert.
Season 3 finds Ragnar and friends holding things down at home, expanding their reach in England and, as series creator Michael Hirst has long teased, eying a raid on Paris.
Hirst is always one of my favorite interview subjects, but I tend to only get through a third of my questions when I get 15 or 20 minutes on the phone with the erudite Englishman, so I made sure to get a solid half-hour-plus when we sat down last month during the Television Critics Association press tour.
In the wide-ranging conversation, we discuss Ragnar's unease ruling position, the prophecy that starts Season 3, the looming attack on Paris and the show's increasing interest in a slew of fantastic female characters, including Lagertha, Aslaug and a few new additions.
Hirst teases which characters have pivotal arcs this season and, on the second page, he gives a few spoilers for at least one key relationship that develops over the first three episodes of the season.
It's a great conversation and I hope to have a review of “Vikings” before Thursday's premiere…
Check out the full Q&A…
HitFix: First season ends with Ragnar's ascension to Earl. The second season you literally leave him on a pinnacle. You leave him on a peak. Are we supposed to assume that in an “Everything's up-to-date in Kansas City” sense he's gone about as far as he can go to any degree?
Michael Hirst: No. One of the interesting things about the show is Ragnar never intended to be either Earl or King; had no ambitions to take the crown. And he got there because his primary motivation is curiosity, that he's curious about other lands, other cultures, other people. And if he has ambitions for anyone, it's for his people to find farming land for whatever it is for them. So he's on a pinnacle, but he's wondering what it means and he's wondering about the nature of kingship and power. So it's not and it never has been a show about who gets to be king, who gets the power, it's much more about what to does power actually mean.
HitFix: Does that set Ragnar up for a fall of some sort? Because power tends to corrupt as we've heard once or twice.
Michael Hirst: Well, that's precisely what happens in the first scene of Season 3, that he's talking about power corrupting people and he's telling Bjorn that it does. And if you want to power you have to be prepared to kneel down, to pick it up, to grovel around to pick it up. In other words it's not attractive to him, but it does give him resources, it gives him the opportunity to fulfill, or possibly to fulfill, things that do interest him. So, of course, he's going to go back to England and try and set up the farming community on the land that Ecbert has promised him, has given him. It's not necessarily a sexy ambition, but it's a real ambition and it was actually something Vikings actually did long-term. It's how it all worked out. And then before very long, because he's a curious guy, he turns his attention to Paris. Once he's heard about this place Athelstan's being there, he's really eager to see what Francia and Paris look like because he's heard that they are, as it were, higher cultures, even in Anglo-Saxon England. So those are two of the driving forces in the season.
There's not a lot I can talk about the consequences of those things, but to me they're very powerful and realistic motivating factors in the show. Ragnar, it's true that someone once said all political careers end in failure. Ragnar's ascent hasn't finished yet, but the thing that the historical Ragnar always feared was actually that his sons would become more famous than he was. And to some extent they did. Bjorn Ironside became one of the greatest Vikings. So I think within even Season 3, the beginnings of some seeds of disquiet about what he's doing this for. He's doing it for fame, he's doing it for curiosity, but also what role his family plays in this and his relationship to Bjorn, because at a deep level this is still a family saga.
HitFix: Now hearing you describe that, I'm struck by the notion that this is a show about almost an accidental ascendancy as you say, as opposed to “The Tudors,” which was about people so very aggressively going after the idea of power and all of its forms. How does that difference impact your approach?
Michael Hirst: Or “Game of Thrones” indeed, where all you want to be is king. And I think that that's actually becoming king is nothing really. You could kill you way to become king. It's what happens when you get that. “Tudors,” very different societies and actually Viking society much more democratic. In the Tudors was hierarchical, tyrannical – Viking society, Viking leaders it was very much meritocracy. Even with earls and kings, they had to keep being successful. They had to find land for farming or they had to go on good raids, depending on what kind of a king or leader they were. But nevertheless people could, those underneath them, in theory, could overthrow them at any time. The kingship very rarely would go to a son or a daughter. So I'm interested in a lot of things about Vikings society, as I was about Tudors society. It's just that Viking society is often unexpected. I knew a lot anyway about the Tudors, because it's not that long ago. In terms of the history of the world it's like that [SNAPS HIS FINGER]. Which is not to say that I don't to see Vikings as just human beings, of course they are. But it's a longer time ago. It's a more mysterious society. As I say lots of unexpected things, like their treatment of women and their democracy and their habits of thought and their gods and everything. I mean I'm just absolutely captivated by their gods. So for me, it's also a learning curve. I do a lot of research and I've got a historical advisor and an Icelandic novelist who excavates the sagas for me. So I'm kind of learning all the time. And also what happens doing one of these shows is that, which is why they're so much better to write than movies, is that these people are living and they change and they sometimes do unexpected things and they evolve and the relationships change. It becomes a kind of organic thing and you are just following them, developing them, watching them. And so I'm in the middle of that now. These people are all very, very alive to me and very real. And I'm finding out more and more about them.
HitFix: Now, we've talked before about the role of supernatural and religion and the importance of these people believing in this. What does it mean to you when you start a season with a prophecy as you do here? I mean that is how this season starts is with all these cryptic mysterious words, how seriously should we take it? How seriously does Lagertha take it?
Michael Hirst: Well, all the prophecies are true, but they're delivered in language that is mysterious and not easy to understand. And as The Seer himself says, “Well of course you don't understand them until it's happened,” which is a great get-out but it's also true. So it starts with prophecy and there are other prophecies along the way. Actually The Seer is a very important character, not only in Viking society but in the show. And I think to some extent it relates to the ambition of the show that we're moving out into larger territories. And so The Seer is talking sometimes less about individuals whether you're going to have a baby or you're going to have a, you know, and about huge events and sort of hinting at extraordinary futures and things. And so I think it quite rightly sets the tone for a show which is stepping up a number of gears and is going bigger and the stakes are higher, the attack on Paris, the raid on Paris was even at the time an extraordinary event, you know, 100 ships and 3000 men; nothing before it in the Viking calendar. So I think it's pointing to the idea that The Seer has foreseen these things it just sets the scene really.
HitFix: Are the thing that he prophesies, are they for this season in general? Like are we, by the end of the season, going to have seen all of that?
Michael Hirst: Yeah.
HitFix: And is that sort of fun for you as a writer to give yourself that thing to structure this season? Because you haven't done that in previous seasons… but there it is.
Michael Hirst: Yeah, some of it is the serendipity. I mean you write something and then you kind of wonder why you've written it and it's, “Oh God now I've got to deliver that. Is that possible to do?” So it was a kind of test that I set myself. But I did know that certainly some of the things that happen in Paris, I already knew where I was going with that and so I could feed that back to the prophecy. I could obfuscate it a little bit, because no prophecy is interesting if people just say, “You're going to be in a car crash next Thursday.” Well it is interesting because you might want to avoid that. So it was a kind of test I set myself. And as I say it gave me the opportunity to elevate the storylines. It's hinted at bigger things and I thought some of them were quite cool actually. That Paris would be — What's it? — captured “not by the living but by the dead” is a great thing and that comes true, but in an unexpected way.
HitFix: I also remember talking to you about how you were surprised initially by how much people loved Lagertha, but subsequently it has seemed as if you are getting more and more of a kick out of the female characters who you're introducing. I mean Porunn, Aslaug, they're at this point the most well-rounded, intriguing characters. When did you sort of realized, “Oh my goodness I'm writing a story about strong women more than anything else”?
Michael Hirst: I knew from the start that I wanted at least one strong female character. That was very important in a show called “Vikings” that everyone would just expect it was about men killing each other, but I had read that women could rule and that they fought in the shield wall. So actually casting was very difficult. Probably we talked about this that until we found Katheryn [Winnick] we were being offered these beautiful young actresses who you couldn't imagine had had two children and had killed guys in a shield wall. And Kathryn being a black belt in tae kwon do, you know, the physicality of the role didn't frighten her at all and she brought that to the role, and then along the way other female characters. Partly I like writing female characters. My doctorate was on the stories of Henry James and James said he preferred writing about female characters. So it's perhaps no coincidence that a lot of the women characters, once established, start to fly in a certain way because I get very intrigued about them myself. And to some extent it's easy — not “easier,” it's difficult to say this — they differentiate themselves more easily sometimes than the men, than the male warriors. They're so different. They're all so motivated by such different things and they play much more sort of complicated roles in some ways. And indeed as they all have, I think most of the major guys have great arcs in this season too, but the women have amazing arcs. And Aslaug ends up going to very dark places and being a very different character by the end of the season.
So I agree, I think that the women, the female characters are strong and interesting. And so they should be. The show has got a big female audience now. An American lesbian group got in touch with me recently saying that they didn't care what I did with any of the male characters, but if I touched Lagertha, I had to watch out. So I can see that there is now not just a big female audience but a very committed female audience. And I think that's great for the show and it's great for History, which is always male orientated. And I read it again and again in journalists' reports like “I eventually saw this show…” or “I didn't know the History of drama” or “In any case I had preconceptions about a show called 'Vikings'” and you start watching it and it's, “Hey it's not at all what you thought it was going to be.” Of course there's battles and fights, but it's about women and it's about families. So I think that's cool.
HitFix: Oh, it's very cool. And also this season just as it starts with The Seer it also starts with Lagertha. So does this feel like it's almost The Season of Lagertha to some degree?
Michael Hirst: No. I think all the major characters have very interesting arcs. If you'd say that this was a season about anyone in particular you would say this was Floki's season in the end. I mean he goes to very strange dark places, but Ragnar, Athelstan, Ecbert they all… I've got such a great cast now; I want to give them wonderful things to do, wonderful places to go. And of course they're all intersecting. We started with like one village, one boat, one monastery, 30 warriors or something and that we have at least three different worlds we go to. So it's a much more complicated show, complex. The dynamics are different, but it all connects. It's all connected. It's just the most important thing. But it does move forward and it moves forward in the way that that Viking period, Viking Age moved forward. It started with isolated raids, one or two ships and built fairly quickly to substantial raids to conflict between Christians and Pagans and to attempts to either farm or take over or whatever. So the show is actually mirroring historical events.
HitFix: And there are a wide range of tones the season. There is almost a love story that's verging on romantic comedy at a certain point, which I don't know that I've ever seen you necessarily do before. How did you feel about that as a writing exercise?
Michael Hirst: Good. Good actually. Any kind of comedy is good, actually, in the sense of, A) it's very hard to write. I think comedy is the hardest actual form of writing there is. But B) Because, again, it's a show called “Vikings” you think is going to be uber-serious; it's always going to be people just killing each other. And you have to leaven that tone, you have to have other aspects, because life has other aspects and because of the Vikings were actually well known for practical jokes. Travis [Fimmel] is the perfect Viking because he does lots of practical jokes to people, actually some of which are rather frightening. So the idea that there's a certain amount of comedy, that was very important. It's hard for me to put it in because it's hard to write comedy, but I wanted it in.
In the relationship between Ecbert and Lagertha, it came about partly thinking about their different languages. And so the comedy is really a lot in the language. And people who don't understand each other but are attracted to each other that's a great premise. That's a great premise both for love and for comedy. And there are people who they're both curious people, powerful people, they're not afraid. It doesn't mean anything to Lagertha to have an affair with someone. She's a Viking, so her morality is different. So again the culture clash is there, but this time it's turned into something slightly more comedic, slightly more romantic, but it's the same clash that show is very much rooted in the Pagan/Christian dynamic.
HitFix: Like you say it's a challenge to set yourself to do a romantic-comedy but then to also set yourself the challenge of doing it in several languages that people don't speak anymore… Was finding a way to write those non-English dialogue scenes easier or harder than you figured it would be? Or did you just hand it to an expert and go, “Give me this…”?
Michael Hirst: Ultimately when I decided that that was what I was going to do it wasn't hard to write that because I could imagine that Ecbert would be egging it on, would be telling her how beautiful she was and how he was in love with her and passionate and getting Athelstan to translate all this and Athelstan going, “He says you're alright” or whatever. But as soon as you have that figure actually in-between, that's a good comic device too. And it's refreshing for me. It's just a different note to strike and everything. And above that I want to find places where it seems organic to use these languages because who would know that [in 2015] we have a popular network American TV shows that uses dead languages. I mean we used Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse and now we're using Old French, bits of Old French, which sounds more Germanic. And these languages have neither been spoken nor heard, in the case of Old French, for thousands of years. The academic community we reach out to do the translations, I think at Cambridge University, and some of the professors are just delirious. They debate with each other about what it would have sounded like, that we get different accounts. They said, “Well it depends where it is.” But what other show gives you dead languages?
HitFix: Did the actors freak out when you told them that they had to do it?
Michael Hirst: They love it. They love it. It's rather daunting if they have a wedge to do, but it's a very interesting challenge for them. And to my ears, I love it. I love hearing it. They keep having to stop me using too much of it, which I understand, but I think if what's being said is slightly humorous, actually reading the translation can be quite funny. Because you're listening you think, “That sounds quite serious” and then you read the translation and it's not at all.
HitFix: The first season had a major episode built around the sacrifice at Uppsala, the second season had a major episode built around the blood eagling. And then in the third episode of this season you have the farm sacrifice. What was your approach to that, differentiating it, but also what was the fascination you had with it that you had to get that into the show?
Michael Hirst: That was sort of organic. It started out with I wanted to establish the settlement, I wanted to show the difficulties that Ecbert was having persuading some of his nobles to allow it to happen and I wanted to amp that up. So I thought, “What would they done when they planted the crops? They would have had obviously a sacrifice.” We all know that that some of the pagans and Roman did that too; you sprinkle blood on the seeds and on the ground. And I thought, “The Saxon nobles will be absolutely shocked by this and literally so.” There are a lot of Christian fundamentalists around at the time. But then I thought, “Well, like most things, in a show you need to see it from a particular point of view of someone that you're vested in; that you care about so why isn't Lagertha the priest in this case?” Lagertha, who Ecbert is having an affair with, and so it immediately becomes more dynamic and interesting and deeper. And she did such a good job with the speech. Just to have any old, as it were, actor doing that wouldn't have had that sort of power. And you can understand I think as a result the feeling of the Saxons, but also Ecbert's need to protect her.
HitFix: There are some very interesting sexual dynamics at play in these early episodes. You have the Saxon princesses and they have very different approaches of sexuality than what we necessarily might expect and that sort of plays off, even against our notion of the Viking sexuality as well. So what are the parallels that you're trying to draw there?
Michael Hirst: One of the things I wanted to begin with was to establish the fact that, of course, Viking morality is different from ours and from Christian morality. But at the same time I didn't want to caricature that like, “Oh pagans they don't care, they sleep with everyone and they have no morality at all.” I think what we discovered is that they are, in their own ways, actually very moral. Husbands and wives can be jealous of each other and it's a big thing, like when Ragnar strays with Aslaug and all that with huge consequences. Nevertheless, paganism it certainly was a much freer body of belief with much more concentration on the body. Christianity, certainly at that time, it's a much more intellectual philosophy, Christianity, and it had much harsher rules about behavior, which now I think would probably shock us. And also they had guilt. Vikings didn't know the meaning of guilt. So what you have is, in the relationship between Judith and Athelstan, a lot of guilt on her part, a lot of fear and the sense that women were less freer than Viking women, so Lagertha is perfectly happy to get into the bath with Ecbert, especially when surrounded by pictures of the pagan gods, but of course for Judith it's an absolute moment of crisis. And it does lead to some fairly horrific consequences for her. So for me there's a distinction in actually both camps between the fundamentalists and the others. So Floki's a pagan fundamentalist who refuses to believe that the Vikings should in any way support, fight for, deal with Christians, that it's polluting and that if you do that in the long-term, it's a war between their gods and the Christian gods and one or the other must win. And indeed, he's right. 400 years later Scandinavia was Christianized and the Pagan gods were gone fundamentally, so he's right in that sense. Ragnar takes a more realistic view, that in order to find farming land, in order to move the society forward you have to deal with Christians, anyone else probably. And I think in the Christians, you see that Judith's husband is a Christian fundamentalist. So what I'm trying to do I suppose is finesse these things. It's not just, “There's Christian or Pagan belief.” There are faiths within faiths, varieties of faith. But it really drives the show in a way that I had never expected, because for me it's like the intellectual part of the show. But when we go to Comic-Con it's what people ask me about and are crazy about. It's fantastic I think.
HitFix: How big, action setpiece-wise, is the Paris attack?
Michael Hirst: It's huge. It's huge. We were going into places we had never gone before and we couldn't have done it without the fact that the crew is so good, been together so long. They did “Braveheart,” they've tackled big things before and that everyone regarded it as a fantastic challenge, an opportunity. It was amazing to watch these builds on the backlots. And in the studio we built the interior of Notre Dame. It's the biggest build we've ever done, stained-glass windows — this is on one of the biggest stages in Europe — and statues, it's amazing. And of course it's exciting for everyone involved. It's exciting for the costume designer and the designer, because you go into another world. And then outside on the back lot we put up part of the walls of Paris, we built the bridge going into Paris and various other things that we had built down on the River Liffey. And we had these great guys who do the choreography for the fights and they were in their element too.
But to actually see both the attack happening when they're trying to storm of the walls and they've gone in with the boats right up against the walls. They have these ladders that look a little like cheese graters because it's straight back and then the ladder goes up and it's near the top. And you get hundreds and hundreds of people — warriors, extras, stuntmen and women — climbing these things and then setting them on fire. We set them on fire and the stuntmen and women are on fire suddenly and they're all falling off into the water. Most the time shooting a show is boring.
HitFix: This one's not?
Michael Hirst: Yeah. This was not boring at all. It was sort of heart-in-the-mouth time because you knew that these guys only have a few seconds to live in the flames. And we don't use a lot of CGI because I like the fact it's real. On this occasion, because we're attacking Paris with 100 boats and two or three thousand warriors, we are going to use CGI. So there will be hundreds of these ladders against the walls. It's awesome.
HitFix: You knew you were looking forward to this for Season 3 when we talked last year midway through Season 2, do you already know what you're looking forward to in the same way in a hypothetical Season 4?
Michael Hirst: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We haven't finished with Paris for a start. No, I do know. It's just every season I have to up the ante and I have to figure out, “Let's do a different kind of a battle.” That's one thing. If you're just getting these armies of CGI warriors going from left to right and then from right to left you actually, I think, have to have different kinds of battle experiences. So that's what I'm doing at the moment actually.
“Vikings” returns to History on Thursday, February 19.