‘Vikings’ creator Michael Hirst on Floki’s darkness, Ragnar’s faith and a Season 4 time jump

05.01.15 2 years ago


The third season of History's “Vikings” ended last Thursday.

I was a little bit behind.

I had to catch up on Floki's paranoia and religious fervor, on Ragnar's grief and trickery, on Rollo's military might and, of course, on the epic attack on Paris that produced the climax to what was surely the busiest “Vikings” season to date. It was a run of 10 episodes that began with the establishment of a farming settlement in England, but built to three straight hours of almost non-stop action.

Having hissed at Floki's increased villainy, cheered for Ragnar's clever fulfillment of The Seer's prophesy and pondered a seemingly uncertain future for several characters, it was time to get on the phone with “Vikings” creator Michael Hirst, to unpack some of the details of the season past and other details of the season to come.

When Hirst and I talked in January, we went into depth on the show's spectacularly strong female characters, but the “Tudors” mastermind teased that this was The Season of Floki, a sentiment that I now understand.

Having had several Lagertha-based discussions in past years, this conversation didn't go down that path. It could have, but in 30 minutes with Hirst, you can only get to so much.

Instead, we talked about Floki's darkening and about whether or not the big revelation at the end of the finale — Ragnar telling Floki he knew about the killing of Athelstan — was actually a revelation. I poked around a bit about the identity of the mysterious wanderer Harbard and how much of Ragnar's interest in Christianity is real.

I also had some personal intellectual itches to scratch, like inquiring about the amusing moment in which The Seer quoted T.S. Eliot's “Burnt Norton,” one of several anachronistic literary homages within the show. We also talked about the passage of time on “Vikings,” specifically how many years must've passed during a season drought with lengthy expeditions and campaigns.

We barely scratched the surface of things that interested me about this season, but it's a good conversation about some of what transpired this spring and what's in store for Season 4…

Click through for the full Q&A, with Season 3 spoilers…

HitFix: When we spoke in January, you told me that this was The Season of Floki and indeed you took a sort of a character who was an eccentric sidekick and made him into I would say close to a villain. What reactions have you gotten from that shift?

Michael Hirst: I”m not aware of reactions, as it were, in social media or anything because I don”t monitor that or look at it but I think he knew, Gustaf [Skarsgård] and I talked a lot about the arc of the character and what was happening to Floki. And of course he was thrilled and he put his heart and soul into it. And he did change, I think, from someone who probably started out as being very eccentric but slightly harmless, or that”s the way that you would look at him, and now he”s certainly not harmless. And he”s a real force. He”s dangerous. It”s what I”d always intended him to be and I think the scenes, particularly in Episode 8 when he”s under the burning ladder and when he”s in the water talking to Helga, I think those are some of the most powerful scenes that Floki has done in the whole show. And I think it was remarkable. 

HitFix: In your mind is there a moment at which Floki's kind of fundamentalism, which was always there, slipped into a kind of dangerous zealotry?

Michael Hirst: I”ve always liked, obviously I”m really obsessed with the kind of spiritual aspects of the show, the questions of faith and what it means, and I don”t necessarily take a point of view on that. What I”m really saying is that this is what people believed at the time. This is what we understand they believed at the time and let”s take a look at it. Let”s walk around it. Let”s understand, possibly, what it means. And that”s as well for the Christian characters as the Pagans. And I think in some ways, for example, that Aethelwulf, Ecbert's son, is a Christian fundamentalist, as Floki is a Pagan fundamentalist. And his arguments have validity, I think. Just as Ragnar”s counter-arguments have validity. And the arguments, it comes down to this: That Ragnar says, “Look, you know, we have to compromise. What we need as a society we need to go to places and do deals so we can get farming lands for our people, to sustain our people. We have to deal with Christian culture. We ought to find out about Christian culture. And that”s the way our people will survive.” And Floki”s argument is, “We can”t do that because once we start down that road we lose our identity, we”ll compromise our beliefs and ultimately, we may even lose the Gods, that the Christian God might prevail.” And, funnily enough, that”s of course exactly what happened. In the end of the 400 years or so of the Viking Age, all the Scandinavian countries were converted to Christianity. But the Vikings had established themselves in most European countries and were farming and were embedded in different cultures. So Ragnar”s argument won, but Floki”s argument was still very valid. So that”s the historical story. And that, in a way, that”s the story I”m trying to tell. And but of course in personal terms it has huge impacts. I mean what Floki feels has the obvious result of killing of the death of Athelstan. The one person really who Ragnar totally depended on.

HitFix: But there still has to be in your mind kind of a shift at which this went from being a spirituality to a spirituality used to I guess justify certain levels of violence that we hadn”t seen before, though.

Michael Hirst: No, I think the violence has always been there. I mean the scale of the violence is different, because there are thousands of warriors attacking Paris and so on. But if you remember right from the beginning, I”ve never shied away from the fact that Viking society was violent and of course other societies were violent too, but Viking society certainly had a reputation for violence. But it was just that it also had other elements which no one had explored before and there was a real civilization there and there were other things going on. But no, I certainly haven”t made Floki more violent. If you remember I think in Season 1, the end of Season 1, when Rollo had got baptized and Floki was teasing him about being a Christian and challenging him to show that he still believed in the Gods. And Floki, at the end of the battle, went around killing all these injured Christians on the battlefield to prove that he was still a Pagan. And so my attitude toward the violence and the violence in the show really hasn”t changed.

HitFix: Then do you see what Aethelwulf did at the Viking farming settlement as being sort of a parallel to that early scene you mentioned?

Michael Hirst: Yes I do. What I”m saying is the Christian culture was equally violent which, you know, we know and of course it continued to be violent through the Crusades and so on. And I wanted to show that as well, that there”s a kind of counter to Ecbert”s civility. The fact that Ecbert grew up in the court of Charlemagne, that he appreciates Roman things and beauty and so on, but it”s underpinned by brutality and violence, which is true. And when we get to, for example, when we get to Mercia which is an English kingdom which is disintegrating with all the members of the royal family killing each other. And so it was just endemic to the period. But I wanted to share it around that”s for sure.

HitFix: When it comes to faith and belief in the supernatural does it matter if the audience knows or understands exactly what Harbard the Wanderer was or does it only matter what happened while he was there and more importantly what Floki thinks he was?

Michael Hirst: Yes, it doesn”t. I”m not really in the business of explaining things. Tt”s not a lesson. These mysterious wanderers, these holy men in theory, these people who might or might not be Gods are in The Sagas. So I”m borrowing from the real estate of Viking culture and I”m not myself certainly not at the moment saying whether or not I believe, myself, that Harbard is it a God or just an opportunist. I think it”s part of the texture of the piece and again, I”m not necessarily making a point about this. I”m just showing what happens within that society when one of these strange wanderers shows up. And it may indeed not be the last time we see Harbard, either. [He chuckles.]

HitFix: Now the climax of the finale is Ragnar telling Floki that he knows about Athelstan and I have to admit I had kind of assumed that they both already knew that the other knew. What did you in your mind imagine the alternative being that Ragnar was thinking at that point?

Michael Hirst: Well when you watch the first couple of episodes of Season 4, which we”re just shooting now, all will become clear about that. I, too think that Ragnar has known for quite some time that Floki was the killer and yet he hasn't done anything about it. And that”s an interesting question. Why has he not done anything, punished Floki, arrested him? Indeed why did he give him control of the early attacks on Paris? Although you could say and this is something I know that Travis [Fimmel] believes is that Ragnar knew or had a very strong feeling that it would be impossible to attack or get into Paris by climbing the walls or getting through the gates, because Athelstan had told him that he wouldn”t be able to do that. So he needed someone to try and fail and he didn”t want to fail himself. He didn”t want to be seen to fail. So that was one reason that he gave Floki command of that early attack. And it may be punishment for what he did to Athelstan. But these are good questions and the answer will be all there in Season 4.

HitFix: I went back and I watched the end of “Born Again” and there”s a hard cut from Floki doing what he does to Athelstan to Ragnar taking Athelstan”s body off into the woods. And I was wondering whether that”s an example of there having to be a deleted scene or were you trying to be intentionally oblique about what happened in the interim between those two events?

Michael Hirst: No there was no scene. I didn”t want to write a kind of conventional scene in which the guy goes, “Oh, who killed my friend Athelstan?” you know? “We must have a hunt and let”s get the cops onto this.”  I wanted to play in a different way and I wanted to play it over time. I think what I tried to establish was that when Athelstan, after his illumination, he goes to Ragnar and says, “I can”t stay here obviously.” And Ragnar says, “You can”t leave me.” And Athelstan says, “Well I don”t care what happens to me now. I don”t care what happens.” And Athelstan knows that he”s going to be killed. So he”s going to be killed by Viking society. He”s going to be killed because he”s in the middle of Viking society and he”s suddenly refound his belief in God, in the Christian God. So he”s gonna be killed. And so it”s not like a cop show. It”s not particularly even for Ragnar, “Who killed my pal?” It”s like, “This was gonna happen anyway.” So I was just being in a slightly different way and I was concentrating not on the procedural elements because procedural stuff doesn”t interest me that much. I wanted to focus more on the emotional side of things and I think that it”s a great scene of Ragnar carrying the body up the hill and burying it. Travis does those scenes really well. He and I spend a lot of time actually discussing them. And that”s what I wanted to concentrate on.

HitFix: Are you and Travis right now on the same page regarding how much of Ragnar”s interest in Christianity is sincerity and how much of what we saw in the last couple of episodes was purely to get towards his endgame plan?

Michael Hirst: Yeah sure. Yeah. We do discuss everything. But what I have to say about that is that like many other things in the show it has depth. These scenes have many interpretations. I think the baptism was both true and cynical. It was true because what Ragnar said to the French is true, that he feels he”s dying and that he wants to make sure that what he”s been told about Christianity, he wants to make sure that can meet Athelstan again in the afterlife. And that I think is a genuine belief. At the same time, he”s being completely cynical. He”s worked out that the only way he can get inside Paris is to convert and then ask for a Christian burial in the city. So it”s one and the same. It”s a paradox. As I say, I hope that a lot of scenes in the show work on many levels. An the baptism I think is a great scene because it”s a shock to the other Vikings, but it is kind of Ragnar at his best. He”s worked this out. He”s ahead of the curve. He”s a clever guy. But he”s also totally, truly missing Athelstan. So these things are going hand-in-hand.

[Page 2 includes talk about the time jump next season, my T.S. Eliot inquiry and discussion of what the action choreography team has in store…]

HitFix: You did something similar at the end of Season 2 where you had the audience in the dark on Floki”s motives regarding Horik and what not. What”s the fun for you in leaving the audience out of certain key pieces of information for the characters of sort of denying us that sense of satisfying dramatic irony in keeping us in the dark?

Michael Hirst: Yeah. Well I guess I did an English and American Studies degree so I studied a lot of Shakespeare and Shakespeare liked to do that, too. So it”s a fun part of writing as long as it isn”t gratuitous. In other words I think in every case I”m thinking about the truth of character and whether I can justify this. I could absolutely justify Floki in Season 2, because he and Ragnar wanted to know what Horik was up to. And we planned all that so there are many scenes in which you could watch them in both ways. You can watch them if you know that Floki”s trying to get information out of Horik you can watch the scene differently. And Gustaf was really clever about acting, about doing those scenes. So there”s a perfectly legitimate reason why Floki pretends to go over to Horik”s side. And he is protecting Ragnar and trying to find out what Horik”s plans are. So I”m not playing a game. I”m not doing it sort of whimsically or just for my own amusement. These are always things of life and death and belief and the core stuff of the show is in these moments and mixed emotions, mixed loyalties, whatever comes into play. I guess I”m rejecting simplicity as well and I think that I”m trying to make it complicated or complex because I think it is complex. So yes, that”s really what I wanted to say. It”s not a game that I”m playing.

HitFix: You mentioned your literary degree and I wanted to bring up one of my favorite moments of the season, which was when the seer was forward-looking enough to quote T.S. Eliot. I assume you know what I mean?

Michael Hirst: It”s not – the seer doesn”t quote T.S. Eliot. It”s Ecbert who does…

HitFix: The “human beings cannot bear too much reality” was Ecbert?

Michael Hirst: [He laughs.] Oh, yes. Well! “Mankind cannot bear too much reality.” That”s another good pick-up. Yeah that”s possibly Conrad.

HitFix: Oh it”s definitely T.S. Eliot. I mean it might be Conrad too, but…

Michael Hirst: Okay. Yeah it”s Eliot quoting Conrad. And then there”s a scene in Episode 9 where Ecbert wants to get Judith into bed and she comes into his study and he quotes a bunch of Eliot lines which are about time past and time future all contained in time present.

HitFix: See that I missed.

Michael Hirst: Here”s the thing. I kind of smuggled those lines in and I put them in initially as placeholders. Me and Linus [Roache] love T.S. Eliot, okay. We chat about T.S. Eliot. And so I put T.S. Eliot lines into the scene originally as placeholders and I said to him, “Read this scene. Of course I”m gonna change it because how can he quote a 20th Century poet. But this is what I want him to say. This is the kind of thing that I want Ecbert to be saying here.” But every time I try to rewrite it I was just paraphrasing the line and it didn”t have the same music as the lines. And then I thought, “Okay, well what is he really talking about? He is talking about that at all time, past, present, past future is in the present. And of course Ecbert is not a 9th Century Saxon leader. He”s an actor.  He”s an actor in 2015 and he”s quoting a poet from 1936 about a ruler.” And it all had a validity to me so I said to Linus eventually, “I”m going to give you these lines. They”re beautiful lines. I believe them. You believe them. They are about time. They are about looking back in the past and looking to the future.” And I think it”s perfectly valid for me to do that. 

Between you and me [He laughs], I slip things quotes and stuff in all the time. I”ve quoted John Lennon quite a few times. W.B. Yeats. I like that sort of palimpsest thing. It”s just the way I think. It”s the way I write. I”m often inspired by poems or text or pictures or something. And I do like to mention them however obliquely. Yes it”s true. You picked up on that, but if you wanted ever to go back you”d actually find quite a lot of quotes.

HitFix: See now I feel bad that I missed some of the other things.

Michael Hirst: Okay, okay. Well I noticed that Ecbert thing was in Variety, someone had asked that question, Michael Hirst said he quoted T.S. Eliot, and some English academic got straight back and said, “This is what he quoted.” And to be fair the academic said “and it seemed totally appropriate,” which is “Hey, that”s good.”

HitFix: Now season three was going between three different countries. Did the season at any point to you feel sort of like you were overextended. That this version of 10 episodes was sort of harder to fit in than the previous 10 episodes?

Michael Hirst: No I didn”t really. When we go to Paris, for example. There wasn”t that much that was going on Kattegat. I had originally felt that they might even get over to an Ireland. I”ve got huge visions of them. I want them to go to Iceland and Greenland and the Mediterranean. Bjorn is famous for sailing around the Mediterranean. I can”t wait for that. It seemed like an organic expansion and it seemed like it reflected what actually historically happened, that the Vikings started with these, you know, maybe one, two boats finding their way west, attaching lonely monasteries and things. And before you know it they”ve got fleets going over and the Viking Age has started and they”re going to England and Ireland and everywhere. So I”m following that trajectory. But for me, it was liberating to go to another culture, so going to Paris seemed brilliant for everyone on the show — I mean the costume designer, the set designer. We built the inside of Notre Dame Cathedral on the set. We had the walls of Paris on the back lot. It kept everyone up. It was like, “Hey, we”re going to Paris now. We”re in another world. Isn”t this cool?” We got new characters. It just reinvigorated the show and you must never underestimate that. It”s great for actors, it”s great for the production. I think we really, we grew this last season. We grew and we achieved things that I hadn”t been quite sure myself that we could do. We don”t have “Game of Thrones” budget. Everything for us is a lot more real. And but we did it. I think we”ve got the most amazing production. And I was so proud of what we achieved in that last season.

HitFix: Well was there anything that seeing what you were able to achieve told you, “Okay, because we could do thing A that means we”re definitely gonna be able to do thing B in season four, five, six”?

Michael Hirst: Yeah absolutely. We have these two great guys, Franklin and Richard who do our battle sequences, choreograph our fight and battle sequences. They”re geniuses. They worked on the fight sequences on “Sherlock.” They”re just wonderful. “Game of Thrones” keeps trying to get them and we keep them. And the thing about them is that they want to do different things all the time. I want them to do different things. I want all the fight sequences, all the battles to be different, innovative and challenging. So at some point towards the end of last season when they just delivered Episode 8 with people being set on fire on ladders and hundreds of stunt guys falling into the water, tt was just amazing. And I said “Hey guys, what are we gonna do next season? People are going to expect us to top this.” And they”d already thought about it. They came up with two or three staggering notions that we hadn't done so far that they thought hadn”t ever been done on TV before. And I said, “Can you really do that?” They said, “Yeah. We can control that. We can do it. We want to do it because it excites us. Don”t you get excited when you write a new scene? We get excited when we challenge ourselves to do something spectacular that hasn”t been done before.” So yeah, we”re gonna do amazing stuff this new season.

HitFix: I know you said there will be a little bit of a jump in time into Season 4. How are you guys treating time in general these days. I mean this season had multiple trips to Wessex and to Paris and back to Kattegat. How much time do you feel like actually passed during Season 3 of this show?

Michael Hirst: My friend, it”s imaginative time. It”s both real and imaginative. I tried to keep it as real as possible because I have a lot of children in the show. I like having a lot of children in the show. It”s also about families and so on. So you can”t take too many liberties. But I”ll tell you one of the issues that comes up with that. If you jump forward too much, so you recast the kids at some point, people might think, “Oh well, who are these kids and how much time has gone and what”s happening?” So they go, “They cheated a little here. These kids may be three years older or four years older or something.” So okay, I cheated a little because in my mind it was like two years, the last season was over two, maximum three, years. But if I stay with the same kids, I”m still cheating because kids – I have lots of kids myself. And you turn around one day and they”re different, they”re grown. That”s what happens to kids. So either way I”m likely to be accused of not dealing with the time issue. But I think on the whole we dealt with it sensibly. I think the time jump when we brought Bjorn forward did work. We are going to do a significant time jump in Season 4 and I”m still working on that. But in general it's in real time almost. You don”t want to jump forward ten years or you don”t want to have a huge space in the show which allows people to speculate about what could have happened in the meantime. So that”s a sort of half-answer for you.

HitFix: Excellent. I could really probably talk all morning, but I”m sure you have other busy things to do so we”ll talk again before the start of Season 4 I”m sure. 

Michael Hirst: Right. I”ll look forward to that.

“Vikings” will return next year.

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