Vikings Creator Michael Hirst on the rise and 30-foot fall of Ragnar Lothbrok

Ragnar inside the metal cage before being hoisted above King Aelle’s snake pit

Have you come down from the last big arc in History Channel’s Vikings yet?

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t read on until you’re current with this latest season. Then turn your longboat around and come back to this space because I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for you.

For those of you who are up to date, then you might still be in a period of mourning but the show moves on and we all knew that this series was bigger than one character.

Since Vikings reflects history, characters must die at some point…all of them, to be honest.

So we got to speak with Vikings creator Michael Hirst about this emotional heart-breaking arc that would be Ragnar Lothbrok and Travis Fimmel’s last, outside of some creepy hauntings.

Hirst shared with me what he and Fimmel worked on, how they sculpted this ideal central character to Vikings, and weathered him.

We also spoke about what comes next, the transition to the show’s new direction and who will be fending off a trip to Valhalla next.

Also be sure to check out our earlier and bigger interview with Michael Hirst from this season, and our one with Alyssa Sutherland.

Ernie Estrella: Happy New Year, Michael! This has been an emotional season for Vikings fans and viewers. I know you were on the set for episodes 414 and 415, could you share with us the emotions you went through, as you saw these powerful final scenes with Ragnar play out before you?

Michael Hirst: Happy New Year, Ernie! It was enormously emotional for me. I’d lived with this character, Ragnar Lothbrok, for four and a half years or longer because I’ve been writing him before Travis Fimmel came along.

I felt that Travis and I developed and created this wonderful character. He’s someone who always wanted to cut his lines, but be present in a scene without necessarily saying anything, which is my beautiful conception of what a real Viking was.

He wasn’t a loud, dirty kind of hippie. He was a thoughtful, deep guy and Travis just embodied my ideas of the Viking hero.

He’d become more and more involved. We spent a lot of time talking through the scripts, not just generally. We’re talking line-by-line.

Episodes 414 and 415, (which is really one episode split in two), with Linus Roache, were very big episodes for all of us. Travis loved working with Linus, he wanted to say a lot of things (to him).

He wanted to get it right, to be fitting, to be engaged in an un-Australian way. It was something he suddenly became passionate about [chuckles] because originally he usually said, “Okay, mate. I don’t care,” but he did care.

He and Linus rehearsed their scenes, which is pretty unheard of in TV. Everything that Travis was going through was put under pressure.

Ragnar (Fimmel) talks to King Ecbert (Roache) before he meets his fate
Ragnar (Fimmel) talks to King Ecbert (Roache) before he meets his fate

There were big issues to get it right. Travis didn’t want to have a big speech at the end because he didn’t like giving speeches and his character had become an atheist, so there were big negotiations about what he would say, what he wouldn’t say, about what was going to happen, ultimately.

I remember it was about this time last year we were standing on a very muddy, rainy, and cold mountainside in Ireland with Travis being suspended in an iron cage above all of these soaking soldiers.

It was filthy, terrible weather, it was just beautiful. It was so bleak, so horrid, cold, and raw. He was spitting out these words and I just wept.

Here is the man, the character I’ve loved and written about for four and a half years dying. I mean really dying.

It’s one thing when it’s on paper, it’s another when someone is up there doing it. One thing I’m always inordinately proud about the series is that we do these things for real.

Travis was in an iron cage, he dangled 30 feet in the air and he did insist on being dropped into the pit himself. There were no visual effects, there were no stunt doubles. We did that all for real.

It was profoundly touching but at the same time, this was an enormously significant moment in the show but even though I knew that Ragnar was physically dead, he would live on.

He lives on through his sons, with all of the expectations that his sons have, about trying to fulfil their father’s dreams. So Ragnar’s dead, but he’s not dead.

EE: Do you know what happened or have you imagined what happened when he exiled himself from society, perhaps impacting this suicide mission by Ragnar?

MH: Not surprisingly, many people are interested in what he might have done when he disappeared. As a writer I’m not interested.

All I know is he felt like a failure, crushed, probably thought he’d crawl away somewhere to die. But his will was too strong to allow him to do that.

Whatever he did, however lonely he was, whatever blighted his life, he had some strong will and ultimately had strong motivations to come back.

We know he was invested so deeply in his sons that he couldn’t help wanting to find out how his sons had turned out. I also think very deeply that he had unfinished business with Ecbert.

The relationship between Ragnar and Ecbert is an extraordinary one that I never saw coming. It was one of those wonderful things as a writer that you suddenly realized that you created a love story that you never anticipated.

These two guys actually respected each other and they’re so different but they connected on a deeper level. I realized more than anything else, I needed those guys to get back together again.

I needed them to talk about life, love, religion, sex, in an almost contemporary way. That was very important to me and it was very important to them. It made a wonderful parlay into the death episode.

EE: Why did you focus so much on Ragnar’s loss of religion in these final episodes. We had hints that he may have felt this way but why did you construct his death so much around this?

MH: Travis and I slightly disagreed about that. [Laughs] I take a slightly Jesuitical point of view. Ragnar can say he’s lost his faith and I understand that. One of the reasons is that he met this Christian guy (Athelstan) that he loved and respected.

This Christian guy believed in another god. So how is it possible that what you believe in is the only truth, when you meet someone who believes in something totally different?

He really admired them, so how could my gods be better than his gods, because he’s a great guy? I think that there was a process that Ragnar lost his absolute faith in the Pagan gods and was doing it very bravely.

His last speech wasn’t him speaking for himself but for his sons and his people, which is an amazing idea I think, but the big thing for a viking was that you wouldn’t get to Valhalla unless you die bravely.

The whole thing about that whole death when he’s tortured and Aelle tries to humiliate and break Ragnar — it was impossible.

At the end it looked like Aelle was broken. Ragnar died in a beautiful proud Viking way, so if Valhalla exists, then that’s where he is.

The Jesuit would say that you don’t have to say you totally believe in Christ, you’ll still get to Heaven. Travis and I had many interesting… [Laughs] theological discussions.

It did have some aspects, some echoes of the Passion (of the Christ). It was meant to, so that’s why it had to be brutal and intimate.

EE: It is interesting though that while Ragnar was tortured publicly by what seemed like all of King Aelle’s troops, when it came to the snake pit, it was a much smaller gathering. Without even looking in history books and the sagas that detail Ragnar dying in this very way, this is a very different fate than what was imagined for him when you first meet him.

MH: The Irish crew, who were all Catholic, watching this, were crying as well. One of the things they said was that this wasn’t a heroic death where there’s thousands of warriors and visual effects and there’s a big payoff, someone dies heroically.

This was very intimate, very small death. When you’re looking into the eyes of the guy who’s dying you’re feeling his pain because you’re forced to.

That’s what made the difference. It’s actually, completely human. When that person said that to me, I was so proud. I didn’t realize that’s what I wanted, but that’s what we (Travis, myself and the director) all created together.

It’s human, intimate, but it’s a profoundly spiritual death that still reverberates. I’m so proud we didn’t do that empty, kind of big, heroic stuff.

Ragnar lies in the snake pit after his fall from the cage above
Ragnar lies in the snake pit after his fall from the cage above

EE: How important was it to have your first main character in Vikings to be this great leader who took accountability for his actions rather than leave everything up to the gods?

MH: Ragnar was always an evolving person rather than a revolving character. If you look back at the first season he looks like some young fresh faced guy.

He looked like what he was supposed to be, which is a Scandinavian farmer with the tough bod. Travis himself came from farming stock in Australia and identified with Ragnar’s simple philosophy.

All his life Ragnar didn’t want power or to rule people. He wanted to find rich earth, good growing earth for his people.

That’s what inspired him, which is beautiful. All of that crap about people wanting to be the king, that’s not interesting. It’s interesting that a farmer wants to find good farming land for his people.

But during the show, Ragnar as a person changed and all the changes are written on his face. So by the end he looked old, frankly, he looked experienced, he’d been through so much.

I didn’t know that was going to happen. I didn’t know Travis had that in him. Of course we have wonderful costume, hair, wardrobe and makeup departments (and they can do amazing things), but it was inside Travis to find that older person.

We all went on this journey with him, it was an extraordinary, beautiful, and fantastic journey.

EE: What’s it like to have that voice silent now and all of these new voices filling your head?

MH: The truth is I went straight into it. I had always been waiting for the boys, the new energy. A show needs new energy, new blood. It needs to be refreshed.

These guys, especially Alex Høgh Anderson (Ivar) and Jordan Patrick Smith (Ubbe), they came in alongside Alex (Ludwig) and Katheryn (Winnick) and people we’ve known from the beginning. It’s not a new show, it’s a refreshed show.

You’re dealing with different circumstances, different characters and from a writer’s point of view after writing this for four and a half years, it’s great!

EE: Coming off that boat from Wessex, the first person you fear for is Lagertha. Ivar’s just rode on a boat essentially by himself surrounded by Anglo-Saxon troops back to Kattegat knowing that he’s seen his father for the last time and he finds out the woman who kept him alive since he was a newborn, who loved him unconditionally, was murdered. Having just gone through Ragnar’s passing, Lagertha has been put over the fire.

MH: Yeah. [Deep Sigh] Lagertha’s chosen a very dangerous path. She didn’t need to kill Aslaug but by doing so she’s made herself a target of revenge.

Some of the sons are obliged to try and kill her. All I will say is to watch this space because she is now in an extremely vulnerable place.

Then again, she’s Lagertha, she’s extraordinary and for the first time the History Channel has got a great female audience now, mainly I would say because of Lagertha, what she’s done, what she represents, her strength and things, and she won’t easily be overthrown.

Lagertha, who after killing Aslaug was told by Ivar: “One day, I will kill you.”

EE: Finally, what’s the Seer’s role moving forward? Are we going to start drawing away from him or will Ivar bring back the fundamentalist views of the Pagan gods?

MH: Well, that’s a really good question but I can’t really give you an answer because if I tell you, there would be so many spoilers. [Laughs] I can give you enough though to say the Seer remains a pivotal part of the drama, but his relationship with Ivar becomes very deep and very interesting.

Vikings airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on History.

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