Michael Hirst breaks down Season 4 identity crisis for Ragnar and his sons
ZAP2IT – With Season 4 consisting of 20 episodes, “Vikings” is returning with quite the story to tell. After ending Season 3 with Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) nearly dead and his brother Rollo (Clive Standen) betraying him to side with Paris, the time has come for the show to expand its scope.
While the stories of Ragnar, Rollo and Lagertha (Kathryn Winnick) are still a focus, the extra episodes also give “Vikings” the chance to spend more time developing Ragnar’s sons — which is important to creator and writer Michael Hirst.
In preparation for the Season 4 premiere, Hirst spoke with Zap2it about the identity crisis facing many characters on the show, as well as the evolution of Bjorn, the challenge of writing twice as many episodes in a year and life after Athelstan (George Blagden).
Zap2it: As we look ahead to a season that includes twice as many episodes as in previous years, how does the process change for you, the sole writer?
Michael Hirst: It was great. I’ve always imagined this was a show about Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons. It’s one of the reasons I chose Ragnar as the hero. The historical Ragnar had sons who became as famous, if not more, than he was. Bjorn Ironside sailed around the Mediterranean, Ivar the boneless became the most feared warrior of all time, really.
To be able to push the show forward was, of course, a challenge but always something I wanted to do. I’ve made no secret that I don’t want to end this whole saga until the Vikings are in a boat and they’re all dying and this land pops up in front of them, this green land, and it says America. Then that’s where we stop.
I think that we were talking about initially a 15-episode run, but I knew something big had to happen in episode 10. Then, of course, it got extended to 20, so something big definitely happens in 10. What I like about it is it’s all organic. We get to know the sons more along the way. We are invested in all the issues they’re facing and there’s no sudden cut-off at all.
It’s part of a saga, you could call it. It’s my saga of Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons. For me, it was another amazing opportunity to develop all these interlinking storylines.
Coming out of writing movies, that’s the big challenge and pleasure of writing TV series drama. You get all these storylines running and you can just follow them and develop them.
We have children and I think it’s one of the few shows that has a lot of animals and children in it. That’s part of life, we watch the children develop. There’s obviously going to be a lot of tragedy in this season, but we do watch the continuity of the generation.
That’s actually one of the really interesting things about the beginning of Season 4. Obviously, there’s been a lot of attention on Bjorn in the past, but now his brothers are getting a chance to shine. As we get to know them, will they become major focuses of the season?
I think so. As you say, learning to understand and appreciate who they are a bit more individually — and that’s not just true of the Vikings, but in Wessex of Alfred, who we know is a significant historical character. We see how he develops and he goes on a pilgrimage to Rome.
The sons of Ragnar develop and it’s partly, I think, a reflection. If I had to say what this season is about, it’s identities and people trying to find out who they are. Trying to find themselves.
Bjorn has to go into the wilderness, into the ice land, to find out who he is. He’s been born to over-achieving parents who both love him but they patronize them. He’s come from a broken home and he’s always wanted to please his parents. So here he is, striking out on his own. He wants to know who he is and he knows his father doesn’t think he’ll survive.
Rollo is in Paris trying to figure out if it’s true that the gods think his destiny is to be a Frankish noble. Ragnar wants to know why he wasn’t allowed into Valhalla. What is it he’s got to do now to define himself as a king of person?
And the sons are coming up and they asking themselves, “Who am I? Is being the son of Ragnar the most important thing?”
There’s a lot of deep identity searching in this season, I think.
That’s what’s so compelling about the show, because in a way that’s always been the case. So much of the show has been about Ragnar’s own sense of self-discovery and exploring various belief and thought structures. Now with Athelstan no longer able to help him on this journey, where is he at?
Once of the burdens … Ragnar didn’t want to be king. He found the burden to be almost too much and he nearly died going to Paris. I think he was so weary, he wanted to go into Valhalla but the gods refused him.
Now he has to go on and figure out why. But one of the things he’s learned about being king is he can’t trust anyone. He’s always loved Floki, but Floki killed the person who — apart from Lagertha — he’s loved most in his life. That’s a big issue.
So who does he talk to? He’s lonely and I think power is a lonely place.
I feel for Ragnar, personally. I would hate to have power and he has a lot of it he has to deal with. It’s one of the really good things about the show is it shows not just that power corrupts. That’s simplistic. People think that getting to the throne is the be all, end all. In fact, you don’t want to go there. That’s when the problems start.
You feel a very human response to Ragnar, who is carrying an extraordinary burden. You want relief from that, which comes in many ways. Ultimately his journey is always personal. So it becomes more focused on dealing with Rollo.
He doesn’t want to go back to Paris to loot and rape, that’s not Ragnar. He’s really sensitive. He’s not an anti-hero, but he’s a very sensitive hero who I think people can connect to. In the same way I think women connect to Lagertha.
She keeps being put in positions where she’s compromised and needs a guy to protect her. She’s always thrown back, perhaps in the way a guy wouldn’t be, on the point of ruling.
I just think these two central characters work because everyone can see they are realistically of their time, and yet their issues seem contemporary. People can absolutely identify, I think, with the agonies that Ragnar goes through and the problems Lagertha faces as a woman.
The problems facing Lagertha are fascinating, because she’s a woman existing in a time where women don’t normally gain that sort of power.
Yeah and she finds again and again that even if she’s proven herself worthy of exercising power, that some guy comes in between her and power. She has to share it, or negotiate it, or kill the guy. I’m really in awe of this woman and I’m not surprised that Kathryn is as big a star as Travis is now. She’s got a huge fan club and it’s quite right.