The Season Finale of History Channel’s Vikings is here and BuzzFocus was on call with creator and showrunner, Michael Hirst, who also created The Tudors and Camelot, and was an executive producer on The Borgias. He shared with us his thoughts on last week’s episode, “Sacrifice,” tonight’s finale, and Season 2.
Last week’s pivotal episode, “Sacrifice” saw Ragnar and his crew visit Gamla Uppsala to pay sacrifice to the gods. Hirst was asked where the relationship of our main characters goes after Ragnar tried to have Athelstan sacrificed:
Michael Hirst: Strangely enough there isn’t an immediate fallout from that because one of the things Athelstan will come to understand was that Ragnar wasn’t going to sacrifice him because he hated him or he thought he was disposable. He wanted to sacrifice him because he thought he was worthy as sacrifice; he liked him. It’s one of the strange counterintuitive things about Vikings, for example they liked going into battle so they could die and go into Valhalla. In a curious way, it was a compliment to him that Ragnar wanted to crucify him. Because he was a Christian monk in England, he’s a way for the audience to experience these Viking and Pagan worlds. I slightly identify with him and his story becomes richer and more interesting as we get into the next season. He’s a major character in the show and George Blagden is a great actor and it does him full justice.
While the pillaging and the battles were sure to be a draw for audiences, surprisingly, so has the character of Athelstan and whether or not he embraces Viking culture. Michael, could you explain the anatomy of the scene where Athelstan is asked to renounce his religion, like Peter did with Jesus, and that while he wasn’t ready to renounce, perhaps this scene was the beginning of that change in him:
MH: One of the important things about last week’s episode and the over-arching issue of spirituality on the show is that we don’t know very much about Paganism and how they ritualized. We do know that there was a temple in Uppsala, they had carved figures and priests. But in terms of the ceremonies and the rituals, we don’t know very much so it was a question of doing something that felt right, that felt appropriate, and touched on things that people could relate to.
It’s clear that Christianity borrowed a lot of things from Paganism. I wanted to make that borrowing quite clear and for people to see that. Some of the rituals with the unfolding of the sacrificial weapons had echoes of Catholic liturgy and rituals, and that was deliberate. To echo the question three times was another deliberate attempt for me to connect those times to our own. To connect in people’s minds Paganism with things they might believe now. It’s a very important part of the show. It’s something I’m very keen on myself. You’re right to pick it up and I hope there was some kind of shock on his face that he was asked to renounce three times.
The fact he was holding onto the crucifix after the third time he was asked to renounce, you realize he didn’t reject it. The priest had been right to press him. Three is a magical number; nine is the number of sacrifices they did and nine is magical today and it was magical then.
Hirst on Athelstan’s “sudden” transformation and change in appearance:
MH: (As we discussed) he has not renounced his Christian belief, and nor does he completely well into Season 2. In order to stay alive he has to try fit in with his Viking hosts, so it’s not surprising that he adopts their clothing and grows his hair and so on, but what happens inside is a different matter. If I had rushed that, I would have been guilty of doing something that would’ve been wrong, but I didn’t do that. It’s very modulated, it’s an issue that keeps coming back, it’s a big issue in Season 2 and Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) always refuses to believe he’s renounced his Christianity. Floki’s a Pagan fundamentalist, if I can describe him as that, and he’s very, very suspicious of Athelstan.
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The inspiration in creating Vikings:
MH: Most of what little we did know about the Vikings was wrong so I wanted to tell the story from their point of view and to introduce the world this race of people who were amazing, as was their technology and social life. I find them inspirational. They were assimilated into most western countries so we all know Vikings; we’re all a little bit Vikings ourselves, they’re not foreign people, they’re very close to home.
On the opening credits and the Fever Ray song.
MH: There are so many clichés about the Vikings we wanted to dispense with and really get people thinking in a different way. We knew we were saying something different about the Vikings, that we were going to surprise people. We wanted different music, a different approach, something with a more contemporary edge to it so people didn’t think it was a museum piece. The Fever Ray song, “If I Had a Heart” was chosen by our first Scandanavian director, Johan Renck. Johan’s also one of the world’s foremost music video directors and he knows a lot about music.
We had a great company (Rama Allen directed with The Mill+ and Take 5 Productions) make that credit sequence. We discussed some of the images we wanted and how we were going to do it but one of the joys for me is to be able to work with other creative people at the top of their game and that’s what happened. I never get bored of listening and watching that introduction. You get so much information, emotion and atmosphere in a very, very short sequence. It’s so clever–it’s brilliant.
Rama Allen explained on the Mill+ website:
“The credits were inspired by a folktale found in The Sagas, That of the ‘Nine Sisters’ the goddesses of the waves who would pluck Viking explorers from their ships, and pull them to a sensual, dark and watery grave. The Vikings’ relationship with death was built on honor, inevitability, sex and the constant presence of gods pulsing through every grain of sand and swell of the ocean.”
“Ritual. Supernature. Memory. Visions. Salt. Gold. Smoke. Sex. Metal. Blood. Gods. Fire. Death. Honor. Family and the Sea… are all Viking themes we drew from. To develop the sequence we sought the haunting, ancient, fearsome and visceral part of us. ”
Michael, we must ask about Donal Logue (Terriers, Sons of Anarchy) joining the cast and his role of King Horik and what his potential is in Season 2?
MH: King Horik is another historically based character who’s a very important character and I was delighted with Donal’s casting. Horik does develop very, very significantly in the new season; he’s a major player. Horik is a complex character who is very difficult to read. Audiences will find him full of contradictions and for me as a writer, that makes him fascinating but he’s entered as a sympathetic character, an ally of Ragnar (Travis Fimmel). Things are going to develop from there. It’s not going to be an easy ride. I promise this is a major character who came onto the scene last week carrying his chicken and he’s going to be a force in the coming season.
Hirst on the Season 1 finale where we are introduced to Jarl Borg, a man who Ragnar will confront and attempt to settle a matter with, for King Horik:
MH: It’s an inspired piece of casting, he’s played by Thorbjørn Harr, who has real Vikings roots. I knew because of the actual history I was telling, I knew that Horik sent Ragnar to another land, Gotaland (Part of Sweden today) as an emissary. I needed for him to meet someone interesting and important. Jarl Borg is one of the few characters I completely invented. I couldn’t think of what to call him. My favorite tennis player of all time is Bjorn Borg. Jarl is another word for Earle, so he’s Jarl Borg. There are a lot of unresolved issues with Jarl Borg at the end of episode 9, so like Horik, Borg is very, very important in the second season. He interests me, he’s a complex man, and a lot of things have happened to him and a lot more things will happen to him.
Hirst on Rollo and his plans to betray his brother:
MH: That’s a very big issue in the finale. You can feel for Rollo (Clive Standen) to some extent, but he lives in the shadow of an extremely successful sibling who is becoming increasingly famous. In Viking society, fame and renown were very important. So you have a guy who is clearly a great warrior, a great fighter and he’s suffering in comparison with his outstandingly gifted brother. He has a lot of unresolved issues, including of course his continuous love for his brother’s wife, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick). In Viking society, again, family was very, very important. They fought together in the Shield War, they were very close knit and the relationship between Ragnar and Rollo comes to a head in the last episode.
Hirst on writing the finale for season one prior to knowing if Vikings would be renewed.
MH: I didn’t want it to end at season one, we got these great characters up and running and there’s a lot to tell and say about Ragnar, who is of course, a historical character, who had an extraordinary career. There are number of unresolved issues at the end of episode nine, that needed at least another season to resolve and deal with. You can imagine I was extremely happy it was picked up again.
Hirst on writing all of the episodes
MH: I confess that my problems is I can’t delegate. I find it hard to give up material that I’m personally involved with. I wouldn’t mind trying. The idea of giving away my babies away to other people to play with isn’t a great one when I feel able to do the work and feel inspired to do the work. In my head all the characters become close acquaintances of mine and I love to go to my study in the morning and find out what they’ve been up to and whether they’re going to surprise me. As long as I have strength and health and imagination I want to keep writing, certainly this show. I have no intention of letting anyone get their hands on this show if I can help it. Maybe if we go beyond 10 seasons I might let someone else in on the game.