'Vikings' Creator on Higher Stakes, Profound Ambitions and Season 2 (Q&A)
Executive producer Michael Hirst breaks down an emotional Ragnar scene from the season-two premiere, which THR exclusively debuts, calling the moment his "favorite scene ... possibly of the whole series."
History Channel's Vikings is back -- and the stakes are higher than ever.
"Ragnar starts this season as an earl, he's fighting against his brother and the stakes are high -- in terms of his political life and his personal life. They've never been higher because his marriage is falling apart," creator and executive producer Michael Hirst tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Everything has moved up and his ambitions are much more profound and much bigger in season two."
In a chat with THR, Hirst previews the second season and breaks down an exclusive scene from Thursday's premiere with Ragnar (Travis Fimmel).
Now that time has passed from the first season, what was your takeaway from the freshman run?
One of the extraordinary things was that people responded strongly to the more intellectual parts of the show, which is the conflict between the Pagan gods and Christianity. That was a big issue with the audience and people were fascinated by that aspect. I always assumed they would be interested in the visceral side of it -- by the battles and things -- but in fact people really got into the human saga and the human story and the gods. I was pleased by that.
Did that have bear any significance in how you approached the second season?
When you come to writing a second season, you have your established characters. One of the most difficult things is the first season is the first episode is the first of introducing this big characters and how long you have to introduce them and how much the audience needs to invest in, but by the second season, people know them. They know Ragnar, they know Lagertha, they know Floki; they're interested to know where you're going to take these characters. You can go deeper into the psychology, you can go deeper into the characters and it's not gratuitous. You're not doing it for effect. That's how season two really pays off. You really do care.
What did you want to focus on in the second season?
We're still following the rise of our central character, Ragnar Lothbrok, and we're still concentrating on his family life, his personal circumstances, his relationship with his wife and now with the woman, Princess Aslaug, who appears with his unborn child. His personal life is going to get a lot more complicated and the stakes are higher for all the characters.
Talk about the scene in the season-two premiere where Ragnar mourns the death of his daughter. (Watch the exclusive clip above.)
[It] was probably my favorite scene -- if not of the first episode, possibly of the whole series -- because I connect with that. I've got lots of daughters and I imagined myself in Ragnar's situation talking to a daughter who died. I think that that is what makes the show because it's not getting its own whistles-and-bell thing for effect; these are things that are heartfelt and these are things about real people and real life. It intersects with my life, it intersects with the audience; it's about love, it's about adventure and even though we're talking about the 8th century, these figures are not fantasy figures and I'm hopefully taking the audience to real places and trying to understand a Viking world on the basis of how we understand our own lives and experiences. That's my mission really. That's my job in a way.
How did you craft that moment?
Part of the motivation possibly came from Travis because Travis loves his children in the show. Travis doesn't have any children of his own but he loves being surrounded by children on the show and he understands that his character was obsessed by his children. I think he probably said to me at some point, "I would like to say a proper farewell to my daughter. I wasn't there when she died." And I understood that. I imagined myself talking to my own daughter and I remember actually crying when I wrote the scene. But that doesn't necessarily translate. When Travis got a hold for the scene, he did an amazing job. At some point, the production put a lot of music over the top of it and I said it doesn't need any music, you don't music to say you need to feel something. This is a universal human emotion.
What went into the decision to recast Ragnar's son, Bjorn, with an older actor?
At the end of season one we had a lot of cliffhangers which had to be dealt with immediately. We had his young son, Bjorn, who had to be a part of that first episode but the actor was fantastic. He grew into the role and he was so brilliant that I wanted him to be in that first episode. But then we cast Alexander Ludwig. He really takes hold of this character of Ragnar's older son and he brought a lot of great American qualities to it -- the energy, the enthusiasm and the optimism. The worse the weather was on set, the better Alexander liked it. At one stage, I told him, "It's brilliant, except for one thing -- you're always smiling. ... Go look at the young boy who became you -- that young boy was very, very serious." Alexander did that and he did it brilliantly. He understood that he was inheriting the mantle of a very serious young man.
How big has the production gone compared to season one?
The production has hit its stride. We are much more confident and it's a much bigger production. We started out with three ships, we have 10 ships [now]. We have 6,000 extras. We were really going for it in season two.
How much bloodshed should we expect? How safe are these main characters?
I like to think that nobody should assume that anyone is safe because these are Vikings and the life expectancy of a male Viking is about 20 years old. So in theory, if I've got my major characters, they're always liable to die. That's one of the big parts of the show. When we showed a preview of season two at Comic-Con and it appeared it like Floki was killed in the first battle, people just stood out and shouted: "You can't do that! No! Floki! You can't do that!" So I know people are invested in the characters and I am very aware of that, but I'm writing about a Viking world in which life is very insecure. I don't want to kill them off unnecessarily.
So should we expect a major death this season this season?
Yes, there is a big casualty further down the line. When people watch the end of episode seven, which is the death of a major character, I think more than anything else they will see a piece of television that they have never ever witnessed in their lives. This piece of television is so powerful and so extraordinary that I don't think anyone would have seen that on television before. You may have trouble watching it. You may not be able to personally watch the screen.
Vikings premieres Feb. 27 at 10 p.m. on History Channel.