'Vikings' Showrunner Breaks Down Ragnar Lothbrok's Darker Side and "Upheaval" Ahead

Michael Hirst talks to THR about Ragnar's "unfinished business" and dark depression in the midseason return.
Jonathan Hession/Showtime

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's midseason premiere of Vikings, "The Outsider."]

It seems as though Ragnar Lothbrok has lost his place in the Vikings world. At least that appears to have been the case in Wednesday's midseason premiere of the History series.

“The Outsider” picked up from April's midseason finale, in which Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) returned to Kattegat from his self-imposed exile following a time jump that aged all four of his sons with Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland): Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith), Sigurd (David Lindstron), Hvitserk (Marco Islo) and Ivar (Alex Hogh). The Kattegat that Ragnar returned to had not only developed immensely since his disappearance, but the people harbored plenty of resentment toward their king following his defeat in France and the fate of his farming colony in Wessex finally coming to light. 

It all added up to a changed world for the famed Viking leader, one in which he had a hard time navigating his newfound place. In order to find out what’s in store for the back half of season four, how Ragnar could possibly fit in going forward and what kind of place that opens up for his sons, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with creator and showrunner Michael Hirst.

Was Ragnar expecting a warmer welcome?

He knew returning would be incredibly difficult. He was a Viking leader who was effectively defeated and then walked out on his people and his family. That would never go down very well. And actually, it could have been worse in a sense if he hadn't been so famous. Vikings society was a meritocracy in the sense that the strongest, most successful Vikings were the ones who would be kings and the rulers. If you suffered defeat and if you were not successful, you would normally be very quickly discarded. Ragnar would not have had any illusions about his reception. But he came back because he wanted to know what had become of his sons and because he had unfinished business in England.

Is he disappointed in what he finds with his sons given that none of them want to go raiding with him save for Ivar?

No, he isn't. But then the sons are also Vikings. Vikings are motivated to some extent by a desire for fame. You can't blame his boys for wanting that. And you can't blame them either for having issues with the fact that their father abandoned them. They are conflicted in different ways, but they are entitled to be angry as well. They have not been in a vacuum, they have been developing ideas about what they might want to do and wanting to branch out on their own, which is natural.

Can you break down Ragnar’s attempted suicide scene and his current emotional state?

Ragnar probably expected the reception that he had upon returning home, that there would be resistance to him and that people would be angry. But he also might have figured he could persuade at least some of his sons to join him in an expedition to England. Having failed to do that and realizing that time had moved on — that his sons had moved on, that Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) was now more interested in working with Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) and that Bjorn had his own aspirations — Ragnar has a moment where he is depressed. He feels that he has failed. Vikings could feel that just as much as people today can feel that and those emotions. This whole new season is not only the most momentous season that we have done; it is also the most emotional. It digs down deeply into all of our characters’ emotional lives and relationships. Ragnar's state of mind is just one example of many huge emotional upheavals in the season.

Would Valhalla be an option for a Viking who committed suicide?

I think they would not be allowed to go to Valhalla if they committed suicide. In that regard they share that with Catholics; Catholicism defines suicide as a sin. You had to die a brave death to go to Valhalla, and I don't think the gods would be at all impressed by suicide. That shows how deeply depressed Ragnar is, how dislocated he is, however briefly, from his own society. And how desperate he is. No, he would absolutely know that he was forfeiting any last chance he had of going to Valhalla in that moment.

You juxtaposed Ragnar and Floki’s conversation with scenes of the boys doing a lot of physical training. Is that your way of passing the baton to a new generation?

Children grow up and it's one of the things I'm really proud of with this show. We have children and we have animals. People grow old in the show and children grow up. It's not fantasy, it is real and of course relationships change. This was always a show to be about Ragnar and his sons and so we've moved forward in time to where the sons are grown up and it's time for them to develop. It was really exciting for me to start writing for them and to develop them and see what they're made of. Who would have thought that one of the greatest Vikings of all time would have been a cripple? It's just such an amazing thing. Alex got hold of this amazing Ivar character, reputedly one of the cruelest Vikings ever, but who was someone that you also have sympathy for because you know his background and what he has gone through. That’s an amazing new character to write and to live with and to see onscreen.

What kind of challenges does Ivar going into battle bring?

In a sense, Ivar volunteering to go is the most useless for Ragnar. Moving Ivar the cripple around is going to be a challenge in enemy territory when he reaches England. Ragnar has reasons for wanting Ivar to travel with him, and these reasons become clear later on. Ivar is intelligent enough to understand why his father took him and what it meant to Ragnar. It's a wonderful story about redemption because of course when Ivar was born and he was a cripple, Ragnar took him out to die. Cripples were not really allowed to survive in Viking society since they wouldn't be any use to the community, and it was only Aslaug who saved him. Now Ragnar feels completely differently about Ivar and can see things about him that other people can't see. This is an opportunity for him to bond with his son, to educate him, to talk about important things with him in the most extreme situations, because basically he has to haul his son across the land. It's the toughest but the most beautiful journey that they go on.

How deep were you able to dig into Ivar’s actual history when researching him?

You can't research psychology because you wouldn't know what a particular historical figure was thinking at the time unless they had perhaps written it down. And Vikings were nonliterary. There are different versions of why Ivar was called Ivar the bonus. The most plausible and most dramatic explanation was that he had brittle bone disease. When I decided that that was where we were going, a number of departments did a lot of research into people with brittle bone disease and one person from production got in touch with a woman who had it alongside her brothers. She describes their lives and what it was like to have the disease in a really moving and incredible way. Through her accounts, I understood something about how Ivar must have felt and why he was so angry a lot of the time. This woman said her brothers were so angry and that one of the ways they could tell whether they were likely to break a bone on any given day was to look into their eyes. People with brittle bone disease, the whites of their eyes are blue and if they are more likely to break a bone the whites will go dark blue. So every day her brothers would examine their own eyes and if they were dark it would warn them to stay away from physical things. She herself, she had two children and the second child broke her pelvis.

I found this real information so incredibly useful and I could begin to imagine what Ivar had suffered. Ivar is known to us as a particularly cruel Viking. We know he was involved in the attack on York and some of his tactics were very barbaric. For me as a writer, I never want to lose authenticity with my principal characters, and I needed some way to continue to love Ivar in order to write about him. The audience will never totally lose its sympathy for Ivar because it sees and understands what he had to go through in order to effectively be a great Viking warrior leader.

Will viewers eventually see him as a hero the way they see Ragnar?

I think so. There is absolutely a chance that he could be seen as a hero like Ragnar. But by the same token you have Bjorn Ironside who is going to go into the Mediterranean and becomes very heroic. And then Ubbe is very heroic. In a sense, he is what I like to call the liberal wing of the Viking party. He takes after his father a lot and he is very heroic. So the heroism kind of spreads across the sons; for the audience there's now more choice. But the fact is that Alex is one of those actors you simply cannot take your eyes off of. The lead character doesn't have to be an angel, in fact, it's better if he or she is not an angel and is more complex with a dark side. You still want to watch them and you're still totally engaged with them because you can see the good side of them. Ivar is like that only I would say he’s probably more extreme. 

Is there anything you’d like to add?

This season is the most momentous and most emotional seasons we've done, and there are huge changes and upheaval involving nearly every one of our major characters.

Vikings airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on History.

What did you think of the fourth midseason premiere? Sound off in the comments below.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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