'Vikings' Boss Breaks Down Midseason Finale Twist: "We Didn't Want to Do Anything Conventional"

Creator Michael Hirst discusses the future of his leads following the show’s massive time jump. "When Ragnar comes back, he comes back to a different world," he tells THR.
Courtesy of Jonathan Hession/History Channel

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Thursday's midseason finale of History's Vikings, "The Last Ship."]

After spending an entire season apart plotting against each other, Rollo (Clive Standen) and Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) finally came face-to-face in Vikings' midseason finale.

In a twist that many viewers did not see coming, a drugged-up Ragnar was epically defeated by his traitor brother and the men of Paris, forcing the injured leader, along with his hurt ex-wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), son Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) and frenemy Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard), to retreat back to Kattegat.

There, rather than deal with the immediate aftermath, the show jumped forward in time to an informant telling Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland) about Ragnar’s Wessex son and the fact that all the men he had left behind were immediately killed. It set in motion a chain of reactions from the people of the much-bigger town, including Ragnar’s now grown-up sons Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith), Hvitserk (Marco Ilso), Sigurd (David Lindstrom) and Ivar (Alex Hogh Andersen), who hadn’t seen their father for years — ever since he disappeared. Then, in the closing minutes of the episode, Ragnar finally returned as a now-hated man, closing out the show in a tense monologue asking who in Kattegat would be brave enough to kill him and proclaim themselves king.  

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with creator Michael Hirst to weigh in on the multiyear leap forward, what it means for Ragnar’s journey moving forward and whether this is the last we’ve seen of the Rollo-Ragnar rivalry.

How does this time jump reset things for the next half of the season?

We’ve done a significant time jump before and we didn’t do it in a conventional way or wait until the end of the season; we didn’t want to do anything conventional this time, either. It seemed like it was better to do something dramatic and get to where we needed to be. This has always been the story of Ragnar and his sons, so the time jump is just enough time for all the boys to grow up. In this last episode, we got a glimpse of the boys before starting the next half of the season; it gives a taste of what’s to come.

This is all part of the same story. We like to take chances and we’re prepared to challenge the audience and make them work a little bit. It’s intriguing and interesting and sort of natural that some time has passed. Ragnar has been defeated, he’s gone away to lick his wounds and deal with what’s happened to him. In the aftermath, his sons have grown up — whether that’s six, seven years or whatever, I don’t know.

Given Ragnar’s contested deaths in history, had you considered just letting that character disappear offscreen?

Absolutely not! You wait until you see the next season. Ragnar’s story is nowhere near the end. Nowhere near the end, and it’s just an amazing, onward story. It may be the story of the rise and fall of a hero — it still counts as a fall, I suppose — but some of my best work and Travis’ work comes in the next half of the season. If you think you’ve seen stuff from Travis yet, you haven’t.

How does aging the original characters again affect their contribution to the story?

We discuss that obviously in-house; we discussed with makeup and everything what the likely changes are in people. Five, six, seven years is actually not such a gap, and you wouldn’t turn around to find everyone is a toothless crow. But obviously there are changes. You can see some subtle changes in Bjorn. When Ragnar comes back, he comes back to a different world. The first thing you notice is that Kattegat is no longer the same — it is now a huge town and that’s a brilliant visual effect, the sense that he’s a stranger in his own town. That’s a clue that the others have grown up. The boys will later say to him, “We grew up here. We now know more about Kattegat than you do.” There’s physical change, psychological change, mental adjustment and we just know from the way the sons have talked about Ragnar that he’s not an entirely welcome figure. It’s very challenging when he returns.

What kind of raiding limitations will some of these aged characters have?

Historical Ragnar’s apparent fear was that his sons would become more famous than he did. We know that Bjorn Ironside did become in many ways more famous than Ragnar because he sailed around the Mediterranean and went to Spain and Africa. And Ivar the Boneless became perhaps the most famous Viking of all and led attacks on England and Ireland. There’s no end to the expansionist visions of the sons, it’s just that they take different forms. Bjorn has not, by any means, at this stage given up his dream of going back to the Mediterranean — indeed, that’s what he will be doing. Other things will happen that will propel the brothers out of Scandinavia and into other countries and places. Because they are the sons of Ragnar and as our historical consultant keeps reminding me, in that time to be a son of Ragnar Lothbrok was the biggest calling card. Lots of guys called themselves the son of Ragnar, even thought they weren’t, in order to get raiding parties together. There is a family charisma that operates. It’s as much about what are the sons now going to do in terms of raiding or exploring, but it’s also how do you deal with your famous father when he unexpectedly comes back as a beaten and hated man.

How international do you take the next 10 episodes?

We’ve tried to reproduce what actually happened in the Viking age. They started relatively small raids and raiding parties in England, France and Ireland, which became bigger raiding parties and armies. We’ve done that and the show has grown with the Vikings' ambitions. They’re very confident about raiding and they want bigger armies, bigger places. The show has to follow that so there are many places that we can take it. But we have a long-standing issue with raiding in England. The aftermath of what happened there, plus they want to go back to Paris. I want to take them into the Mediterranean and to Iceland; I have great ambitions for the show. Indeed, as you’ll see when the second half of the season comes out, we do go to new and exotic places because that’s what they did and wanted to do. They didn’t feel that anything could stop them anymore.

Was that the last Rollo and Ragnar will see of each other?

It was inevitable from the first episode that somehow those brothers would be together, get separated and have to fight it out. Rollo winning was the most unlikely outcome, certainly if you think of writing the conventions of a saga. The hero loses to his brother? A lot of fans wouldn’t have expected that Rollo would win, but yet maybe they take some pleasure in Rollo’s ascension and being crowned. It is a tipping point, a defining point between the brothers, but that’s not to say it’s the last time we see Rollo. He continues to be a part of the story and it’s just that the story keeps on growing. He’s now a duke, a powerful figure in France.

Had Ragnar not been on the drugs, would there have been a different outcome?

I suppose you could speculate, but the Vikings believed their fates were already written and there wasn’t anything they could do to change it. I think of Ragnar as a man who struggles with being king and having to lead. He’s taken drugs to some extent because he doesn’t like power. He doesn’t want to be in that position. He knows what he has to do, but he’s not strung up on celebrity or that kind of stuff. He’s a farmer and a suffering guy. That’s what has distinguished this season — the humanity that he has. The temptation might have been to make him more and more into a sort of cartoon character, a classical hero character, and I just decided to go the other way. I hoped the audience would be both shocked by him but still never lose their affection for him. As I say, you wait until the next half. Expect to shed a lot of tears because what happens to him is brilliant and astonishing. This isn’t the end of the story; this is a big milestone.

Was the religious imagery of Christ while Rollo was crowned intentional?

I think so, absolutely, because it was very important that the emperor believe in Rollo’s conversion. In other words, everyone was telling him that Rollo would revert to being a Viking, the emperor said, “No, he’s been baptized, he’s a Christian and that changes the nature of people and I believe in him.” He just trusted his instincts and in the power of the Christian faith and baptism and conversion. Rollo came through for him. So there is an image at the end of a kind of suffering figure, who has nearly died and who is being reborn in the service of Christianity. Of course there’s a resonance now, a kind of image of the Christian faith that’s working to expel the pagans. That symbolism is never far below the surface of the show — they’re always working away. There are lots of places around the world now where people don’t really take religious beliefs that seriously, but in that day it was absolutely fundamental. He’s a suffering Christ. He’s also, funny enough, Caesar. I mean, it was the Romans who crucified Christ. So he’s both Christ and Caesar in one. He’s fulfilling two parts of the biblical story.

With the sons becoming more prominent, what does this mean for the show’s female characters?

I love writing the female characters, and actually the battle for Kattegat becomes a real one. I’d also say you should never underestimate Lagertha.

Anything you’d like to add?

The next 10 episodes just deliver things that you could hardly guess. It’s some of Travis and Linus Roache’s best work, and there are lots of things to look forward to. This is not the end of Ragnar’s story; this is just part of the journey that he’s on.

Vikings will return for the second half of season four at an as-yet unannounced date. The show has also been renewed for a fifth season on History.

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

Twitter: @amber_dowling