'Vikings' Boss Previews Plenty of "Shocks and Tragedies" in Season 3

Showrunner Michael Hirst tells THR the stakes are higher than ever during this season of the History original drama series.
Jonathan Hession/HISTORY

When audiences last left Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) and his son Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig), the new king was staring out into the open waters, not quite content with his newly acquired land and position of power, nor his latest, deformed, child with second wife Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland).

During the third season of History's Vikings, it's only a matter of time before the Norseman and his followers set sail toward Wessex and the fertile lands that King Ecbert (Linus Roache) promised in exchange for their manpower, and questions of loyalty once again arise.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with creator Michael Hirst to discuss season three prophecies, incoming guest star Kevin Durand, crafting epic battle scenes and re-creating history.

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How big of a role do the Seer and his prophecies play in season three?

Prophecies and the Seer are an important part of Viking culture, and are mentioned in the sagas; Odin found out about the death of his own son through the Seer. The Vikings believed that they were fated and that the Norns who lived under the tree of life would spin their fates every day. Part of my interest in the culture and in the Vikings is what exactly does that mean in practical terms — how do you live your life if you think it's fated? So they're constantly asking the Seer for tips, for clues. Well the Seer promises different things to different people. The stakes for all our major characters are much higher this season and a great many things and changes are going to happen to them.

Does that mean Bjorn could begin fulfilling the prophecy set for him last season?

The prophecy about Bjorn starts during the battles when Ragnar calls him Bjorn Ironside, which he was called in history. For Bjorn, he wonders if that is justified, is he really favored by the Gods? Will he really not be injured? And it's a sort of test then. Terrible things happen to people around him and in the season he discovers he's not Ironside in one sense. And he has to question whether the Gods really, really favor him. But another part of the season both his mother and father, in their own ways, tell him he has to grow up. That is something that hits home to Bjorn. The end result is that Bjorn is totally out of his comfort zone and not only does he grow up, but he's going to be a man who becomes more famous than Ragnar. That's what really happened historically, so we're just starting on his journey.

How will that sit with Ragnar?

Ragnar gives a speech at this season's battle in Paris, saying he's a democrat who believes in equals, but he's King so he'll make the decisions. According to historical accounts, the only thing that Ragnar was really jealous of was his sons. He feared they would become more famous than he was. Fame — real fame for doing amazing things — was the most important thing in Viking society. That's beginning to happen now, between Ragnar and Bjorn, little by little at least. And that's going to carry on.

The Paris battle was historically huge. Are we leading to that as the overall arc?

In one sense we are in terms of the overall arc of momentum and Viking society. We show it has gotten bigger, more ambitious. But within that there are so many individual stories; Vikings is a family saga. There will be many, many changes and tragedies.

Has Athlestan (George Blagden) become a device for linking those two worlds?

Athelstan always was a character who was very much just a device when I'd thought about him, a device for linking the Christian world to the pagan world. He was like the representative of the audience going into the pagan world. But then thinking about him and writing about him, he became a really interesting person with these spiritual crises. It became one of the centers of the show. I had no idea when I started that that would happen and it was fantastic when it did. He's deeply involved in the lives of both Ragnar and King Ecbert, so part of crisis is that he feels very close to both these men. And both of them love him so he's invaluable to everyone, which is in one sense his tragedy.

Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) has had a huge rise to power. How do you craft that for a woman in a historical piece?

To some extent I always think about Lagertha as being a sort of modern character, she's like a lot of women in contemporary life, put in these really difficult situations. The fact that she's achieved power, she's become an Earl, is fantastic at the time and unusual in society but it did actually happen. I thought, well maybe she's like Elizabeth I, maybe she becomes a very successful ruler. But that wouldn't happen, not at that time. Probably never. Elizabeth I could only do that because she was queen by her father's will. Otherwise they would have got rid of her a long time ago. The moment Lagertha is a woman who obtains power, people come for her; some people don't accept her new position.

Watch 'Vikings' Season 3 Trailer

Fans have been outspoken about wanting Ragnar and Lagertha back together, which means Aslaug is a natural "bad guy." How do you create sympathy for her?

The turning point for her was very much her struggle to save their crippled son Ivar, she's fiercly protective of him. The irony is that Ivar grows up to be the most pathologically cruel of all Viking leaders, historically speaking. Nevertheless, she fights to save him and nurture him, and she finds herself in a way. She's been looking for who she is and what she's doing. And through that action and determination even to go against her husband, she starts at least to find who she really is. You see her connecting more and more to the deepest Viking roots. And what that actually means is to some extent that it's unexpectedly dark.

What can you tell us about Kevin Durand's character?

When I started thinking about the season and of all the men going on raids again I thought, I'd like to see what happens back at home. I have an Icelandic friend who is a novelist and gives me bits from the sagas and things, and he told me that in Viking society if something terrible or really interesting is going to happen, people have simultaneous dreams about it. So I thought OK, these women at home start to have dreams about this figure approaching but they don't know who he is. When he arrives, he's an extremely mysterious, slightly Rasputin figure who does wonderful things for Aslaug in terms of Ivar. But Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig) is really scared. I think for Aslaug and Helga (Maude Hirst), who is slightly more rooted in real Viking lore and life, that he is possibly a god. And so it was interesting to play around with that idea. Because it's true that the name Harbard is another name for Odin. But he may have just chosen to call himself that.

There are plenty of battle scenes this season, how do you top yourself each time to keep the stakes high?

I have to make sure that all the battles have a different character with different stakes. And in each battle, however big it is — there are hundreds of people involved — we concentrate on the characters the audience knows and wants to know what their fate is and what happens to them. If you do that successfully, then it works and it's better than seeing thousands of CGI warriors sweeping through.

Anything to add?

Season three is our best season yet it's our most ambitious season yet, and there are a lot of shocks and tragedies and unexpected events along the way.

Vikings returns Thursday, Feb. 19 at 10 p.m. on History

Twitter: @amber_dowling