'Vikings' Creator and Star Break Down Major Death and Why "This Isn't the End"

Vikings Still - H 2015
Courtesy of History

Vikings Still - H 2015

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Wednesday's episode of Vikings, "All His Angels."]

After four-and-a-half seasons of raiding, battling and outwitting everyone else around him, it was the end of the line for Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) on Wednesday's episode of Vikings. After returning to Wessex to seek revenge on King Ecbert (Linus Roache), Ragnar's plans fell through when the waters overtook his boats and marooned him and his few men.

Ragnar then began plotting his own death, striking a deal with Ecbert that allowed his son Ivar (Alex Hogh Andersen) to return home and tell his brothers of Ecbert's mercy, forcing them to seek revenge on King Aelle (Ivan Kaye) instead. Of course in his final moments with Ivar, Ragnar secretly told his son to target Ecbert, marking one final, secret twist of fate for the Viking king.

As Aelle's prisoner, Ragnar was hoisted up in a cage, tortured and dropped into a pit of poisonous snakes the way the history books indicated he was treated in real life — all while Ecbert watched from below, decked out in Athelstan's (George Blagden) robes. It was a long and tumultuous ending for a man who put so many others to death over the years, and a storyline that marks the beginning of a new era for the show.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Fimmel and showrunner Michael Hirst to discuss Ragnar's demise and what it means for the show going forward, the "intense" behind-the-scenes arguments about his final scenes and whether Ragnar could ever return.

This ending was inevitable for Ragnar, but what were you hoping to draw from for those final scenes?

Fimmel: Maybe contentment. Ragnar was so ready to die and was happy to die there. He feels like his whole plan has worked, and his kids were coming to avenge him and get revenge on Ecbert.

Hirst: The relationship between Ragnar and Ecbert suddenly got so intense that we decided they had to go away and rehearse. As you know in TV drama, people rarely just get a chance to do that. When we came then to Ragnar's death, it was even more intense because so much had led up to that moment. I've lived with Ragnar for years. The most wonderful thing in a way was that we shot it in the deepest winter when the trees were bare leaves and everything was dark. The episode was almost totally in black and white. It was dark, it was brutal, it was truthful, it was extraordinary and it was powerful. It was very difficult to shoot because of the weather, but it was also difficult to shoot because we were losing someone who has been at the heart of the show.

Michael, what went into crafting an ending like this?

Hirst: Episodes 414 and 415 are part of the same episode. Fourteen is this heavy stuff between Ragnar and Ecbert and then the cage. … It was so emotional and unlike anything we've ever done before. It's personal and it's universal; it stops being about Vikings and Saxons and starts being about man and human beings and their deepest fears and thoughts. It was very hard to write them; Travis had very strong ideas about his own death and how that should be handled, and of course it was very, very emotional for me.

What were some of the conversations you had with each other?

Hirst: Up to a point, Travis played the Australian card, which is to say he didn't give a kangaroo about things. He wanted to just do Ragnar's death and get it out of the way and everything. But the closer we got to actually shooting his death, the more obsessive and interested and passionate he became about the whole sequence.

Suddenly this became an intense and emotional experience of sitting down with him to discuss his death, as you can imagine: what he wanted to say, what he didn't want to say. There were things I needed him to say that he wasn't sure about. He said his character didn't make speeches, so his last speech was something we had to negotiate and fight about. He fought in a good way; he argued with Linus because Linus wanted to say some things and Travis wanted to cut them or whatever. The three of us were often locked in a room, really discussing the death of a character whose death affected us all both at the level of the story and show but also personally. It was an amazing period of time.

Fimmel: Michael has always been very collaborative, and I've been trying to get scenes with Linus Roache for years now. We always collaborate on everything; he's very good at that. It's amazing as an actor to have a creator like that. He's so willing to take your ideas and work with you.

Travis, did you have any qualms about working with snakes?

Fimmel: Not really. There were about 60 of them, and then there were fake ones around my legs. I didn't mind them at all. I was covered in snake poop at the end. I got bitten a few times, but that was fine — it was them pooping on me that annoyed me more than anything.

After he questioned religion for most of the series, did Ragnar really die an atheist, or did that change in his final moments?

Fimmel: Ragnar didn't think he was going to heaven or Valhalla. He was going to rot under the ground. He did what he wanted to do in his life, but it was his one life. After that, he was happy and ready to die, and he left a legacy. Whether it's good or bad, people will remember him.

Hirst: When Ragnar and Ecbert discuss their comparative faiths and at a certain level how ridiculous all faith is, it's very freeing for them and for the audience. It suddenly becomes a very modern conversation. These aren't medieval talks about Christianity and paganism. These could be modern people talking about whether you should believe in God or not.

As we went through the show, Ragnar became less and less convinced in his pagan religion. That was partly the influence of Athelstan, and he embraced certain aspects of Christianity. Ragnar was an incredibly intelligent guy. He picked up on things; he was curious, and that's what always drove him. He had exposure to religion and other thoughts, so it shook his own belief. In the end when he died, he didn't believe anymore in the way that he had when he was younger, but he knew that his sons and his people did. So his final great speech from the cage before he dies is not a statement of his own belief, it's a political statement to encourage his sons to avenge his death. He's setting the path for revenge and the Viking future.

What is the benefit of having a major character death in the middle of the season versus in a finale?

Fimmel: Michael has always been great about that; he's not so predictable — with the time jumps, with people dying. It felt right for the show. The episodes that follow my death are fantastic. It works well for the show and the young actors to keep the audience.

Hirst: This is the saga of Ragnar and his sons. I didn't want to suggest to the audience that the death of Ragnar meant some huge breaking point in that saga; it's just part of the weight. So Ragnar's sons will continue the saga. This isn't the end of Ragnar Lothbrok. Ragnar will live on in his fame. He will live on because he was the most famous Viking of the time. But he also, of course, will live on through his sons. I never wanted this story to end when Ragnar dies physically. We've shot roughly 25 more hours of TV now after Ragnar's death, and we are a long way down the line. We are really embracing the sons, but Ragnar hasn't gone away, because Ragnar is still the inspiration.

Could the character physically reappear?

Fimmel: Yeah, no, no. I'm not returning. It sort of doesn't make sense. My character is an atheist, so I'm not going to be coming up in any ghost, religious ghostly images or anything. I think you have to be very religious for people to have that belief in you.

Hirst: But because he's such a powerful presence in people's lives he could reappear in dreams, in visions … I don't think that any of my major characters … I started with — Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard), Ragnar and Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) and Rollo (Clive Standen) … none of them will ever actually go away or disappear from the saga.

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

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Twitter: @amber_dowling