When you’re four seasons into a show beloved by bearded warriors and tattooed shieldmaidens the world over, it must feel like you’re the King of Denmark himself. Fortunately, mighty Michael Hirst took a few minutes out of his busy raiding schedule to talk to us about what it’s like to be the creator, writer and Odin figure behind historical drama series Vikings.
G’day Michael. You guys got an extended season this time around – has that affected the way you approach things?
No, I have always been in it for the long haul, and I hoped that I could take [The History Channel] and MGM with me. I also think that it’s slightly clever of me to have chosen a hero who has a lot of sons! I knew that, God willing, we could move ultimately beyond Ragnar to the sons.
We know historically that the only thing that Ragnar Lothbrok was supposedly fearful of was that his sons would one day become more famous than he was – and in certain respects they did, because Bjorn Ironside sailed around the Mediterranean, which is quite something, and Ivor the Boneless was perhaps the most famous Viking of all time.
So, no it’s just been an opportunity to continue enlarging the Viking world, taking them to new places, reflecting what actually happened in real life, living with these amazing characters and sometimes, unfortunately, also killing them.
You expanded on Floki's story last season... Are we seeing the same thing with Bjorn this time around?
I think in some ways that this season is very much about identity. There are quite a few characters who, like Bjorn, are trying to find out who they are. Floki also has a big identity crisis - obviously his relationship with Ragnar is under extreme strain.
Ragnar, too – it’s not that he’s searching for an identity, but he’s shouldering a terrible burden. He finds the burden of kingship insufferable really, yet he knows he has to do it. Some of season four is about that struggle he has with his role and what it means; what power is and what responsibility is, and what to pass onto his sons and how to live. It’s kind of an existential season if I can put it pretentiously.
Of course you can! Given that you’re exploring the expression of identity, with a character like Harald Finehair, how wedded do you have to be to the historical version?
Well, I suppose it’s an easy answer – and I’m not afraid of easy answers – but we don’t know very much. That’s the great thing from my point of view: this is the Dark Ages – we can’t even be sure about Ragnar. He could be a mythic character. The consensus is that there was someone called Ragnar Lothbrok, but the few references there are to him in the work of Saxon and Frankish monks and so on put him all over the place, so it seems as if he could have been in three places at once.
But what I’ve always said about Vikings is everything in the show begins with some kind of reality. It certainly begins in research and reading – not only mine but we have a historical advisor, and I would run everything by the historical advisor. If I take a character and take him or her in a certain direction, I want to know from the historical advisor whether that direction is both plausible and authentic, but I take licence in that. Rollo, for example, I brought him forward in time. The attack on Paris happened a little later but I couldn’t wait four seasons to get there.
So a good story comes before strict adherence to timeframes...
In terms of its authenticity and how I deal with the characters, I have to say that it’s a huge success across Scandinavia, the show. I did have an on-air discussion with the head of Scandinavian Studies at Harvard, who is a Swedish professor. I thought he was going to chew me up and spit me out, but he said, "This is the first time my culture has ever been taken seriously and intelligently," so I can live with that.
As to the rest, it’s a drama; it’s based on real things and on real people, but the bottom line is that I’m not trying to say this is historically accurate. But it is more truthful, more authentic than people have a right to expect of a TV drama, that’s what I would say.
... this season is very much about identity. There are quite a few characters who, like Bjorn, are trying to find out who they are.
You mentioned world expansion in terms of the invasion of Paris and the potential for Bjorn to voyage into the Mediterranean at some point. Do you feel like it’s a big enough world already this season, or will there be more and more expansion as we go?
Bjorn does sail for the Mediterranean at some point! We’ve established in a sense some worlds that we’re still exploring – there’s Kattegat, the kind of Viking home reality. We’ve become more conscious, as the seasons progress, of different kinds of Vikings, from different countries in Scandinavia. They’ve become slightly more pronounced – there are Danes and Norwegian Vikings, and they are somewhat different, so we’re expanding our experience of that.
And there’s the world of England and Wessex, and I love that, too, because I just adore King Ecbert and I think Linus Roache, the actor, is so good and compelling and wonderful and... that whole drama, I find very satisfying. But I also like to move around from these different realities - from Paris to Wessex to Kattegat. For me it’s fun – if it ever stopped being fun, I’d stop writing it.
Given you’ve committed to write every episode, it must be a lot of fun!
Well the truth is that it’s not actually that easy to write 20 episodes, as you can imagine, partly because you get to a stage where, when we are shooting, we have maybe three directors at the studio – one is prepping, one is finishing and one is in the middle of shooting.
They, of course, are always examining and putting pressure on the script, as do the actors, so there’s a lot of simultaneous rewriting as well as trying to finish the last episode and so on. It’s challenging but at the same time I still find it enormous creative fun.
Looking back at previous seasons, is there a character or plot point you wish you’d seeded back in season one to enhance the stories you’re telling now?
No, in a sense it’s quite the reverse. Let’s take a character like Athelstan, who died in the third season but still refuses to go away. His spirit, his presence, as it were, it’s still informing the drama. When I think back, when I first thought about Athelstan, the monk who was captured at the raid in Lindisfarne, he was just a device. The idea was to have a character who would take a contemporary audience – essentially, a Western, Christian, contemporary audience – back into a pagan world.
So he was a device – I never thought of him as a character – and I assumed that he would be finished in two or three episodes. Then he became a character and, like the other main characters in the show, he became a human being to me. His role and his importance grew, and it’s been absolutely wonderful to follow him and be with him... and as I say, he’s now stubbornly refusing to go away.
You’ve got an opposite character for Athelstan this season in Yidu, who’s bringing another sort of exotic perspective to the show. Have you thought about her in contrast to Athelstan?
Not particularly, although with Athelstan’s death, Floki’s betrayal and the "bad marriage" he has with Aslaug, Ragnar starts off season four in a very vulnerable and lonely place. Who can he talk to honestly about the burdens of kingship, about the issues he has? I needed a character from outside, someone untainted by the politics and the struggles that we’ve seen.
I was looking for someone and I asked my historical advisor whether it was even remotely possible that I could get a Japanese or Chinese girl into the show. He proved to me how the slave trade operated and how it was perfectly plausible that a Chinese slave could have been taken in one place and ended up with pirates and be taken to Frankia. That was cool anyway - I wanted to do that.
The thing I often think about is that it has a kind of Beatles connection. I’ve stuck many things in the show that privately, to me, have a Beatles connection – I love the Beatles. But I’m now just thinking about Yoko and John, and how when Yoko felt that John was getting a little tired of her and it wasn’t working out, she sort of gave John to her assistant May Pang... and there’s something similar going on with Aslaug and Ragnar.
It’s not a simple transference, but in my mind there were aspects of that. I love exploring the relationships between men and women, and here was a different sort of relationship which was interesting – but I do have to tell you that the outcome of that relationship is something you couldn’t second-guess in a million years.
I’ve stuck many things in the show that privately, to me, have a Beatles connection – I love the Beatles.
Time to listen to Revolver backwards for clues... Ragnar has certainly changed over the years. He’s one of the most unpredictable characters in the show, when it comes to guessing how he’ll react to certain things.
It’s a strange idea but a successful character does have a kind of independent life. To the writer there are characters, like Ragnar and King Ecbert, they have an independent life that I’m just recording. Travis [Fimmel] and I have spent hours and hours talking about Ragnar, and what Ragnar would do, what does he think, why does he do this?
What’s come out of that is that Ragnar is now a very, very deeply complex, perhaps even contradictory figure. My first idea was just I didn’t want a cliché Viking, I wanted a thoughtful, perhaps even introverted Viking, but Travis has taken that character way, way, way beyond that. In season four I think his performance is just towering. It’s an absolutely amazing season for him.
The new series of Vikings continues Wednesdays at 9:30pm (AEDT) on SBS.
Missed it? Every episode will be on SBS On Demand after it airs.