Where does one even start when it comes to the death of the main character of any given show? On the Dec. 28 episode — “All His Angels” — “Vikings” did the unthinkable. Then again, it did something most fans had to have known was coming for a very long time.
Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) is dead — and the History Channel series wasn’t kidding when they said everything would change. Since the beginning of “Vikings,” Ragnar has been the flawed hero through whom the story of the rise of the Viking culture was told. Dating back to when the series launched, creator Michael Hirst has reiterated time and time again that this was the saga of Ragnar and his sons. Now that comes to pass, as the torch is passed to his sons after the death of the king of Kattegat.
Screener spoke with Hirst about saying goodbye to his beloved character — and the surprising story behind how Ragnar’s death almost happened originally.
Screener: The death of Ragnar is sad for every ‘Vikings’ fan — but I can’t even imagine what it’s like for you. What was it like writing the end of his story, after bringing him to life for so long?
Michael Hirst: I can’t tell you… It’s funny, because the whole thing changed from when I first pitched the show. When Travis joined the show all he got were the first three episodes and my initial bible, and in my initial bible Ragnar died at the end of Season 1! [Laughs]
Obviously when I realized what I had and the stories I needed to tell and the actors I had, that opened up completely. I knew sooner or later I had to confront the death of Ragnar — and what made it worse is I then spent another four years with the character, and with Travis.
Ragnar is the creation of me, as the writer, but also Travis. We spent a long time talking to each other and developing the character and thinking about him, so he’s embedded in my life absolutely.
I remember talking to Travis at one point about it and saying, “You know Travis, you’re going to die soon. How are you feeling about this?” And being Australian, he said, “You know mate, piece of cake! I don’t mind at all.” But actually, of course when it came to it, it was completely different. He was totally invested. He wanted to work through it with me, he wanted to say the right things, he wanted it to be as powerful and emotional as it could be.
Because he also knew, like all the great deaths, that it would be intimate: It’s not a heroic death on a grand scale. It’s a very intimate death where you’re looking into this guy’s eyes and feeling his suffering.
In the previous episode, the two-hander between Ecbert and Ragnar, that was very intense too. The three of us, Linus [Roache], Travis and I, spent a lot of time together trying to get that right. They actually ended up rehearsing it, because it’s important, which is pretty unusual in TV drama.
But the death was difficult to write — and actually, even more difficult to watch. We shot it in the deepest winter, up the mountains in Ireland, in the freezing cold, in days of rain that reduced everything to mud. We were all there, the heads of departments, the crew, the directors — all the people who have been on this journey with Travis from the beginning were there on this hillside in the pouring rain, watching this.
They were watching Ragnar in his cage because Travis insisted that it was all real. It’s one of the great things about the show, that what you see is actually what’s happening. He insisted on doing it all real, being in the cage, suspended and then dropped into the pit — he did that all himself.
He was up there for hours and hours and it was actually very real in a sense. He was completely in the moment. That was an amazing performance, we all thought. I wept. This was the end of a long and fascinating and deep journey for me, as well as for Travis. It was just wonderful how that environment — that wintry, terribly muddy environment — was just perfect to shoot it in.
But, of course, even though he’s physically dead, Ragnar doesn’t and will not disappear from the show. We’ve since shot nearly 25 episodes of the show and Ragnar lives on. His spirit lives on, his ambitions live on with regards to setting up colonies in other countries. And also he lives on in his sons.
His fear was that his sons would become more famous than he was — and two of them at least, Ivar and Bjorn, did become more famous. So from the very beginning to me it was the saga of Ragnar and his sons, and we’re still powering through that. But of course, the show has continued to open up.
We’ve actually been shooting in Morocco and Ireland and following the Vikings. We had to. The show has to open up as the Viking age opens up, and they started exploring around the globe. And it’s awesome. I have to say that.
If the original version of your story saw Ragnar dying in Season 1, at what point did you realize now was the time for his death?
It began to be organic. It began to just feel right. If you look back at the first season, look at Ragnar. He looks young and fresh-faced. It’s a great tribute to Travis’ performance that he could act like a much older and more experienced man. It’s a great tribute to makeup as well. I was going to say hair and makeup but he didn’t have any hair. [Laughs] They made him look much older.
His experiences were written on his face, and it was time. His part in the saga has played out. It felt right, which is one of the reasons I cut forward in time. There wasn’t anything arbitrary about that. I don’t write fancy. In this show children grow up, and people get older, and die. I’m proud of that. It’s about real people and real events. It’s not fancy.
But it was time for Ragnar to die. I think he wanted to die, the character. He felt, as well, he’s probably done as much as he could do in this life. And the irony was, I think, although he tells Ecbert that he’s lost his faith in the gods and will only speak of the gods when he’s dying — on behalf of, and for, his sons and people who still believe the only way Vikings could get into Valhalla was to die bravely. And my God, does Ragnar die bravely, despite all the efforts by Aella to break and humiliate him. He can’t break him.
So he dies a Viking death. Whether he likes it or not, Ragnar has gone to Valhalla. I kind of like that. When he gets to Valhalla he’ll be saying, “But I don’t believe in you guys!” [Laughs]
That moment with Ecbert was so powerful, given how much of the series has dealt with Ragnar’s spirituality.
Well one of the reasons he’s lost his absolute faith in his gods was because of Athelstan. He could see Athelstan was a deeply spiritual man who believed in totally different gods. How does that happen if your gods are the only gods? How come this deeply spiritual man you admire believes in something else? There’s a contradiction there.
It may be that there aren’t gods, but just spiritual people. The spiritual side of the story is very important to me and it always has been. Ragnar has been on a spiritual journey — and losing his faith was a pretty good outcome in the sense that no one could have second-guessed that would have happened to a Viking.
But I don’t see why it couldn’t happen to a Viking, like it happens to Christians. You can lose your faith.
I wanted to touch on Ecbert. Why was it so important for him to be there when Ragnar died?
Despite being very different, they has a very close relationship and found things to admire in each other. I believe what Ecbert found to admire in Ragnar was a certain nobility of spirit. They were both preoccupied with the idea that power is corrupting. And we know Ragnar didn’t like the exercise of power in the way Ecbert did — but Ecbert was greatly influenced by Ragnar’s noble soul, I think.
So he felt he had to witness the death of this noble soul, and to see if Ragnar was also true. That what he said he would do, whether he’d actually be brave enough to do it. So he bore witness to Ragnar’s death, which was a very important part of their relationship — and it does deeply influence what happens to Ecbert in subsequent episodes. In some ways it breaks Ecbert, in others it strangely empowers him.
One shouldn’t say this but I think those two episodes, which are really one extended episode, I think that’s the best writing I’ve done in TV. I was so invested in it. It was so powerful and emotional to me. I was with those guys, Ecbert walking barefoot and Ragnar in the cage. It was a deeply emotional experience for me to write those episodes.
What I’ve continuously found in this production is whatever my worries are, when I go to see it being shot it’s much better than it was in my imagination. It’s much more real and powerful.
You’re obviously so much further ahead in the story than us at this point but Ragnar’s words to Ivar are to take revenge on Ecbert, rather than Aella.
What is his true motivation in putting that death at Ecbert’s feet?
Underneath it all, Ragnar is a true Viking and he’s motivated like most Vikings with the idea of revenge. It will actually be somewhat left up to his sons to break that cycle of death and revenge. Ragnar isn’t going to do it himself. I think it’s a nice twist. It would be so easy to say to Ivar, “Let’s forgive Ecbert. He’s a nice guy. I’m a changed person and I’ve kind of embraced my Christian self.” But he doesn’t. In the end he reverts to his true nature, to Viking. He knows to motivate Ivar and motivate his sons they have to have this mission of revenge.
Which leads to one of the greatest events in Viking history, the creation of the Great Heathen Army. obviously, we get into that very quickly after the death. That’s the reaction of the sons. They need to react and gain vengeance for their father’s death.
It’s cool. It’s not what you’d expect, and also cool.
“Vikings” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on History Channel.