Interview: 'Vikings' creator Michael Hirst talks 'Blood Eagle' and targeting Paris
On History's "Vikings," a show prone to extended battles, time jumps and portentous prophesies from a hideous seer, an unusual thing happened last Thursday.
I'll pause if you're not caught up on "Vikings" to let you depart, lest you be spoiled.
On last week's "Vikings," a main character was killed. Now "Vikings" has killed main characters before. Gabriel Byrne was arguably the cast's biggest name and his Earl Haraldson met his end before the close of the first season.
But Thorbjørn Harr's Jarl Borg was dispatched through the Viking ritual of Blood Eagling, pretty much the most nasty way of killing an adversary imaginable. Jarl Borg had it coming. He never should have tried to conquer Ragnar's village and he never should have thought that Ragnar would be willing to set that indiscretion aside even to forge a key military alliance.
Last Thursday's episode was fittingly titled "Blood Eagle" and while it also featured the tremendously satisfying reveal of Lagertha as a new Earl and Ragnar's political equal, it was mostly a pause in the season's big narrative thrust involving the conquest of the British mainland. For fans of the History drama, comparisons to last season's Upsalla-set "Sacrifice" were unavoidable.
Not surprisingly, the two episodes are favorites of Michael Hirst, the creator and sole writer on "Vikings." After watching "Blood Eagle," I got on the phone with the reliable thoughtful Hirst to discuss Jarl Borg's fate, Lagertha's reveal and the treatment of new adversary King Ecbert. I also got a little tease about the already-ordered third season.
Click through for the full Q&A before watching Thursday's (April 17) new "Vikings."
HitFix: To start with, talk me through the chronology of these three things: You have a character you know has to die. That character has an affinity for eagles. You learn about the blood eagle execution method. Which came first and drove the other things?
Michael Hirst: I think that I'd decided quite a long time ago that Jarl Borg would die from blood-eagling, because Ragnar would never forgive him for attacking his children. We've kind of established that Ragnar is a guy who loves his family and the worst punishment of all in the Viking world is the blood-eagling. So I think Ragnar always had that in mind. I think for King Horik, it was a different issue. Horik and Jarl Borg were enemies. Jarl Borg had tried to steal land from Horik, so the issue then was, why does King Horik even offer Jarl Borg a way out? Why is he discussing freeing him? We did actually shoot a scene in which Horik says to someone else that he never was going to free Jarl Borg, he hated him, but he wanted to give Jarl Borg hope, because if people have hope, they suffer more when they get killed. I don't know whether it's a good thing or a bad thing that we cut that scene, but anyway, that was the psychology of Horik.
But for me, this whole episode and the reason why this episode is so important, is that it delivers a profound experience of suffering and spirituality and it gets you deeper into a Viking mindset. Something so extraordinary and horrible and frightening and terrifying, just delivers the Viking message and it's not gratuitous. I'm not trying to shock an audience. This is what happened. We shot it as realistically as we could within the confines. There were things we couldn't show. You don't necessarily need to show things. It was horrific, but it was genuinely a profound experience, I think, totally an organic part of the show, not for effect, not to shock the audience, but to show the Viking experience. I just wanted to show people that this is, for me, a very extraordinary and powerful part of the show.
HitFix: Going back to the idea that this wasn't as graphic as it could have been. I agree. It's much more spiritual than barbaric, the moment. If you'd had your own preference, would you have wanted to push things further? I know History has limits, but would *you* have wanted to be more graphic?
Michael Hirst: No, not from what we ultimately ended with. To be absolutely honest, when I first wrote that, and I said that the entire fifth act of the seventh episode would be a blood-eagling, I think History, quite naturally, were cautious and said, "Well, there are rules. There are things you can't show. How on Earth are you going to show that?" But I had huge confidence in production, in our crew. Also, we had a female director, a Canadian director called Kari Skogland, who I trusted and she felt that she could do it. She felt that she could deliver it without showing too much. I've found as a matter of experience, funnily enough, that female directors are better at both sex and battle and probably suffering, too. This was an extraordinary moment in my life. To be on-set that night... We didn't start shooting until eight or nine o'clock and it was dark and there were hundreds of candles and everybody realized that we were in a magic, spiritual moment. It was an extraordinary environment to be in and I trusted everyone involved, because they knew what we were trying to do. They ended up shooting it all night. They went way beyond when everyone was supposed to go home and it was so powerful for everyone. It was so extraordinary for everyone. I shouldn't say this, because it's heresy, but it was genuinely like watching Christ on the cross. The way that Thorbjørn, Jarl Borg, played that was so extraordinary and so intense, that you were in the presence of some deeply, profoundly spiritual moment.
HitFix: So this was Episode 7 of this season. Episode 8 of last season was the Upsalla episode, which I know was a favorite of yours. What does it tell you about the way that you arc seasons of this particular show that you have these two pivotal episodes built around sacrifices/executions at this point in your annual storytelling?
Michael Hirst: I think that each season I try to make an episode that's slightly cut out of time and I just pull back. In the back of my mind, I've always had this episode or this image and I've been thinking about it a lot and I hadn't ever known how to do that. How do you do a human sacrifice? How do you do a blood-eagling? How do I do that without people thinking that I'm just trying to be shocking? I'm not trying to be shocking. These are things I've about what the Vikings did, so I'm thinking about this and I'm always trying to figure out how I cut that out in time, because the rest of the narrative is all about battles and ships and conquests and all of the rest of the stuff that you associate with Vikings, quite rightly, but I want these moments to go deeper into the Viking experience. So there's one episode per season that I know I'm gonna have trouble with or I know is gonna be controversial. And then I fight for it! And then everyone else gets involved, they like it or they don't like it or they have to figure out a way of doing it. But in the end, usually, I'm very proud what we did that, that we stepped aside. Of course it's part of the story, but it's about something else that's much deeper and I'm always very, very proud when we achieve it and when we shoot it and I think it gives everyone a hit, it gives everyone a lift, because they feel they've been involved in something slightly different.
HitFix: The show is, as you say, very invested in the battles and the conquests and in the sacrifices, but this season has also been very much about Viking marriage and divorce. In that first episode, when Lagertha demanded a divorce, my instant instinct was, "Well that has to be anachronistic." But then I went and looked it up and... Vikings had divorce! How fascinated were you to discover that and how much has that fascination been steering you this season?
Michael Hirst: I think from the very beginning, when I started to research -- This was a long time ago -- Viking society, that was one of the first things that came up, that women could divorce their husbands. They could own property. They could rule. They could fight as shield warriors. It was like, "Oh, f*** me! What a wonderful premise for a show!" So I was always waiting for that moment. When Lagertha says, "I'm gonna divorce you," it's fantastic! You don't see that! You can't do that in 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th century, no woman could do that. So I was just waiting for that, just waiting for that moment. Also, when she turns up an Earl, I was so proud of her. I know lots of women think it's a fantastic moment, but it's a great moment for me, too. I think, "Wow! Isn't she cool! She's great!"
HitFix: The divorce set up a couple episodes that were Lagertha-lite or even Lagertha-free and I was worried. But how much was that you setting us up so that when she ascends to Earl-dom and everything, this leads to a very dose of Lagertha in the last chunk of the season?
Michael Hirst: I think that I wanted to put the character into a contemporary situation. In other words, I don't ever think about history as being something separate and long-ago. So women who marry dominant men, often get beaten up. I put Lagertha in this situation and at first, Katheryn [Winnick] was worried about that, because she said, "I have my fans and she's a powerful woman, why have you put me in a subservient situation?" and I said, "Look, if you think you have a big fanbase now, wait till they see you being abused. Wait till they see how you get out of it." And, of course, she gets out of it fantastically and I think she's a better, bigger, braver character as a result of that situation I put her in. I think that's a universal situation, isn't it? It's not like a Viking situation. It's human. I keep trying to put all my characters into human situations.
HitFix: How far into advance had you known that you would need to do that time jump that would age Bjorn and what was the thought process in terms of how to handle that time jump?
Michael Hirst: Well, these things, I have no idea how to really write series TV. [He laughs.] I just stumbled into it, so I make it up as I go along. I knew that I wanted to progress the story forward, but I'd left so many cliffhangers at the end of Season 1 that needed to be resolved, so I had to resolve them immediately in Season 2 and then I just said, "We're gonna jump forward in time." And I remember, actually, that there quite a few people that said, "Oh, gosh. That creates lots of problems and I don't know if it's a good thing." And now everyone says, "That's brilliant! That was really good." I want to jump forward in time into Season 4 now and everyone's going, "No, no, no. You can't do that." So you have to make some decisions and you just hope that you carry your audience with you and I have to say that I think we have a huge fanbase now and they know the story more than I do and if I go wrong, they'll sure point it out.
HitFix: Obviously history has always been only an outline for you, but it hasn't been something you've been wedded to as a requirement. So if history tells me King Ecbert was not, in fact, killed by Viking marauders in the field of battle, how much stock should I put in history regarding what your plans are for that character?
Michael Hirst: I will probably be true to Ecbert's outcome. I have to weigh in the balance where I am with my Vikings and who is who, but I'm very conscious of the fact that I'm basing the story on historical realities and I'm very conscious of that. We have a historical consultant. I read loads of book. I'm not interested in fantasy. "Vikings" is based on historical facts, but I'm writing a drama, so I might twist them a little bit or change them little bit. But if you go back to it -- as you said yourself -- you go back to things and you go, "Oh! That's actually true." Well that's because I've done the research. I'm not stupid. I kinda do cover myself a lot. But I do reserve the right to be a dramatist. What happens to Ecbert, I'm not sure yet, but I've introduced Ecbert as a new character and he is based on a historical character and I couldn't do any better than the historical character, because he's so wonderful. He was at Charlemagne's Court. He wanted to be the ruler of all England. How do I improve on that? He's fantastic!
HitFix: He's introduced as a nemesis and as the season's villain, but I've been surprised in subsequent episodes by the obvious respect that I think *you* have for the Ecbert. ["Yes," he agrees.] Were you surprised by that as well, by the appreciation you found and had for him?
Michael Hirst: No, I think people started accusing me of being totally pro-Viking, but Ecbert is a wonderful Saxon ruler and really interesting. Of course he can connect to Ragnar! They kinda connect through Athelstan, of course, but they connect anyway. I know that from history. The Vikings established a big kingdom, eventually, in the UK, so I'm working through history. So I'm aware of what happens in the future in a way, I think, that lots of people who comment on the show or things don't know what actually a hundred years later or two hundred years later, but I do know what happened. I'm feeding that stuff into the show.
HitFix: As a last question: You guys got the renewal fairly early and you talked about how you knew in advance that "Sacrifice" was the out-of-time episode for the first season and that "Blood Eagle" was the out-of-time episode in the second season. Do you already know what the comparable episode is for Season 3?
Michael Hirst: No. [He laughs.]
HitFix: When would you hope to know that?
Michael Hirst: I've written the first few episodes of Season 3 and we'll start shooting on June 2 and it's a huge, huge act for us, because we had thousands of extras last year and we're gonna have thousands of extras next year and a lot of major characters. I'm pleased to be guiding this thing through, but it's just getting bigger and bigger. So good knows what I have to do next year! But I do know that in Season 3, we attack Paris! And Jesus Christ that'll be a huge thing!
"Vikings" airs on Thursday nights on History.