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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Vikings showrunner Michael Hirst is teasing odds on major deaths

By Ernie Estrella
Vikings 603 Bjorn Ironside

History's Vikings' midseason finale ended on a thrilling cliffhanger that left viewers witnessing major casualties on the battlefield. King Harald (Peter Franzen) was severely wounded, as was Bjorn Ironside (Alexander Ludwig) when Ivar the Boneless (Alex Høgh Andersen) led the Rus army into Norway.

It's been a thrilling first half of the final season of Vikings, which has seen Ivar reinvent himself in Kiev while Bjorn spent most of the season finding out how difficult it is to be a leader, losing the election to rule over all of Norway and dealing with personal tragedy stemming from his poor decision-making.

Once again, SYFY WIRE spoke to Vikings creator, producer, and lone writer Michael Hirst about the epic finale, the ramifications of those events and what to expect in the final 10 episodes. He even dropped a few hints about the upcoming Netflix spinoff series, Vikings: Valhalla.

Michael, you've put viewers through the wringer in Season 6A, from killing off Bjorn's son, Hali, his mother, the famous shieldmaiden Lagertha, but potentially King Harald and Bjorn too?

So you think they're both dead?

Based on the celebrations, the bodies piled up, I don't think Bjorn or Harald are getting out of this.

Okay, so the Vikings have been decimated and two of our beloved Vikings have been cut down in battle and are likely to die, that is true. But I would say that they are certainly both badly wounded. If I was a betting man — I wouldn't bet on their long-term survival — but I haven't actually seen them die yet. So I would reserve judgment about that, I cannot wait for you to see Episode 11 because a lot of the things you think might be true, may not be quite so true.

In the history books, Bjorn Ironside went on to eventually become king of Sweden but the show doesn't always align with the sagas. The badly wounded Harald tells Erik the Red on the battlefield to retreat and find new land. Are we to assume Norway has been taken by the Rus?

No, it's too early to say that. We know that after Episode 9, the Rus are a formidable army when they marched out of Kiev, just overwhelmingly powerful. However well the Vikings were prepared, it's not a surprise they were overwhelmed, but it's not over. It's half won. They've taken over Harald's kingdom but they still need to get Kattegat.

Whether the Vikings themselves will need to go west in a different way, to find different lands is a good point and indeed, they do need to do that, regardless of what happens in Kattegat. The person who's driving that is Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith), who's gone to Iceland to meet this mysterious guy, Othere (Ray Stevenson) who once sighted a place called the Golden Land. Ubbe is fixated on finding this golden land and Season 6B will partly be about that search.

Vikings 610 Prince Oleg

The battle on the beach is juxtaposed with these powerful scenes between Ivar and Bjorn sitting on the beach, having a psychological war of words. What did you want to do creatively with these scenes?

We've always tried to do battles in different ways. Each battle should be different. One of the ways they can be different is that they can feature and focus on individuals to see if they live or die. This battle is very personal to Ivar and Bjorn. Rather than finding a realistic place somewhere they may have just somehow ended up together, we decided to place them in a quiet calm of the battle, like chess pieces in the middle of a game, because it really is a game between them. It's not Oleg who has devised the attack, it's Ivar's attack on his brother. In his brother's defense of Ivar, Bjorn is trying to second-guess what his brother is going to do. So it feels right that they're isolated, that they're talking about their thoughts about the battle and what they're fighting for, because that's what's in their heads.

One of the other things that works about it is that Ivar has become a slightly different person in his relationship with Prince Igor. We've seen Ivar become much less narcissistic. Suddenly he's become empathetic, he's able to connect to another human being. He's been protective and loving. This is a revelation, a new Ivar that surprises himself, it redeems him. He's done terrible things in the past but we've understood why. He's being slightly redeemed by this relationship with Igor, and has also started worrying about his relationship with Hvitserk when he finds him wandering, crazed and nearly dying. He takes him under his wing again and tells him how much he loves him and you also feel like it's genuine.

So back to the beach, when he's talking to Bjorn in this conversation that's playing out in their minds…

It's the same Ivar, he's still challenging, bombastic, and goading that the Christians are going to win, that's why he's on their side, but you sense deeper feelings sadness, to being involved in the death of his brother. In the past, I don't think he would've cared because he's fought with Bjorn all his life for the love of his father and who carries Ragnar's mantle forward. But I think they are now equals and talk to each other as equals and it's very moving, it was quite actually moving to shoot I have to say. It's a moment cut out of time.

Vikings 601 Ivar in Kiev

Did Ivar gain an edge because he may have evolved more as Bjorn who continued to make mistakes, even when he became king of Kattegat but not all of Norway?

That's true. Bjorn has made terrible mistakes. He freed those rebels who wound up killing his son and mother. Going to King Harald's rescue was another mistake. It's hard to rule but at the same time he's fessing up to that, he's accepting it and becoming self-conscious, he's becoming aware of his failings and it humanizes him as well. Both of them are growing in different ways but they're both developing. One of the things you can do in long-form drama is not just revealing character but show characters growing and changing or withering.

When we see Bjorn and Ivar on the beach, they're different people. They've grown up, they've made huge mistakes and admitting them and newly conscious. It's rather wonderful when you think that everything is on the line now, and possibly one or both of them are going to die, certainly one of them in the near future is. They've come to terms with a lot of things about themselves. I don't think Ivar is anymore self-knowledgeable than Bjorn. I think they're both in different states of growing awareness.

In these last few episodes, the war of religion, a major aspect of the series, spiked with the conflict between Ubbe and Othere and the Rus being Christians. How much will the religious tug of war be a factor in the last 10 episodes?

If you look back on the whole series, with the original Athelstan being captured in Lindesfarne, taken by Ragnar back to Norway, everyone laughed at and patronized him because Christianity was not a threat to the Viking way of life. Ragnar was very curious about this religion, and its practice. When he went back to fight in Wessex, he kept asking questions and probing about what that meant. But it still wasn't interfering too much with the gods and paganism.

I always felt that was one of the major aspects as you say, of the show, paganism was a real, valid religion that had been practiced for years by other cultures like the Romans and the Scandinavians. Christianity was a Johnny-come-lately. It wasn't a huge stretch, but when we get to the end of the series, with just the one generation of Rus, who were Vikings that had become Christians, you can see the successful spread across Europe.

Ivar too has been at the center of the struggle, no?

Ivar has come to believe that Christianity will triumph. He has seen the power of the Rus, and believes that. It's a struggle that a lot of our other Vikings are becoming aware of but it's too early to say that this is the death of paganism. At the end of my saga, the end of 6B, this is something that's still in the balance. Paganism is still a living religion, it's not going to be around much longer but in my saga, it hasn't disappeared.

Now, in the [Netflix] spinoff, which is 100 years later, maybe you'll see Christian Vikings fighting and beating Pagan Vikings. I'm still hanging onto ancestral beliefs. Ubbe and Torvi (Georgia Hirst) are going to take them on the journey west, they are looking to pagan gods and find one or two, in animal shape. It's possible with the Rus, that Christians don't entirely defeat the pagans in the battle, even if you think so. There's still quite a bit to play for. I don't make a definitive judgment about that.

Vikings 607 Torvi Ubbe and Gunnhild

With Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) recently passed, will the shield maiden spirit live on Gunnhild (Ragga Ragnars), Torvi and Ingrid (Lucy Martin)?

Yes. Very much so and I'm glad you raised that. It's always been important that we have powerful Viking women on the show to be the equal of the Viking man. Certainly, by Torvi, Gunnhild, and Ingrid are warriors too and tough cookies. They carry on Lagertha's legacy, in interesting, individual ways. I love Gunnhild and I can't wait for you to see how her story arc works out. Ragga Ragnars is an Olympic swimmer and of course, I put that to use [Laughs]. Ingrid will blindside everyone, so 6B is as much about these female Vikings and warriors as much as any time on the show.

Finally, what kind of impact will Wessex, Erik the Red (Eric Johnson), Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) and the Iceland settlement have on the final episodes?

I will say 6B will contain three separate storylines but they're all connected and all about journeys. One is Ubbe and Torvi's journey west and that will have astonishing results which may take us back to something earlier in the show. As far as Wessex goes, there's unfinished business that involves Alfred. That was very important to me because I always felt I cut the story of Alfred the Great short, which was a huge part of the Viking story. So I wanted to finish the business that I started. So I can tease that one of the things places we got back to is Wessex.