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Vikings” returns to History on February 18 for an expanded Season 4 (growing from its usual 10-episode order to a meaty 20), and creator Michael Hirst promises a season full of twists, betrayals and even a harrowing encounter with a bear that gives Oscar nominee “The Revenant” a run for its money.

Variety has an exclusive first look at said encounter from Episode 403, which features Alexander Ludwig’s Bjorn coming face to fuzzy face with the fearsome beast — a logistical feat that Hirst promises was in no way prompted by Leonardo DiCaprio’s big screen battle.

“Hand on heart, I didn’t know they were making a movie about someone fighting a bear,” Hirst tells Variety with a laugh. “I remember talking at the end of Season 3 to various people at the studio saying, ‘I need a test for Bjorn. I want to send him into the wilderness. What kind of trials could he possibly have in the Scandinavian wilderness?’ and the bear came up. I said, ‘wow, can we actually do that?’ And they said, ‘well, only if we send Alex off to Canada,’ because there’s no snow in Ireland, really. It’s a temperate climate, so we sent Alex off to Canada and the snow with a small unit. And we had two bears, absolutely awesome things, you know, 10 foot tall when they stood up. So the coincidence is entirely coincidental, but it’s funny. It’s very strange.”

Variety spoke to Hirst about the many other trials and tribulations in store for Ragnar (Travis Fimmel), Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) and the rest of the Norsemen in Season 4, including whether we’ve seen the last of murdered monk Athelstan (George Blagden), who was killed by Ragnar’s former friend Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård) last season.

Ragnar was in a vulnerable place, physically and emotionally, at the end of last season – where do we find him when Season 4 begins?

Ragnar’s a very sick man. He’s physically ill and I think comes very close to death, and he’s mentally in a tough place because he knows that Floki was the one who killed Athelstan, who in a sense was his best friend. He’s in a tough place now, because who does he talk to? He’s in what amounts to a bad marriage. He was able to talk openly to Athelstan and now there isn’t anyone obvious around to whom he can unburden himself.

A large part of this season is about identity and people trying to find out who they are and what they are and what they should be doing. So [with] Ragnar, it’s a lot to do with the burden of kingship. It’s the heavy burden that he carries that he didn’t in a sense choose. He wasn’t an ambitious guy. He didn’t choose to be earl or king — these were due to circumstances. And he certainly has never been interested in power for its own sake. And he does find carrying the burden of kingship almost unbearable. I think it’s one of the great things, frankly, about the show and about Ragnar’s character — that he’s a fairly unwilling king, and that he’s interested in the nature of power rather been in power itself, and obviously in faith and the larger questions. He’s a very curious guy. He’s always been motivated by a great curiosity, but he’s now at the stage in life when he’s thinking about the deepest things, about love and death and life and death. So he’s in a very dark and difficult place when we start Season 4.

The trust between Ragnar and Floki has been shattered – can it ever be rebuilt, or has Ragnar written him off?

I think that it’s very, very difficult to conceive of how Ragnar could forgive Floki, and the possibility of sparing Floki’s life could only come from some perhaps unexpected intervention by someone or something else. And it’s a complicated and interesting storyline, which, like a number of the storylines in this season, has an unexpected resolution, which I can’t really go into.

You mentioned that this is a season about identity, and that seems especially true of Bjorn’s storyline, given that he actually goes into the wilderness alone to find himself. What can you preview about his arc and his desire to establish independence this season after proving himself to be a formidable warrior last year?

Well, he certainly did that. He justified his nickname of “Ironside.” But he’s had the burden of overachieving parents. I think it’s genuinely been tough for Bjorn. Like any other son, he’s looking for his father’s approval. It’s just that his father’s the most famous figure in Scandinavia who’s already accomplished extraordinary things, and who has, with the best will in the world, always been slightly patronizing to the son.

And I think Bjorn is a sensitive Viking — I like to think that Vikings can be sensitive. He needs to prove to his father and mother — but more than that, to himself — that he can survive; he can grow up; he can be independent. Obviously he’s going to go into the wilderness where he will face three very, very difficult and different kinds of trials. And I think he does return a changed man — it absolutely does change his sense of himself and his presence. I mean, there’s an amazing scene when he first comes back, and you can tell just in the way he looks, in the way he commands the room. This has changed him. These experiences have changed him. There are other profound changes to all the sons during Season 4 in which we see them, the other ones growing up, kind of beginning to reach out for their destiny.

Rollo (Clive Standen) is now separated from his people and tangled in the web of political intrigue in Paris; what are some of the challenges he’ll face this year?

It’s another fable of identity. Rollo is trying to find out whether it’s true that the gods have intended this. In a sense, not that it’s a joke at his expense, but he’s following the logic of what the Seer told him: If he knew what was in store for him in Paris, he would dance naked in the sand. And he’s made this huge jump … being left in a kind of limbo in a society he doesn’t understand, with a language he doesn’t understand, and all these things are fearful possibilities, even for a strong man like Rollo. At the same time, they obviously had comedic possibilities …

I think that that’s one of the things that’s good about “Vikings,” is that you can very rarely second guess what’s going to happen. It’s not formulaic and so it’s a very interesting storyline and it has unexpected consequences, I must say. And Clive is doing great things. All the actors have stepped up and I think this is the best season we’ve done, and I think everyone here at the studio feels the same way, actually. We’re still shooting away at it. There’s still the last two episodes to shoot and we’ve been fighting the Irish weather a little bit. But it’s only helping how it looks because it looks so real when it’s pelting with rain. Everyone’s very pleased, I have to say.

Lagertha was usurped by Kalf (Ben Robson) last season, and now has an alliance with him. What’s ahead for her in Season 4?

Lagertha is again in an interesting position as a woman. Because having become earl, she’s deprived of it by a man. And even though the man is in love with her and confesses to always have been in love with her, she’s still beholden to him, even though he agrees to share the earldom with her. And I think that’s a situation women can identify with. I mean here is an incredibly strong, determined, intelligent woman who keeps climbing to the top and then being pushed down again. And she’s always having to almost start again. Her arc in the season as a whole is astonishing. I think it’s not a surprise that Katheryn is as popular as Travis. I do think it’s a great role, but she’s made it her own. There are many twists and turns to come. Again, there’s some extremely unexpected things that happen along the way. But she won’t disappoint her millions of female fans.

How much of a presence would you say Athelstan is this season, given that Ragnar and King Ecbert (Linus Roache) are both still so obsessed with him, even after his death?

Well, he may be dead, but he refuses to go away. He is a presence throughout the whole season in one way or another, let me put it like that. He is still affecting the lives particularly of Ragnar and Ecbert, and consequently, the lives of everyone involved with them. So he lives on as a powerful presence in all their lives, and what’s amazing about that to me is … he started life as just a device for me to try and take a contemporary Western, essentially Christian audience into a pagan world. He was just a monk, kidnapped in a raid in Lindisfarne. I had no real thought of him progressing or turning into anything particular. Probably in the first outline I wrote he would be dead soon after arriving in Kattegat. But then he became a character. He was performing more than a function. And then, soon afterwards, he became a human being, a living human being, and one of the central characters of the show. And when I think of that, how he started, and now how fundamental he is, even in death, it’s astonishing. So I love him as a character. And yeah, the audience can expect to see more of him.

You have an extended season this year — did the extra episodes change anything about how you approached it, logistically? 

I’m trying to remember the exact sequence of things, but you can imagine that doing 20 episodes has been challenging. I think that we started off thinking it might be 15. And so I was already pressing ahead, at least in my mind, about where I was going to take everyone, and actually hoping that we could go on to 20 … So it didn’t throw me and I didn’t think of 10 and then go, ‘Oh my God, there’s another five. Oh my God, there’s another five.’

And in any case, I think the truth is, from the very start, I’ve tried to think long term. It’s not about one man. It’s about Ragnar and his sons. And I want it to go on. I want them to go to new places. This season (SPOILERS) Bjorn sets sail for the Mediterranean and goes to Spain and next season I want to get to Iceland and into the Mediterranean. So I’m really ambitious for this show and I always have been, and I have these wonderful characters to take with me who I’ve lived with now for a long time. Unfortunately, I have to kill some of them sometimes, but that goes with the territory. I am always thinking about where I’m going to take them next and hoping that one day… if there’s any natural end for me — and who knows, people can pull the plug at any time, [but] I don’t think they will — I would like to see the Vikings, the sons of Ragnar, seeing America for the first time. That would be the natural end for me.

“Vikings” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on History.