SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the midseason finale of “Vikings” Season 5, entitled “Moments of Vision.”
The fifth season of History’s “Vikings” has traveled to some unchartered territories, including the Mediterranean, Iceland and into a world of spiritual bishops who battle and have sex. But as creator Michael Hirst predicted at the beginning of this 10-episode arc the action eventually returned to the home base of Kattegat where Ragnar’s sons carried out their promises of battle over a multi-episode arc that featured the return of Rollo (Clive Standen), the Frankish armies and the fall of Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) as Queen.
“Moments of Vision” was the culmination of Ivar (Alex Hogh Andersen) and Finehair’s (Peter Franzen) attack on their brothers in their quest for power and revenge, resulting in the tragic death of Lagertha’s pregnant lover Astrid (Josefin Asplund) and Finehair’s brother Halfdan (Jasper Pääkkönen).
Meanwhile, Margrethe (Ida Marie Nielsen) continued her descent into madness following an impromptu visit to the aging Seer (John Kavanagh), Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) suffered a huge upset in Iceland when revenge took center stage, and Alfred (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) was finally crowned King to his reluctantly hopeful people.
To dig into the continuing saga, learn what these character deaths mean for the back half of season five and to find out how those epic battle scenes came together, Variety talked with Hirst. Here, he dissects picking which characters to kill off, the potential for a spinoff and the ascent of Ivar the Boneless when the show returns.
What was your inspiration behind setting up the battle with resets and flashbacks?
We try and do every battle differently. I don’t like those [visual] effects battles where you get thousands of warriors running right to left doing the same thing. I like our battles to be about the characters you care about who are in the middle of it all. It occurred to me that battles are lived individually in every soldier’s experience and every soldier’s experience is unique and different. I wanted the episode to keep starting from the beginning again as we were taking it from various points of view. Some of those people would die and others would survive. On the battlefield I imagined characters having flashbacks to other intense experiences in their lives because when you’re on the point of life or death, life becomes very precious and memorable and intense. That was the beginning and I was mapping out these different scenarios for different actors. I also knew there would be significant deaths and personal deaths, with lovers and brothers. So, I wanted to root it very much in individual experiences.
There were some major character deaths in the episode, how did you decide on who lives and who dies?
I didn’t want to kill any of these characters. It goes without saying that it’s very difficult to make those choices and I didn’t necessarily begin with those choices either. I was very open to persuading myself that other characters could die. The ones who did it felt organic, like they had looked at their own deaths and were willing to accept them. Astrid was in a terrible situation and looking for her own death. And Halfdan had some sort of premonition that his journey was done. At the same time, I had premonitions that some of the characters weren’t finished on their journeys and would survive, although be damaged. I do sometimes play The Seer or the gods, perhaps, but I have to do that. I was satisfied in the end that the deaths made sense but it was incredibly moving to watch them, I must say.
Were there any character deaths completely off the table?
Everyone was up for grabs, funnily enough. There was almost no one that was sacred. It could have been other characters, and I thought long and hard about it and they were difficult choices. There always are in “Vikings” because by nature of the show I kill a lot of characters off. I just felt in the end that the ones that were killed had anticipated their own deaths, so I felt good about that. But the way that it then shaped up, the way that production gathered around this idea was fantastic. At the beginning when the two brothers sang to each other [it] was fantastic and then they meet in battle [and] you get this wonderful image of them coming down the mountains. I waned to be as visual as possible and it was just a huge, emotional and narrative episode.
How did themes of brotherhood influence these decisions?
It goes without saying that in a sense family meant everything to these Vikings. Families fought together and the relationship between brothers was very deep and binding. But still brothers fell out all the time. There are many, many instances of the sagas of brothers killing each other, partly because they all wanted to be famous. Fame was a big driving force for Viking males so you can see why Rollo would be challenging Ragnar for example. TV drama, as opposed to movies, allows you to follow the ups and downs of these relationships, the jealousies and envies and loves — which means that when a brother kills a brother or doesn’t kill a brother, it reverberates. It means a huge amount. You can carry that emotion and storylines forward. If you develop the characters properly, you can make a big statement and impact. It was hard for me to write some of those scenes and say goodbye to those characters, but it was wonderful to bring Clive back because his story wasn’t quite told yet. It’s actually been suggested to me that the spinoff of “Vikings” would be called “Valhalla” and all the characters I’ve killed off would come together to meet again and “Valhalla” would tell new stories about them.
Would you consider doing that show?
It would be interesting to do that, because “Valhalla” would be full of interesting characters.
How does Rollo fit into the back half given Clive Standen’s prior commitments?
You have to find out why he’s come back. He’s come back for a very particular reason — a reason that goes way back into the first season of the show. There are unresolved issues in his personal life with his brother and Lagertha, and these are issues that he still wants to deal with. I didn’t bring him back just for the sake of it. I brought him back because I thought there were still things he needed to say and things that perhaps the audience would like to hear.
This episode featured the return of the Seer, what does his prediction that the mad may inherent the earth mean heading into the back half of season five?
To some extent he’s talking about Margrethe and her particular situation and mental issues, but in a sense he might be talking about Ivar as well. The Seer is a fantastic character who sometimes tells the truth by not telling the truth. The Seer usually does two things: he answers personal questions, although in a very elusive way. But he’s also talking about the whole drama because he’s seen the end of it already. When he says the mad might inherit the earth he might actually be talking about the end of the whole show, seasons down the line. That’s what I’m aiming for; I have a view of particular events and characters, but like The Seer I know what’s going to happen. You should always think of the Seer as saying things that apply to the long-term and not just the short term.
Where does this battle leave Heahmund (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and does his story have comparisons to Athelstan’s (George Blagden)?
He is a bit like Athelstan in the sense that he gets passed around the Viking aristocracy, but Heahmund is obviously a very different sort of character. Athelstan was a very pious, very young monk who gradually blossomed but who was always deeply, deeply conflicted at a very humble level. He was torn out of his environment, put into a pagan world and was intelligent enough to respond to paganism and to understand it. He was torn in a way. Heahmund is torn but not in the same way. He’s more torn between his spiritual life and his sensual life. There are plenty of examples of this in Christian mythology. Saint Augustine described himself as being sensuous, of having to punish himself for being into women and throwing himself into barbed wire. Heahmund is a much more powerful figure than poor Athelstan, whom I loved. But he’s also deeply conflicted and a warrior. He’s more like Ivar in a sense. He’s a fundamentalist. He’s absolutely crazy and he’s happy to die for Christ. In the place where we are, where the drama is at, this is valid. People were very extreme in every way, prepared to die for their beliefs but also victims of their passions. Heahmund is several levels up from the poor little monk but they’re very torn by different issues.
Floki decided to make the ultimate self-sacrifice but hasn’t followed through; is there hope for his character?
Floki is beginning to realize that it’s not easy to change human nature. Floki thought he was taking very devout pagan worshippers to Iceland and it was his obsession to build a community where everyone would be not behave like animals anymore, but like enlightened people. He’s beginning to discover that’s hard to do. He has the power to sacrifice himself for the good of the community if that will work. For Floki, it will become an even more extreme situation going forward because he’s battling against human nature. It’s incredibly dramatic and poisonous for him to be in an environment that he thought was going to be hard, but godly and enlightening, and sort of amazing for everyone. Human beings are human beings, and that’s unfortunately one of the lessons he’s learning.
King Alfred has finally been crowned, how does his coronation factor into the back half?
Alfred is an amazing character and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is amazing. And what we actually see in season five, throughout this season, is the development of someone who starts out rather week and feeble and ill and eventually becomes known as Alfred the Great. I was so incredibly impressed by how he responded to this role and grew in stature. There are many amazing developments for Alfred along the way. It’s one of the great arcs of season five, how Alfred seizes his moment. Obviously Jonny is brilliant, he’s powerful and fantastic. Alex is another just awesome, awesome character who is brilliant on screen. But coming up the rails on the inside, kind of unexpectedly is Alfred, who will be by the end of the fifth season a huge character on the show. His development is wonderful to behold.
Where does the action pick up when season five returns?
With Ivar having defeated his brothers and gained Kattegat, some of the heroes end up in Wessex seeking safety from Ivar. This season is very much Ivar in ascendant.