When “Vikings” kicks off its sixth and final season on History, it does so in a blaze of glory. Not only has the series grown to include roughly 900 extras in its renowned battle scenes and given new voice to long-forgotten languages, but production has scaled several continents while also reaching more than 30 million total viewers as one of the top 10 cable dramas among all key demos.
Saying farewell to such a legacy — the legacy of Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons that creator Michael Hirst always set out to tell — has been an “incredibly emotional” journey to say the least, Hirst notes. When the series picks up it’s with Bjorn Ironside (Alexander Ludwig) on the throne in Kattegat, Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen) in Russia where he meets his match in a new character named Prince Oleg (Danila Kozlovsky), and with Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) ready to hang up her shield after years of battle, heartache and sorrow.
“You’d expect me to say this, but I do think this is our best season ever. It’s incredibly strong. Production did us proud and it looks quite astonishing,” Hirst tells Variety. “The show is so big now that when we had battles in Season 6, we would have up to 900 extras. We would be traveling around with sometimes up to 1,500 people, going to locations. So the scale of it has multiplied. Again, it’s absolutely huge, but more than that it’s very, very emotional. It’s a deeply emotional journey for many of our principal characters. And I don’t think any of our fans are going to be disappointed by the way things turn out.”
Here, Variety talks with Hirst about bringing his creation full-circle and constructing the ending he always intended for the series, while also drawing in female viewership to History, finding sympathy in ruthless characters and putting a dramatic spin on historic events.
Given the final 20-episode season is airing in two installments, did you approach the story as one big narrative or two separate mini-seasons?
One season, definitely. All the stories are related and interrelated. There are effectively three storylines that are obviously related and they all involved the sons of Ragnar. When I first pitched the show to History, I knew how it was going to start: I knew it started at the beginning of the Viking age and I knew that the central character was Ragnar Lothbrok and that this would be a saga of Ragnar and his sons. But I also knew the ending. In order to get there, it would take quite a few seasons and I never knew whether that was actually going to be realized. But in the end it was, so I had the good fortune to be able to arrive at the ending I’d already imagined. I believe it has really satisfied all the plotlines and stories and characters that I’d set up over 89 episodes.
What kind of a challenge was it to service those four remaining sons from a story standpoint, while also driving towards that finale?
There is always that kind of tension between making each episode work and then making the overarching story work. “Vikings” has a lot of major characters and it’s really also about making sure that the major characters continue to be involved and continued to be on screen because I know that’s what the audience is invested in. That was no different really from the very first season. What it was, though, was increasingly emotional as I got near the ending. I had to cope, in a sense, with my own feelings while also at the same time dealing obviously with the feelings and emotions of my characters.
This year you’re taking the series to Russia, and you’ve gone to Paris, Morocco and other countries to shoot — does having a large geographic scope also help to propel those characters forward and keep them relevant?
It does help the process. And not only that, taking the story to new countries, new lands, new places, invigorates everybody. It invigorates the crew; it invigorates the various departments — the costume department, the design department. I noticed that pretty early on, when I took the story to Paris and we had to design the interior of Notre Dame and we had the attack on the walls of Paris and suddenly we had all these Frankish characters. They dressed in different ways and they spoke in a different language. It’s fantastic to take the characters to different places as in this case, Russia. I didn’t know that Russia is called Russia because it was founded by the Rus Vikings. I learned so much myself and I always do learn when we go different places and explore new cultures and forgotten languages.
When did you get an inkling to take the final season to Russia?
Probably somewhere during Season 5 when I was wondering where Ivar would go after escaping the last battle. I was reading books about the Silk Road and about the Rus Vikings and then I read about Prince Oleg, the prophet. He was this extraordinary ruler of Russia and it all kind of fit into place. It seemed the most obvious. It’s also one of the most exciting things to do because we’d been traveling West so much and it seemed logical to go East again. It was an idea that slowly fermented in my mind.
Ivar as a character has faced criticism from some fans, and he’s a character you admitted you wanted to develop more this season. Was finding a character like Oleg, who was worse than him in terms of torture and a lack of remorse, integral in doing that?
That’s exactly right. I pushed Ivar very far in Season 5, and I wanted to reengage with him and to take him in another direction so the audience would have another connection with him and see a more sympathetic side to him. Initially when I was writing I knew that Ivar could do terrible things, but that was because his own background was terrible. You understood it. A lot of the things he did were as compensation for his father leaving him out to die, or for being a cripple and being disadvantaged in Viking society. So there always was this divided response to Ivar. One of the ways to get the audience’s sympathy back for him was to show him rubbing up against a character who actually much more ruthless than he is.
That ruthlessness is evident in the first episode back, through a particularly gruesome execution scene. You’ve gone to those places before with blood eagling et cetera, but what is your line between showing that kind of violence and letting imagination speak for itself?
I always start from the premise that I want everything to be as real as possible. It’s all based in historical research and facts as far as they’re available. So, if something is real and it happened and that is part of the story, then I want to show it. But I don’t want to do anything simply for effect. There has to be a psychological reason for whatever happens. The whole point of the first blood eagling, psychologically, was that it was designed so that the Viking who was being blood eagled, if he didn’t show any pain during this horrific procedure, he could actually reach Valhalla. I didn’t show it simply because it was gruesome or ghastly. Similarly, what Oleg does, he wanted to impress Ivar. He is completely ruthless, nothing will stand in his way, and human life means very little to him. Oleg is fascinated by Ivar and he wants to know about him. That includes finding out whether he’s scared of anything, what his anxieties are, what really motivates him.
Have those themes or the overall premise shifted over the years as History invested more in scripted series?
I always knew the Vikings were violent and this was going to be a visceral show. History Channel was male-skewed and it was one of the reasons that they picked the show up, because they thought it’s would appeal to male viewers with its battles and visceral things. But I always wanted it to be much more than a violent feast. I wanted it to be about religion, about paganism, about poetry, about songs. And I wanted very much to have impressive female characters in there. The violence was just part of the context and I stuck to that. The violence isn’t gratuitous and the sex — there’s much less sex obviously than in other shows — but the sex isn’t gratuitous either. It always has to have meaning and the meaning has to be part of the story.
Have you been surprised at the strong female support for the series, given that?
I’m not entirely surprised because Lagertha in particular is a very successful character. Many women identify with her. Early on in the show after she’d left Ragnar and got involved with a man who mistreated her, I had a long discussion with Katheryn because initially she didn’t like the storyline. She had already proven to be a strong woman who could take care of herself in fights and battles, and she didn’t want her fans seeing her at the mercy of this monster. But a lot of very intelligent, capable women are involved with or married to abusive men. That was a storyline that many women would understand and identify with. I wanted to put her into many different situations. Some of them very difficult, but all of them speaking specifically to a female audience.
She has another extraordinary storyline in Season 6. She starts off by wanting to almost retire. She’s had enough of battles and is tired of being a famous shield maiden. But of course for someone like that in the Vikings world, well the Vikings lived for the fame of having done significant things. It’s hard for her to disappear. None of our female characters are there just for the sake of it or to be parents or anything like that.
This final season is also very much about Bjorn and Kattegat, the Vikings home base. As he tries to fill his father’s shoes, how significant is Rollo’s [Clive Standen] admission last season that he is Bjorn’s biological father?
In some ways Vikings is more Bjorn’s story than anyone else’s. We have followed him since he was a little boy. He does want to fill his father’s shoes as King, and he has heard his father say politics is a dirty business and power corrupts everybody. Yet he wants to rule and he wants to rule justly. Rollo’s appearance last season was really about Bjorn’s journey and secretly knowing that Rollo could have been his father but that he was not his chosen father. Season 6 is a culmination of that journey from little boy into King and what it means for him and what he has to do.
In crafting this final season and paying homage to the series as a whole, was it a challenge to get certain actors to return if needed for the story?
I don’t want to say too much, but there may well be some reappearances, perhaps in different guises. I never had any problems getting anyone to come back if I wanted them to come back. The only thing I would say is that it’s never fantasy. It’s never someone unrealistically coming back from the dead or whatever — there is always an explanation.
“Vikings” returns with a two-hour block Wednesday, Dec. 4 at 9 p.m. on History.