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'Vikings' creator on frightening, spiritual death

By Curt Wagner, @ShowPatrol

RedEye

10:29 PM CDT, April 10, 2014

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If one thing is true in "Vikings," it's that you shouldn't cross Ragnar Lothbrok. (Spoilers ahead if you haven't seen Episode 207.)

In "Blood Eagle," Thursday's episode of the History hit, Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) completed his revenge against Jarl Borg (Thorbjørn Harr), the man who twice challenged his position as Earl of Kattegat.

Ragnar meted out a horrible punishment called the blood eagle, a real ceremony from Viking history in which a man's back is sliced open, then his muscles and rib cage hacked apart with an ax. Finally, his lungs are pulled up and draped over his shoulders like the wings of an eagle.

"The last act of Episode 7 is just the blood eagling of Jarl Borg," "Vikings" creator Michael Hirst told me earlier in the week. "It is a totally extraordinary TV event, I think. And one of the things I'm proudest of."

The episode also surprised viewers with the elevation of Ragnar's ex-wife, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), to Earl of another village. Finally, Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) got married in Kattegat while over in England, Wessex King Ecbert's (Linus Roache) son, Prince Aethelwulf (Moe Dunford), married the daughter of King Aelle (Ivan Kaye) of Northumbria to solidify their alliance.

Hirst gave a shout-out to director Kari Skogland and talked about the sense of Viking spirituality, the contrast between Christianity and Paganism, and the mood on set during the filming of the blood eagling scene.
 
Wow, this episode is shocking, but profound.
I didn't write the last act of Episode 7 to deliberately shock anyone. I think it is shocking and it is profound. And it's a profound experience of suffering and spirituality in the Viking context. And if it wasn't in a Viking context it would be like watching, I guess, the crucifixion of Christ. … It is a very profound and a very real experience. In other words, it actually happened to people. It's not fancy. It's not made up. It's not for show. It's a profound spiritual experience.

For me this is what Vikings is all about. This is where we are. This is real; it's honest. It's about spirituality. It's about profound things. It's not a joke.

And it was incredibly well shot. I think that History [execs] were very nervous about us shooting it in the first place. They ... feared there was no way we could actually shoot it. But we had this fantastic director and she set it up and we shot it all night … and it affected everyone who was there.

It was like being present at some extremely wonderful, sacrificial, frightening event. And I just wanted the opportunity to say that. For me, it's a very, very important moment in television history.

You're not always present during the filming so did you make sure that you were there for this?
Yes, because I was still unsure [how it would be shot]. ... But creativity is creativity. We have great people who can do these things. It was also intense to be there. We had kind of continuous music. We had thousands of candles. … Ragnar was dressed like a priest. It was very solemn. It was quite extraordinary. It was absolutely quite extraordinary.

Everyone worked much longer than they were supposed to work. Everyone was caught in the moment. Everyone felt in the presence of something incredibly inspiring. And, of course, the guy who plays Jarl Borg [Thorbjørn Harr] who's this Norwegian actor—he's so brilliant. Jarl Borg can't show he's in pain because if he does he can't go to Valhalla. But he's in such agony. Halfway through his martyrdom—his crucifixion, his eagling—his hand falls off the post that he's resting on. And Ragnar goes in front of him to lift his hand back. And the actor just nodded. That's all he did, a little nod to Ragnar like, "I can take this, go on, keep on doing this." It was the most incredible moment with the actor being in the moment. It was deeply moving.

You could play a lot of the scene off his eyes, off his expression which is amazing. I think we've been so lucky with the cast of the show and here everybody delivers. I mean the production crew, the actors, everybody recognized that we were in a religious moment. … They just kept the cameras rolling all night and it was extraordinary and it was very powerful.

The blood eagling scene is quite long in the episode. Was that a concern?
It lasts like seven minutes or something, which is an unbelievably long time for one scene in TV. ... I think again the European version will be longer than the American version. And I'm always slightly sad that, because of commercial considerations the American version is only 43 minutes long. So we cut lots of stuff out whereas in the European version it's like 50 minutes. So you guys kind of are missing out of part of the experience. But it's still hugely powerful.

I shouldn't say this but if I died tomorrow I would be happy to leave that episode for people to watch and talk about ever after. I'm really, really thrilled with what we did.

Do you think Ragnar in that moment had great respect for Jarl Borg?
He did. I think that's the moment I was talking about when he came around the front and looked at Jarl Borg and Jarl Borg nodded his head like, "You can go on. I'm in this. I can do this." I think that's when Ragnar realized that he was a guy after his own heart. And Ragnar would expect himself to do the same thing. And here was another guy who was tough enough and a believer who was able to transcend suffering ...

For people who believe in something and for those Vikings who believed in Paganism, it's a moment of belief because how else do you have an afterlife? He has to suffer this excruciating martyrdom in order to get to Valhalla and he does it. And there's something wonderful in that. We see the eagle flying off at the end; that's his soul. I hope that the show has vested people in a Viking point of view. It does take religious belief seriously. It takes Pagan belief seriously.

In the previous episode Jarl Borg talks to the Seer, who tells him the eagle is his destiny. At that point you think he'll soar like an eagle, like it's a good thing. But no. If we were to think metaphorically about a lot of this dialogue would we be able to find hints that differ from surface appearances?
There are lots of clues always planted by the Seer. If you were to read them back you might go, "Oh yeah. OK."  ... I'm playing around all the time with this wonderful idea of fate because it interests me so much.

The Vikings believed in fate. They believed the roots of the tree of life were spinning man's fate and your fate was already written. And yet I always wonder what it means in human terms when you accept your fate. For example, I think Ragnar and Rollo have a different attitude to fate. Rollo absolutely believes in fate and he can rush into battle because it's fated whether he'll live or die. And Ragnar has a much more nuanced view, a slightly more contemporary view. It's like, "Well, what does that actually mean? I might be able to manipulate my fate or interfere with my fate." Especially if fate is related to a god.

I love playing around with those kind of ideas. We do that anyway, don't we? Are we fated in some way, are we free? The show I think does take seriously all these questions. And I'm pleased that it does.

The blood eagle scene was a real parallel to Athelstan's crucifixion. The blood eagling started as a punishment but became something more spiritual and everybody sorted wanted him to show no pain so he could go to Valhalla, die a good death. Whereas with the crucifixion, the Christians only saw it as punishment.
Yes, I think that's right. I think it's counterintuitive in a way. With Jarl Borg they're killing someone who has hurt them who they hate. And yet they get to respect him because he fulfilled something that they believe in. He's brave enough to go to Valhalla and they all want to be brave enough to go to Valhalla.

The reason I kind of half-sacrificed Athelstan is that that actually happened. There is a recorded event of a priest having been captured, taken over to Scandinavia and coming back in a war party and really being crucified. And that's the sort of nasty side of religion. That's unreconstructed fundamentalism. What I've tried to introduce is a lot of characters who are nuanced about religion and spirituality on both sides. So you get your fundamentalists--Floki in a way is a Pagan fundamentalist. But you have these other people who are really sensitized to the questions of faith.

Ragnar is very interested in Christianity, obviously. And Ecbert is interested in Paganism and Roman Paganism. And so you have an open dialogue going on about these very important things.

Was King Horik just pretending to be helping Jarl Borg to escape?
There's a missing scene which we shot in which Horik was asked why he didn't actually go through with the attempt to rescue Jarl Borg. And he said, "I had no intention ever of rescuing Jarl Borg. He betrayed me. I just wanted him to suffer. And the only way you can make people suffer is to make them feel hope. So I went to him to give him hope." ... That was actually quite a good scene, but people can think what they want about what Horik actually was up to. Horik never felt that he could team up with Jarl Borg and overthrow Ragnar because he's throwing in his lot with Ragnar.

Why did Bjorn go to see Jarl Borg?
Oh right. Well, because Bjorn had asked his father what a blood eagling was. And he, like the audience, was shocked by what he heard. And he wanted to see what the man was like who was going to be blood eagled. It's like going into a prison to see the guy who's killed 24 people and he's on Death Row and you don't know what the fuck makes this person tick. Because it's outside the normal range of human beings. ... Bjorn's fascinated by him. ... I think it builds up what's gonna happen to Jarl Borg, you know. It actually increases the tension about who the fuck is this guy and what he can stand.

The twin weddings. Why was it important to show these together for you?
Why not? I mean this is what the whole show is about, comparing and contrasting Christianity and Paganism and showing in many ways Paganism is preferable, that these people actually have fun. We shot a lot more of the Pagan wedding. We got some real details about how they did this and the fantastic things that they did and had a great time and it was truly loving and celebratory. And the Christian wedding by contrast is very much like a legal contract and rather serious. So I wanted to show that. It was another example of quickly contrasting these two sets of religious outlooks. ...

I know for a fact that in this country now there are tons of Pagan weddings. People want to get married on the beach, they want to get married running around in bare feet. They don't want to be in church in a gloomy sort of atmosphere. It just amused me to show that and to connect it, because I love connecting things to modernize my own experience and I think people will get off on that, on the Pagan wedding.

Michael, are you Pagan?
No, no. I'm not a Pagan. I don't go to Salisbury Plain and get naked. I don't do that. In fact if I had any religious inclinations I could constantly want and think about converting to Catholicism. I'm far more Christian than I am Pagan. But I want people to understand where Christianity came from. Christianity grew out of Paganism. And people jolly well ought to know that.

Give me a nonspoilery comment about where are we going to go from this episode?
Well, we go back on the road to Wessex and then the totally unexpected happens.

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