The fourth season finale of Vikings saw one generation fall and another generation rise. The sons of Ragnar Lothbrok marched to Wessex, seeking vengeance for their father. It spoils nothing to say that the Great Heathen Army found victory and defeat. But we’ll be spoiling everything in the season’s final postmortem chat with Vikings creator Michael Hirst. Hirst is already deep into production on the 20-episode fifth season, but he spoke to EW about the finale and what it means for the characters who survived.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We saw Ecbert die in the same place where we first met him: in his bathing pool. I was thinking of another scene from that bathhouse, way back in season 3, when Ecbert hosted Athelstan and Lagertha. There was a tremendous sense of optimism among the characters at that time, about the possibilities that their different cultures could work together. Going forward, are the remaining characters more cynical?

MICHAEL HIRST: You’re right that when we look back on those earlier episodes, they do seem shot through with a kind of optimism. When they first set up that early settlement, it was shot through with sunshine — and a love affair between Ecbert and Lagertha. It was almost like the 1960s, that period! And yes, things have changed mightily. Any sense of security and any sense that you can control events has evaporated. But at least two of Ragnar’s sons will continue to believe very strongly in their father’s dream,and will fight to keep that dream alive. Ubbe, who’s going to become more and more prominent as we move on, and Bjorn will continue to argue on behalf of their father’s dream, colonizing and farming land.

But of course, they’re now against more cynical voices, like Ivar’s. Ivar has a very strong voice, and he’s not wedded to the same dream. He’s a more fundamentalist Viking. Similarly, in the case of Wessex, there is probably more realism. They’re faced with the Great Heathen Army, and there’s two kingdoms that have almost fallen to the Vikings – and that’s only the start of it!

Ivar and Sigurd have been at odds throughout this sequence of episodes, but it was still a shock to see how cavalierly Ivar killed his brother. Was it always inevitable that they would turn on each other?

The sons of Ragnar united behind one cause only: revenge. They all understood the necessity of that. We saw immediately that there were stresses and strains between the brothers. You sense this was only something that was temporary, that it was going to break apart into rivalries and hostilities and jealousies. It was typical of Ivar to make that public. Ivar doesn’t bother with niceties. He is a divided character. We will soon see his shock and shame and remorse for what he’s done. But he lives in the moment. Because Ragnar went out of his way to choose him, and talk to him personally, he has a new and unique sense of his own importance. And he’s not going to be laughed at. He’s like Caligula, and it’s quite impossible for him to restrain his feelings.

[Killing Sigurd] is a big signal, for everyone around Ivar. There are no constraints. He doesn’t recognize constraints. He can behave completely inappropriately. He’s dangerous. He’s mad. They all know — his brothers, everyone else around him — the one thing you know about him is that he’s going to be completely unpredictable.

I’ve said this to you before, but when you describe him, I always think, “He’d be a fairly standard modern politician!”

We know there are certain traits about historical tyrants. I’ve read enough history to know how Ivan the Terrible behaved, and Mao Tse-Tung, and Stalin. There are some things that they always have in common. One is huge vanity. One is that they only have one point of view, which is theirs, and anything they think is right, and anything anyone else thinks is automatically wrong. Ivar is already displaying some of those elements. You feel that it’s going to get worse, and indeed, it does.

The finale ended with our first sighting of Bishop Heahmund, played by new regular Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. We meet him as he is conducting funeral services, and we immediately jump to him having sex with the widow, with his sword by the bed. How did you decide to introduce the character like this?

I knew that I was going to have to have a new Saxon character who could react to, and stand up against, the Vikings. I needed to really give the Saxons a backbone, someone who was as charismatic as Ragnar was and as Ivar is amongst the Vikings. Heahmund is a real character. These warrior bishops were real churchmen, educated in the church, princes of the church, yet they were also trained warriors. Heahmund apparently was renowned as a fighter.

But I also wanted to complicate it further. He’s full of contradictions himself. He’s a fundamentalist Christian, and yet he is a man of great sensuality. He’s tormented by these two things. So here comes Heahmund, a man torn, riven, by contradictions, a charismatic warrior, and leader. You feel, just from this very brief introduction, that somehow his path and Ivar’s will intersect.

Floki buried his beloved Helge in this episode and seemed to renounce his whole existence. I loved the shot of him walking off into the darkness. Is this the last we see of him?

That’s a wonderful image, and what it represents is the death of the Floki that we knew. There is a rebirth. Floki becomes a different sort of person. He wants to submit himself to the will of the gods, and he certainly does that. He is going to embark on an adventure that is quite extraordinary and was extraordinary to shoot — one of the first times we took the production to another country. So Floki is still at the heart of the show.

Can you talk a bit about what the next season holds for the main characters?

The story of the sons is now underway. They have individual exploits. But also, the sons fall apart. We’ve seen the beginning of the disunity. What we are looking at, frankly, is probably a huge conflict between the sons moving forward which always, in my own mind, was rather like the conflict in Rome after the death of Caesar, between Octavian and Marc Antony — which brought down kingdoms, and caused convulsions around the world. We’ve moved well away from little local battles, from small kingdoms and individual raids, to warring sides fighting over the known world.

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