“There are a lot of doubts that shieldmaidens actually existed,” Winnick says. “I get asked that all the time, especially by other fans and some male journalists. I find myself always defending them.”
Now, Winnick says, she can cite a definitive discovery. History flew her to Stockholm, where she had a chance to see a Viking burial site for a warrior of very high status, a warrior proven by DNA testing to be a woman. “The history says there are sagas, there are stories, there are legends! But now, it’s nice to actually have the archaeological and the scientific proof behind that.”
Legend? History? Vikings conquered the hearts of its most dedicated viewers by mixing a bit of the former into the latter, allowing series creator Michael Hirst to play to our thirst for drama while exploring lesser known facts and traditions about this culture. No series on TV right now takes as thoughtful a look at gender dynamics, culture clashes, and religious tradition as Vikings does. Season four, premiering at 10 p.m. Thursday on History, is poised to raid even more unfamiliar territory… from a storytelling point of view, that is.
Read on to find out what Winnick had to say about Vikings’ fourth season, which may be its fiercest yet.
Vikings may not be the highest rated series on television, but its fanbase was passionate enough to inspire History to double its episode order in season four from 10 episodes to 20.
Winnick confirms that Vikings has grown into “a massive show. We started with one or two soundstages. Now we have, like, six. It’s crazy how much it’s grown, and there are so many new characters!”
This means more room to delve into the tangled plot surrounding Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) and his ever-increasing difficulty with maintaining power and expanding his kingdom far beyond his ruling seat in Kattegat. During seasons two and three, Ragnar and his warriors invaded ancient England, founding a settlement in Wessex, and stormed Paris, a raid that has left him flitting between life and death.
Indeed, as season four begins, everyone close to Ragnar is in a precarious position. Brother Rollo (Clive Standen) has been left behind in Paris to forge a tenuous peace between the Vikings and France, and best friend Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård) finds himself on the bad side of Ragnar’s eldest son Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig).
Lagertha, meanwhile, has been forced to share her title of Earl with Kalf (Ben Robson), a trusted advisor who betrayed her while she was in Wessex with Ragnar.
So not only is the show bigger from a numeric perspective, it also has much more ground to cover. “There are a lot of different kingdoms and a lot of different power struggles, for sure,” Winnick says, adding, “I will say in season four, the story does get closer together. It does come back to the Vikings.”
Although certain elements of Vikings can be spoiled, somewhat, by reading a few historical accounts — which you should! — a good deal of its dramatic tension comes from Hirst’s willingness to get rid of major characters with a brutal efficiency that rivals Game of Thrones. Ragnar’s rise to power during seasons one and two resulted in the deaths of numerous major players, and during the third season, several characters close to Ragnar’s family met shocking ends.
That won’t stop. Winnick teases, “there’s going to major changes — and there’s going to be some deaths, unfortunately.”
At the same time, new faces are joining the adventure as more tangential figures grow into expanded roles. A potential ally and frenemy, King Harald Finehair (Peter Franzen) emerges early on, joined by his brother Halfdan the Black (Jasper Pääkkönen), while in France Rollo must navigate a difficult relationship with the unhappy Princess Gisla (Morgane Polanski).
In Kattegat, where Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland) has been holding power in her husband’s absence, Ragnar contends with the arrival of a strange new slave named Yidu (Dianne Doan), the first Asian character seen in this world. The heart of this series has been to watch Ragnar evolve as a man fascinated by the variety of the world’s cultures, allowing Yidu to step into a role previously occupied by Athelstan (George Blagden), a Christian monk who grew to be the Viking ruler’s most faithful friend.
“What makes [Michael Hirst] such a brilliant storyteller is that he can show us other worlds and yet find a way of linking it together, “ Winnick says. “And you will not only fall in love with these characters, or you feel like you know them well, but the stakes are high because a lot is riding on it.”
One of the ways Vikings defies the stereotypes associated with this culture is in the Norse culture’s egalitarian portrayal of women. Characters such as Lagertha are as capable as warriors and farmers as they are at motherhood and politics. But Winnick says the female characters evolve even more in this upcoming season.
“Even though Lagertha gets a lot of the credit because she’s a strong warrior, you’ll see the other women being strong in different ways,” Winnick explains. “It’s about getting power in their sexuality, or getting what they want in a certain scene, or being feminine — there are different ways of showing strength. And yes, one of my favorites is definitely kicking ass.”
Aslaug, in particular, may be seeking to expand her own power in this season, going against Ragnar in subtle ways, which is something Winnick’s character picks up on.
“Definitely Lagertha’s relationship towards her has shifted in season four more than it did in season three. And you will see the two women go toe-to-toe with each other, which was one of my favorite scenes to shoot,” Winnick says.
The good news is that we’ll also see the return of Kwenthrith (Amy Bailey), princess of Mercia, a twisted sister who’s always exciting to watch.
On the other hand, season four also brings about a fundamental change in Lagertha, whose trials have transformed her into a very different person. “Her relationship with men has been challenged and tested through every season. First it was Ragnar, then it was her second husband who abused her. Then it was Kalf. I’m not sure she’ll ever be able to trust men again,” Winnick observes.
She adds, “I feel like she relies upon herself more than anyone else, or anything else, in this season. And you will see a change in her physicality. There are some heartbreaking moments, for sure.”
Remember, the show is called Vikings, not The Book of Ragnar. And the fact that Ragnar begins this season at death’s door — literally, as depicted during one gorgeously rendered early scene — hints that Hirst may be quite comfortable passing the torch to Bjorn at some point. The story even gives us a glimpse at that future, as Bjorn takes it upon himself to test his ability to survive, creating his own rite of passage.
Bjorn Ironside eventually gained renown as a conqueror, and history knows him as a legendary king of Sweden. If Vikings takes us into the time of his rule, it will be interesting to see how viewers react. But it’s a safe bet that Ragnar has plenty of fighting seasons left in him.
Even if he doesn’t, “this is who they were,” Winnick says. “They fought, there was blood. It was no problem for them to kill. They thought that if they died in battle, they would go to Valhalla. And that’s just life being Viking.”
Melanie McFarland is a Seattle-based TV critic and an executive member of the Television Critics Association. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision
Season four of Vikings premieres on Thursday, Feb. 18 at 10 p.m. on History; read reviews here.