(Photo by ©History Channel)
In the Vikings Season 6 midseason finale earlier this year, brothers Ivar and Bjorn shared a dream-like sequence on the beach while the battle between their respective armies raged around them. Ivar, who at that point had the upper hand, calmly and cloyingly assured Bjorn that he lost favor with the gods long ago, and that he was destined to lose this war. The episode then ended with the shock of Ivar’s sword stabbing clean through his brother’s abdomen. Bjorn falls to the ground, possibly dead, as the rest of his army retreats from the Rus around him.
While Vikings is no stranger to the season finale cliffhanger, this one in particular left us with a lot of question marks as they relate to our hero Bjorn. Is he dead, or will he live to fight another day? Is there the possibility that the stabbing was also part of a larger surreal dream sequence? What could possibly be next for our viking hero?
If you’re like us and have been waiting for months to get answers to these questions and more, you’re in luck: The final season premiered in full Dec. 30 on Amazon Prime Video before it’s set to debut in weekly installments at its original home on History. To talk about the big premiere, we jumped on the phone with the actor behind Bjorn himself, Alexander Ludwig, and creator and showrunner Michael Hirst. Warning: If you haven’t yet watched the season 6B premiere, we recommend you stop reading this article, as THERE ARE MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
(Photo by Bernard Walsh/©History Channel)
Now, with the proper spoiler warning behind us, let’s talk about the bleeding elephant in the room: Bjorn, indeed, is dead. He survived the battle at the end of 6A, but is gravely wounded and expected to pass from infection. But miraculously from his deathbed, with the Rus army returning to battle, he musters the energy and the courage to put on his armor and ride into battle with all the viking armies of Norway at his back. Uniting them all in a way that King Harald couldn’t, Bjorn saves his home country and forces Ivar, Oleg, and the rest of the Rus army to retreat. It’s while leading the vikings into battle that he takes a round of arrows to the chest and dies a hero atop his horse, leading the charge.
“I felt like it was the send-off that the character deserved and that the fans deserved—and what I loved about it was it definitely wasn’t something that most people would’ve expected,” Ludwig says of his beloved character’s final moments. “It was such poetic justice… In those final moments for Bjorn, he’s finally become the man that he always hoped he could be and that his father always knew he could be. I really couldn’t have asked for a better send-off.”
(Photo by Jonathan Hession/©History Channel)
Hirst says that while Bjorn has accomplished some great things, up until this point, his life “hasn’t altogether been a success,” considering his poor decisions while ruling Kattegat, his inability to win the kingship of all Norway (“He didn’t come out of that looking very smart”), and his consistent mistreatment of the women in his life. Throw into the mix his mounting heartbreaks and losses in the last season alone with the deaths of his son and unborn child, his mother Lagertha, and the leave of his brother Hvitserk after he pledges allegiance to Ivar, and Bjorn was in quite a low spot for a man who was expected to live up to the legacy of his father, Ragnar.
“In some senses, if he died only having done those things, his life might not have lived up to the expectations of Ragnar Lothbrok; it could’ve been not a memorable life,” Hirst admits. But having died in battle while uniting the viking kingdoms against the Rus and essentially sacrificing himself in the process? That was “completely redeeming,” Hirst says. “He summons up extraordinary willpower to do something quite remarkable and to save his country. So his ending is tragic and heroic and wonderful all at the same time. And I was so pleased to come to that ending for him. I think he deserved to be redeemed. His last actions and by what he did, he was certainly the son of Ragnar.”
Bjorn, for what it’s worth, seems to know that he could have been a better man in this life. “I wish with all my heart I could go back and start again,” he laments in the premiere, wounded and bedridden. But it’s in part his guilt that drives him to do the courageous thing in the end.
(Photo by Jonathan Hession/©History Channel)
“I think it’s less him being forgiven by others and more about him forgiving himself,” Ludwig posits of the character’s redemption arc. “He’s finally been able to forgive himself for simply being human. That, to me, was a really beautiful moment to be able to play. It certainly wasn’t an easy one for me to do, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity.”
So it’s with a heavy heart that we report Ludwig’s time as Bjorn has come to an end—at least as the living-in-the-flesh version of the viking we’ve come to know. (Both creator and star refused to say if we see more of him later in the final season.) The actor first made his debut as Ragnar’s son a whopping six years ago, and he has in turn grown up himself onscreen with the role.
“When Alexander joined us, he was very young, and he behaved like it!” Hirst says with a laugh. “He had a very puppy-ish way about him. He was very spirited and full of youthful energy, and he was so in awe of the show and where he was and being cast and he loved everything about it. One of the great joys was to watch Alexander mature as a man and as an actor until he could carry the show, as it were. He [now] looks like a man who has been through many, many difficult circumstances and situations. He does no longer look like a puppy.
(Photo by ©History Channel courtesy Everett Collection)
“We put him through some pretty tough experiences, and he did it, he did everything totally uncomplainingly,” the creator continues. “And he was on the show for a long time! If you think about it, the show is really about him because it starts with him being a young boy and it ends with his death many, many years later. Meanwhile, both of his parents have died, and he’s a consistent factor in the whole show, him and his younger self. I hold him in the highest esteem.”
Ludwig says that he was lucky to know from the start that the total of Bjorn’s arc would be a great one. He’s known for some time, too, that Bjorn’s end was near. The biggest challenge along the way was also the greatest pleasure: growing and developing with the role and rising to the new demands of each episode, each season. And finally, the concluding moments of the character dying while sitting horseback, sword drawn, came together after much conversation between Ludwig and Hirst.
“Michael sat me down and pitched the idea of what he was thinking, and he said he wanted it to be reminiscent of El Cid [with Charlton Heston], and I felt like that would be amazing,” Ludwig says. “Furthermore, it was important that Bjorn help carry this story over, and I felt like it was such an ingenious idea for Bjorn to leave at the beginning of the season as opposed to the end, because I don’t believe it’s nearly as predictable. It gives room to really conclude the story for the other brothers.”
(Photo by Bernard Walsh/©History Channel)
As far as what he’ll miss most? Well, sometimes, it’s about the vikings you meet along the way.
“I will certainly miss the opportunity to explore this kind of growth of a human being and eventually a leader, but I also loved the world; I loved everything about this show, but most important, the family we created,” Ludwig concludes. “It sounds so cliche, but it’s so true. I spent six years with the same crew, the same cast (give or take). I spent 11 months out of the year [filming] in Ireland for six years. So it’s bittersweet because I’m so grateful to be back home surrounded by my friends and family because I miss them so much, but I’m also gonna miss my other family, and that’s the family I created in Ireland.”
Part 2 of the final season of Vikings premiered December 30, 2020, on Amazon Prime Video.
All good things must come to an end, and with the season 6B premiere of Vikings hitting our television screens on December 30, the end of History’s beloved series is near.
The first 10 episodes of the season served as the perfect setup to its final, killing off a few major characters — we still haven’t quite recovered from Lagertha’s (Katheryn Winnick) unceremonious stabbing — and setting in motion an epic conclusion for Ragnar’s sons, now seven years in the making.
But before Vikings sets sail to Valhalla for good, we’ve got several lingering questions we’d like to see answered, especially considering the midseason finale that left our central hero’s fate in the balance.
(Photo by Jonathan Hession/History)
No surprise here: The biggest burning question going into this final stretch of episodes is whether or not Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) actually died by Ivar’s sword, as shown in a surreal and disorienting battle at the tail end of 6A. Is he gravely wounded? Was it all a dream? Or is this actually the last that we’ll see of Ludwig’s formidable warrior?
Speaking with Rotten Tomatoes, creator Michael Hirst remained characteristically tight-lipped about what’s to come, but he did tease that dead or alive, Bjorn will continue to be a presence this season. Just as Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) continues to be a name on everyone’s lips, his first son also casts a long shadow in life and in death.
“These are presences in the show right to the end, powerful presences, part of the pantheon and sort of mythic figures in the Vikings world,” Hirst said. “So they’re still alive in many different ways.”
And for what it’s worth, Ludwig, without giving away his character’s fate, told us that there’s no other way he’d rather the show end — what Hirst has crafted is exactly what it should be.
“I’m really objective, and I hate watching myself because I’m always really hard on myself, but I will say that I do love this show as a fan, I really do, and as somebody who’s incredibly critical of everything I do, I believe that this show is ending exactly how it should,” Ludwig said. “The fans are going to be really happy with the ending.”
Scanning the latest trailers for the final season, Ludwig’s Bjorn is shown to be bedridden and surrounded by loved ones and viking leaders, which likely dispels any online theories that the battle sequence that ended in Ivar stabbing his brother was all a surreal dream. So perhaps he’s wounded and will live to fight another day? There are also glimpses of Bjorn riding horseback, and the season’s promotional poster itself features a grizzled, sword-wielding Bjorn, all indicating that we haven’t seen the last of him in battle yet. (Thank the gods!) Anything less would leave us feeling a bit cheated, considering the pedigree of loss and hardship Bjorn has weathered along the way, most recently the death of Lagertha, his unborn child, and Hali, his son by Torvi, and the loss of the elected crown.
(Photo by Bernard Walsh/History)
We all know at this point just how masterful a strategist Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen) truly is. And now that it appears the Rus army wrapped season 6A with a clear upper hand over Bjorn and King Harald (Peter Franzén), one must wonder what will come of his alliance with the young King Igor (Oran Glynn O’Donovan), the rightful heir to Kievian Rus, and his manipulative, calculating uncle, Prince Oleg (Danila Kozlovsky). Of course, Ivar has had his eyes on the throne for years and is currently promised to inherit the crown as Norway’s King. But what if Oleg betrays that promise? Audiences have been privy to the mounting gameplay Ivar’s been aligning against Oleg should a coup be deemed necessary, so we’re eager to see how their relationship develops in these last 10 episodes. Where Oleg’s wife, Katia (Alicia Agneson) — whom Ivar believes is his dead wife resurrected — fits into that scheme also remains to be seen. But for now, as indicated in the finale earlier this year, the mood is joyous, celebratory, and drunk.
As for Hvitserk (Marco Ilsø), he and Ivar have always had a, let’s say, contentious relationship. The fact that they’re back in arms together after Hvitserk accidentally killed Lagertha, was spared execution, and under Bjorn’s orders was banished from Kattegat — and, let’s not forget, after Ivar killed Thora (Eve Connolly) at the end of season 5 — definitely reeks of trouble. Too much baggage, resentments, and habits of fratricide sit between them and a happy, brotherly ending. How it all plays out, though — will Hvitserk make good on his supposed fate to kill Ivar? — is at this point anyone’s guess.
(Photo by Jonathan Hession/History)
If there was ever a moment to prove that he deserved to be crowned King of Norway, the battle with the Rus at the end of 6A was it. Unfortunately, King Harald wasn’t quite up to snuff. (Are we all that surprised?) When news arrives of the approaching Rus army, Harald is unable to bring Norway’s kingdoms together for battle and is ultimately left shorthanded and unprepared. Throw into the mix the fact that he raped Bjorn’s wife, Ingrid, before that battle, we can’t say we were all that sad to see him bleeding out on the field. But never speak too soon: We never got any confirmation that he died after Erik the Red (Eric Johnson) left him for such and took his crown, so his future on the series is still unclear. And speaking of Erik, we can’t help but wonder what he’s going to do with the crown, leaving Harald for dead and with the knowledge that Bjorn is gravely injured, it appears as if Norway may need to find a new head to rest its power upon.
(Photo by Jonathan Hession/History)
We also expect these final episodes to conclude the years-long setup of how the vikings will make their way from Iceland to the so-called Golden Land — widely anticipated to be North America. On that quest by way of Iceland is Torvi (Georgia Hirst) and Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith), and at the end of season 6A, they had invited the help of Othere (Ray Stevenson), a mysterious wanderer who’s claimed to have charted the western seas and in his travels came up this “golden land.” Soon after his appearance in Iceland, it’s learned that he is actually a converted Anglo-Saxon monk named Athelstan, and he is hoarding a violent past. After killing a viking and taking his name, he left the missionary life behind and is now infiltrating the voyage efforts of Torvi and Ubbe. As it stands, his intention is unclear, and given his history, we’re not immediately on board to trust him. But if he can lead our heroes to the Golden Land, then perhaps it’s worth it to keep him around. Plus, if anyone has the answers behind Floki’s true fate, it may well be Othere.
Another note of interest: Let’s loop back to Erik the Red. In real-world vikings history, Leif Erikson was the first viking to set foot on North America and went on to settle Newfoundland. Erik the Red, as it so happens, is Leif Erikson’s father. So were Hirst to stick closely to the factual history of the matter (which, of course, is not always the case in Vikings), we may also see Erik somehow involving himself in the Iceland camp’s voyage west.
(Photo by Jonathan Hession/History)
Speaking of Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård), wouldn’t it be nice to get some definitive closure on our favorite ship builder before Vikings comes to an end? It also gets us thinking about who else may show up between now and the series finale. The first half of season 6 has largely zeroed in on Iceland, Scandinavia, and Rus; is a trip back to Wessex and our friend King Alfred (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) in store? Rollo (Clive Standen) is already known for making an unannounced grand return to the series; should we be holding our breath for him? And as Hirst says himself, these characters never really die. Could Ragnar and Lagertha appear in flashbacks or dreams? Is there room for a full-on cast reunion onscreen? We hope so!
Whoever comes back for this last round of action, Ludwig assures us that it’s happening: “Some of the fan-favorites may or may not make a return, and I’m really, really looking forward to the response,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a better way that it could’ve ended.”
And about that ending, Hirst said that we should prepare to say goodbye to more major players than just Lagertha: “I had to kill off some of the characters I’ve loved the most, and that was never easy,” he said.
But he promises that every shocking twist in the remainder of this journey is worth it and all feed the larger story he’s long had in the pipeline.
“What I can say is that these episodes are literally full of surprises and unexpected visitations or appearances, and the thing to expect is the unexpected,” he said. “I’m not going to go into detail, but the show is rounded off in many respects, and I hope in a very satisfactory way. That was what I needed to do.”
In the end, what if you’re not happy with the result? Well, Hirst rests easy with the knowledge that he is the only one to blame.
“You know there are certain shows, and you probably could name them — very good shows that had very poor endings,” he teased. “And I suspect that that was because there were a number of people involved in the decision about how they should end and how they should be written, and people would disagree. But in this case, it was just me, and the only person I could argue with was myself. So I felt that if I was able to conclude these different storylines — there are three different storylines in these 10 episodes — if I could conclude them satisfactorily and with justice, then I was fairly sure that the audience would find the ending satisfying, too, because these are characters I love, these are characters I lived with for seven years. So I didn’t want to cheat anybody, and I worked very hard not to do that.”
This may be the month of Christmas specials galore, but for those looking for less holiday-related fare, a bunch of beloved shows are coming back – and there is plenty to catch up on before these series return. The fan-favorite Vikings are back on History, for one, along with the equally fearsome Midge Maisel of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime. Or if the Great Unknown is more your speed, you’ll be set with Lost in Space on Netflix and The Expanse on Syfy. For more, you’ll have to keep reading for this month’s full offering of binge-worthy returnees.
What it is: In the mood for a meaty, generations-spanning period drama that has violence, politics, sex, and true-to-history recreations to spare? Look no further than Vikings, Michael Hirst’s brilliant follow-up to The Tudors. The heart of the series begins with the rags-to-riches tale of legendary Viking Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) and his rise to power before passing the narrative baton to his children.
Why you should watch it: Vikings is complex, calculated storytelling. Gorgeous, lush sets and production design, committed and gritty performances all around — it is a wonder that the program doesn’t garner awards acclaim on par with Game of Thrones (though it certainly has drawn comparisons). Season 6 premieres Dec. 4 on History.
Commitment: Approx. 58 hours (for the first five seasons)
What it is: In 1950s New York City, Midge Maisel’s (Rachel Brosnahan) husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), admits to having an affair and leaves her. Rather than getting back, she gets even, and decides to pursue his dream of becoming a stand-up comedian— which makes sense, because she was the funny one writing his jokes all along.
Why you should watch it: A runaway comedy hit upon its debut, Maisel won top honors at both the Emmys and Golden Globes for its first season — and only bowed this year to Amazon’s other awards-sweeper, Fleabag. But Brosnahan’s star-making performance (and her scene-stealing costars like Tony Shalhoub and Alex Borstein) continue to anchor a series that is smart, funny, and full of heart while also being absolutely timely. Season 3 premieres Dec. 6 on Amazon Prime.
Where to watch: Amazon
Commitment: Approx. 18 hours (for the first two seasons)
What it is: From creators Michele Abbott, Ilene Chaiken, and Kathy Greenberg, this Emmy-nominated series (decorated elsewhere by GLAAD for its landmark lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters) charts the intersecting friendships and love lives of a group of queer women living in Los Angeles.
Why you should watch it: As heralded today as it is maligned, there’s no denying that The L Word made leaps for LGBTQ representation onscreen upon its 2004 premiere, even if it didn’t always hit its mark. While its first season was Certified Fresh for all its bombastic soapiness and memorable characters, critics didn’t follow it into its subsequent seasons, resulting in years without Tomatometer scores — and its sixth and final season was ravaged with a measly 8%. But the show still has its fans and its merits. Plus, its reboot is sure to revisit the components that first made us fall in love with these ladies while expanding and bettering itself where there is room to grow. Season 7, retitled The L Word: Generation Q, premieres Dec. 8 with returning stars Katherine Moennig and Jennifer Beals on Showtime.
Commitment: Approx. 70 hours (for the first six seasons)
What it is: Based on the series of novels by James S. A. Corey (the pen name of collaborators Daniel Abraham and T Franck), this space-hopping science-fiction series follows Earth-bound United Nations executive Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), asteroid belt-dwelling police detective Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane), and officer of an ice freighter Jim Holden (Steven Strait) as they uncover a conspiracy that risks intergalactic peace within disparate colonies and the survival of humanity as they know it.
Why you should watch it: We see enough social and political turmoil here on Earth to know that if and when we expand our humanly horizons to other planets in the solar system, tension is likely to continue. Here, it just makes for great TV with timely allegorical themes to spare. Season 4 premieres Dec 13 on Amazon Prime.
Commitment: Approx. 26.5 hours (for the first three seasons)
What it is: Creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage leave their mark on the Marvel Cinematic Universe with this hit Hulu series based on the comic of the same name, which follows a motley group of super-powered teens who unite to stop their supervillian parents.
Why you should watch it: By this point, you know what you’re getting with an MCU project, but Runaways still manages to have a few surprises up its sleeve. Led by a cast of a excellent young actors and featuring a unique spin on the hero-villain narrative (and exploring relationships between friends and family in the process), the streaming series is a welcome addition to the already well-trod Marvel empire. Its third and final season premieres Dec. 13 on Hulu.
Commitment: Approx. 20 hours (for the first two seasons)
What it is: A classic story of the sci-fi genre, 2018’s Lost in Space reboot finds new ways to tell the tale of the Robinson family, a clan of space colonists who must adapt to survive after their ship gets flung off course (living up to the series’ title) and crash lands on an alien planet.
Why you should watch it: The original Lost in Space is one of those series that every sci-fi lover should watch simply because of the influence it wielded over future series in the genre. But this new reboot — bolstered by state-of-the-art visuals, new characters, and uncharted territories — is an upgraded entrant to the canon that deserves a binge all its own. Part Swiss Family Robinson, part Star Trek, Lost in Space has something for everyone. We vote you make it your unlikely family binge this holiday season. Season 2 returns Dec. 24 on Netflix.
Commitment: Approx. 8.5 hours (for the first season)
What it is: You’ll find yourself yelling at your television in equal parts frustration and enchantment with this Penn Badgley–starring hit. The former Gossip Girl actor plays Joe Goldberg, an unassuming (albeit attractive) bookseller who moonlights as the psychotically obsessive stalker of NYU student and aspiring writer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail).
Why you should watch it: You is just the latest example of a cancelled series finding second life on Netflix. While the thriller series cornered a niche audience upon its premiere on Lifetime, it was cancelled after one season. Then it hit Netflix late last year, became a word-of-mouth water-cooler hit, and was picked up for a second round, which should be intriguing enough to get you to at least hate-binge this soap-drenched stalker drama. Season 2 premieres Dec. 26 on Netflix.
Commitment: Approx. 8.5 hours (for the first season)
Thumbnail image courtesy of © Netflix, © Amazon Prime Video
(Photo by Jonathan Hession)
When the first half of Vikings‘ fifth season wrapped earlier this year, fans of the History series were shocked to see the return of Rollo . For one, the actor who plays him, Clive Standen, had scored the starring role in NBC series Taken as Bryan Mills, a man with a particular set of skills and the role made famous by Liam Neeson in the film series.
Now the Duke of Normandy, Rollo sent troops in that final episode to aid Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen), Hvitserk (Marco Ilsø), and King Harald (Peter Franzén) in their bloody bid against Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), with the stipulation that Björn (Alexander Ludwig), the nephew he adores and whom he taught to fight, was left to live. Ivar, now the king of Sweden, left that climactic battle victorious while Lagertha and Björn fled.
Some may see Rollo’s sending aid to Ivar as the warrior picking a side and ultimately betraying his favorite nephew and Lagertha, with whom he notoriously bears a love-hate relationship. But the actor behind the warrior assures Rotten Tomatoes that it’s not all that cut and dry. At the end of the day, Rollo is on team Rollo, according to Standen — expect the unexpected.
Rotten Tomatoes caught up with Standen to discuss the return of Vikings season 5, what Rollo has been up to in the time since his last appearance (hint: he’s missed the fighting and savagery), and those bubbling fan rumors about Björn’s actual parentage. Is Rollo actually his birth father? Catch up on all that and more below.
Benjamin Lindsay for Rotten Tomatoes: The second half of season 5 marks your grand return. Tell us about that first phone call with Michael Hirst when he told you that you were coming back. What was that discussion like?
Clive Standen: It was great, because it was more about the discussion before I left. At the end of season 4, we talked about the death of Ragnar, and I was concerned because I was going, “Well, most of my storyline is entwined with Ragnar’s. It’s very much the saga of Rollo and Ragnar at the moment, and then the next stage is the sons of Ragnar, it’s the Golden Age of the Vikings — and I’m not sure how Rollo fits in with that.” And [Hirst] said, “Yeah, you’re right,” and I said, “Well, I don’t really want to stick around in the show if I’m doing a disservice to the character and the audience.” And he said, “You’re right.” It was literally like we cleared the air because he was going, “Well, this is a problem. We don’t want to lose you, Clive, but it’s called Vikings.” He has to introduce these sons because we’re losing a major character in the show. We need to create some more characters that people can root for and some new stories and alliances, and they’ll see the saga of the Vikings in the Golden Age — we go all sorts of places. So we put Rollo on a hiatus, and that was nice.
I mean, Taken came along for NBC, and I did that and that kept me really busy, and a couple of other films in between. And then Michael said, “Don’t worry, I’m going to find the most opportunistic moment to bring you back, and it’s going to be like the old Rollo: He’s going to be like a volcano all over again; he’s going to erupt and everyone’s going to have to deal with the consequences.” And that’s what he did. He rang: “Look, you’re coming back, I’m sending you the scripts tomorrow.” We had a little talk about it, and it was everything I wanted.
It’s a fiery return, and there’s so much going on that we were able to add to what the real Rollo was doing in history. In the later life of Rollo, there were historical documents that recorded that he was questioning his own mortality, and he lined up 100 Christian soldiers to be slaughtered in the town square and at the same time sent 100 pounds in weight in gold to the Christian churches. This was certainly a man who was worried about the gods he’s worshiped his whole life accepting him into Valhalla, so he’ll appease them by sacrificing 100 soldiers and at the same time sending 100 pounds in gold to the Christian church to kind of hedge his bets. We didn’t want to do it like that. We didn’t want to make a big thing of it, but we thought we’ll pay homage to that. So Rollo is coming back, and he’s dealing with his past wrongs.
Obviously he has a whole [group of] people that he looks after now, that he rules over, and they come first. As the Duke of Normandy, he’s matured. He has responsibilities and he’s a leader. So the politics of the situation come first, and that’s what gives him the opportunity to come back and make an alliance with Ivar. But it was really in the end what Vikings is always about: It’s about family. It’s about all those emotions. It’s about coming back and opening up those old wounds and hopefully having people that may sew them up for him. He has no idea if that’s going to happen, and that’s what plays out in the episode. That’s the real reason for his return: facing his demons head on.
(Photo by Jonathan Hession/History)
A lot of people may see the fact that Rollo gave Ivar the assist as a betrayal to Lagertha and Björn. Is there more than meets the eye to the situation?
That’s the thing: Whenever Rollo comes back for a new season, Michael and I always want to make people think — to expect the unexpected. He is coming back, and he’s not team Lagertha and he’s not team Ivar. He’s purely team Rollo, as he’s always been.
Ivar is very much the runt of his brothers. He was born disabled. He was kind of written off as a child by his own father; Ragnar left him in the wilderness with an ax to fend for himself. The brothers were teasing him. He’s risen up against all odds and learned the hard way, and now a lot of what drives him is that.
Rollo is no different. If you think about Rollo being the shadow of his brother, who went on to become the King of Sweden and do so much in the Viking mythology, he always felt like he was second best. When you compare Rollo and Ivar, Rollo has been there, done that, and got the T-shirt. He’s now an old, wise dog. So there’s nothing Ivar can throw at Rollo that he hasn’t seen coming way down the line. It’s a chance to school this little runt [laughs]. But he also offers Lagertha and Björn something that he feels that they can never, ever turn down.
So is he really team Ivar? He needs a reason to go there in person. He has responsibilities now as the Duke of Normandy, he’s become — in history, and it’s no different from our story in the series — stronger than the king of France. So he needs a reason to go and help Lagertha and Björn, but his alliance is obviously with his own people. He needs to provide what’s more beneficial for the people of Normandy, and that’s always going to be the case. There has to be an alliance with Ivar because Ivar is the King of Sweden.
His position as the Duke of Normandy is a transition from the savagery of the Vikings to a more sophisticated European place of power. Has Rollo missed the fighting and savagery?
Definitely. I’m not sure if it made the cut, but I hope it does: There was a scene we filmed where Rollo talks about an old Berserker he knew — which is obviously Rollo — that missed the battles. That’s what he was best at. He would gather all the pots and pans and weapons and anything metal in his domain and carry them to the top of the hill and threw them off the top so they clattered and crashed and smashed against the rocks below, just so he could hear the sounds of battle one last time. And, you know, Rollo is really speaking about himself. I don’t think it makes it into this episode, but that was a real sense of getting under the skin of Rollo for me, because very rarely does he actually talk about how he feels.
There was a scene late in season 2, I think, where Floki’s character is talking to Björn about Rollo and says something along the lines of, “Unfortunately, the warrior never reveals [himself]. You’ll never know what’s going on in the warrior’s heart, so the ax reveals it.” And there’s a lovely parallel seen in this episode.
It all certainly gives you a lot to play with as an actor. In a previous interview Michael Hirst hinted that going into season 5, part of the action is going to be based on a “seed” planted in season 1 between you and Lagertha. Can you speak to what that seed might be? What should we be keeping our eyes peeled for?
This is one of those moments where as an actor, you just realize that you’re in such a special show and you work with so many amazing people. Our very first director, who I’m always going to speak to the rafters about, Johan Renck, [is] a phenomenal director. I remember the very first scene with Lagertha, Ragnar, and Rollo. He likes to take actors out of the set and whisper things into their ears — every single take something different just to try to get a different performance and see how it changes. And it’s always the subtext; it’s always about what’s not being said.
He whispered something into my ear in a scene where Ragnar goes out to relieve himself and [Rollo is] left all alone with Lagertha for a second that changed the whole construct of the scene. It was never said. I think maybe some may have picked up on it, but I never forgot it because it was a note that I never really thought about, and it made me as an actor question the whole character a little bit more and the subtext that Michael was writing. It’s lovely to have something that started out like, just as you said, a seed that’s come to fruition, and it’s grown, and the actor finally gets to speak it out loud. Maybe half the [audience] will go, “I knew it!” and then half of the other people are like, “Oh my god!” But what I love is that it all came from Michael’s writing and also this brilliant director at the very, very beginning.
(Photo by Jonathan Hession/History)
It sounds like you’re tapped in to fan theories and the discussion surrounding your character and this “seed.” What do you say to theories surrounding Björn’s parentage?
Well, there was no paternity test back then in those days, so no one really knows at the end of the day. It’s not like you can get a pregnancy test and find out! Or take a sample of Viking hair and go get a DNA test.
But that’s what’s so great about Michael’s writing. There’s always a reason for why someone hates someone so much. There’s a fine line between love and hate. You know, if someone’s impassive towards someone, then there’s no story. But drama is built on conflict, and the fact that a character can one minute have so much anger towards someone and the next minute have so much compassion usually means that there’s a history between them or that there’s a love there.
There’ve been scenes between Rollo and Lagertha all the way through Vikings: sometimes she hates him, sometimes he hates her, sometimes he loves her. It’s all that stuff, just as it was with Ragnar and Lagertha when Ragnar moved on from his marriage with Lagertha. That’s the good stuff. Nothing is stronger than our imagination, and I think what’s nice is that this has festered for a little while and now it’s either going to let people down or it’s going to explode the world of Vikings a little bit more.
In a previous interview with Rotten Tomatoes, you described Rollo as a very base character: impulsive, selfish. How might these characteristics benefit or hinder him going into the action of these new episodes?
The thing is, because he is impulsive, he trips and stumbles so often. But what’s great about Rollo is that he always learns from his mistakes. He’s trying so hard to be someone he’s not, but he’s almost forgotten who he is, so he can be very malleable and he’s got many layers to him. That’s what made him grow as a person. I think that’s why some people have gone from hating him to loving to hate him to just loving the guy. You can’t keep him down. He’s like that puppy dog who will just do anything to impress his owner.
I’ve always used his physical pain as an avoidance of his emotional pain. I’ve always thought about that, why he’s so aggressive on the battlefield. Why is he a Berserker? Because the word “berserker” stands for “bare skin,” so he fights with bare skin — not the skin of bears, but his bare skin on the battlefield. He doesn’t wear armor, because he has no reason to. If he’s going to die, he’s going to die, and the gods have chosen the day of his death when he was born. So he’s very hedonistic; he’s very reckless. And that, for me, means someone who’s actually trying to escape something. He definitely has a very different inner temper than his outer tempo, and that’s what interests me about him. He’s kind of trying to stop feeling that emotional pain by getting smacked in the face. That’s definitely what makes him tick. He’s a very, very wounded man.
With that in mind, what is your favorite part about playing this guy and why are you excited for audiences to see him on screen again?
I really genuinely feel that I got into this profession to draw attention away from myself rather than towards myself. What really gets me up in the morning and makes me excited about my job is feeling like I’m playing someone who’s so far removed from myself that I get to lose myself in that character, and that’s what excites me about Rollo. He really is one of those characters who, if you saw someone smash him on the floor into a thousand pieces, he’d piece himself back together again before you can see what he’s built of and what he looks like. That’s why I love him. I’m so excited to come back.
I think since the transition of losing Ragnar and the old band, it’s been quite awhile, [and] the audience deserves to have some of that old guard back again to shake everything up a little bit and keep it fresh and exciting. Rollo is always that character. While Ragnar is very mercurial, Rollo would sometimes just explode like a volcano and the devastation that that volcano and the lava would cause was always fun to watch. I think it’s one of those moments where it’s just about right to have a character like Rollo come in and keep everyone on their toes again.
Vikings airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on History.
Fall TV is now in full swing, so why not add a few more shows to your queue before you hunker down for the winter? Prepare for the return of fan-favorites, the end of long hiatuses, and discover some hidden gems with Rotten Tomatoes’ list of November’s most binge-worthy series. Among our suggestions for your November TV marathons: catching up with House of Cards as its final season debuts, celebrating the end of the latest Droughtlander by revisiting Outlander, and more.
What it is: This decorated ensemble-driven political drama showcases the endless ways in which Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), will manipulate, deceive, and even murder to gain power on Capitol Hill. While the series’ fate hung in the balance at Netflix after Spacey’s sexual misconduct scandal, Wright stepped up to the plate and helped bring the sixth and final season to fruition.
Why you should watch it: The behind-the-curtain wheeling and dealing that makes our nation’s capitol go ’round has never before been as tantalizingly imagined as it is in this hit political drama. The series, which counts David Fincher as an executive producer, has racked up some serious accolades over its five-year run and helped establish Netflix as a major player in original programming. Find out why when season 6 premieres on November 2.
Commitment: Approx. 55 hours (for the first five seasons)
What it is: Based on the hit fantasy novel series from author Diana Gabaldon, Outlander is the story of World War II nurse Claire (Caitriona Balfe), who is inexplicably transported back in time to 18th-century Scotland and quickly swept up in the drama and romance of Highland warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) — despite being a married woman in her own time to Frank (Tobias Menzies).
Why you should watch it: There’s little to dislike about this lavish Starz series. Fine performances and, ahem, titillating character arcs have consumed audiences in a “who will she choose” debate unseen since Twi-hards of yore. This time, though, the series in question has the scripts, direction, and overall production value that’s worthy of the fawning, too. Season 4 premieres November 4.
Commitment: Approx. 42 hours (for the first three seasons)
What it is: Room 104 is Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass’ addition to the current anthology series craze. The series sets each 30-minute installment of its 12-episode first season in the titular hotel room. The varied assortment of characters who spend a night or two within that average hotel room’s walls experience things that are far from typical, however.
Why you should watch it: Part of the joy of watching Room 104 is bracing yourself for the unexpected. Luckily, the series’ narrative means you never quite know what you’re going to get. Genre, tone, time, cast — basically everything but place — changes with each installment. While that allows the viewer to watch the episodes out of sequential order (and even means you don’t necessarily have to binge season 1 before catching season 2), we still recommend you do if only to appreciate the bigger picture the Duplass brothers are creating. Season 2 premieres November 9 with even more star power than season 1. Guests include Mahershala Ali, Michael Shannon, Brian Tyree Henry, Judy Greer, and Rainn Wilson.
Commitment: Approx. 6 hours (for each season)
What it is: Spy John Tavner (Michael Dorman) is tasked with helping to prevent Iran from going nuclear by going uncover on assignment at an industrial piping firm.
Why you should watch it: Patriot, from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty filmmaker Steve Conrad, is pretty hard to pin down — and that’s precisely why it works. A melding of genres both well-trod (espionage thriller) and singular (cerebral comedy?), it ropes you in with the familiar, but hooks you with the unexpected. Plus, Dornan is just excellent. Season 2 premieres in full on Amazon Prime Nov. 9.
Where to watch: Amazon
Commitment: Approx. 10 hours (for season 1)
What it is: This critically acclaimed Spanish- and English-language Netflix original takes a closer look at formidable and feared Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar (played by Wagner Moura) and his criminal contemporaries — until its fourth season with Narcos: Mexico, that is. The series dives into the roots of the modern drug war and the rise of cocaine trade from the 1970s through the 1980s.
Why you should watch it: Narcos is riveting and entertaining television, boasting fine performances and equally engaging scripts — not to mention its precision in documenting the history of the drug trade that still plagues the world today. Narcos: Mexico drops in full November 16 and changes location and jumps back to the 1980s to tell the drug trade story from another angle.
Where to watch: Netflix
Commitment: Approx. 25 hours (for seasons 1 through 3)
What it is: Created by Trent O’Donnell and Patrick Brammall, who also stars, this CBS All Access comedy is a practice in minimalism that works, in that it simply depicts low-level pairs of colleagues involved a major drug cartel operation and bust: two cops, two criminals, two dispatch workers, and two Mexican tunnelers.
Why you should watch it: Sometimes the best comedy comes from simple conversation. That’s what’s explored here in the monotonous day-to-day musings of a the series’ ensemble of duos. Relying on air-tight writing and exemplary performances from the likes of Tim Meadows, Amy Sedaris, Jesse Plemons, Arturo Castro, Jason Mantzoukas, and Will Ferrell (who also executive produces with Adam McKay), it’s the kind of smart, rat-a-tat humor that keeps you coming back for more. Season 2 premieres November 22.
Commitment: Approx. 4 hours (for season 1)
What it is: In the mood for a meaty, generations-spanning period drama that has violence, politics, sex, and true-to-history recreations to spare? Look no further than Vikings, Michael Hirst’s brilliant follow-up to The Tudors. The heart of the series is legendary rags-to-riches viking Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), his rise to power, and how he passes that power to his children and their children.
Why you should watch it: Vikings is complex, calculated storytelling at its best. Gorgeous, lush sets and production design, committed and gritty performances all around — it is a wonder that the program doesn’t garner awards acclaim on par with Game of Thrones (though it certainly draws comparisons). Still, there’s a mild pleasure to being in on a well-kept secret. Join the club before season 5 returns for its second half November 28.
Commitment: Approx. 51 hours (for the first five and a half seasons)
When we left Ragnar’s sons at the close of Vikings’ fourth season in February, they had just beaten King Ecbert (Linus Roache) on the battlefield, but suffered a major setback on the family front when the brothers quarreled over their next steps, Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen) lost his temper, and he killed his brother Sigurd (David Lindström).
Going into Wednesday’s two-hour season 5 premiere, “The Departed” parts 1 and 2, Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) sets his sights on exploring the Mediterranean, and Ivar, Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith), and Hvitserk (Marco Ilsø) have put Sigurd’s death behind them to raid York. But for those who’ve been paying attention, it’s clear that the brotherly alliance cannot hold and a civil war looms. Season 5, after all, is pegged to the question: “Who will rise?”
Rotten Tomatoes recently spoke to Vikings showrunner Michael Hirst and Andersen about what’s to come with the war, last season’s eleventh-hour introduction of Bishop Heahmund (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and what roles Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) and Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård) will play in this Ubbe-Ivar conflict. Hirst and Andersen dropped eight big revelations on us.
“At the end of any season of a TV show, you don’t know that it’s going to be recommissioned,” Hirst said. “I know that that sounds weird because Vikings is now officially the fifth biggest show in the world, so you assume that everyone would be happy to recommission it, but that’s not the way the world works.”
With that in mind, Hirst said that he isn’t at all thinking about future seasons to come when working on the season at hand. So even with a season 6 order coming while working on season 5, he focused on this season’s 20 episodes.
“I’m doing season 5 and I’m putting everything I can into season 5, and I’m not saying, ‘Listen guys, I’m holding things back because I want to do other stuff in season 6.’ I’m not holding anything back,” Hirst said. “I’m delivering the biggest emotional drama I can, and I think season 5 is very emotional and it is the biggest season we’ve done. I’m very proud of it.”
While Ivar’s slaying of Sigurd is eventually cause for an irreparable rift between Ragnar’s sons, we’ve seen in previously released clips and teasers that he, Ubbe, and Hvitserk unite on the battlefront in the premiere to raid York. Andersen revealed, however, that this initial collaboration is a result of his character’s finesse.
“In the beginning of season 5, you will see [Ivar] being genuinely sorry, and he tells his brothers that. But that may be a way of him manipulating them and trying to make them feel sorry for him or bringing them onto his team to be able to control them,” the Danish actor teased. “I think he’s aware of the fact that he needs them to reach his goals.”
Hirst disclosed that while Bjorn is fulfilling his destiny of exploring the Mediterranean this season, Ubbe and Ivar will split and eventually face off in the season’s central civil war. And they’re not the only unlikely adversaries.
“What we’re going to see is a lot of shifting allegiances, a lot of fluid political agendas, and people following their own agendas,” Hirst said. “For example, Hvitserk, who’s grown up with Ubbe and who’s been very close to Ubbe, suddenly jumps ship and joins Ivar. He is going to spend a long time trying to work out for himself why that’s true, why he did it. And it may be because Ivar is the son who looks likely to succeed as the most powerful brother, but there are other things going on that we know are historically true.”
After the demise of King Ecbert at the end of season 4, Bishop Heahmund fills the leadership void and vows to take down the Vikings himself, Hirst revealed. A recently released clip from Wednesday’s premiere, for instance, shows him face down on the ground praying to the fallen king to “let this war never end until not a single pagan lives or breathes.”
“After the end of season 4 when the Saxons were in retreat and had been defeated, I needed a Saxon figurehead, a Saxon warrior, who could stand up to the Vikings and to Ivar and Bjorn — these formidable warriors,” Hirst explained. “And my historical consultants pointed me in the direction of these warrior bishops. And they were real people, I mean, Bishop Heahmund was a real person who died in battle, but they’re also very learned and very spiritual people, but they also fought. They were the precursors of the Knights Templar.”
Heahmund goes on to join forces with Ivar and his Great Heathen Army against Ubbe and Lagertha, Hirst said.
“[Heahmund] fights on one side and then he fights on the other. And he finds different rationales for doing that. Because you know what the Vikings always say if they’re presented with a difficult moral question or any kind of problem: ‘Well, it’s not me, it’s the gods who decide how I behave.’ And Heahmund has been fighting against Ivar and [then] joins Ivar, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll fight with you because it’s not me who’s decided this, it’s God. I am doing the work of God. I don’t understand what my mission is because I don’t need to, because I’m here and I’m doing the work of God.’ ”
“Whatever they do, they think they’re doing the work of God,” which, Hirst said, is one way that Heahmund and Vikings like Ivar can understand one another.
Andersen, meanwhile, noted that “you’ll see a lot of scenes with these two together” and that they understand each other because they “are very similar and come from the same place … There’s some mutual respect, and you’ll see that there’s mutual respect between these two guys. The dynamics between these two strong characters, I think, are going to be very interesting. I believe that some of the stuff that we shot when they were squaring off is going to be very, very good. And I have a great feeling about it.”
In the premiere when they’re fighting each other in York, Ivar and Heahmund first recognize the intensity, the fearlessness, and the extreme essentialism in one another, Hirst said. Ivar recognizes what Heahmund is about, “that he’s like him, that he won’t give in, that he’s extreme, that he’s so passionate. So the part that they recognize different gods and they speak for different gods is less important than their personal attributes and beliefs,” the showrunner revealed.
When asked how audiences are expected to sympathize with Ivar, Andersen said, “Is that even possible? That’s a big struggle with Ivar and [it] has always been … He is an antihero — with an emphasis on anti— and that’s a great thing about it, because I love to challenge the audience. There’s nothing more interesting I find [than] to make the audience guess all the time and sit down and actually think, ‘Do we like this dude or do we root for him?’ That’s the whole point of the art: to make people actually think and not to sit down and be relaxed.
“On the outside he’s a controlled maniac, but on the inside he’s a poor boy,” Andersen continued. “So for me, I’ve never had trouble having sympathy for him, and I think that if I ever lose that, the audience will as well — and the opposite way: [If] I will always have sympathy for him, I think the audience will as well.”
Given the way Ivar and Lagertha’s relationship has developed and the creative team and cast’s teases for what’s to come, the possibility that he will kill her is certainly on the table. After Lagertha killed Aslaug, prophesy revealed that the reigning Queen of Kattegat was to die by the hand of one of Ragnar’s sons. Given Ivar’s short fuse and the fact that he is Aslaug’s doted-on son and that we know he is squares off against allies Lagertha and Ubbe in season 5, the likelihood seems high.
“It’s great to see those two characters clash together and see this wild and crazy guy who’s so determined and probably only thinks about himself against this powerful woman who’s all about the people,” Andersen said. “It’s great to see those two characters clash. Yes there’s going to be a massive power struggle. But this whole civil war, as you can see it’s going to be very, very intense and it is Vikings fighting Vikings.”
It also helps that, as Andersen pointed out, Lagertha and Ivar are in a way complete foils for one another. While Ivar and Heahmund see eye-to-eye because of their barbaric furor and single-mindedness, Ivar and Lagertha clash because of their opposing ideologies in ruling and more.
“For a woman in that society or any society, it’s more difficult to deal with the realities of power and politics, and she just keeps dealing with it. She kind of surprises me in how wonderfully and effectively she deals with these things,” Hirst said. “But what she wants to do, I think, is she wants to rule like an intelligent woman. She doesn’t want to rule like a man. You know, there are occasions when a man might just say, ‘Kill them all.’ She wants to be intelligent about the issues and sensitive about the issues. She makes mistakes, and those mistakes can make her look weak, but I don’t think she’s ever weak. I think she’s trying this different way of ruling … Lagertha represents what was best about Ragnar, and that is conflict with Ivar.”
(Photo by Arnaldur Halldorsson/History)
Season 4 saw Floki left utterly alone in the wake of Helga and Ragnar’s deaths, and this season, he sets sail on the ocean to surrender his life to the gods.
“He got fed up and totally disenchanted from the way that people behaved in the world he was living in,” Hirst said. “He’s decided that he doesn’t want to live in this world and he would submit himself to the gods — just get into an open boat and hopefully end up somewhere where he could begin again.”
That “somewhere” turns out to be what we know today as Iceland.
“I think that Floki would’ve been happy to die,” Hirst continued, “and yet, he finds this new land and he convinces himself, he might be mad, I don’t know, but he convinces himself that the gods live here in Iceland. (And, by the way, if you ever go to Iceland yourself, you could well imagine that the gods were there. It’s an extraordinary place.)”
It’s here, Hirst revealed, that Floki tries to rid his present of the life of his past, of Viking violence and barbarism.
“He’s trying to create a new society where people don’t behave like they’re behaving in the rest of the world … where it’s endless revenge stories. He wants to get away from that. And he thinks that you can reinvent society, you can reinvent human nature. So he tries to do it, and it’s not necessarily a happy experiment.”
That Floki leaves when Ivar “really needs that support and that friend,” Andersen said, ends up hurting Ivar, making him “more cold and determinate and hard.”
“Floki has always been Ivar’s only friend. And in terms of everything that’s happening in the beginning of season 5, it is the absolutely worst timing when Floki decides to leave,” Andersen said “Imagine losing a friend in the moment you that you need him the most … It’s just another damn person that he loves that left him. So it just adds to this horrible, horrible line of damaging. Floki is also a friend. Ivar understands why he needs to do what he needs to do. He really wants him to stay but he also understands him. And I think he takes it as a sign that now he’s on his own and it’s only the Ivar show from now on up in his head.”
Between season 1 and season 4, 49 hour-long episodes of Vikings have aired on History. Season 5 adds another 20. Hirst said that they’re now “well into season 6” and that he’s “now written 80 episodes.” Does the showrunner have an ending in sight for the epic story of Ragnar and his sons? He played coy about the content, but revealed the count.
“I’ve always had an ending in mind. It’s changing a little bit in my mind, but I know where I’m going,” he said. “The great thing now is I’ve been given permission to go there. So we’re going to do 90 or 100 episodes, which is huge, isn’t it? I mean, god, can you imagine?”
Vikings season 5 premieres on Wednesday, November 29, at 9/8C on History.
The fall TV overhaul may be behind us, but, don’t worry, there are still plenty of must-see shows returning this month. From sitcoms to sex dramas, Westerns to medieval war sagas, there is something for everyone this November. Find out which series you should catch up on.
(Photo by CBS)
What it is: A family sitcom about recovering alcoholics, teen pregnancies, and other assorted curves life can throw may not sound like it’s mingling with laughing matters, but Mom works! Anna Faris leads as Christy, a mother of two who gets sober and moves to the Napa Valley to start her life anew. Allison Janney also steals the show as her mother, Bonnie, a fellow recovering addict who finally has the chance to be present for her daughter (and grandkids). In that sense, Mom is a comedy about making up for lost time.
Why you should watch it: This multi-cam sitcom from industry titan Chuck Lorre is five years strong thanks to the fact that it’s rough around the edges in a real-world way. It’s not too sweet, and it has standout (and, in the case of Janney, Emmy-winning!) performances across the board. They may not be a typical family, but for 30 minutes each week, they will be come a part of yours. Season 5 premiered November 2.
Commitment: Approx. 31 hours
What it is: Based on Steven Soderbourgh’s 2009 vignette-filled feature film of the same name, The Girlfriend Experience is an anthology drama series about the unexpected and complicated lives of sex workers. Season 1 follows a law student named Christine Reade (Riley Keogh) who moonlights in the profession. Season 2, which will follow two different story lines, premieres November 5.
Why you should watch it: While sex alone is likely a titillating enough calling card to pique many viewers’ interest, The Girlfriend Experience is about much more than its elevator pitch implies. Ultimately, it’s a meditation on feminist power, on the relationship between sex and manipulation, and the moral ambiguities of its protagonists’ careers (and those who employ them). Rich with finely realized performances and void of an imposing male gaze (Amy Seimetz is onboard as co-creator, co-director, and co-star), the series’ first season packed an emotional wallop while making you think. Season 2 will boast hourlong episodes (versus last year’s half-hours) and two parallel, concurrently running stories.
Commitment: Approx. 6.5 hours
(Photo by Showtime)
What it is: While this comedy series has been around for so long that it’s hard to define it without giving away seven seasons of spoilers, but at its core, it’s an hour-long dysfunctional family comedy-drama about six children (led by Emmy Rossum as Fiona) who were forced to grow up too fast while under the watch of their single, alcoholic father, Frank (William H. Macy).
Why you should watch it: It’s tricky to strike the balance between broad comedy and aching drama, but it’s a skill that Shameless has perfected since its 2011 debut. Credit where it’s due: Rossum is an absolutely fearless knockout who bests herself season to season. It’s an excellent ensemble, and you can’t help but love the Gallagher family (even when they don’t make it easy), but watching the actress and Oscar nominee Macy go toe-to-toe as the central headstrong daughter and father just gets better with age. Season 8 premieres November 5.
Commitment: Approx. 77 hours
(Photo by Netflix)
What it is: As an experienced comedian’s comedian, Maria Bamford finally gets the star treatment she deserves with Mitchell Hurwitz and Pam Brady’s half-hour semi-biographical comedy about a standup comedian who, after a breakdown and subsequent institutionalization, begins readjusting to an ever-changing world and ever-changing mental state.
Why you should watch it: Forgive the pun, but Lady Dynamite is explosive. It’s brave. It’s mental illness like you’ve never seen before — and in Bamford, it features a leading lady like you’ve never seen, either. With an eye for the surreal, the absurd, and the slapstick found in one standup comic’s everyday life, Lady is wacky, brilliant fun. Plus, it features a who’s who comedy roster of supporting players and cameos that will surely be even more impressive in Season 2, which bows November 10.
Where to watch: Netflix
Commitment: Approx. 6 hours
What it is: Set in Wyoming’s fictional Absaroka County, this crime drama fits right in with the Westerns of the world, from Unforgiven to Hell or High Water. (Better yet, we’ve gotten to enjoy it for five seasons instead of just two hours!) The pilot picks up one year after the death of our titular hero’s wife, and through his grief, he digs deep into his work and sets his sights on getting reelected to the gold star.
Why you should watch it: Based on the bestselling Walt Longmire Mystery series, this A&E-turned-Netflix original is built on nostalgia for the all-American hero, and star Robert Taylor as Longmire is up to snuff going into its sixth and final season. Like the very best of classic Clint Eastwood and other gunslinging heroes of yesteryear, Taylor’s Longmire is stoically gruff, reserved, and a helluva shot. Need proof? Look no further than his early-series comparison between the small Absaroka’s issues of crime, poverty, and racism and those found in New York City: “Corruption, violence, greed, and murder — but Absaroka County has something that New York City will never have: They have me.” Good luck to those who stand in his way. Season 6 premieres November 17.
Commitment: Approx. 45 hours
(Photo by TBS)
What it is: Part relationship drama, part coming-of-age comedy, part noir-tinged mystery thriller, Search Party is undefinable —but that’s what makes it so good. It’s the story of Dory (Alia Shaukat), Drew (John Reynolds), Elliot (John Early), and Portia (Meredith Hagner), who, on account of their own self-interest and general aimlessness, entangle themselves in the potentially sinister disappearance of their college classmate.
Why you should watch it: Brooklyn-dwelling millennials have been beguiling subjects for many a film and TV auteur since Lena Dunham’s Girls, but never before have they been so exactingly (and excruciatingly) brought to life than in Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter’s incisive TBS satire-crime mystery cocktail. Season 2 premieres November 19.
Commitment: Approx. 4 hours
What it is: In the mood for a meaty, generations-spanning period drama that has violence, politics, sex, and true-to-history recreations to spare? Look no further than Vikings, Michael Hirst’s brilliant follow-up to The Tudors. The heart of the series is legendary rags-to-riches viking Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), his rise to power, and how he passes that power to his children and their children thereafter.
Why you should watch it: Vikings is complex, calculated storytelling at its best. Gorgeous, lush sets and production design, committed and gritty performances all around — it is a wonder that the program doesn’t garner acclaim on par with Game of Thrones (though it certainly draws comparisons). But somehow, there’s a viewers’ pleasure to being in on a well-kept secret. Join the club before season 5 returns November 29.
Commitment: Approx. 36 hours
This week on DVD, we’ve got a big budget blockbuster, a much smaller — but more acclaimed — drama, a few more indie films worth checking out, and a lot of TV. Read on for the full list.
The latest installment of the long-running horror franchise finds the demonic doll terrorizing a woman in an asylum, while his old nemesis attempts to save her. Special features include a look at filming on location, a dive into the various screen iterations of Chucky, and a commentary track.
Based on the legends of Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, this History Channel original drama focuses on his rise from farmer to warrior, and from raider of England and France to King of the Vikings. Volume II of season 4 includes all episodes from the second half of the season, as well as extended international versions of each episode, extended/director’s cut/unrated versions of some episodes, deleted scenes, and more.
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck star in David Lowery’s contemplative drama about a recently deceased man whose spirit returns to the home he shared with his wife, only to find her slowly slipping away. Extras include a commentary track, an inventive variation of cast and crew interviews, a look at the composer, and a deleted scene.
In its sixth season, FX’s popular horror-themed anthology series takes a mock true crime documentary format, following the tale of a married Los Angeles couple who move into a rural North Carolina farmhouse and experience supernatural terror. The season set comes with a Paley Center Q&A with the cast and creative team.
Johnny Depp returns for the fifth installment of Disney’s swashbuckling franchise, which finds Jack Sparrow on the run from a deadly ghost pirate bent on his destruction. Extras include a seven-part series of behind-the-scenes featurettes, bloopers, deleted scenes, and a photo diary.
Naomi Watts and Jacob Tremblay star in Colin Trevorrow’s mystery drama about a woman who discovers one of her sons has been secretly plotting to help the girl next door escape her abusive father. Bonus features include a making-of featurette and interviews with the cast about their roles.
Also Available This Week:
Unless you’re really interested in how maple syrup is made or you want to learn how to paint from Bob Ross (okay, we kinda get the appeal of the latter), there isn’t a whole lot of noteworthy new stuff on the big streaming services this week. That said, we do have a recent Oscar-winning drama, the latest season of a popular TV series, and an effective — if less frequently cited — Quentin Tarantino crime thriller, among other things. Read on for the full list.
This BBC period drama co-produced by Netflix takes place in 9th century England during the Viking conquest of the Anglo-Saxons and centers on a Saxon-born Viking torn between two worlds.
Available now on: Netflix
Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges star in Kenneth Lonergan’s poignant Oscar-winning drama about a man with a troubled past who returns to his hometown to help care for his nephew after his brother suddenly dies.
Available now on: Amazon Prime
George A. Romero’s iconic debut set the template for the modern zombie film, and features tight editing, realistic gore, and a sly political undercurrent.
Available now on: Amazon Prime
Based on the legends of Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, this History Channel original drama focuses on his rise from farmer to warrior, and from raider of England and France to King of the Vikings.
Available now on: Amazon Prime
Pam Grier and Robert Forster lead an all-star cast in Quentin Tarantino’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 1995 novel Rum Punch, about an airline stewardess who gets busted for transporting dirty cash and pits the ATF against her arms dealer boss.
Available now on: Amazon Prime
This stop-motion animated tale — which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature — follows an orphan who moves into a foster home and slowly learns to trust his new family.
Available now on: FandangoNOW
Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams star in Jordan Peele’s smash hit directorial debut, a thriller about a black man who’s invited to his white girlfriend’s hometown for a weekend and discovers some disturbing secrets about her family.
Available now on: FandangoNOW
Stanley Kramer’s classic comedy stars Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney, Ethel Merman, and a slew of others as a collection of strangers who all set out to be the first to track down a hidden treasure.
Available now on: FandangoNOW
Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe star in Zhang Yimou’s fantastical action epic about a group of elite soldiers in ancient China whose sole job is to defend against the invasion of vicious monsters.
Available now on: FandangoNOW
The 15th Annual Visual Effects Society Awards were celebrated tonight at the Beverly Hilton in California. The Jungle Book took home five awards, including Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature. On the TV side, Games of Thrones was the big winner, with five trophies. Read through for the full list of winners.
The gods have spoken and another season of History’s Vikings comes to a gripping end. We knew coming into “The Reckoning” that not everyone would make it out of season 4 alive, and the episode did not disappoint. Showrunner and series creator Michael Hirst talked to Rotten Tomatoes about the finale and set up season 5.
In the episode, the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) successfully usurp King Ecbert (Linus Roache) after a bloody battle, but allow him to take his own life after he signs over East Anglia. Unbeknownst to them, however, he has abdicated the throne to his son Aethelwulf (Moe Dunford) and does not have the power to gift them the land.
Later in celebration, Ivar the Boneless (Alex Høgh Andersen) loses his temper when his brothers reveal they no longer want to take to the battlefield and instead want to sail to the Mediterranean or settle and farm. Furious Ivar lets his axe fly, killing his brother Sigurd (David Lindström).
Far off in England is the newly introduced Bishop Heahmund (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who Hirst assures will one day meet Ivar face to face.
Hirst spoke with Rotten Tomatoes to reflect on season 4’s bevy of surprising deaths, how the great Ragnar will never truly die, and what role Heahmund will play going into next season.
Benjamin Lindsay for Rotten Tomatoes: Were you sad to part ways with Ragnar and now Ecbert this season?
Hirst: Yes, of course. I mean, this season, I’ve said goodbye to Ragnar and to Ecbert — two of my greatest characters. Two actors, as well, that I’ve just loved their work. They complemented each other so well. They were so different, but they had so much in common, and it was a great privilege to work with both of them.
But yeah, I was there when Ragnar was up in the cage on a terrible wet and windy Irish day last winter, and Travis and I had spent a long time in deep discussions — and with Linus, actually — about those last episodes, his last scenes, and everything. So it was very meaningful. It was very deep. It was very difficult.
It was actually equally sad to say goodbye in this last episode to Ecbert, who in a different way has sort of crept on me and become one of the big characters of the show. Linus is a great, great actor. I always think about it like Linus is the kind of Shakespearean actor, and Travis was the authentic actor, and yet, they both brought something so intense and powerful and real to the show. So it’s been an emotional roller coaster for me, absolutely.
RT: It’s funny, because the last time we spoke, you’d said episodes 14 and 15 were the best you’ve ever done on TV because they brought these two characters back together.
Hirst: Those two episodes are still amongst my favorite ever. It was a very intense period of discussing and realizing them. I love collaborating. I love the fact that we were all together discussing these moments and these deaths, and the actors were as invested as I was in this. I think we realized what we wanted to realize. I think it was deep and powerful and memorable.
RT: But there are echoes, of course, of Ragnar in his sons. That’s been one of my greatest joys this season: Now that they’re coming into their own, getting to see their dynamics play out onscreen. What’s been your favorite part about being able to tell the next generation’s story in this half of Season 4?
Hirst: This was always, for me, the saga of Ragnar and his sons. I knew enough about the history that his sons — some of them anyway — had actually done extraordinary things and had become in the Viking world as famous as Ragnar. So for me, this was always the story of Ragnar and his sons and never just the story of Ragnar. So you know how it is with the networks and things, and you say, “OK, we’re going to kill what some people think of as the lead character.” And it’s like, “Oh no! Can we keep him alive? People won’t watch it anymore. You can’t kill your lead character.” And I said, “I can. I can kill my lead character.”
For many reasons, but one is that I think many people are now watching the show not just because of Travis, but because they’re watching the show, they love the show. There’s a huge following for Lagertha, there’s a huge following for other characters. And I can tell you that these sons are going to make a huge impact. They’re going to do what I want them to do. They are going to impress, and they are going to take the story forward.
This is not the story of Ragnar Lothbrok; however, Ragnar will never die. You think I’m killing Ragnar? I am killing Ragnar, but he will never die because he will live on through his sons. He will live on through at least two of them. Bjorn and Ubbe will always believe what Ragnar believed: That the thing to do is to establish colonies in different lands [and] to find rich land for farming. They will not let that dream go. And Ragnar will always be an inspiration, especially if they become famous as the sons of Ragnar, so wherever they go, people will say, “They are the sons of Ragnar.” So Ragnar doesn’t disappear. Actually, in pretty much the same way that Athelstan hasn’t disappeared from the show. His ghost, his presence — he’s still there. And so Ragnar doesn’t disappear.
Nonetheless, it was a challenge to hand over to the sons. But, of course, I wanted to do the Great Heathen Army. I mean, who didn’t want to do that? So Ragnar dies, and then what happens? People want to know what happened after that. You’re feeding a curiosity anyway. I think the audiences are really curious about the sons. I mean, we still have some of the old guard, but now we have Ivar the Boneless. It’s just, my God, we have something amazing to move forward with.
RT: In terms of Ragnar still being a part of the show, I think with Ivar in particular, you see his military calculation and cunning come into play in these final episodes, all of which were very much passed down by his father. Was it exciting for you to set the stage for him this season?
Hirst: Of course. I knew a little bit about Ivar the Boneless before I started writing the show because I come from Yorkshire and Ivar conquered York, but I only knew him by reputation, so it’s been great to dig down a little more. Ivar’s story is fascinating however you look at it. Someone who is so disadvantaged who then became so powerful is always an interesting trajectory for a writer.
One of the great things about Vikings that you don’t find in many other shows is we have children that grow into adults. We’ve seen Ivar. We’ve seen the ambivalence of his brothers towards him. They love him on the one hand, but they also patronize him. We know that he’s unpredictable. We know that he’s lucky to be alive. And for me, part of that is that whatever he does, I never completely lose sympathy for him because I know what his background is, I know what his struggle is. I know the pain that he’s had to go through.
We did a lot of research at the studio on Brittle Bone Disease. We talked to people. If you’re young and anything you do is likely to lead to breaking a bone or two, you are angry. And so Ivar is an angry person, but because he can’t use his legs, he uses his head, and his intelligence is developed. So he’s the one that strategizes the most. He just thinks the story through. When you think about the Vikings, the cliché is that they’re thoughtless brutes, but here you have a very clever young man who can outthink some of the best Saxons and can lead the Vikings by his charisma and his thoughts. It’s great.
RT: I also wanted to, of course, talk to you about Jonathan Rhys Meyers. How did he come into the fold? What should we know about him going into season 5?
Hirst: I knew that in view of the success the Great Heathen Army and the Vikings militarily over the Saxons that I needed a Saxon warrior leader who could match them, who could stand up to them. What I discovered in my research were these people called warrior bishops. These are genuinely religious people. These were people high up in the church hierarchy, princes of the church — men of great learning who were also skilled swordsmen and fighters and were totally prepared to go and fight against the Heathen Army. In that sense, they were exact precursors to the Knights. So centuries before the Knights Templar, they were the model. And this guy, Bishop Heahmund was a historical character. We know that he actually died in battle. We know that he was a formidable figure. So I had my historical character.
Then when we cast Johnny, of course, that was wonderful because I knew Johnny from Tudors. He’s very charismatic, and there’s an element of this sort of madness about these characters. They’re sort of slightly unhinged characters because they’re so fundamentalist, they’re so prepared to die in battle for their faith. Johnny seemed to fit that bill, as well. And then there’s one other element: someone who was conflicted within themselves, someone who was a fundamentalist Christian who was totally fighting for Christ and was moral and everything, and yet was an essentialist who couldn’t help his attraction to women. St. Augustine describes how he would punish himself for this flaw in this character. He would punish himself in extreme ways. I just saw this character as someone who is so interesting and powerful and flawed and charismatic and conflicted. I wanted to bring him on.
And I wanted, even in the short space of time that you know him at the end of season 4, I wanted people to feel that maybe this character had a big role to play going forward (which he does), and that in the end, he was bound to intersect with Ivar. There are elements to Ivar that are similar: the conflicted person, the fundamentalist. I think you just feel that there is something inevitable about those two characters coming together, which they will.
RT: Can we safely say that Heahmund is going to be a formidable adversary for Ivar?
Hirst: Yeah, that’s what he’s been set up to be. That’s what the Saxons need. I wasn’t responding to anything directly on social media because I don’t read social media, but people have occasionally told me that there are Christian clerics around, particularly in America, who’ve complained that the Saxons are virile enough — that the Vikings have the best of the argument all the time, that their warriors are always more powerful, that the Christian Saxons seem rather feeble.
I don’t, myself, believe that because I don’t think that Aethelwulf is feeble, and I don’t think, actually, that Aethelred was feeble. But I still felt the need, I recognized the need to have a symbolically powerful Saxon warrior leader figure, and in the time of the greatest crisis for the Saxon world in England, here comes Bishop Heahmund.
RT: Going into season 5, if you were to name one character that we should take a closer look at in this hiatus, who would I be?
Hirst: I think I would have to say that Ivar is a new, great character. If you thought that Ragnar was great and astonishing, you will certainly see that his son Ivar matches up to him and is also a completely astonishing figure.
Vikings on History
The Visual Effects Society announced the nominees for the 15th Annual VES Awards. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story received the most film nominations, while Kubo and the Two Strings has the most nominations for an animated film. In the TV categories, Games of Thrones leads with the most nominations. Read through for the full list of movies and television nominees below.
Last we saw Vikings’ Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), it was some years after his brutal defeat to Rollo (Clive Standen) in Paris, and he’d returned to Kattegat after a long, self-imposed exile. His four sons, now young adults and themselves formidable fighters-in-training, met his return with apprehension and contempt as their estranged father challenged one among them to strike him dead and claim himself king.
After a season of being addled with drug addiction and violent erraticism, Ragnar has taught us to to expect the unexpected from him, yes, but also to not entirely trust him. Even four seasons in, we can’t say for certain what’s veiled behind Fimmel’s steely gaze. The greatest mystery, however, is what’s to come in the anticipated second part of season 4, which premieres with “The Outsider” on Wednesday.
Rotten Tomatoes spoke with writer, creator, executive producer, and showrunner Michael Hirst about expanding season 4 and the forthcoming season 5 to 20 episodes each instead of 10, writing for women, and what sets his Vikings apart from Game of Thrones.
Benjamin Lindsay for Rotten Tomatoes: We’re spoiled this season with 20 episodes. What have been some of the pleasures of working in this expanded format? Was it the plan all along for what this story needed?
Michael Hirst: No, I don’t think so. Normally in TV drama, at the end of a season, you still don’t know whether it’s going to get picked up, and so you’re kind of trying to balance getting an arc to a story that might just finish where it finishes if it’s not picked up, but hoping it will be, so leaving a lot of open ends so you can go back to it. I always, actually, have had a deep belief that Vikings would go forward. And I actually have always had an ending in view, and the ending is several seasons away. I hope we get that.
The challenge for me when History and MTM decided to switch from 10 episodes to 20 was that we were more or less shooting all year, and since I’m the sole writer, that was a big challenge for me. Sometimes, we would have 10 live scripts, and I would be writing, correcting things, rewriting things, trying to move the script forward and everything. It has been challenging, I wouldn’t deny that. But at the same time, I love it. I’ve never stopped loving the process. There’s never any lack of material because the material comes from history. So it’s always a great journey for me.
RT: One of the big surprises at the end of the midseason finale, “The Last Ship,” was the drastic jump forward in time. Was this simply to get Ragnar’s sons up to an age where they could be viable threats or leaders in their own right? What went into the decision to hit fast-forward?
Hirst: Well, from the moment that I started thinking about the show, or at least the moment that the lead characters would be Ragnar and his sons, I realized that I was in it theoretically for the long haul and that this would be one of the few shows that actually showed people growing up and people having children, and the children growing up. We had a lot of ground to cover, and I knew that at least two of Ragnar’s sons became as famous as he did. So that’s a question of how do you deal with those transitions? How do you plausibly deal with people growing up without the audience losing track of where they are?
And we did it before. I decided that I was never going to do [the time jump] in the break. I looked at previous shows where they move forward in time, and it’s nearly always been done in the break between seasons, and I thought that’s really an easy option and it’s kind of fake. You’re not being honest with the audience.
So we did the cut forward in time between Bjorn as a young boy and then casting Alexander [Ludwig] as his older self, and it worked fantastically well. I was always going to do that again, but of course I wanted the sons to mature. I needed the sons. It was a question of when, and it became obvious that the choice was when Ragnar suffered his huge defeat, because in Viking society, if a king or an earl lost the confidence of his people or suffered huge defeats, he would normally be killed and replaced and someone would step in immediately. But Ragnar is too famous for that.
So Ragnar disappears because he’s been defeated and he’s licking his wounds, and time passes. And in that time that he’s away, his sons grow up. That step forward is just long enough for the children to become young adults, and then Ragnar comes back into their lives. And he comes back for two reasons. One: We know that he loves his sons, and he wants to find out what’s happened to them. And the second thing is he has unfinished business in England.
RT: The episode going into this week’s premiere is called “The Outsider,” which could apply to the return of Ragnar, but also the way that Ivar is alienated from society and his family. He’s such an angry character who’s crushed by the pressure of being his father’s son in addition to the pressure of living a normal life as a handicapped Viking. What development went into this character? He seems like one to watch.
Hirst: He is! Not least because the actor [Alex Høgh Andersen] is just phenomenal, and he’s going to be a big star. I always wanted to get to Ivar. Ivar is probably the most famous Viking of all time, notorious for his cruelty, but who knew that the most famous of all time would be a cripple? So from a writer’s point of view, that’s an amazing journey to go on, that’s an amazing character to deal with. He has lots of issues.
There are different interpretations, to be fair, about why he was called Ivar the Boneless, but it seemed to me that the one that was most compelling was that he had Brittle Bone Disease. We did a lot of research. We got in touch with people with Brittle Bone Disease. It’s one of those things that helps me enormously as a writer because I’m constantly trying to connect the past and the present, and so someone who has a condition that people still suffer from today, people can connect with that.
So however badly Ivar behaves, you will never totally lose sympathy with him because you know how difficult his life has been.
RT: Meanwhile, Bjorn is setting out to explore the Mediterranean, while his father wants to return to England. Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård) is even on Bjorn’s side. Is this the first sign of Ragnar being outshined by his sons?
Hirst: Absolutely. I think that maybe Ragnar thought that he could come back and claim the love and attention of his sons, but he’s been away too long, and as they say in Viking society, the smell of failure is pretty strong, so even your sons can reject you.
Bjorn has had a trajectory that was set from the moment he found that map in the raids in Paris, so he feels that his fate is to go to the Mediterranean. So he’s prepared to leave the Heathen Army to Ivar, which may or may not be a good thing. But it does mark [that] finally Bjorn is growing up and becoming a character in his own right.
And actually, historically speaking, again, Bjorn is very famous. He did ultimately sail around the Mediterranean. Amazing things happened to him, and within Viking society, Bjorn Ironside was a very mythical character by the time he died.
Ragnar said that one thing he feared was that his sons would become more famous than he was, and at least two of them do become more famous, and it’s interesting for me to watch their rise. I’ve watched children become men and then I watch the men become myths. It’s just a wonderful process.
I don’t mean to say this, but if you watch Game of Thrones, no one grows up. No one changes, everyone’s the same. In Vikings, things change the whole time. And one of the dynamics is that children become adults and then they have to find their own way in the world.
RT: That all said, I also get the impression that despite townspeople and his own sons telling Ragnar that the gods have spoken, that his failure seals his fate, we’re not meant to write him off quite yet. The Fates are stepping in.
Hirst: Yes, they have something else in store for him. And actually, he knows that his fate is to go back to England and to confront and see King Ecbert again. That relationship between those two kings was so wonderful and fundamental and interesting. I needed them to get back together again.
The actors of the characters, they both come from different places. Linus Roache is a classically trained actor, and Travis is a natural. He came out of his farm in the outback in Australia. So the two of them are so different; they represent different traditions and cultures and things. I needed fate to bring them back together again and spend some time in each other’s company.
I’d be prepared to say that episodes 4 and 5 of the new season are the best episodes I’ve ever done in TV, and that’s in large part because it involves Ragnar and Ecbert together.
RT: I also love that in this episode that Lagertha is back. She’s such a great character, and it’s a great performance from Katheryn Winnick. Do you pride yourself in writing strong, complex roles for women?
Hirst: I do. I knew that when History bought the show that it was a male-skewed channel, but I think largely because there’s Lagertha, that it now has a huge female following. But also, all the major female characters in the show are different, they’re complex. We don’t use women in the senseless gratuitous way the way that Game of Thrones does. I’m interested in the female characters.
What I’ve done with Katheryn is I told her right from the start that I was going to throw her into every situation that I could think of that contemporary women would understand. Katheryn has just been amazing in all of these situations. One of the reasons that I’ve enjoyed writing female characters is because I did my Ph.D. on Henry James, and Henry James also loved writing women characters. He felt a special empathy for them because he said they always seemed to be trapped behind certain stiff barriers and had to use their imagination to get out of them or had to use some special way that the men didn’t need to fulfill their lives. I’ve got daughters, as well, two of whom are in the show.
It is a big feature of Vikings. Viking society was one of the few societies at the time, totally unlike the Anglo-Saxons or the Franks, where women were respected as an equal. They owned property. They could get divorced. I’m only reflecting what’s actually happening in Viking society.
RT: On a grander scale, do you feel like there are present day issues that parallel Vikings? The old adage says that history repeats itself — what do you think we could glean as viewers from Vikings that’s applicable today?
Hirst: Well, I wish it was as simple as that. Even more than that, this show is about personal and political relationships, and they don’t change so much. One of the things I want to say to people is this isn’t really the past. This is how things have always been. You can see yourselves in these people. We’re not Vikings — of course we’re not. But human beings haven’t changed that much.
So I try to write things that resonate all the time in every conceivable way, because otherwise, I think the people won’t be interested. I just want people to engage with these characters at every turn. Who knew that you could empathize with eighth century pagans? That’s really the key to it.
Vikings season 4 returns Wednesday, Nov. 30 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on History
Clive Standen just wrapped filming on NBC’s spring series Taken, in which he plays former Green Beret Bryan Mills, the man with a particular set of skills. Those skills made Mills famous when actor Liam Neeson played the character in the 2008 Taken film and its sequels.
From Executive Producer Luc Besson, the 2017 TV prequel stars Standen as a younger Mills dealing with personal tragedy as he sets off on his CIA career and hones those skills.
But first, the British actor had to polish his courtly manners for his role as Rollo, sibling to King Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) in History’s Vikings, which returns for its midseason premiere in November.
When we last saw him in April in episode 10 of season 4, Rollo was enjoying the adoration and appreciation of the people of Francia after driving back the Viking horde led by none other than Ragnar. He’s a formerly wild and woolly Viking in the French court who’s been tamed (somewhat) and groomed (sort of) by his princess wife, Gisla (Morgane Polanski).
Clive Standen: We left him being crowned by the king and being called Caesar. He’s seemingly got everything he could possibly have ever wanted and ever dreamed that he could succeed at: He has the princess that genuinely loves him. He has a whole people, a whole realm of people that back him and believes in him. And he has that king, King Charles (Lothaire Bluteau), who’s like a father figure he never had. So now, he really has stepped out of the shadow of Ragnar Lothbrok, accomplished so much, and got so much faith within both Viking society and within Francia.
But as we all know, when you want something for so long and you never really achieved it, you have no idea how it’s going to feel when you get it. So may be a case of the grass is not greener on the other side. Is it all it’s cracked up to be or is he going to be in the middle of a Viking midlife crisis? And rather than be the Ferrari or Porsche that the modern man often pines for in a midlife crisis, it’s going to be the longboat maybe that Rollo is missing and wanting.
It’s still a tricky road for him going into the second part of the season. He was born to raid and fight — those are his own words from season 1. With the responsibility of being the Duke of Normandy and having the whole realm of Francia under his wing, is he going to be allowed to fight? Is he going to be too important? Is he going to be allowed to flex his muscle, so to speak? So, maybe all those type things start to get in the way of his satisfaction and happiness.
RT: The show has been so successful in showing how his background and his character clashes so greatly with that of his wife, but she came around to him and embraced that sort of wildness of him.
Standen: As much as they love each other and as much as there is a genuine connection between Gisla and Rollo, I think the one thing that worries her and probably worries himself that deep down is whether his Viking roots are still embedded in his psyche from an early age. If you get brought up in religion from birth and it’s a very conflicting religion from the one he’s now embraced, is it going to come back to haunt him? When everyone in Francia hears thunder and lightning in a storm, is it thunder and lightning to Rollo or is he still hearing Thor?
I think that worries Gisla a little bit: whether he really has put his Viking past behind him. You can change and teach someone the fashions of the time and the etiquette, but religion is a big thing, and I’m not sure once you believe in these gods, can you truly just leave them behind. That may be one of the confrontations the two are going to have going forward as a power couple.
RT: Rollo has had so many ups and downs and so many disappointments, then he comes to this point where his power and influence explodes, but he has to give up everything in order to have that.
Standen: I think he had all of his chips on the table. When he first came to France in season 3, he didn’t really realize what an uphill struggle it was going to be. Being offered the princess, the title, the land, it seemed like a win-win to him at the time. But he didn’t really realize the last time these people had seen him, he was the marauding crazy bear berserker running down the streets of Paris murdering people. And these are the same people that are meant to embrace him as Count Rollo. I don’t think he realized what an uphill struggle it was going to be when learning the fashion, the etiquette, the discipline of being a ruler. When he realizes the princess is someone that he’s fallen for, I think that was the incentive, and that was what I was attracted to in season 3 is that he did it all for love.
It think now he’s mastered that, he’s transformed himself completely, entirely, and I think it’s unfair to say that he — It’s funny when a lead character of a TV show speaks and the audience believes, they never doubt it. Like in real life, just because someone says something out loud doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what they mean, or necessarily that’s what they believe. So when Ragnar turns around to Rollo on the boat and says, “When everyone wanted you dead, I kept you alive, and you betrayed me. You betrayed your people,” and we have to an extent. But Rollo has done so many things for Ragnar over the years. He’s had his face cut to pieces in season 1 to protect his brother’s whereabouts. He lied and fought for him. There’s so many times where Ragnar has just kept him down and kept him in his shadow, that now Rollo is well and truly, almost like a phoenix from the flames, is just going to reinvent himself till he can shine.
I don’t think he necessarily has betrayed his people or left his people, because they never were his people. He was never allowed to be one of Ragnar’s people within Kattegat. He was always kept on the sidelines. If anything, he’s going home because he’s found his people. He’s found someone that loves him and admires him and is his rock within the relationship. He’s also got people that genuinely embrace him as a ruler and respect him and enable him to spread his wings and be his true self and explore who he can be.
So I kind of think of it more as he’s gone home, than he’s betrayed and left his brethren.
RT: If you apply the formula of the character’s life to say, just a modern anybody anywhere, how scary and difficult it would be to completely uproot yourself and put yourself in an entirely new culture and thrive. It’s an interesting arc for anyone who’s ever felt sort of out of their element, in their element. You know what I mean?
Standen: When I was offered the character by Michael Hirst and his troupe, right back at the beginning of my journey, I’d read the first two scripts and I realized what a base person Rollo was. In that second episode, he’s seen raping a slave. He’s very selfish, he’s very self-centered, and he lives on the margin. I’d done a lot of research on the role before day one of shooting, and I’d realized who this man was in history, and he’s worthy of the history books. He’s far more famous, has accomplished far more real things, genuine things in Viking society within the time period than Ragnar Lothbrok or any of the other Vikings ever did.
So he seemingly on paper, and in the written words in the history books, seems to be this ruler, this duke of Normandy, this great leader, and I couldn’t understand why Michael had written him so base. But also that was the challenge and the incentive to play the character, because I really knew how big an arc it was going to be. How I’m smashing this character down to pieces in the beginning, and I’ve got to piece him back together slowly over season after season, turn him into this man that is worth of being the great, great, great grandfather of William the Conqueror.
RT: Why do you think that Michael Hirst wrote him so base? Is there truth in that characterization of him?
Standen: To be fair, history books, in most of them, the truth lies in the middle somewhere. Take Rollo as an example. Many historians writing about Rollo over the ages, and sometimes he’s written in the sagas. He has his own saga in Iceland, which is about Rollo the walker, which paints him into a man who’s stealing from the king, and he gets banished, finds his way; it’s like a fairy tale story.
Then there’s other documentation that comes from Dudo of Saint-Quentin, who was an historian writing 400 years after Rollo had lived, who was writing for the current Duke of Normandy. So he’s been commissioned to write the lineage of the current Duke of Normandy, so he’s obviously, it’s going to be full of propaganda, because he’s going to write Rollo to be this amazing leader, this perfect man, because he wants to show off where the current Duke of Normandy comes from.
So you can’t really take that as being true, and you also can’t believe that necessarily some of these Viking characters are fighting dragons or orcs and things as well. You kind of have to find the real person in the middle of it, because there’s so much propaganda involved in the history books. Vikings were one of the few cultures that didn’t write anything down. They were illiterate. So most of what was recorded about the Vikings was written by Christians in the invaded country. History is usually recorded by the invaders, not the invaded, but in this case it was. It was the Christian monks that reported on the Vikings being these horrible, marauding devils who came from the ocean that raped and pillaged the land. But you haven’t heard the Vikings side of it. And it’s the same when it comes to the characters.
Michael starts him off at the base level because the drama needs to go somewhere. But it’s also as simple as, at the writing, you’ve got two brothers playing against each other, and you need to make very clear very quickly which one the audience has to root for, which is Ragnar Lothbrok. So you make one brother a little bit more base and a little bit more living around the margins. Every Viking was raping slaves and things. They had slaves and they were allowed to do what they wanted with them. Just because you see Rollo doing it on screen doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the only one to be doing it. It obviously lets the audience know that because you don’t see Ragnar Lothbrok do it, then you’ll be rooting for him.
The long answer I feel is that Michael actually wrote Rollo to be a 50-year-old cousin of Ragnar Lothbrok in the beginning. Because the biggest artistic license we take with history really in the show is that Ragnar and Rollo were never brothers in history. They lived nearly a hundred years apart, but they both had an extremely amazing adventurous story to tell, so to get them both in the drama, what better device than to make them brothers.
I was offered the role of Rollo, and it changed to become a younger character and the brother of Ragnar. So I suppose that’s where it came from, because he was probably always meant to be the slightly older, jolly, crazy Viking.
RT: What can people expect in the next few episodes that they’re going to see between Ragnar and Rollo. Will they have much interaction at all? Can you say? Or no?
Standen: I think Rollo and Ragnar, even if they don’t share as much screen time as they used to, they probably have far more of a connection now. I think Rollo’s absence at the end of first half of season 4 is the catalyst for Ragnar’s evident downfall. He’s come to Paris. He’s tried to be too big for his boots, for want of a better phrase. And Rollo has sent him packing. He’s also been addicted to drugs, and there’s nothing like your brother smacking a few, seven bells into you to kind of get you off the drugs.
So he’s going back, and now I think his sons are growing up, and they kind of want to travel their own path, just as Rollo did. And now he’s gone from one brother who wants to step out of the shadow and know what he’s worthy of and capable of, and that’s the way that Ragnar dealt with it, by fighting him on the battlefield, to try to reign him in and contain him and punish him. But he’s going to go back to four other sons who are going to want to do the same thing. Who are going to want to escape the name of Ragnar Lothbrok. They want to fly the nest. So it’s kind of almost the beginning of the end for Ragnar, his trip up the Viking totem pole. I think Rollo is always going to be there to haunt him, even if he’s not there physically.
RT: I don’t know if it’s premature, but do we know anything about season 5? Is it too early? Can’t say anything? I noticed you have a new series. So —
Standen: An amazing series. It kind of nearly killed me. I’ve only just finished. It’s my first week off. I’m spending the whole time off just trying to recover. Long hours. It’s Taken. I don’t know how much I can say about it, but I can tell you a little bit. Taken is the prequel to the films you may have seen with Liam Neeson, but it’s not a direct prequel in time frame, as it’s set in 2016. It’s a younger Bryan Mills.
In the pilot, you very quickly see the same kind of character that you see in the film, where something traumatic and tragic happens in his family, and Bryan is a one man wrecking ball who tries to go out of his way on his own to try and put it right. But he hasn’t got that particular set of skills yet. He’s a rough diamond, and the CIA, Christina Hart, played by Jennifer Beals, and her vice-ops team are watching him closely and using him as bait, if anything. But then they see this man with heart and a kind of work in progress, and by the end of the pilot, they kind of take him on under their wing and then recruit him into this black-ops team. So it’s about how he acquires that particular set of skills.
It’s written by Alex Cary, who wrote most of the episodes of Homeland up until now. He’s a fantastic writer. It’s really written in the real world. It’s not a crazy silly action show. It’s what I pride myself on in Vikings as well. In Taken, everything this man does is real. He’s a spy. He’s not going to be running and doing back flips and spin-kicks up the walls like has been in some of these silly action films that have just been full of sound and fury. They signify nothing to the real world kind of situation whether these guys can be in and amongst every one of us right now protecting America and sweeping the dirt under the carpet.
It’s very different than anything out there at the moment, I think. It’s got the fast pace of a show like 24. It’s relentless, but it’s also got the integrity and the real world scenarios of a show like Homeland.
The character is Bryan Mills, and his main super power — if he has one — is forward momentum and the desire to protect people. When most people freeze and clam up and run in the other direction, he goes forward and gets the job done. So it’s brutal. I’ve been throwing myself in front of cars and doing assisted Krav Maga, close combat fighting with stunt men that are far bigger than me. It’s exciting. I can’t wait. It’s going to be on the 27th of February on NBC, Monday night.
RT: I’m really stoked for you. That’s such a great property.
Standen: My time is here, but we are doing 20 episodes of Vikings. I know that they’re only on episode 10 right now. Episode nine, I think. That’s all I can say. There’s nothing, just because I’m doing another show doesn’t mean I’m not on the other show. I just means I might be really, really busy.
RT: It’s better to be really, really busy than not busy enough. That’s so exciting. The movie Patient Zero is also coming out, yes?
Standen: I’ve been so busy with Taken, I literally have been doing 18- to 20-hour shoots on Taken, so I really haven’t had a life other than just taking my kids to school after a night shoot with no strength, then kissing my wife good night. You might know more than me.
RT: What does the next year look like for you?
Standen: I’m excited for people to see Taken, I really am. It’s the first time I’ve had this, I’m in every scene. It’s a standalone leading character, and Bryan Mills is such a great character in the first film with Liam Neeson. I got to meet him, which is kind of iconic for me. I’ve always been a massive fan of Liam Neeson and now I’m kind of stepping in his boots. I’ve put everything I possibly can into to it.
It’s a network show, and it’s got half the budget of some of these big massive epics. But I think we have such a great team and I do all my own stunts, within reason. I mean obviously some of the car chase stuff is just too dangerous for me to get involved in, piling up and spinning cars down the road. But all of the fight scenes and all of the stunts, running, jumping, climbing trees kind of stuff is all me, and I’ve really put everything I possibly can into it. And a lot of the skills I learned growing up — I’ve been an international Muay Thai boxer, and I’ve done lots of stunt work before, so I’ve kind of put it front and center in this job.
And also some of the stuff that I’ve learned through Vikings, about getting the camera on the action, just feeling the pain and actually getting — If the actor is involved in all of the action, you can really connect. You can see the anger, the cowardice, the fear, whatever emotion he’s going through. There has to be a story through the action or otherwise it’s meaningless. And that’s what my problem is with a lot of these big action films, they shoot the back of the stunt man’s head all the way through it and you can’t connect with the character.
I’m very proud to say I’ve done everything myself on this. They have moments where they put the camera right bang in the center of the action, and you can see Bryan Mills, you can feel his pain, you can feel his hurt. Because it is one of those things, he’s a little wrecking ball. I’m really proud, and I can’t wait for people to see it.
I think it might offer something a bit different, even the character himself, I think, is full of heart. He’s not as suave as James Bond. He’s not as tall as Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible, but they’ve all got the wise-cracking lines. They’re all a bit too cool for school, where Bryan is just a normal guy and everyone can relate to him. That’s why I think the film was so successful. He’s just a guy. He’s a dad and his daughter has been kidnapped, and he’ll do everything in his power to get her back, and you’re with him on that journey.
I think that’s what Alex Cary, the writer of the Taken TV show, is so good at. He takes you on a journey every week. You feel like he’s just like you and I. He has a few extra skills up his sleeve. But you feel his pain, you feel emotion and empathy for him because he’s real. He’s not tall and suave. He trips, he falls, he gets back up again. He’s a gentleman, and an honorable and decent person with a good moral compass.
The 2016 holidays are almost upon us, and though the new series offerings have thinned, November still offers a few notable premieres worth a catch-up binge.
What it is: Assistant tennis pro David Meyers (Craig Roberts) tries to figure out his future while working at a suburban New Jersey country club in the mid-1980s.
Why you should watch it: “Bittersweet Red Oaks has more Fast Times than Caddyshack in its DNA,” reads the headline of Erik Adams’ A.V. Club review. And with just one season under its vintage canvas belt, this Amazon Originals comedy should be a breeze to binge if you need to catch up before season 2 begins streaming on Amazon November 11.
Where to watch: Amazon
Commitment: About 8.5 hours once season 2 becomes available
What it is: When Alison (Ruth Wilson) and Noah (Dominic West) meet in Montauk at the end of Long Island, the titular affair ensues, destroying their respective marriages to Cole (Joshua Jackson) and Helen (Maura Tierney). Told from four perspectives, season 2 explores the next phase in their lives.
Why you should watch it: The Showtime drama won a best television drama Golden Globe award for its first season. Wilson won lead actress in a television drama Golden Globe that same year, while Tierney took a supporting performance Golden Globe the following year. The Affair‘s third season premieres November 20.
Commitment: About 20 hours
What it is: The quirky residents of Stars Hollow, Connecticut, color the lives of single mom Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) and her teen daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) in this heartfelt drama that aired from 2000 to 2007.
Why you should watch it: On November 25, Netflix delivers event series Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life that picks up nine years later with Rory a professional journalist, while Lorelai still runs the Dragonfly Inn. The four 90-minute movies will feature many of the same faces from the original seven-season series, including Kelly Bishop, Scott Patterson, Melissa McCarthy, Jared Padalecki, and more.
Commitment: About 111 hours. That’s over four and a half days of uninterrupted binging — good luck! Try not to clot. (For the record, we do not actually recommend that you watch TV for four days straight.)
What it is: Nearly four full seasons of medieval Nordic muscle slashing and burning across the region and into England and France. Vikings provides an adventurous fictional account of the political and theological development and influence of the northern European pirates.
Why you should watch it: In the season 4 midseason finale in April, Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) growls a challenge: “Who wants to be king!?” Finding out how he got there is a binge worthy of Valhalla! (If Valhalla has a widescreen and considers TV-marathoning an acceptable pastime.) Season 4 returns with three final episodes, starting November 30 on History.
Commitment: About 28.75 hours
What it is: In this bonus binge-watching option, the Peanuts gang learns about Thanksgiving in the Holiday favorite A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973) and, separately, about the first English settlers of the New World in the Mayflower episode of eight-part TV miniseries This Is America, Charlie Brown.
Why you should watch it: A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is scheduled to air at 8 p.m. ET November 23 on ABC, but you can also find it online. The 1973 Charles M. Schulz special won an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children’s Programming. “The Mayflower Voyagers” tells the story of the first pilgrims to America and how the natives saved their hides.
Commitment: Under 2 hours if you watch only A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and “The Mayflower Voyagers” episode. About 4.5 hours if you decide to watch the Thanksgiving special and all eight episodes of This Is America, Charlie Brown, which also includes “The Birth of the Constitution,” “The Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk,” “The Building of the Transcontinental Railroad,” and more.