SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Hell,” the Dec. 26 episode of “Vikings.”
When leading man Travis Fimmel exited the fourth season of History’s “Vikings,” his character, Ragnar Lothbrok, left behind five distinct sons who were ready to carry on his legacy, while the series also announced the addition of Jonathan Rhys Meyers (“The Tudors”) as the passionate bishop warrior Heahmund.
The latter character, who was written by series creator Michael Hirst with Meyers in mind, made a quick impression with viewers. From his introduction as a Vikings adversary, to his alliance with Ivar (Alex Hogh Andersen) in taking over Kattegat, to his falling in love with Vikings queen Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) and bringing her back to Wessex, his journey impacted many of the show’s existing characters.
That made Heahmund’s unexpected demise in battle on Wednesday’s “Hell” episode of the series seem all the more sudden. In the scenes leading up to his death on the battlefield, the bishop’s alliance with newly minted King Alfred (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) was featured prominently, while Heahmund’s visions of hell and dying led to him renounce his love for Lagertha in a bid to cleanse his soul of sin.
“He went into battle almost wanting to die, cleansed…and yet…I don’t know if you caught it, but his last words are that he loves Lagertha,” says showrunner Michael Hirst. “So in fact he damns himself in the end. That was rather nice for me because it reminds us that love is the most important thing.”
Adds Meyers: “Heahmund is only a footnote in history [so] there was no precedent to have his character continue. The nature of the character and his intensity means that he is much like a Roman candle: it must shine bright, have its effect and leave. The death scene was filmed in the snow and bitter cold in a rather enclosed field, and of course these scenes must be very intense and quite mechanical to shoot as we are dealing with arrows, but it does have a fluidity in its manifestation of the circumstances and consequences of his death and what it means for Lagertha.”
Here, Hirst breaks down the trajectory of the warrior bishop, what his death means for Christianity on the series going forward, and how Lagertha will deal with this latest blow in her life in the weeks to come.
At what point did you realize Heahmund wasn’t destined to live long in this “Vikings” universe?
Heahmund is such an extreme character that he had to die and he had to die heroically in battle. He’s the kind of character who is simply not interested in survival. He has an extraordinary presence and even thinking slightly of characters like Richard the Lionheart, who also could never have died in his bed, warriors of that ilk and passion are so extreme that they would have to burn themselves out on the battlefield. It is like this rocket that goes up and is brilliant and illuminates everything for a while, but then has to die out, and returns quickly into the darkness. Jonny was perfect for that role, absolutely perfect. Of course I’d worked with him before [on “The Tudors”] and I knew the passion and charisma that he’d bring to the role. But I also knew right from the start that it wouldn’t necessarily be a protracted role. Everyone is playing politics around him, everyone is maneuvering. Everyone. The Vikings are doing it, as well as the Saxons. There’s a lot of politics in the show, there are a lot of conspiracies, and Heahmund is not a man who does that. As soon as he found out that he’d been betrayed by an old colleague and his position had been taken away, he just murdered the guy without necessarily thinking about the consequences. He’s not someone who follows an ordinary human path. He doesn’t care as we would about dying. So I knew from the start he would have to have a glorious death. It’s another amazing battle sequence and the way it was cut together and the way that Alfred talks about the battle on the back of the wagon before we even know that Heahmund was killed was really spellbinding. I was thrilled with the episode.
Did the response of season five’s midseason finale battle inspire you to play with that battle format further in this episode?
No, it wasn’t until director Steve Saint Leger came on board that we started to discuss how to shoot the battle and how we might actually do the death of this huge character. I’d always had those visions of Hell in mind. We know Heahmund is a Christian warrior. He has lots of faults, but he’s a deeply faithful and believing man. He’s been living in sin and ultimately that catches him out and he has these visions of living in hell. I based the scenes of hell on the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and we shot a lot more sequences that were so horrifying and frightening that we didn’t keep most of them. We thought less was more in the end, so we pulled back from the visions of hell that poor Heahmund suffered.
So the actual way it was put together, the cut of it, was Steve who said we could bring the end of the battle forward and have Alfred teasing what has happened before revealing it. When Alfred starts to talk you think the Saxons have lost. But then you realize they’ve won this huge victory, they’ve defeated the Vikings, but they lost this great Christian warrior. Alfred’s speech on the back of that wagon was his coming of age. I was finally and completely convinced that this young man, someone who could become Alfred the Great, was someone who had the potential to deserve that title. So I was thrilled with the way it was shot. I’m always delighted when a director comes in with an idea that just transcends what’s on the page and puts things in a slightly different order and brings a different dramatic emphasis. That’s what happened here, it was absolutely triumphant. It’s a great battle sequence but it’s made better by being framed by Alfred’s speech.
Why did you decide to not show the person or people who ultimately killed Heahmund in battle?
Because it doesn’t matter — Heahmund was bound to die in battle and he would have sooner or later died in battle. Who killed him wasn’t particularly important, what was important was the resolution of his relationship with Lagertha and his death, his removal from the political scene. For example, Richard I, whom I was thinking about in relation to him, he wasn’t killed by anyone important. When he went on the Crusades and had face-offs with Saladin himself, he could have been killed by an important knight or someone. But Richard I was actually killed later, after the crusades while he was besieging a castle in France for no particular reason, just because. It was a small town and he was besieging it because that was his nature, to go to war and fight. And he was actually killed by a young boy archer. Just a nobody, just a young boy who killed the greatest knight in the world. Sometimes great people are brought down by nobodies. Admiral Horatio Nelson was shot at the end of the Battle of Trafalgar by a young, French marksman. Just another nobody. John Lennon was shot by Mark Chapman, a nobody. You don’t have to have great, significant people kill your characters, you just have to make the point that people are destined for death. There was no way that Heahmund could avoid his own death because he plunged into battle too readily. In some ways he was seeking his own death and it didn’t matter who killed him. It was never a plotline, it was never a storyline. The plotline was that he died effectively, I suppose. He helped win the battle, and that was the way it had to be.
Was this episode always going to be Heahmund’s endpoint or was that open-ended?
I figured that part out when I was writing the last few episodes of the season. At the beginning I didn’t have a particular idea. I knew there would be a big battle, probably halfway through 5B, and that there would have to be a significant death. But for a while I didn’t know. It became clearer to me as I got to writing that episode that it had to be Heahmund because I honestly didn’t know where I could take that character afterwards. His storyline with Lagertha was over, he’d renounced her for his faith. In a way, he had death written on his forehead.
Where does this leave Alfred and the uprising?
Religion and the concept between Christianity and paganism is something that has always been central to the show and is something I care hugely about. We had an unlikely alliance between pagans and Christians helping Alfred defeat the Viking army, but that doesn’t mean that the conflict, the spiritual and religious conflicts, go away. They never go away. Different people behave differently and respond differently to some of these actions. Ubbe [Jordan Patrick Smith] decides to try and cement the relationship with Alfred by submitting to Christianity, while Bjorn [Alexander Ludwig] refuses. So that leads to different storylines, that leads to different consequences. But it’s always a living issue to these people. We often forget that religion was not something tacked onto their lives, it’s not an adornment or something they do on a Sunday or occasionally think about. This is bred in their bone. This is the way they think about their lives. Christians, as much as pagans, were fundamental in their belief. Alfred’s Christianity meant everything. To Christians, if you captured a Viking in battle and baptized him in the river, that wasn’t just symbolic. That was real. A Christian would believe the act of baptism, with all its rituals, had actually changed the heart of this person they were baptizing. That they would no longer be pagan, that they would be welcomed and embraced by the Christian religion. It’s sometimes difficult for us to think that because we’re so cynical about these things now. I couldn’t have written the show without that religious and spiritual part of it.
By the end of the episode Lagertha has disappeared. What kind of state is she in, having lost Heahmund, and how does this bode for her well-being in the future?
I have yet to find the place where Lagertha bottoms out, where it’s too much for her. She is really hurt in many ways at the end of the episode. Physically she’s hurt, emotionally she’s hurting… she’s hurting in every conceivable way. But she’s so tough that you know how deep the hurt is. You know the pain that she’s in and she does disappear. It’s a question about whether she can cope with that amount of pain when you feel like she’s been through everything already and here she is having an even worse burden to carry. But Lagertha is Lagertha. She’s something else. We’re used to talking about men who are indestructible, they’re so tough they can survive almost anything, and we have a woman who is like that. She doesn’t hide her emotional vulnerability, she doesn’t pretend that she’s not feeling things or that she’s not hurt. She’s someone who talks about that openly. But she’s still incredibly tough.
I can’t tell you the number of messages I get — I’m not on social media but people send me these messages — saying, “Please don’t kill Lagertha, please don’t let Lagertha die.” She’s emblematic of the show now. She represents something very important, especially in today’s media and the portrayal of women. Most thrillers are about young women being killed in some unpleasant way and that’s what we’ve had to get used to. Lagertha is a counter to that and I’m extremely proud that Katherine and I have devised a character that is most definitely a woman, but is also a woman who fights her corner and is a wonderful, wonderful survivor. I couldn’t be happier to talk about Lagertha and her possibility for survival under the most extreme conditions. But we’ll have to see because she’s in a bad place at the end of that episode.
“Vikings” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on History.