History’s Vikings is no stranger to shakeups of the status quo, dispatching main characters and jumping through time as befits a historical saga. Still, last night’s “All His Angels” wrought one of, if not the most shocking death of the series, even as stars and producers explain they’d originally sought to depict it in Season 1.

You’re warned of major, major Vikings spoilers from here on out, but if you’d thought Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar would forever escape the air of death that permeates the series, Season 4 showstopper “All His Angels” offered quite a shock. Not only did Ragnar’s time among the living come to an end (for real), but it did so in the same historically-reported fashion of King Ælla condemning him to a pit of snakes.

Killing off a four-season lead for any series is no small task (producers say they’ve shot 25 episodes since), though it seems creator Michael Hirst originally had in mind to kill off Ragnar way back in Season 1 (via IGN):

When I first wrote the [TV series] bible, this was all happening at the end of Season 1. [laughs] When Travis [Fimmel] first joined the show, which was fairly close to when we started shooting, all he got were the first two scripts and the initial bible that told him he would die at the end of episode 10. Obviously, as soon as we got into the show and I saw what we had and what the actors brought, that all changed and opened up. But I was going to stick as closely as I could to the historical record, however harsh that historical record was at times, because it was important to me to be grounded in reality.

“Grounded in reality” is a curious phrase for a series that often trades in visions and prophecies, though the occasional return of deceased characters may not extend to Ragnar himself. In separate interviews with The Hollywood Reporter, Fimmel and Hirst seemed to differ on whether the character might resurface in any supernatural manner:

Fimmel: Yeah, no, no, I’m not returning. It sort of doesn’t make sense. My character is an atheist so I’m not going to be coming up in any ghost, religious ghostly images or anything. I think you have to be very religious for people to have that belief in you.

Hirst: But because he’s such a powerful presence in people’s lives he could reappear in dreams, in visions… I don’t think that any of my major characters… I started with — Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard), Ragnar and Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) and Rollo (Clive Standen)… none of them will ever actually go away or disappear from the saga.

Several episodes remain in Season 4 (to say nothing of an already-ordered Season 5 well into production), but can Vikings truly reinvent itself without Travis Fimmel at the center? Watch highlights from “All His Angels” below, and stay tuned for more on the back half of Season 4, and beyond.

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