ASHFORD, Ireland — “Vikings,” History’s brooding and brutal drama about the eighth-century Nordic warrior Ragnar Lothbrok, is growing up quickly.
After a six-month shoot in Ireland, season two debuts Thursday night (Feb. 27) sporting a bigger-scale, more confident pace and stronger entertainment than last year’s uneven, at-times plodding inaugural run.
The opening scene pits Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) against rebellious brother Rollo (Clive Standen) in a spear-and-ax spatterfest involving more than 300 stuntmen and extras filmed in an abandoned Irish quarry transformed into an apocalyptic moonscape. It’s striking stuff accomplished with choreography and muscle, not CGI.
Later episodes feature a four-year jump forward in plotline, a dizzying expansion of Ragnar’s family and military challenges, and a potential alliance with the calculating ruler of southern England, King Ecbert of Wessex (new cast member Linus Roache).
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Ragnar’s boy Bjorn isn’t staying a kid for long. After the opening episode, he sprouts into Alexander Ludwig (Cato in “The Hunger Games”), who at 6-foot-3 is more than able to look his burly, braided-mohawk father in the eye.
Michael Hirst, the creator, writer and showrunner for the series, openly hopes to keep “Vikings” plundering the airwaves long after Ragnar meets his death, as history — if not History — says he must.
While Hirst is keen to avoid plot spoilers, the fact is he’s dramatizing the central warrior legend of the Nordic Dark Ages, so the bare bones of the plot are already there on Wikipedia. And that record shows Bjorn Ironsides, as Ludwig’s character is to become, lived an even larger life than his father, exploring and plundering all the way to Italy.
“We’re jumping forward in time so that Ragnar’s sons can get up and running. I want to follow what happens to his sons, because they had extraordinary histories too,” said Hirst, who has become a specialist in dramatizing history with the film “Elizabeth” and his first Ireland-filmed TV series, “The Tudors.”
So how far does Hirst think he can sail his Viking longboat?
“The Viking period basically lasted for 400 years, before the last country in Scandinavia was Christianized. So we’ve got another 300 and some years to go. I don’t really want to stop the story until they find America!”
And the introduction of King Ecbert, a founding father of England, as a major new character suggests “Vikings” will delve more deeply into early English history too.
“I wasn’t interested in history as a kid. I wish people like Michael were around when I was a kid, to make history come alive,” said Roache, a veteran English actor probably best known to American audiences as Assistant District Attorney Michael Cutter on the last three seasons of “Law & Order.”
For 21-year-old Ludwig, the bonding with star Fimmel, an earthy-spoken Aussie, has been easy — and mutually crude.
“Travis and I are really tight. It’s like one big prank war when you get on the set. You’ve just got to watch out,” Ludwig said.
Ludwig already learned diving, rolling and swordplay for “The Hunger Games,” and got buffed up for his recent turn as a doomed Navy SEAL in Mark Wahlberg’s “Lone Survivor.”
When he had to film a fight-training scene with Standen — a 6-foot-2 expert swordsman himself, dating to his teenage years as a Robin Hood performer in a Sherwood Forest show — neither wanted to hold back.
Ludwig said he ended up getting thrown shirtless into frigid water and on to sharp rocks, repeatedly. “By the end of filming, I was freezing, I had cuts all over my back — but the scene looks incredible.”
While the first season got broadly positive reviews, it won little industry recognition, even for costume designer Joan Bergin’s widely praised custom outfits for each character. She did win an Emmy for “The Tudors.”
The lack of Emmy recognition, Hirst said, “was ridiculous.”
“We’re out here in Ireland, to some extent a disadvantage, because we don’t bump into all these guys on Hollywood Boulevard who are voting with their pals,” he said. “But this is a big show and pretty soon, no one is going to be able to ignore it.”