A Viking raider caps off a growled command at his men by driving his ax into the ground. Hard. Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) is as strong as the steel blade — and just as lethal. He's a Norse legend brought to life in Vikings, History's first scripted series. "Ragnar is very ambitious," says Fimmel on set in Ireland, near the famous Powerscourt waterfall. "He starts out as a farmer, but it's not enough for him. He seeks adventure, knowledge and fame."
And to get it, he's gonna need a better boat. Ragnar secretly commissions the creation of a lighter, faster version of the Vikings' shield-studded dragon vessel and becomes the first of his kind to lead raids from Scandinavia to England, daring to sail across the open ocean instead of the usual path up the coast to what is now Russia.
It's with the same confidence and explorer's spirit that History is entering the cable-drama race. After scoring with its 2012 ratings juggernaut Hatfields & McCoys, the channel was looking to expand its slate of original programming and fell in love with this material. (In fact, History has already planned at least three more seasons of Vikings, provided the ratings are strong.)
"No one's ever done anything from the Viking point of view," says executive producer Michael Hirst (Elizabeth, The Tudors). "They are actually a surprising culture, with their legal system and their attitude toward women." In other words, if you're looking for horned-helmet-wearing, raping-and-pillaging barbarians, you won't find them here. "This is the story of a man trying to satisfy his curiosity and survive within a society," explains Hirst. "To do that, he has to challenge the most powerful man in his area of Scandinavia."
That man is Earl Haraldson (In Treatment's Gabriel Byrne), the aging local chieftain who scoffs at Ragnar's ambitious plans. "The Earl sees Ragnar as a threat," Byrne says. "He's a great warrior whose power is on the wane. His sons have been murdered, and he's haunted by their deaths."
His lack of male heirs exposes him and his seductive wife, Siggy (Glee's Jessalyn Gilsig), to a power grab. "As the story unfolds," teases Gilsig, "you see they are right to be afraid."
Fear, however, is not in the Old Norse vocabulary of Ragnar's sexy wife, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick). "She's a shield maiden; she goes on raids," says Winnick, a trained martial-arts champion who performs most of her own battle scenes. "But she's a mother first. And she'll do anything to protect her children."
The Vikings' commitment to family and faith is on display during the next day's shoot. Crew members wear rain gear to ward off the Irish drizzle as they follow Ragnar and his 12-year-old boy, Bjorn (Nathan O'Toole), through the thick, dark forest. Father and son are on a pilgrimage to see Odin, the god of battle and wisdom. "He wants to teach his son and make him proud," says Fimmel. But not all of his men are so honorable. "There is betrayal," he says.
Even Ragnar's older brother Rollo (Clive Standen), a fierce fighter hoping to ensure his place in Valhalla, the Viking afterlife, is unpredictable. "Ragnar's the thinker, but Rollo's a bit of a sociopath — he wants to be admired, but his brother's getting the recognition," says Standen, who is still reeling from a recent brutal fight scene. "I got smacked by a stuntman's shield. There are moments when you can see your life flash before your eyes and you think, 'I'm just going to be playing characters with scars down my face for the rest of my career.'"
Sometimes ideas are even deadlier than weapons: Ragnar's brilliant boat builder Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård), who is based on the Norse god Loki, has a mind for making trouble. "He's a trickster who sparks a dangerous chain of events," says Skarsgård. (Fun fact: The two boats that were built specifically for the series are 56 feet long and weigh two and a half tons each.)
Thanks to the massive production and complex story, the pressure is definitely on. "We wanted to make feature-film quality and put it into primetime," says executive producer Morgan O'Sullivan. And there is no channel the producers would rather be working with. "I feel blessed," says Hirst. "I couldn't think of a better home for this series." If all that doesn't lure viewers in, maybe the sex will. "It's a sexy show," promises Winnick. "There's warfare. There's blood. And there's lovemaking. It's fantastic!"
Vikings premieres Sunday, March 3 at 10/9c on History.