- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 26, 2014

ASHFORD, Ireland (AP) - “Vikings,” History’s brooding and brutal drama about the 8th-century Nordic warrior Ragnar Lothbrok, is growing up quickly.

After a six-month shoot in Ireland, season two debuts Thursday night 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-axe 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). Joining Ragnar in his raiding party is former monk and slave Athelstan (George Blagden), who has sheathed his Christian piety in favor of a pagan sword and bow.

Ragnar’s boy Bjorn isn’t staying a grumpy kid for long, either. After the opening episode, he sprouts into Alexander Ludwig (Cato in “The Hunger Games”), who at 6-foot-3 of muscle is more than able to look his burly, braided-mohawk father in the eye. Ragnar rapid-fire fathers four more boys to join the power family, including Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Ivan the Boneless.

Who’s the mother? That’s an awkward one. Out is shield maiden Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) and in is princess Auslaug (Alyssa Sutherland). Lagertha and Bjorn aren’t happy with the adulterous Ragnar - particularly not after he suggests polygamy as a solution - but with so many enemies at home and abroad, they still fight on the same side, with Winnick able to kick any man’s ass if her orders aren’t respected.

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. He, like all the actors slated to survive season two, is already under contract for a third.

“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.”

Roache’s Ecbert is a calculating strategist, as becomes quickly obvious in his first face-to-face meeting with Ragnar in the king’s sauna.

“Michael puts Ragnar and Ecbert together in a bath, for a scene of two men weighing each other up,” Roache said. “But the two don’t see each other again until the battlefield. There’s quite a conflict coming at season’s end.”

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