Katheryn Winnick and Michael Hirst interview: Lagertha’s last moments on Vikings

Lagertha and Shield Maidens
Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) drinks some mead in Season 6. Pic credit: History

The following is an interview and look back at Lagertha’s  Season 6 arc.  

**Warning, spoilers ahead for those not caught up. **

Lagertha Lothbrok’s funeral in last night’s episode of Vikings was the incredible spectacle you hoped for — complete with bloody sacrifices, a blazing boat on a frozen lake, and Bjorn returning in time to say his farewell.

It was full of heartbreaking and touching moments, like Torvi discovering that Hali died and then wanting to sacrifice herself to guide Lagertha to Valhalla. And who couldn’t be moved by seeing Asa repeatedly comforting her mother and running out on the frozen lake to see through the ice that Lagertha was accompanied by valkyries and reunited with Ragnar.

The most famous shieldmaiden was a warrior who stood shoulder to shoulder with other brave souls in battle. She was an Earl of her own land, a mother of two, and a lover to many. She murdered Queen Aslaug and obtained the crown under questionable circumstances, which drew the ire of Ragnar’s other sons.

Through it all, she grew a massive fan following, and writer/producer Michael Hirst had to orchestrate a fitting end because she could not defy mortality. All stories based in history eventually end in death.

However, legends transcend those limitations. In fact, the series might have propelled Ragnar’s popularity along with others.

Lagertha too is an inspiration and will continue to drive discussion in this golden age of television. Lagertha may have only been just one of the complex and beautifully flawed characters in Hirst’s Vikings drama, but she is arguably the most important one. She helped establish the narrative that a drama about Vikings would be about more than just long beards and battle scenes.

We would see how valued and equal the women were in this society. Women could not only obtain power but use it and in the Viking world, when you gain fame, you are not permitted to go down quietly.

Monsters & Critics spoke with Michael Hirst and Katheryn Winnick on separate occasions about Lagertha, her Season 6 arc, and her final on-screen moments.

M&C: Michael, you gave Katheryn some signature moments this season — like her bonding with the older shieldmaidens as they reminisce about old times. Then there was Lagertha symbolically digging a grave for her sword and shield and stepping into it. Could you talk about those two moments? 

Michael Hirst: I wanted to give Katheryn a story that she owned. Lagertha’s so often in armies, in the middle of Ragnar’s sons fighting and involved in other people’s business a lot. I wanted her to have her own story, so I thought to just ease her away from what would otherwise be the main action early on. 

And why wouldn’t she think about retiring? God, this woman had been through so much in terms of her private life, and the battles she’s  fought and nearly  died in. She deserves to never have to fight again! 

On the other side, being the most famous shieldmaiden in the Viking world means you can’t become unhistoric. You cannot disappear, no one going to let you. It’s not celebrity — she’s famous because she’s done important, significant things. Reminiscing with other Viking women just reinforces that but they look up to her. If there was any trouble, they would turn to her. 

Lagertha and Shield Maidens
Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) and Gunnhild (Ragga Ragnars) bond with older shield maidens. Pic credit: History

She represents someone really significant in all of their lives, especially in that they have this female warrior who is just as capable as any male warrior and can defend them just as well. This puts a huge burden on her because she realizes the trust and belief these women have in her.

No sooner when she buries her sword and plants some vegetables, that she has to dig it back up. There is a suggestion about the grave there too. She has this final battle caused by her son’s bad decisions to let all these bandits go. After episodes 606 and 607, if you have tears to weep, be prepared to weep them. 

M&C: I know the record books are up in the air on Lagertha but you’ve created one of the best women in television. But it’s been a long journey with Katheryn and Lagertha.

Hirst: I’ve always spent a long time thinking about Lagertha. One reason is that when we took the show to History, it’s a male-skewed channel. I knew that they bought it mainly because it would appeal to their male viewers, there would be raiding, killing, pillage, and battles but I was interested in other things as well. I’d read how important women were in Viking society. They could rule, fight, and divorce their husbands. So I was determined to have at least one very, very influential central female character. 

When we were first casting, they sent young models to us. It was like, these women are great, they’re pretty and everything, but they don’t look like they have fought in a shield wall. They haven’t killed tons of guys or had two children. So we needed someone persuasive. Katheryn was a good choice because of her black belt in Tae-Kwon-Do because anytime she had to do something physical it would be plausible and believable. 

We established in the first episodes that she was a good fighter, but then I gave her this storyline when she separated from Ragnar, then got into an abusive relationship. Katheryn had such issue with it. She said, “Look, I just proved myself to be a great fighter, (Lagertha is a) strong woman, I got a small fan club and I look weak falling for this man.”

I told her, “Katheryn, a lot of strong women – today – are married to abusive men. That’s a truth and I want to put you into situations that other women will identify with today. It’s about how you deal with these situations, and in fact, I want to put you in a lot of problematic areas because I want to see how you get out of them and I want to see how you shape your life and  your destiny.” 

Katheryn and I would discuss whatever our next plans for her (each season). I was extremely keen that she delivered, which she did in spades. I was so thrilled when Lagertha and Ragnar were not far apart in popularity. The History Channel suddenly had themselves a female audience. 

How long did you work on Lagertha’s Season 6 arc, because not only did you get to establish this great woman but you had the ability to define her final story?

Hirst: I spent a lot of time thinking about her death and how that would come about. On top of that, I found these Polish singers and they sing in extraordinary in ancient languages — you don’t really know what they’re singing about — but it’s incredibly emotional, just incredibly emotional. They sang at Lagertha’s death and her funeral. The whole crew wept when they heard this. Everybody’s going to weep.

It was a very strong last storyline and I’m glad, really glad, that it worked out that way. It also pays off what the Seer prophesied quite a long time ago but in a surprising way. I think all the storylines are strong this season, in particular, Lagertha’s.

Lagertha’s (Katheryn Winnick) final battle. Pic credit: History

M&C: Katheryn, as I watched you in this episode, all I could think of was, why couldn’t have Lagertha died in the summer time? You had to be freezing!

Katheryn Winnick: [Laughs] I remember coming on set that day and I was preparing for my directorial debut and everyone has Lagertha’s shields and you have this boat with my body lying on it. Believe it or not, that wasn’t me, it’s a dummy prosthetic that looks very much like me. It was surreal to walk in with a close replica of yourself lying there, it was like walking into your own funeral. It was hard for me, even though I died. I say “I died” when I’m talking about Lagertha — that’s how close you are with your character after eight years. [Laughs] 

When your character dies, it was so emotionally hard for me to take, I actually had to leave. Michael Hirst worked with the composers to create a song that was dedicated to Lagertha. It was the most beautiful song I had ever heard in my life. It was so special, and to have it play out on her last moments, it was heart-wrenching. 

Lagertha was sent off in style, in winter, on a lake. It was an epic death, I don’t think we’ve ever had another epic funeral like that ever. I was very happy with how she left and I was happy she had her moment and left Vikings and hopefully live on forever as a legend.

M&C: There has been some incredible funerals (Ragnar, Ecbert, Jarl Borg, and Athelstan to recall just a few). Do you think Lagertha got the best one?

Winnick: That’s hard to say. Michael has done Lagertha justice, by sending her off in style. I couldn’t have asked for a better death. I’m very happy with it. The one thing you say when you’re on a show like Vikings — and we’ve killed off hundreds of actors and dozens of lead actors — it’s important to not just go, it’s important to have an eventful death. Especially someone that is so dear to my heart and has been so dear to so many others’ hearts throughout the years it was important to send her off right and I think he did. I’m happy with that.

M&C: Do you look back wishing Michael had written certain scenes or relationships longer. Perhaps Lagertha’s interactions with King Ecbert for example, or just happier times with Ragnar? 

Winnick: If I’m 100 percent honest, yes. As an actor, you always want more screen time, and you want to be challenged and work with actors that you admire. So it’s a constant conversation to feel creatively satisfied as an actor. You’re battling against a male demographic network or what is perceived to be. 

Also, to be the female lead and feel like you could do more, it’s been a challenge and a journey. Yeah, I would have always loved to have more of course. Every actor would say that, especially on such an iconic character such as Lagertha. 

Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) shoots an arrow in Season 1 of Vikings. Pic credit: History

M&C: What are you’re going to miss the most?

Winnick: Hmm. That’s such a tough question, I don’t think I’ve thought about that yet, but when you are on set, you complain about taking three hours to get into hair, makeup, and wardrobe, going through the process, in the cold weather of a very tough shoot. Looking back I wouldn’t trade it for the world. 

I think all of those elements of being in the freezing cold, wearing real leather, dealing with the braids, and the older age makeup just adds environment to create Vikings and that’s why people respond to it. I just hope that this will be the springboard for more strong female characters on television, more female directors and giving them the opportunity to create. 

M&C: Anything else you’d like to add?

Winnick: I also think it’s important for the studios and TV shows to create an infrastructure to allow other actors to get them behind the camera or in the writers’ rooms to have that opportunity to tell the story behind the lens. I was at this past Golden Globes and not a single female director was nominated, so we still have a long way to go. It’s important that all men and women support each other to help create those opportunities. 

This is not the last contribution that we’ll see from Winnick. As a farewell to fans, she will be making her directorial debut with episode 608, “Valhalla Can Wait,” and we’ll speak to Katheryn about her experience and break down a few of the memorable shots after it airs. 

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