'Vikings' Star on Beloved Character's Heartbreaking Death: Why It's Not 'Goodbye' Yet (Exclusive)
By Jennifer Drysdale
WARNING: Spoilers ahead! Do not proceed if you haven't seen Season 6, episode 6 of Vikings, "Death and the Serpent."
The Seer's prophecy was fulfilled on Wednesday night's heartbreaking episode of Vikings.
Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) met her end -- and the gods -- at the hands of Ragnar's son, Hvitserk (Marco Ilsø), in a violent, devastating match after the wounded shield-maiden had just saved her community in a battle against the bandits.
The episode, titled "Death and the Serpent," marks the end of an era for Vikings; Winnick was the last remaining original cast member on the show. The Canadian actress thus saw her time as Lagertha coming to a close, and as Vikings creator Michael Hirst tells ET, he wanted to give her an "incredible" send-off.
"She owns that storyline," Hirst says of Lagertha's journey this season, in which she returned to her farming roots and tried to put her life of struggle behind her. "Almost for the first time, she's not involved in someone else's storyline, where she's the wife of Ragnar, or she's the mother of Bjorn. This is her storyline, and her last fight with the leader of the bandits is one of the most powerful fights I've ever seen on TV. I mean, it's incredible."
"Her death is a huge tragedy. I even cried when I was writing it, for Pete's sake. But I wanted it elevated as well," he explains. That "elevated" component came in the form of a Polish singing group he brought in to sing Lagertha goodbye.
"They came to the studio. They were singing in this ancient language no one understood and it was just the crew and the cameras and a few actors. I didn't tell them what was happening. They didn't really know what the song was about, but by the time the song was over, everybody in the building was crying. Me and the camera crew and the crew, everybody was weeping, and that's the music you'll hear when you see the death of Lagertha," Hirst continues.
"It is heartbreaking. It is astonishing, and I think it does huge justice to what Katheryn has given to this show, and I'm so pleased that it's made her a star. I mean, she deserves everything," he declares.
Winnick feels that same affection for Hirst -- and for the character she's spent so long embodying.
"I don't know if I've actually said goodbye to her," she confesses. "I'm still looking at her shield and sword right now in my living room, so she's definitely a big part of my life right now."
In an emotional conversation with ET, Winnick opens up about the years she's spent playing Lagertha, her intense last day of filming, and shares a message to the fans who have been so inspired by her work and the character.
ET: You've played Lagertha for so long -- how did you prepare for her to no longer be a part of your life?
Katheryn Winnick: It was a long time coming. I think I'm the only cast member from day one that's been there for that long, and it was nice to say goodbye to a character that's so dear to my heart and finally close that chapter. As hard as it was emotionally, it also felt the timing was right. I felt definitely fulfilled as an actor and I felt I pushed her storyline as far as I can possibly take her. She is, after all, a granny at this point. And I definitely feel I've been put under the ringer and so many circumstances throughout six seasons that it felt it was a good time to say goodbye to such an iconic character.
When did you find out when -- and how -- Lagertha was going to die? What was that conversation like?
I have a very strong and close relationship with Michael Hirst. It was always a conversation together of when we're going to let go of Lagertha, and I originally didn't think I was going to stay on for as many years as I did. I've been lucky enough and blessed enough to have such loyal fans that they didn't want to let me go or let Lagertha go, but after six seasons, I felt that it was the right time.
I told Michael Hirst, as long he'd give me a really epic death, something that people won't forget, I would be happy to be able to say goodbye to her. As hard as it was, and also it was important that we say goodbye to Lagertha in the right way and proper way, and I feel that Michael Hirst has done that with her death and her funeral and also getting a chance to get behind the camera and direct for the first time. That was my way of really saying goodbye as well.
Michael spoke a lot about bidding farewell to Lagertha with that beautiful song.
I do remember the song very well. Michael sent it to me and played it first at a dinner, and then he came on set, he was there on set on the day of my death as well, and he played it for me again. I was so overwhelmed to have a song made and named after Lagertha. It was so moving and so powerful, and to have that on set and hear it before my death, it was just -- overwhelming. And I actually remember that day really well, shooting and chronologically. Usually, we don't shoot things in order, but it happened to be my very last day shooting as well as Lagertha, it happened to be my death.
Lagertha's last scene alive is incredibly violent -- what was it like filming that day?
It was a freezing cold day. It was below zero temperatures. We had a rain machine. We were soaking wet, all on the ground crawling. It was physically extremely demanding, and to be able to try to stop your body from shaking because of the cold [is difficult] and obviously it's a very emotional scene, and very powerful. We had a medic on set too, because I remember having to go in and out of the hot box. They created a little hot box to keep us warm and go in and out of the rain. We were trying to prevent our body from going into shock, just because physically, to have your body go through such hypothermia and extreme conditions was tough.
So, I'm not sure if I really let go. I don't feel like -- at the end of it, after Lagertha got killed, I just wanted to get warm, so I left quickly. It wasn't as much of a goodbye as I would have imagined. But for me, the real goodbye was coming back after my death and seeing the funeral and coming back to really direct. That was my way of giving back to the seven years I was on the show.
You've been with Lagertha through so much, from overcoming domestic abuse to losing a child -- is there a moment in her storyline that has stuck out to you?
Most people don't have the opportunity even once in their lifetime to have such a role like I got with Lagertha. The priviledge to play her for almsot seven years, and that's such blessing. Most people get maybe one chance to be able to get that. I've had the opportunity to dive into such an iconic, moral character that people look up to and make tattoos from her and dress up like her on Halloween and name their cats and dogs after Lagertha. So anyway, it's just been overwhelming but amazing to see.
And I don't think -- to answer your question, I don't think it's really one particular scene. She's gone from being a farmer to shield-maiden to dealing with domestic violence. She's dealt with having to kill a few husbands or wannabe husbands. She's made her own way and really stuck to what she believes in that I feel that it's hard to sum her up in just a few moments. ... But all those moments make her who she is, really. If it's losing a baby or if it's divorcing her husband, or becoming a queen or now retiring or believing in the fates of the gods and accepting her death, there's -- she's just such a tycoon and such an iconic character. I don't know if I've actually said goodbye to her. I'm still looking at her shield and sword right now in my living room, so she's definitely a big part of my life right now.
Lagertha's death is going to be hard for those viewers you've mentioned that have grown so attached to her and were so inspired by her. Do you have a message for those fans?
Oh, now you're going to make me cry [voice cracks]. It's hard to say. I hope that Lagertha lives on for many years to come and on our TVs and people rewatch and she's an inspiration to all the young girls out there from around the world. The most gratifying thing I have as an actor is when I've had the pleasure to travel to India and the Philippines, and Spain and all around the world, and to have fans from these remote, tiny villages that watch Vikings on their iPhone, without necessarily having running water, and to hear how Lagertha has been an inspiration for them. Whether it's finding their own strength internally or leaving an abusive relationship or really getting the equality they deserve in the workforce as powerful women -- it's just been remarkable how Lagertha has touched so many people around the world, and I hope she continues to do so.
The Vikings spinoff, Vikings: Valhalla, has been picked up by Netflix -- and Michael Hirst has spoken about possibly incorporating some Vikings characters into the show in some way. Any chance fans could see you make a cameo or come back for that series in any way?
I'm a huge fan of Michael Hirst, and I always will be. I consider him family and we've been in touch since [Vikings], and of course, I would love to work with him in one form or another. It doesn't have to be as an actor, it could be as a director or just have him in my life, even as a mentor, he's family to me, and I'm excited for Valhalla to get on Netflix and to live on. It obviously won't be the same original castmembers as Vikings, but I'm glad that there's such a need for it, and there's going to be another spinoff.
Vikings airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on History. Winnick will direct season 6, episode 8, "Valhalla Can Wait," airing on Jan. 22. Circle back to ETonline for more on her directorial debut.