WARNING: Spoilers to Season 5 abound!
The Queen thinks the number of dead is just right.
Katheryn Winnick, Canadian and 5’6”, who plays the ruling Queen Lagertha on History Channel’s Vikings cuts a towering, imposing figure on the show than her diminutive frame would suggest.
We’re talking about the mid-season finale and how, throughout season 5, the Viking Civil War has thrashed and scorched through Norway, its bloody style of political upheaval coming to a head with a great battle and the subsequent deaths, some ceremonious and some quite blasé, of some of the major recurring characters.
“I think it’s great that we kill off some of our leading actors because that’s reality. You’re a Viking!” declared Winnick at the recently concluded History Con at the World Trade Center in Pasay City.
Vikings, created and mainly written by visionary Michael Hirst (who was also the brains behind other historical series The Tudors and The Borgias), is already such a juggernaut in pop culture entertainment that fans have talked about it in the same breath as Game of Thrones.
Praised for its accuracy (such as it is, since the actual Vikings had precious few in historical documents) and its multi-layered, multi-dimensional depiction of the vicious Northmen who pillaged and raided their way through Europe and the Mediterranean, Vikings was built around the powerful on-screen charisma of Travis Fimmel who played Ragnar Lothbrook, who dreamed of a unified kingdom that would push for exploration and expand the icy world of his brethren into more fertile lands.
I say “played” because, after 4-and-a-half seasons of mayhem and praxis seizures, the showrunners did something unprecedented: they killed Ragnar.
Season 5 has been the ensemble cast dealing with the power vacuum of this fallout, how the Sons of Ragnar (classic away magkapatid) have been fighting over the spoils of the kingdom, what to do with the increasingly dissolute Great Heathen Army, and about how Lagertha (the erstwhile wife of the king) has been thrust into the limelight to deal with power struggles and territorial disputes.
That’s why Winnick discussed the mid-season finale of season 5 titled “Moments of Vision,” and the culmination of many of the storylines left hanging in the lead-up to the return of the show.
“The reality is the average lifespan of a Viking during that time was no more than 40 [years old],” she said, on the the violence that would often accompany Viking deaths. “So we’re really pushing the limits with our cast. But it keeps the story interesting and when there’s a death it means you care about these characters, to a viewer it means you’re really invested. You want to root for them not to die.”
A very interesting dynamic in that last episode was between Lagertha and the English warrior Bishop Heahmund (pronounced Heck-mond) played by Jonathan Rhys Meyer. Both seem to derive a deep kind of intellectual and sensual joy from each other that came to a head prior to the battle, where intimacy blossomed between heathen and Christian.
Winnick thinks this is a great platform for Lagertha’s character to grow seen through the weight of command and also how the Vikings took their pleasures when they could, not only because their morals were different but also because they needed to take their leisure where and when they could.
“With Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s character in the mix she needed to find a match that she’d be intellectually stimulated by and I think Bishop Heahmund is that counterpoint. It’ll be exciting to see that one play out and you’ll definitely see Lagertha in a different light this time.”
One of the biggest deaths in that episode was that of Astrid, erstwhile lover (yes, a girl) to Lagertha and her bodyguard, who through design or fate got captured by the other camp and then married off to its king.
Astrid and Lagertha met on the battlefield and enjoyed a brief respite from the carnage with a plea from the former to kill her. She offered no resistance when Lagertha stabbed her through the torso and Josefin Asplund, who plays Astrid, and Winnick made the best of the moment, full of violence and profound warmth. Lagertha offered up her lover’s spirit to Freya before she retreated from the field.
“It’s great that there’s a deep connection and emotion when they pass away or go to Valhalla,” said Winnick. “It means the writers are doing something right. The stakes are more real.”
In the end, Lagertha’s blonde locks go white-haired. For someone we’ve seen on the show beating people with a severed human head, this physical effect of Astrid’s death drives home the point that the Vikings weren’t all just battle-crazed berserkers.
Up close, Winnick’s blue eyes are piercing and full of confident intelligence. The actress herself is a career martial artist who owns and runs a few traditional striking schools like the Win Kai Self-Defence Academy, and earned her black belts in Tae Kwon Do and Karate early—one of them at age 13.
In her early days in showbusiness Winnick trained actresses on movie sets, with a minor film role here and there (hello, Love and Other Drugs) but it was her portrayal of Lagertha that won her a place in the spotlight, with critics dubbing her character a “feminist role model” on TV and earning her plums and nominations, including Canada’s Golden Maple Award nomination for Best Actress in a TV Series.
“I feel that my background as a martial artists gave me the determination and the work ethic to be able to hold my own in such strong shooting conditions [and weather] in Ireland,” she said. “That strong sense of confidence and will from being trained [in karate and TKD] at an early age is what I took from Katheryn and channeled into Lagertha.”
Exciting things are expected when the show returns in November this year and even showrunner Michael Hirst admits a new era of exploration and conquest for Lagertha, Ivar, Bjorn, Rollo and the rest of the ensemble are in order. Will we see the Vikings finally go to trade with China and resolve their disputes with each other and the rest of Europe and Asia?
One thing is for sure there’s going to be plenty of conflict and axes being raised.
“I do feel that Michael [Hirst, Vikings writer] never writes any character in a consistent space,” Winnick said, talking about the further development of Lagertha. “The struggle is what is interesting. It’s what we relate to. As an actor that’s a great gift to be able to not be comfortable, to be challenged. I love the fact that [Hirst] makes it hard. Easy would be boring!”
Vikings returns to History Channel in November 2018.