Warning: This article contains spoilers for Vikings season 6, episode 6, “Death and the Serpent.”
The shield was broken, but the shieldmaiden would never break. Katheryn Winnick started playing Lagertha way back in the first episode of History’s Vikings, and the legendary warrior was the only original character with a regular presence in the saga’s final season. She ascended to fame through violence and backstabbery, and her authority expanded and withered: an earldom won and lost and won, a kingdom reclaimed and re-stolen.
In season 2, Lagertha left her cheating husband, Ragnar (Travis Fimmel). Her next husband beat her, so she took his eye. She slew her traitorous young lover on their wedding day — and lost their child to a miscarriage, not her first. Vikings marked the passage of time with a mythic haziness, so Winnick didn’t really look much older than the rising princelings in her son’s generation. Then, in one terrible battle, she lost her throne and killed the woman she loved. Her hair turned deathly pale.
Winnick held a steady charisma through all the calamity, right up to Lagertha’s long-destined death on Wednesday’s episode, “Death and the Serpent.” The actress has a martial arts background, and she always exuded serene toughness in the part, like her character was most comfortable in warpaint eyeliner. She was initially paired opposite Fimmel, who made Ragnar an unconventional hero, whispery and pranksterish when he wasn’t dissolving into drug abuse or misfired ambition. After Ragnar died, it was Lagertha who most clearly defined everything eccentric, moving, and occasionally triumphant about the series.
So many other people on Vikings seek great things for their glorious future. They are conquerors, explorers, or sometimes just parasites. Lagertha was a protector, and there was so much she failed to protect.
When Vikings started, Ragnar and Lagertha were farmers raising their children in relative modesty. The days were not easy; the world was dangerous. Early in the series premiere, a couple wanderers threatened to rape Lagertha and her daughter. She fought them off: “You couldn’t kill me if you tried for a hundred years” was the first Lagertha line that belonged on 10,000 T-shirts. But that proof of her badassery was also proof that this time period was brutal enough to require badassery as a fact of everyday life. As the years passed, though, you started to feel how much Lagertha and Ragnar missed those simpler times on the farm. They lost a daughter, each other, and more.
Lagertha became an icon, for the citizens of her world and for Vikings viewers. Winnick’s performance honored that iconography, and challenged it. She cut a glamorous figure, romancing an English king, avenging her first marriage by killing a Norse queen. She was a devoted (and grieving) mother. She became “the most famous shieldmaiden in the world,” as monstrous White Hair (Kieran O’Reilly) said in Wednesday’s episode. And Michael Hirst’s storytelling could edge her toward worshipful proto-feminism. She killed one Viking for sexually assaulting an English woman. She spent later seasons flanked by other shieldmaidens, whole squadrons of femininity.
No one’s a saint on Vikings, though. Lagertha’s actions could be indefensible, impulsive, once or twice a bit mad. I’ve sometimes lost track of the show’s intentions in the later seasons, as the scope has expanded and the ensemble has swollen across countries. Lagertha represented relative stability in the clash of civilizations. She was a link back to more optimistic days, when her casual fling with King Ecbert (Linus Roache) symbolized the most hopeful possibility of (ahem) international relations.
At this point in the show, those days are long gone. Ragnar died, and his legacy has been endless discord. It’s telling, I think, that Lagertha’s final episode pitted her against two ghosts of the past, tied to her family’s twisted family tree. White Hair was a vengeful follower of Ragnar’s son Ivar (Alex Høgh Anderson). And Hvitserk (Marco Ilsø) was another Ragnarspawn, driven insane by fraternal paranoia. Hvitserk could have killed Lagertha out of vengeance — she did kill his mother, after all. But he was too far gone to even realize what he was doing. In his eyes, Lagertha was a crawling mansnake, a phantom Ivar.
One thing I love about Vikings is how little the characters seem to worry about their own deaths. It’s inevitable, not something to stress over. “Weep not, poor Hvitserk,” Lagertha said in her last moments. “Tonight I’ll sit with my beloved Ragnar in the halls of the gods.” It would be a well-deserved rest — if Vikings thought the afterlife was for resting. For a nonbeliever, that line was one final look backward: happy days of youth, before everyone knew her name. (Vikings as Essay on the Addictive, Cancerous Qualities of Fame: Discuss.)
The most moving part of the episode came earlier. White Hair was the latest scraggly tower of angry masculinity to duel Lagertha. Their fight was personal: He killed Lagertha’s grandchild Hali (Ryan Henson). White Hair drew bad blood early, slicing a gory smile into Lagertha’s stomach. That wound might have killed her, if Hvitserk didn’t finish the job.
And then Lagertha found her second (hundredth) wind. “You’re tiring,” she told the man, “You’re weak, aren’t you?” Physically, White Hair was a specimen. But life takes more than physical strength. He must have thought she was helpless. He didn’t realize that his assaults had sharpened her shield: a palpable metaphor for Lagertha herself, who grew more powerful from a lifetime of strife. She sliced his neck, then used his own weapon to finish him off.
Gunnhild (Ragga Ragnars), another walking myth, complimented Lagertha’s fortitude. “If I didn’t worship you before, Lagertha, I worship you now,” she said. “May the gods, in all their wisdom, keep you alive.” Lagertha’s followers applauded, clapping swords against shields. The people always loved her, except the people who always tried to kill her.
What I’ll always remember is that Lagertha didn’t say anything. She believed in the gods, and knew their wisdom wasn’t kind. She was already dying, and so she kept going.