“You and I both know the outcome of this battle is already decided. But not by men.”
(Just going to go ahead and put a spoliers ahead warning up top. Bail out now, if you haven’t watched “Death And The Serpent.”)
Vikings began with mystery. There was Ragnar Lothbrok, of course, the enigmatic dreamer with the steely blue eyes and the martial and marital prowess to carry creator Michael Hirst’s vision of a long-ago world whose isolation and traditions were ripe for transformation by one such charismatic man. Equal in promise was the series’ initial narrative drive to allow us to act (along with captured Christian monk Athelstan) as the anthropological outsiders, alternately fascinated, repelled, and mystified by a world so different from what we knew that each successive scene was an exercise in wonder. And then there was the knowledge that Hirst was crafting a historical saga from the barest bones of barely recorded history, leaving Vikings exhilaratingly free to extrapolate just who these named Norse figures might have truly been.
Lagertha remains one of the series finest creations, a lusty, fearless, fiercely loyal wife who became a warrior, queen, and legend in the show’s initial milieu of hidebound women’s roles. There remains plenty of debate about whether the infamous Norse shieldmaidens—brave warriors fighting alongside their men and each other—were actually so successful in kicking down barriers in a dark, dark age. Or even whether they existed at all. And that goes for the historical Lagertha, who may be an amalgam of period legends of warrior women, a real woman and wife of Ragnar Lothbrok, or a combination of those ideas and more. But the same can be said of Ragnar, Bjorn, Rollo, Floki—nearly anyone in Vikings ever-swelling cast of characters. Legends upon which Vikings could build a world for the story it wanted to tell.
And in that story, Lagertha was very successful indeed. There’s Katheryn Winnick to thank for that, naturally, the Canadian actress cast as Vikings sole enduring female lead, and whose ability to bind a bundle of ideas and narrative devices into a coherent—and admirable—character remains one the this series’ enduring legacies. If she—like most of the English-speaking cast—was increasingly saddled with speechifying exposition as the series went on, she wasn’t the only one to grapple bravely with Hirst’s often clunky dialogue, and the clipped, unidentifiable notion of a Norse accent that makes silence so golden on the show. Rising first alongside her illustrious husband, and then—kicking him to the curb for his many betrayals—on her own, Winnick’s Lagertha became essentially Vikings’ lead after Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar met his death in a pit of hissing serpents. Lagertha’s position as possibly ahistorical but in-world kick-ass feminist icon is cemented tonight when, after her brutal, bloody victory over the invading bandit leader, White Hair, daughter-in-law/queen Gunnhild marvels, awestruck, “If I didn’t worship you before, Lagertha, I worship you now.”
Lagertha, having waved off her victorious army of old and young shieldmaidens so she could finish off White Hair with a Ragnar-worthy bit of flourish and chicanery, limps away, tucks in her impossibly adorable granddaughter, says goodbye to the wounded Gunnhild, and rides off to Kattegat. “I need to see my son,” she tells Gunnhild, speculating that Bjorn Ironside may have returned from his—as it turns out tonight—disastrous mission to aid the imprisoned Harald, and hiding the enormous, gory gash in her side that White Hair had given her. Riding home to the Kattegat—unrecognizable as the humble outpost of her youth thanks to the gargantuan efforts of herself, Ragnar, and Ragnar’s various offspring—she finally slumps from her horse into the rain-drenched mud.
And then she dies.
There were clues. On a critical level, the fact that there wasn’t a screener posted in the usual manner suggested a big development. Lagertha’s miraculous victory against the hulking White Hair may have tricked me a little into thinking Lagertha would make it through the episode, but when, upon reaching the dark and empty town, we were treated to a great hall performance of a singer regaling Ubbe and Torvi with a soaring, mournful song about the legendary Lagertha, repeating her name again and again in seeming lament, even that hope sputtered out. By the time that the now completely-delusional Hvitserk mistakes the mud-crawling Lagertha for the slithering, serpentine Ivar of his drug-addled nightmares, it was all but written, Lagertha’s inevitable vision of the doom-saying Seer laying the question to rest for good.
As sendoffs go, Lagertha’s is appropriately weighty in conception, if not in execution. Choosing to ride back home to see Bjorn rather than have her would treated in any way smacks of the heroic archetype of the legendary figure who knows her time is past. (I wasn’t the only one silently crying, “Shane! Come back Shane!,” I know it.) Poor Hvitserk being turned into the instrument of cruel prophecy seems like heaping another sick joke of a twist on the tortured little dummy’s trembling shoulders, but I’ll allow it, as the idea that it’s a son of Ragnar that puts an end to Lagertha’s story finds suitable purchase, epically. And Winnick gets her big death scene in the rain, consoling the shattered Hvitserk that, finally, she will be together again with Ragnar in Valhalla. “I have lived a full life,” she manages to tell the inconsolable Hvitserk at last, “I am not afraid.” Damn straight.
Moment of silence, please, for the passing of so memorable a character.
Now that that’s over, “Death And The Serpent” is something of a letdown. Hirst has completely abandoned that once-economical use of dialogue and exposition, sending everyone from Gunnhild, to Harald, to King Olaf, to White Hair, to the pre-death scene Lagertha out to explain, and explain, and explain. Harald—winning the election to be Norway’s first-ever king thanks to Kjetill’s treacherous politicking and a whole lot of empty promises—drunkenly sneers out his scheme to the skeptical Olaf. White Hair and Lagertha, before their final fight, debate the relative morality of White Hair’s allegiance to Ivar (instead of what Lagertha terms “Ragnar’s dream”) with all the grace of Annakin and Obi-Wan arguing galactic politics over that lava pit. Vikings is and will always be better the more Hirst remembers to let ambiguity have the front seat, and to let his able stable of actors express much with little. Speeches on Vikings are death, and “Death And The Serpent” fairly teems with them.
On a structural level, the intercutting between Bjorn’s would-be election and Lagertha’s preparations for the bandits’ raid serves only to let the tension out of each. Bjorn was going to get betrayed, because Harald is a betrayer, but the election sequence could have found a rhythm if it were allowed to breathe as an enigmatic setpiece, instead of being chopped into pieces by the editing. Same goes for the raid, although at least there, there’s the energy of watching all of Lagertha’s defensive plans pay off in a series of even deadlier Home Alone-style traps involving a wicker labyrinth, spikes, flammable oil, and lots of taunting shieldmaiden bird calls. (Plus what I believe to be this final season’s first decapitation.)
Plus, the episode really goes for it as far as giving Lagertha the legendary warrior woman her greatest victory. It’s over a band of exiled ruffians, sure, but, as she prophesied up top, its the women who are the only ones worth a damn in the end. An old fella gets a speech about having fought with Raganr, Rollo, and Floki before being unceremoniously pin-cushioned with arrows. The boy lookouts are surprised and overwhelmed. And in the maze, bandits and village men alike are repeatedly seen scrambling in panic, or fatally underestimating Lagertha’s female warriors. As far as Vikings’ action scenes go, it’s entertaining and inventive enough, even as it underscores how Hirst hasn’t found a truly compelling storyline for Lagertha in a long time.
The idea of Lagertha being ready for death after her long, bloody life of loss—and her oath-breaking in digging up her sword to defend the women of her new home—has the hint of epic poetry to it. And Winnick’s Lagertha—whether there ever was a Lagertha or not—long ago proved herself capable of shouldering such an end. Vikings started off as a mystery, but also a love story between a young farmer’s wife and a young farmer with a faraway look in his eyes. If this is Lagertha’s end, then she’s earned it. Here’s to a reunion in Valhalla.
- Oh, Ivar is taunted cruelly and perversely by Oleg, who hints around about Katia’s true identity and how much Oleg truly knows about Ivar’s past—before forcing Ivar to watch him mount Katia on the banquet table. If Ivar is to have some sort of character growth this season, I’m all for it, but all this dastardly scheming stuff seems about as far away from pertinent to what Vikings is doing this season as Vikings’ Russia is from its Norway.
- Bjorn and the repentant and gravely wounded Kjetill are saved from Harald’s sudden but inevitable betrayal by a mysterious Viking named Erik. An exile and mercenary, he claims to have saved Bjorn because of who Bjorn is, rather than because of who his father was, since he’s too young to remember such things. Deus ex machina? Sure, but the guy’s got plenty of promise, historical and otherwise.
- Lagertha also gets a brief but suitably awesome heroic slow walk alongside her warrior women before the big battle.
- Harald and Oleg’s political debate upon Harald’s coronation is especially leaden, tossing in heaps of exposition with ham-handed de-mystifying of Harald’s motives in anything but the most obvious terms.