[Warning: The following contains spoilers about the latest episode of Vikings.]
Based on the first photos of Lagertha's (Katheryn Winnick) return, we knew the shieldmaiden would be in a dire state when she reappeared in Wednesday's Vikings episode. But we never could have predicted just how bleak her situation truly was.
After barely escaping the battle in which she witnessed the death of her lover Heahmund (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a severely injured Lagertha was taken in by an old healer while she hovered in the space between life and death. During this time, Lagertha had a vision of her ex-husband Ragnar's (Travis Fimmel) death. (If you somehow forgot, halfway through the fourth season Ragnar was executed by King Aelle [Ivan Kaye], who dropped the famed Viking into a pit of poisonous snakes after torturing him.) But in a devastating twist, Lagertha's vision didn't just find her bearing witness to Ragnar's horrific death, but taking on the roles of various participants in it.
"That sequence was something that I remember spending quite a lot of time discussing with Helen Schaver, the director, and she had very strong feelings about it," Vikings creator Michael Hirst tells TV Guide. "[Lagertha and Ragnar have] always been so spiritually close. She says, 'Whatever you do, we'll always be together.' So I always thought that she would be graced this vision of his death, but I think Helen wanted to make the point that she's not simply passive. She doesn't dream of just happening to be passing [by], but somehow she's so involved in his life, the decisions in his life, the way that it's gone, that she's somehow implicated."
Since Ragnar's death in Season 4, viewers haven't really gotten to explore the depths of Lagertha's grief nor any potential feelings of guilt regarding the way their paths diverged and the way his, in particular, ended. In fact, Lagertha has been such a pillar of strength for the past five seasons, that we haven't seen very much at all of how all the various things she's survived and overcome affected her, which is why this week's breakdown came as such a shock yet also felt long overdue.
"We've always seen how incredibly strong she is and how she's gone through so many trials. ... She was betrayed by Ragnar, she was abused by her next husband, she had to kill her best friend. But throughout all this, she seems not untouched by it but not unchanged by it," Hirst explains. "She's always remained strong and resilient and she's always kind of bounced back and I felt, and I think Katheryn felt too, that these things eventually took their toll."
The past season has been especially tough on Lagertha, who lost her kingdom to Ragnar's most ruthless son Ivar (Alex Høgh), was confronted by Rollo (Clive Standen) about Bjorn's (Alexander Ludwig) true parentage, then had to flee to England where she not only was at the mercy of King Alfred (Fredia Walsh-Peelo) but also found her relationship with Heahmund tested in challenging new ways.
"She didn't have that kind of independence she usually has or the power that she often has. She was the mercy of Heahmund and the situation," Hirst says of Lagertha's journey this season. "I think something snapped. I think something finally broke inside her. And it's been coming. You can't suffer what she's suffered as a human being without cracking.
"That was a big discussion with Katheryn because Katheryn always said she wanted to appear tough because she is a kind of role model. She wants women to see her as a survivor, and I said, 'You are. You are the ultimate survivor, but there comes a point in everyone's life when it gets too much or you can't easily rise about this immediately situation you're in.' So it seemed like the point at which something snapped and changed, for however long that is. She ran out of hope and she never runs out of courage, but she went to a very dark place."
Fortunately for the beloved shieldmaiden, Judith (Jennie Jacques) discovered where Lagertha had been recovering and returned her to the Royal Willa at Wessex where she nursed Lagertha back to health. But even once Lagertha was fully returned to the world of the living, she seemed truly changed by the experience.
"Everything changes, as I have changed. I am no longer Lagertha, shieldmaiden, since my shield is gone. I have nothing to protect myself with," Lagertha said, to which Judith suggested that Lagertha still had "herself and her honesty" to protect herself with.
"Sweet Judith, do you think that is enough?" a teary-eyed Lagertha asked.
As happy as we are to have our Lagertha back, we have to admit we're a little worried about where she goes from here.
Vikings airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on History.