An out-of-body experience

By Darren Franich
April 07, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT
Jonathan Hession/HISTORY

Last week, Vikings staged a massive battle episode. But surprisingly, it wasn’t until this week that the bodies started to pile up. The newest episode – SPOILERS FROM HERE – saw major deaths across the Vikings world. Most shocking, in terms of sheer unexpected brutality, was the drowning death of Yidu, Ragnar’s slave-turned-mistress-slash-drug-dealer. In the throes of what appears to be a serious drug addiction, Ragnar got into an argument with Yidu. She threatened to go public with his secret about the demolished colony in Wessex — and without missing a beat, Ragnar pulled her into the water, drowning her in full view of his young sons.

It was a sudden, unexpected end for a character whose existence was always shrouded in mystery. We spoke to actress Dianne Doan about her interpretation of the motivations that led to the death scene. (Click here for an interview with Amy Bailey, who played the dearly departed Queen Kwenthrith. And click here for a full recap of the latest episode of Vikings.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you first joined the show, did you know how Yidu’s arc on the show was going to end?

DIANNE DOAN: When I auditioned for the role, I think it was intended for an eight-episode arc. You’re never really sure. But [Vikings creator Michael Hirst] does such a good job of keeping us all on our toes. Every time we get these scripts, someone else dies.

Yidu was a mysterious character, and even now there’s still a lot of mystery around her. Did Michael tell you anything about her, and where she came from?

The beautiful thing about Michael and his writing is that the scripts are very detailed. And what I really enjoyed about the show is it was such a collaborative process. I was able to put my own twist on Yidu. Michael told me that she could possibly be an Emperor’s daughter, and when I built the backstory, I just wanted to make sure I knew where she was coming from. In that dynasty in China, women were allowed an education, a right to choose marriage or work. That sense of power, I wanted to bring to Yidu.

The relationship between Yidu and Ragnar becomes intimate, but her main initial objective is survival. Everything comes from a place of: “Is he going to kill me, or not? How do I gain power over him?” When the drugs are introduced, the audience sees it as me helping him. But at the same time, there is that underlying sense of control that I gained over the King.

There was a real sense of closeness between them, which gets violated in that final conversation. For you, what was going through Yidu’s head in their final interaction?

She knows that it’s inevitable that, somehow, it’s not going to end well for her. So when that opportunity comes up, and he comes down high out of his mind, and he dangles her freedom in front of her again, she takes that opportunity to push his buttons, and drive him over the edge. Which leads him to kill me, Yidu. This might be ego, but I definitely didn’t want to play the victim here. It’s almost like I had control over this ending the whole time.

What was it like filming your final scene?

It was the most out-of-body experience. On the day, it was misty, gray weather. It rains all the time in Ireland, but there was something odd about this day. They had a body double for me because we had things to shoot afterwards, so they didn’t want me soaking. So we did everything up until the actual drowning, and I asked if I could sit in the tent. So I got to watch it happen. The double was dressed exactly like me. It was the most terrifying thing. I was screaming in the tent, because it looked so real. And then, of course, like any Hollywood thing, we ended up doing the actual drowning scene, with the close-ups, a few weeks later.

When it came to actually drowning, Travis [Fimmel, who plays Ragnar] gets really intense. He’s a brilliant actor, and he gets very involved physically and emotionally. But there were times when I told him, “You can actually grab me, and drag me to the water!”

Ragnar has done all kinds of things that would not be acceptable in the modern day, but this action feels so extreme, even unforgivable.

That was the really exciting part of what Michael wrote us. In earlier drafts — I might get in trouble for saying this — I died differently. It was a battle scene. I was prepared. I was so excited to be able to fight. But with revisions and rewrites came this scene. And part of me was so upset. Because you’re right. It was so personal, for him to do that. From what I remember, we’ve never seen him outright kill a… well, it doesn’t matter if it’s a woman, but someone with that sense of brutality.

We talked about it. Travis was excited. Ragnar is always painted as a hero, these past four seasons. I told him, “The audience is gonna hate you.” He looked at me, he’s like: “I think you’re right. This is the exciting part.”

How did Yidu die in the original version of the story?

I didn’t go to Paris with them. I think it was, in this past episode, when Roland comes in on the horse, and they’re all attacking [the Viking camp.] Originally it was supposed to be the women fighting back. I was there to protect the children. And then it happened. Heroically, I will add!

We met Yidu at the lowest point anyone can be, enslaved, far from her people and her country. It felt like there was hope for her at some point. Do you think she ever had any hope of getting home?

Realistically, I don’t think so. She is so far from home. Coming from China, where I imagine is an abundance of wealth and education. That was the funny part of being a slave in Kattegat. The King would almost be a slave where Yidu is from, you know what I mean? She was safe with Ragnar, but I don’t think she ever saw a future there. How it ended was, I think, the best way for her to leave. It sounds so sad and cryptic.