Faith, ritual, and religion have permeated many episodes throughout the first season of The Last Kingdom. Such thematic musings are a natural fit for the show not only because they add realism to the period setting, but also because the show’s larger purpose is to explore the inner turmoil of these characters during a time of great change. One of the easiest ways to explore that existential theme is to look at the place of religious values in this society, and how each individual connects to those values and practices them in their day-to-day life. The Last Kingdom is populated with characters from all sorts of backgrounds who hold a variety of occupations, and seeing how each one views their own life through the prism of faith is one of the show’s more rewarding aspects.
I mention this larger musing on faith because “Episode 7” dives into that thematic territory more so than any previous episode. I mentioned in last week’s review that the introduction of the Pagan Queen, Iseult, felt rather rushed, and that Uhtred’s connection to her and subsequent dismissal of Mildrith felt out of place amongst the show’s contemplative tendencies. While I think that critique still stands within that episode, Iseult’s larger role becomes evident in “Episode 7,” and she’s an important catalyst for the show to push further into the tension between religious systems without hitting the same beats from earlier in the season.
The other catalyst is, of course, the Danes raiding Wessex. Brida, who’s on the lookout for the Vikings, calls the Danes into action when Uhtred and Leofric are having their fight to the death. While it’s a great strategic call on the part of the Danes, the scene is especially useful for showing the way the Saxon culture is allowing their enemies to gain ground. Essentially, the Saxons believe the outcome of the fight to the death isn’t determined by the fighters, but by God. They believe that God is the only one who can punish individuals, and that he comes to the aid of the innocent during a fight to the death. As Uhtred later points out though, this kind of thinking, which relies on a lot of inner-kingdom decision making and, essentially, bureaucracy, leaves the door wide open for the Danes to storm through. The Saxons are so focused on upholding their religious beliefs that they’re constantly looking inward instead of turning their attention outward to the real problem: the encroaching Danes and the danger they pose to Wessex.
With the Saxons distracted, Wessex falls easily, though Uhtred, Leofric, and Iseult manage to escape while Odda and a few others ride away on horses. Uhtred does briefly try to stay in Wessex, approaching Brida with open arms, but she shuns him and tells him he needs to leave. He’s taken aback, but what should he expect? He abandoned her long ago and has been with two women since. Sure, they share a history, but Uhtred made his choice and it didn’t involve Brida. Leofric notes that “Brida has changed,” that she’s angrier now, but Uhtred knows the truth of it. He wonders if it’s him that has changed, if it’s him that’s caused his lifelong friend and love to turn a cold shoulder towards him.
When Uhtred, Leofric, and Iseult leave Wessex, they find a home in the swamplands of Athelney. They escape from a band of Vikings and stumble upon Alfred and his wife along the way. They all hole up in the swamplands, the indistinguishable nature of the landscape perfect for hiding from the Danes. All is not well for Alfred though, as his baby son and heir, Edward, is sick and dying. He’s crying constantly and his temperature continues to fluctuate. It’s in the next few scenes that the exploration of faith finds some of its best material. While Alfred, his wife Aelswith, and Beocca pray for the health of Edward, Iseult tells the Saxon King that she can likely cure him. She’s proven to be a capable healer, giving Alfred a tonic that remedies his stomach pains, but her pagan nature goes against everything he and the Saxons believe in.
Thus, the question of whether to allow Iseult to treat Edward or not becomes representative of the show’s larger look at how faith can both divide and bring people together. Beocca and Aelswith aggressively oppose Iseult’s ritual, saying that the entire Kingdom is praying for Edward to return to health. While Alfred also opposes the ritual, he can plainly see that the prayers are doing no good and that his son is dying. The two things most important to the Saxons—religion and family lineage—are at war within him.
For Uhtred the choice is simple: allow Iseult to perform the ritual because it will likely save Edward. As always, he has a way of simplifying matters, but it’s in his simplification that he shows his disconnect from the Saxons, and shows why he’ll always be more Dane than Saxon. If the ritual does save Edward, everything Alfred has known to be true, and everything that’s guided him through his life, comes into question. There’s monumental implications behind his decision.
Ultimately, Alfred agrees to the ritual and Edward is saved. It’s in the immediate aftermath of Iseult’s ritual that we see just how ingrained faith is in each of these people. Iseult is distraught because she knows that for the ritual to work and Edward to be saved, another child somewhere must die. She weeps for the lost child and for the family that’s grieving. On the other hand, Beocca sees a healed Edward emerge from Iseult’s arms and immediately praises God and says the Saxon prayers have been answered. He’s nothing if not unwavering in his faith. These reactions are beautiful bits of character insight, their importance highlighted when considering the fact that The Last Kingdom doesn’t even show Iseult’s ritual; instead, we skip right to the aftermath, to the personal and existential implications that come when a strongly-held belief is challenged.
For Alfred, the healing of his son is a transformative experience. While he’s by no means dismissing his faith, he’s clearly opening himself up to those who may not be as pious. He becomes closer with Uhtred and even takes his advice and launches an attack on a handful of Danes that are set up near the swamplands. More importantly, as this season is about to come to a close, he agrees to “a single, defining battle” to finally settle whether Wessex will fall to the Danes or remain Saxon territory.
- Now we know Iseult can hold her own with a dagger.
- It looks like we’re on track for a Skorpa showdown next week. I’m beyond excited.
- While it’s rather brief, Leofric and Uhtred’s fight to the death is deftly composed and shot. The Last Kingdom knows how to do fight scenes.
- Points go to Aethelwold for at least trying to pose as King.