Alexander Dreymon

First things first: if you’re looking to watch a historical drama in 2015, there’s certainly a glut of options. Whether it’s shows that lean towards historical fiction like Vikings and The Bastard Executioner or ones that tend towards the more fantastic and magical, like Game Of Thrones and even Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, there’s no shortage of options for anyone looking to gaze upon gorgeous scenery and sword/magic fights. The most recent addition to that list, the rather lifeless The Bastard Executioner, purports to be about one man’s journey for revenge and his conflicted feelings in regards to country and religion. BBC America’s The Last Kingdom boasts a similar plot, but where the former is plodding and dull, the latter, with its season premiere, is immediately full of life.

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“Episode 1” is in many ways an origin story, a tablesetting episode that, despite being packed with information, never feels overstuffed because the script doesn’t rely on simple exposition to establish character, setting, and tone. The Last Kingdom takes place in 9th century England during a time of conflict. Danish Vikings are making their way through the fractured country and taking what they can. As the Catholic Englishmen huddle in their villages and decry the pagan Norsemen, the Vikings continue to take what they want. “Episode 1” focuses on the Kingdom of Northumbria, where a young nobleman, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, is captured by a raiding Viking party led by the brutal Ragnar–and no, it’s not the same Ragnar from Vikings. After much deliberation, and a thwarted ransom negotiation, Ragnar, who dropped the elder Uhtred’s head on the doorstep of Bebbanburg, decides to take the young heir under his wing, giving him an amulet that depicts the hammer of Thor. By episode’s end, the premiere has flashed forward many years to a grown Uhtred who, having seen Ragnar and much of his new Viking family slaughtered and burned alive as per the orders of his uncle Aelfrick, returns to claim his home of Bebbanburg.

Despite such a standard story, at least in terms of historical fiction, “Episode 1” represents a thrilling and promising start to the eight-part series because of the script’s rich thematic detail, the episode’s carefully considered violence, and a bevy of great performances. As I said and as the paragraph above shows, there’s a lot to unpack in this first episode, but the details, from family names to locations and allegiances, are never muddled. “Episode 1” draws a clear plot line from point A to point B and never really stumbles along the way. Everything in the premiere, from the battles to the romances, is in service of the larger story, of which Uhtred is the center but is by no means the only relevant player. It helps that, all around, there’s a solid cast telling this story. For instance, Tom Taylor does wonderful work as young Uhtred, his rush into battle alongside his father, and his spoken words of both allegiance and rebellion, setting the stage for his capture and transformation into a Norseman, even if his true allegiance (if such a thing can be had) is not yet completely known. Then there’s the charismatic and warmhearted Ragnar, played with equal parts menace and charm by Peter Gantzler, who goes out in a literal blaze of glory, and the “big man” Ubba, a ferocious Viking played with unhinged madness by Rune Temte.

What the performances and the script manage to do in this first episode is present a rich tapestry for the entire series to build on. The Last Kingdom, remarkably, already feels lived in, the focus on character motivation and thematic depth making sure that the show is more than just an excuse to watch Vikings and Englishmen rip each other apart. At the heart of the thematic richness is faith and religion. The conflict between the Danes and the English is one built on fervent belief. When, about halfway through the episode, Viking poet and wise man Ravn (Rutger Hauer) declares that “men who take their orders from Gods are unpredictable,” he could be talking about his own clan or that of the English. Thrown into this mess of faith, violence, and loyalty is Uhter, who has a connection to his English roots–not only does he return home to claim his land, but he also tells his English lover and longtime friend Brida about how often he contemplates his pre-Viking life–but also feels connected to Ragnar and the Danes.

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It’s refreshing that, at least in “Episode 1,” The Last Kingdom refuses to moralize and take sides with either the Danes or the English. Rather, the show presents this bloody time period as unstable and ruled by conflicted values, and the men on either side of the battle as intensely loyal and fiercely complicated. When the Vikings are introduced, they are the heroes (or antiheroes) in some sense, the charismatic men who take Uhter and treat him better than his father did. But when Uhter is brought into Ragnar’s home, it’s his perspective that changes that depiction. As he’s lead through the house he sees men being tortured and killed, and women being strung up by ropes and then dropped to the ground before more brutalities follow. It’s violent and uncomfortable, but not in a manipulative way. Rather, the shocking, raw violence adds depth to the story, removing the antihero tag from the Vikings and painting a more complicated picture.

By the time Uhtred returns to his “home” at the end of “Episode 1,” cloaked as Ragnar was and carrying the head of an Englishmen as he was, it feels epic and consequential because of the 40 minutes of backstory prior. More importantly, it feels human. There’s a beating heart at the center of all the stabbing and wartime rhetoric, one that shows that while The Last Kingdom is certainly interested in telling this story of tumult and brutality, it’s perhaps more compelled to explore the ideologies and human behaviors that push these men and women towards both violence and companionship.

Stray observations

  • Consider me firmly on board with those opening credits.
  • It’s early, but I’m really enjoying the chemistry between Uhtred and Brida. Excited to see the show flesh out their frienship/romance.
  • It turns out that whispering Vikings are absolutely terrifying.
  • If there’s one problem with the premiere it’s that Sven is awfully close to hammy villain territory; but perhaps that’s just the eyepatch.
  • Ragnar coming out of the house aflame and swinging a sword was so over-the-top, but I loved every second of it.

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