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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Last Kingdom is the best historical drama you’re probably not watching

Illustration for article titled The Last Kingdom is the best historical drama you’re probably not watching
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I mentioned in my review of last week’s episode that one of the reasons The Last Kingdom is succeeding in a market full of historical dramas is that there’s an attention paid to character that’s rewarding each and every week. Whereas so many shows of this ilk focus on violence, period detail, and the inevitable backdoor dealing and backstabbing that come with all of that, The Last Kingdom is more interested in how all of those things provide insight into these characters. No decision or action is employed without considering what it means for that character and the effect it will have on numerous others. That kind of storytelling is not only captivating because it adds a richness and depth to the story, but also because it turns every single small, seemingly innocuous moment on this show into a moment of insight and significance. The Last Kingdom doesn’t coast from one battle to the next; the true conflict lies in those quiet moments, in the time before swords and ideologies clash.

That kind of patient, detailed storytelling is evident throughout “Episode 4,” a perhaps even more muted episode than last week’s largely contemplative one. What’s remarkable though, and what ultimately ends up making this episode so fascinating, is the way it builds upon Uhtred’s oath to King Alfred. Last week saw Uhtred separated from Brida and Ragnar, and the consequences of Uhtred’s decision felt real and immediate. “Episode 4” doubles down on that feeling, skipping ahead in time to reveal how Uhtred’s bold decision has forever changed a number of his relationships.

One act causing a ripple effect is really the theme of the episode. When King Alfred learns that Guthrum and his men have taken over Wareham, it should be a moment of fear, and realization that the Danes are well on their way to an inevitable victory over the Saxons. However, Ubba and his substantial army are in Ireland avenging the death of Ubba’s brother. Such vengeance means that the Danish forces are weakened, and Alfred marvels at how such circumstances come to be. “An Irishman across the sea kills a Dane, and the world changes. The hand of God,” he says, choosing to see this moment as some sort of divine intervention. He sees Ubba’s absence as a sign that the Saxons are on the right path, and while he acknowledges that such absence is the work of God, he also can’t help but recognize how fortuitous it is, how the killing of a man in a distant land can affect his own situation.

That bit of existential and religious pondering is what drives the thematic and character work of the episode. “Episode 4” is filled with moments of seeming inconsequence, but if the story of Ubba’s murdered brother has a lesson, it’s that often small moments breed unforeseen, wide-reaching consequences. Such a revelation is most evident in Uhtred’s storyline this week. After devoting himself to King Alfred, at least in terms of staying with him for now, he’s been given a wife in order to secure his standing as an Ealdorman. Uhtred sees it as another step toward his goal of taking his rightful land back, but as always, his rash decision-making leaves him with more than he bargained for. While his new wife Mildrith is lovely, she comes with land that’s saddled with debt to the church. Such a debt can be wiped away by Alfred, but he’d rather use the financial strife as a test of Uhtred’s devotion.

What’s great about the storyline is not that Alfred is working, in a conniving kind of way, to test Uhtred’s loyalty, but rather that it once again asserts that Uhtred is often his own worst enemy, or rather that his bold personality is also his biggest weakness. In his haste to get his land back he ignores that Alfred likely has ulterior motives for handing over Mildrith. When Uhtred then confronts both Alfred and Beocca after learning of the debt, the two repeat the same line of dialogue to him: “it’s not exactly a secret.” In other words, the debt is readily available information, but Uhtred has no patience and no real sense of motives outside of his own. At times, that means that Uhtred is charmingly naive, but when it comes to his future and his safety, it only puts him and so many others in danger.

And make no mistake: Uhtred is certainly in danger. The Last Kingdom has done a wonderful job over the first half of this season building up Alfred as first a successor to thr throne, then as an actual threat to the Danes and, on a more personal level, to Uhtred and his goals. His physical weakness is more than made up for by his intelligence. It’s as if Alfred is two or three steps ahead of Uhtred at all times, and as I said in last week’s review, Alfred relies on Uhtred’s rashness to further his own agenda. Uhtred is rather trusting, but it’s clear that Alfred has no real emotional investment in Uhtred. When Uhtred explains how Ubba uses a sorcerer to help with his decisions, Alfred’s mouth quivers, a small smile appearing on his face before vanishing in a second. It’s such a small tic from actor David Dawson, but it says so much. It shows how little respect Alfred has for the Danes and their beliefs, and how Uhtred is just a pawn to him. It shows that despite his humble frame, he’s a man who thinks a lot of himself, who believes that he has God on his side and can’t be stopped. Uhtred may go free at the end of the episode—free from the Danes at least—but he’s still caught in the web that Alfred continues to spin.


Stray observations

  • Alfred’s wife isn’t a big fan of Uhtred’s, only cementing how Alfred feels about him. “With luck, he will fall in battle.”
  • The Last Kingdom really does a good job of showing how faith informs character decisions/psyche. Seeing Mildrith pray for the safe return of Uhtred is heartbreaking partly because we understand just how much she believes his fate is in God’s hands.
  • Despite all the conflict and backstabbing, The Last Kingdom also has a generous sense of humor. The scene where the band of Saxon and Danish hostages pass one another, the priest saying hello and “God bless,” was darkly hilarious.
  • Brida is with Ragnar now, Uhtred has a child (named Uhtred, of course), and I’m not happy about any of it. I will only accept Uhtred and Brida together.
  • I like that the show doesn’t make a big deal of skipping ahead in time by including “9 months later” title cards or something. Moving ahead in time is necessary for the story, so just roll with it. It’s cleaner and shows trust in the audience.