When The Last Kingdom was broadcast on the BBC, it felt like it was Viking week after a Doctor Who episode featuring Odin and a Viking Village. It’s an adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s historical novels series, The Saxon Stories, loosely based on the real Danish invasions of Britain between the 8th and the 9th Century, which neither of us were previously familiar with. Unlike Doctor Who, where siding with the Vikings was a must, here it was up in the air for a long time who to root for. Slated as the new Game of Thrones, it’s set up high expectations. Comparisons with the HBO phenomenon are usually doled out to shows when when they’re set in medieval times, have lots of violence, gore, nudity and an altogether ‘gritty atmosphere’. In that respect Butchard and Cornwell’s re-imagining of the novels doesn’t disappoint, but the equivocation doesn’t necessarily do it justice.
So what happened?
After being re-christened as Uhtred and becoming the new heir to his father’s role as Elderman of Bebbanburg when his older brother of the same name picks a fight with the invading Danes and gets himself killed, the boy’s string of horrific luck continues when he watches his father die in battle and is then taken prisoner by Viking warlord, Earl Ragnar. Staying with the family as a slave, he slowly begins to win their respect and adoration after saving their daughter, Thyra, from the inappropriate advances of the son of one of their fellow Viking invaders, Kjartan (Alexandre Willaume). Taking the law into his own hands, Ragnar blinds the boy in one eye for looking at his daughter and banishes his father from his lands. After this Ragnar refuses to sell Uhtred back to his Uncle, Alferic (Joseph Millson), who wishes to kill the child because that would allow him to continue to rule over the lands, in co-operation with the Danes, which previously belonged to his brother.
Having become part of the family, we jump ahead several years to Uhtred now being a young man, complete with the problems that come with it, including his reciprocated affections for Brida, a girl who he was taken prisoner with at the same time. Urging him to cement his relationship with her before another suitor comes along, Ragnar offers his adopted son his horse and tells him to follow her into the woods to make things ‘official’, i.e. have sex. That night things are going swimmingly for the ‘newly cemented’ couple when they hear movement in the forest below them, and realise that Kjartan and his eye-patch wearing son, Sven, are trespassing on their land in order to exact revenge. They run back to the village to warn Ragnar, but get there too late, looking on in horror as the barn is in flames and nearly all of his adoptive family have been killed, except for Thyra who is taken by her former assailant. Determined to avenge the lives that have been lost, Uhtred spots one of his uncle’s men and murders him, then after finding Ragnar’s wealth and deciding to use what he needs for him and Brida to get by, he rides back to Bebbanburg and flings the head of the man tasked with murdering him at the gates of the castle, warning Alferic that he’s going to take back what belongs to him.
Scene of the Week
Marieke: The episode had many stand out scenes. I think the transition from boy to man in the water was elegantly done. But it was Ragnar who stole the show. Killing his wife out of mercy, saying goodbye to Ravn asking him to take his wife to Valhalla where they will all meet again, he went out.. well in flames. Not going down without a fight, Ragnar walks through the fire to take some of Sven’s men with him before he will die himself. The Viking emerging from the fire, on fire, was an impressive sight. What an absolute badass!
Danielle: Those were all great, but for me I think it was toss up between Uhtred presenting his Uncle with that head, and the earlier scene where the priest, Beocca (Ian Hart), kept his head under water a little too long in the baptism scene shortly before the battle. If anything, the latter betrays the fact that the writers seem as determined to inject humour into proceedings as they are to show the brutality of life during the period it’s set.
Unexpected Death(s) of the Week
Danielle: With the show being billed as it was, I expected there to be a high body count. What I didn’t expect was for them to pull not one, but two Ned Stark moments in the first episode. Casting a well known actor like Matthew Macfadyen in a role usually guarantees their presence for some time, but Lord Uhtred barely made it into the second half of the first hour before he was killed and then nailed to a pole. Ragnar’s death was perhaps the most upsetting, however. The writers just got us to warm to him and then, BANG! Out he goes out in a blaze of glory. Literally. RIP Uhtred’s fathers. We feel like we barely knew you.
Marieke: Be still my beating Dutch heart! It was none other than Rutger Hauer as Ravn, the blind elder of the Danish Viking tribe. My immediate thought was, ‘well Blind Fury was nice practice for this role’, seen as he plays a blind character yet again. There was a fuss earlier this year that he had a part in Game of Thrones, but after it was debunked I can only think he might have confused that show with The Last Kingdom. If that doesn’t strengthen the link critics have made, I don’t know what does. Either way, he brought an excellent charisma to the role, but I expected him to not live beyond this episode. Sadly! He will be missed.
Quote of the Week
The dearly departed Ragnar making a play for Head of the Danish tourist board:
“What can I say about Denmark? It’s wet and harsh. The ground is so flat and sandy you can’t grow a fart.“
All in all, we were pleasantly surprised. Marketing a show that risks being overshadowed by it’s bigger budget, already fully-fledged, American cousin is tricky, but The Last Kingdom quickly stood on its own two feet, both visually and in terms of its narrative drive and characterisation. The smattering of humour was also as welcome as it was unexpected, and the viewer siding with the Danes, but against Kjartan and his son turned the tables after the easy Saxons vs. Vikings set up from the beginning of the episode. Alexander Dreymon looks the part as grown up Uhtred and the menace in his eyes at the end foreshadows many deaths to come. Tom Taylor as his young counterpart was equally convincing and a joy to watch. We hope a few more great acting names will fill the void that has been left after Ragnar’s, Ravn’s and even Uhtred Senior’s deaths. The bar has already been set high by the spot on casting in the first episode. Additionally, we absolutely adored the ending mirroring the start. There was definitely cheering when Uhtred held up the severed head, and we cannot wait to see what his journey will bring. Hopefully, he will try to find Thyra and rescue her from evil Sven. She doesn’t deserve the sexual assault coming her way and entitled brats like him need to be taught a lesson. Perhaps there’ll be a Kill Bill moment or two along the way? BRING. IT. ON.