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BBC’s The Last Kingdom: When Historical Drama is Done Perfectly

“I need to kill someone.”
Uhtred, the Young


Warning: Spoilers

For the last five weeks, I have been suffering through FX’s The Bastard Executioner, and for the past two years, through Starz’s Outlander, both of which are ostensibly historical dramas. The former is not based on any actual events or personages, but the latter is: it involves the last Scottish clans attempt to restore their “king” to the throne, and its ultimate failure, leading to the virtual elimination of the clans at the battle of Culloden. Neither of these shows has even a pinch of the brilliance of BBC’s The Last Kingdom, about the conflict among the originally-invading-then-long-settled Saxons in the various “kingdoms” of England, who get invaded by the Danish Vikings, who want the land and the wealth, and who believe that the only way to get what you want is to take it.

Based on the best-selling Saxon Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell, and written by BAFTA (the British equivalent to the Academy Awards)-nominated Stephen Butchard, The Last Kingdom combines historical figures with fictional ones to depict some of the most important conflicts in English history, conflicts that changed the way the people of England viewed themselves. From a series of small kingdoms, each ruled by its own “king,” England became one country, united by King Alfred, who ruled what the Danish Lord Ravn called “the last kingdom” — describing the Danes’ planned North to South conquest — from Northumbria to Wessex.

I have never read the books — though I’m certainly interested in them now — but I’ll be blogging on the show as a stand-alone drama, rather than an adaptation. I won’t know how the show differs from or compares to the books on which it’s based. From start to finish, however, the premiere episode of the show was gripping. Every line of dialogue was absolutely essential. Every scene developed characters, relationships, and conflict. Every bit of violence was absolutely imperative and extremely (tastefully) well handled. Nothing was graphic or gratuitously titillating. Set in the 9th century CE, The Last Kingdom is one of the best historical dramatizations I have seen since The Tudors and Deadwood.

The Opening Credits

imageI admit that I wasn’t a big fan of the cartoon drawing opening credits — which may be the only thing I didn’t like about this show — but I was fascinated by the vocals, provided by composer John Lunn and Faroese singer Eivør: they were haunting. It reminded me of the fine work of Gladiator’s Hans Zimmer (score) and Golden-Globe-winning Lisa Gerard (vocals), formerly of Dead Can Dance. I’ve never heard of Eivør, but her voice and work in the opening credits and throughout the premiere of The Last Kingdom was top-notch.

The Saxons

images-5In Northumbria, the Saxons are led by Lord Uhtred (Matthew MacFadyen), whose youngest son calls his attention to Viking ships as the Lord and some men are out falconing. Lord Uhtred has two sons, Uhtred, his heir,

TLK_101_23and the younger son, Osbert (Tom Taylor).

images-35Lord Uhtred prepares for either a battle or a siege, sending his eldest son out to spy on the invaders, with strict instructions not to engage with them in any fashion. Unfortunately, the eldest son Uhtred dis-obeys or forgets his father’s orders when the Vikings do a Braveheart on him, showing their bare arses and laughing at him, resulting in Uhtred’s decapitation.

The murder of his eldest son, which was not shown, and the delivery of his head, which was — briefly — leads Lord Uhtred to war.

It also causes him to change the name of his youngest son, Osbert, to Uhtred (so forgive me if I confuse any of the actors since there was only one “Young Uhtred” listed in the cast, and I assume it was the youngest boy, since he had the largest part).

The three kings of Northumbria, one of whom is Lord Uhtred, go to battle against the Vikings.

images-18Unfortunately, they are no match for the Danes’ “Shield Wall,” and Lord Uhtred is killed in battle.


The Shield Wall

imagesIf you’ve seen Gladiator or any other films or show about Roman history, you know about their formation of shield into the form of a tortoise, under which soldiers could safely approach the camp or building under siege and not be harmed by the arrows shot from the walls above. The Vikings in The Last Kingdom didn’t form a tortuga, but a shield wall, which the Saxon warriors found impenetrable. This video, provided by BBC-America, on its official site for the show, details the Shield Wall. (You can also find the Shield Wall here, in case the BBC site of the embedding in this post doesn’t work.)


Meanwhile, before the battle, back at the compound, Uhtred left his brother Alferic (Joseph Millson, below, without armor) in charge, with 30 warriors inside the gates of the walled city, as well as with guardianship of his youngest son Ostred-now-Uhtred, whom Alferic suspects will “escape” to go to war.

TLK_101_19As Lord Uhtred rides away to fight the Vikings/Danes, Alferic instructs his minion Scallion, “If the father falls, the son falls.”

It seems younger brother Alferic wants to be the next Lord of Bebbanburg.

No matter what the price.

Osbert/Young Uhtred in Battle

images-2After being officially “re-named” then “re-baptized” in an extended scene by the priest (who insists the second baptism is necessary so God won’t be confused when the “new” Uhtred arrives at His gates and asks, instead, about Ostred), Young Uhtred surreptitiously races to get his own battle gear from the yard and barn, then races off to join his father in battle.

images-1The young actor playing Uhtred was amazing, better than many adult actors. He threw himself passionately into the battle scenes, from screaming “Not without me” when he heard the battle beginning,

images-10to repeatedly and intrepidly attacking the Lord of the Danes, Ragnar (Peter Gantzler).

images-20Ragnar’s son, Ragnar the Young (Tobias Santelmann) laughingly called Uhtred “a wasp.”

TLK_101_11Despite Lord Ragnar’s chopping Uhtred’s sword in half with his ax, the boy doesn’t give up. He stabs Ragnar in the back of the leg with the broken sword.

images-9Both Ragnar and his son are amused by this little wasp, but they are also impressed. After knocking him out, Ragnar takes Uhtred into his household as a slave.


Exposition Done Right

One of the best handling of exposition (sometimes called back-story) in the premiere was when Ragnar set one of his two child slaves, Uhtred, down at a table with his blind father Ravn (Rutger Hauer).

TLK_101_2Since the old man is blind, he can legitimately ask the young boy what is happening in the hall below — in the background, there is much violence, but the camera stays focused on Ravn and Uhtred, even when women are being strung up to the ceiling and dropped to the floor behind them, even when women are screaming below as they are being raped, even when the Danes are crowded around drinking and laughing.

Because he’s blind, Ravn can ask such things as “Who did they kill?” to which Uhtred answers, “One of the [English] kings.”

“Did he die well?” says Ravn.

“No,” says Uhtred.

“Then he shouldn’t have been a king,” says Ravn.

The blindness of Ravn also allows him to direct Uhtred’s gaze down into the hall and indicate some of the major Danish players, including the powerful Ubba (Rune Tempte), who had some of the most amusing lines in the episode, though he was one of the most fearsome warriors.

images-21It was extremely well handled, and not a single line of dialogue could have been left out: all of it was important to the conflict, the character development, and the historical events being presented. And because Ravn was blind, it all seemed natural, uncontrived, and did not slow down the story in any way whatsoever.

Uhtred the Slave

images-33Some of the most fascinating parts of the show, and the best written, were the relationships among the characters. Ragnar and his son are both fond of Uhtred the Slave, though the younger Ragnar says Uhtred’s repeated requests to be taught how to sword-fight are “going to get [him] killed,”

TLK_101_44and though Ragnar expresses his wish to his wife that their daughter Thyra (Madeleine Power)

MV5BMTQ0MzE2NzYwOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzAwMDg0MzE@._V1_UY317_CR45,0,214,317_AL_not play with the two slaves, Uhtred and Brida (Emily Cox, in the adult role).

One of the best written pieces of dialogue in the premiere was right after Ragnar’s wish that his daughter not play with slaves, when “Grandpa” Ravn asked Thrya what she and the “slaves” played in the woods. She said they had built a fortress, and Uhtred defended her as a “warrior.”

“Not a servant?” said Ravn.

“No, a warrior,” said Thrya as she’s braiding her grandfather’s hair.

The look on blind Ravn’s face, combined with the dialogue, was powerful.

Among the Vikings

TLK_101_46I guess it’s just a rumor that all Vikings got along, even if they came from the same company, and the show kept the conflict moving forward when Ragnar’s daughter and her two slave playmates went to the woods. There, Sven (above, L) appeared, bearing a real sword. Brina and Uhtred ran, knowing he would kill them, but told Thyra to stay in the treehouse/fort, assuring her that he wouldn’t hurt her.

Unfortunately, despite his young age, he intended rape.

He got her down from the trees, ripped her gown to the waist (nothing was shown but the girl’s bare shoulders), but his intentions were clear. Young Uhtred came tearing back and beat Sven up.

TLK_101_1Uhtred got punished for starting yet another fight (giving us more background into his character without showing every single fight he’s started, presumably among the Danes, and presumably because he’s a Saxon), until Thyra spoke up and told what happened.

In excellent dramatic fashion, we did not actually hear her story: after all, we viewers had already seen it. We just saw her begin by saying Uhtred didn’t start the fight…

Then the next scene started, which was a result of Thyra’s story to her father.

Excellent work, you writers!

Ragnar goes to the home of Sven and his father (above), who knows all about what happened, and tries to excuse Sven’s attempted rape by saying “he’s at an age…” but Ragnar is so furious that Sven looked on “his daughter’s nakedness” that it’s clear he’s about to kill Sven. Either Sven or his father correct the “nakedness” remark, saying that he only saw “half of her naked.” Ragnar looks to Uhtred for confirmation.

TLK_101_47After Uhtred confirms that they are telling the truth, Ragnar takes only one of Sven’s eyes in return for his daughter’s honor.TLK_101_45But he banishes Sven and his father forever.

And Ragnar begins to regard Uhtred as his own son.

The Ransom

TLK_101_31Throughout history, it was common for nobility or their relatives to be ransomed when they were taken, even if unintentionally, during wars, raids, and battles. After it is discovered that Uhtred is not just a soldier-boy-slave, he is offered to his uncle for an appropriate ransom. Ragnar is not happy with the situation, but apparently doesn’t have much control over it. They were there to make money, and if that meant ransoming Uhtred, then he would be ransomed.

Uncle Alefric arrives, with his minion, Scallion,

TLK_101_30and with the priest,

TLK_101_28who warns Uhtred that his uncle plans to kill him, and that he should run. To Wessex. Where the priest will eventually meet him.

Of course Uhtred can’t run — he’s in the middle of the forest surrounded by Vikings and Saxons — but he does manage to say that he doesn’t want to be ransomed and that he doesn’t have any family loudly enough that Ragnar hears. After much haggling, conducted by Ravn,

TLK-Characters-RavnRagnar steps over to Ubba — who is to get half of any and all ransom — and whispers in his ear.

TLK-Characters-UbbaThe negotiations are ended.

Ragnar has “bought” Uhtred.

As they ride away, Ragnar tells him he cares for him like a son.

Just before he tosses him off the front of his horse into a river, in a parallel of the baptism scene earlier, and when young Uhtred arises, he is a grown man (lovely transition and symbolism), now played by actor Alexander Dreymon.

images-14As you can tell by the sword, Uhtred is now, indeed, treated as a Dane, and as the son of Ragnar, not as a slave.

Saxon or Dane?

TLK_characters_nobug-600x338Though Ragnar treats Uhtred like a son, he encourages him to marry Brida (Emily Cox). Since she is a Saxon, Uhtred is confused: he thought to be a Dane, he had to marry a Dane. Ragnar tells him he’s seen how Brida looks at him, and tells him to take her before some of the other young respectable men who’ve been asking for her take her as their bride.

TLK_101_40Uhtred is attracted to Brida, as she is to him, and he does make love with her in the woods (no graphic sex or nudity), just obvious completion of the act and apparent love and happiness on the part of the participants.

But Uhtred is still apparently troubled by his place in the world: is he Danish or Saxon?

He asks Brida if she remembers anything about “before,” when they were “English.”

She says that she does not.

Before he can say what, if anything, he recalls, they are interrupted by voices in the woods below.

Danes — specifically, Sven and his father — accompanied by that rapscallion Scallion, are headed to Ragnar’s. Uhtred and Brida cannot ride their horses to warn Ragnar and his family without being heard, so they run home.

Unfortunately, not fast enough.

Sven kidnaps Thrya, burns Rvan and Ragnar’s wife and others to death (Young Ragnar has departed for Ireland, so it is assumed that he is safe), and Ragnar is killed in battle. While the marauders search for Ragnar’s gold, Uhtred, clearly on the side of the Danes, sees Scallion, and says one of the best lines of the show: I need to kill someone.

And kill Scallion he does, making sure Scallion sees his face and knows exactly who he is.

images-16Then in another lovely parallel scene, Uhtred and Brida ride to his ancestral home of Bebbanburg, throws the head of Scallion toward the gate at which his Uncle Alefric watches, and shouts that he is Uhtred, the Lord of Bebbanburg.

He may be Uhtred, Lord of Bebbanburg, which would make him Saxon, but he’s just killed a Saxon who was helping murder his Danish family, which would seem to make him a Dane. And he did the exact same thing to Scallion that Ragnar did to his Uhtred’s older brother earlier in the show.

So, which is he: Saxon or Danish?

I imagine this will be one of the major moral conflicts for Uhtred during the show.

Of course, I want to go out and immediately get all the books to see if they’re as finely written as the premiere of The Last Kingdom was, but I like blogging about shows adapted from books before I’ve read the books, so I’m going to do the same for this one as I did for Outlander: resist reading the books till the show is done. One critic called this show a combination of Vikings and Outlander. Since I haven’t seen the former, I can’t comment on that, but there is no comparison whatsoever to Outlander, which is so inferior as an historical drama, I don’t know how it figured into that critic’s comparison at all.

The Last Kingdom is wonderfully written and acted, and the premiere, which I watched several times, seemed to pass in a heartbeat: that’s how intense it is. The show airs on BBC-America on Saturdays at 10pm ET, and the site is being kind enough to allow you to watch the premiere, in its entirety, free. So you’re not supporting piracy of intellectual property by watching The Last Kingdom on BBC-America’s site (though you are if you watch it on the other video site, so please watch it on the authorized site). Clicking the title of the show in the last paragraph will take you to the official site and to episode 1. I’ll leave you with a look at the official trailer.


Filed under Actors, Books, History, Movies/Television, The Last Kingdom, Videos