The Last Kingdom is BBC America’s entry into the crowded television fantasy/history genre, but does it have enough clout to dethrone Game of Thrones?
Let’s bitch it out…
On a grim medieval battlefield a boy watches as his father is slaughtered by an invading army of godless pagans. The invaders burn, rape, and pillage their way across the land with impunity while multiple kings with hard to pronounce names, unable to unite against the greater threat, fight amongst themselves for control. And so the stage is set for the premiere of season six of Game of Thrones. Just kidding! This is the 9th century England of The Last Kingdom. While Game of Thrones may be the current sovereign of period dramas, The Last Kingdom, based on Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories series of novels, brings the harsh and grim world of England in the late 800s to life.
Episode 1 begins in 866. England, not yet a unified country, is divided into a number of small kingdoms and infighting between the different lords is endemic. The invading Danish vikings are using this to their advantage and are quickly conquering territory. According to the show’s opening credits only the kingdom of Wessex remains standing against the Danes.
Our protagonist is Uhtred of Bebbanburg (young Uhtred is played by Tom Taylor with Alexander Dreymon playing the elder version) , the son of a nobleman in the English kingdom of Northumbria. When the Danes threaten their territory, Uhtred’s father raises an army and meets the Vikings in a violent and graphic battle where he is promptly out-maneuvered and killed. The orphaned Uhtred is captured by the head Viking, Earl Ragnar (Peter Gantzler) whom he wins over with his resilience and fighting spirit. “Are you sure he’s a Saxon? He fights like a Dane,” proclaims one of Ragnar’s men.
Uhtred is initially overwhelmed by the brutality of the Danes (there ain’t no party like a post-battle Viking party!), but the show carefully complicates the Viking stereotype by contrasting their brutality with their tight-knit social structure, honour code, and Ragnar’s compassion and protection. At the same time, we learn that the English are not the epitome of civilization that they think themselves to be. Uhtred’s uncle schemes to buy the boy back from the Danes in order to rule Northumbria, by proxy (at best) or by disposing of Uhtred (at worst).
These aren’t the most original plot developments, but they’re done well here, and help create a world made up of shades of gray. There’s no simple black and white, and the writers are clearly setting up a landscape of constantly shifting loyalties, allegiances, and moralities for young Uhtred. In fact, this whole episode serves as an incredibly efficient “prologue” to the rest of the series. In 55 minutes, we are given all the political, historical, and personal background we need to understand where we are going in the next 7 episodes, but also where Uhtred has come from himself. Just about every scene in ‘Episode 1’ has Uhtred at its core. We view all events from his perspective, and while he’s central to the story, at this point he’s very much caught up other people’s motives without being an active force in his own right. I suspect that this will change in the episodes to come, but for now it’s entertaining simply being caught up in everything.
Ultimately, Uhtred is raised as a son by Ragnar, who treats him better than his own father did, and he aims to marry a Dane to “become a real Dane.” Unfortunately his Viking family is wiped out in a coup, so Uhtred heads to Bebbanburg to take back the castle from his Uncle and share the story of Ragnar (whatever that means). The episodes ends with a great scene that bookends the beginning and the end of the episode perfectly.
I do have to address what is the only black mark for the show so far: the use of rape (or the threat of rape) as a shortcut for creating an evil villain quickly. The Last Kingdom literally positions a rapist (wanna-be rapist?) with an eye-patch as Uhtred’s nemesis, and it’s all so over the top that it stands out in a bad way. I get that 9th century England probably wasn’t a great place to be a woman and the incident in Kingdom’s first episode is not nearly as brutal as it could be, but after getting through season 5 of Game of Thrones, I was really hoping that I could go an episode of a fantasy/historical drama without a sexual assault; and much like the use of sexual assault in GoT, this only serves to forward and develop the story of a male character. It would have been just as lazy to make this particular character stab a bunch of puppies; it’s shoddy storytelling that mars an otherwise excellent hour of television.
At any rate, I’m eager to see where Uhtred’s story takes us in the episodes to come.
- The Danes really came across as sort of a super-cool “barbaric hipsters.” They all had cool facial hair, man buns, braids, tattoos, etc. The English on the other hand were a total bunch of nerds.
- This is seems like a pretty expensive show to hide at 10pm on Saturday nights. I wonder what the motive for that was?
- Arg, the names are tough to keep straight for the first ½ hour or so. I had to look up online what they were saying whenever “Bebbanburg” was mentioned. “Baberg?” “Babbadurg?” Now I know how folks who watch Game of Thrones without reading the books feel.
- I love how important religion is to both sides (plus how cynical some are about it). It creates a notion of a real clash of cultures. This isn’t just raiding parties… the Danes are a true threat to the English way of life (for better or for worse), which raises the stakes considerably.
- Boy oh boy, do the Danes ever know how to throw a party!
- I think I missed the motivation for Ragnar’s coup. It seems weird that years after “adopting” Uhtred, there’s a coup instigated by someone Ragnar pissed off 10 or 15 years ago. Vikings must really hold a grudge. Or did I miss that Uhtred’s uncle instigated it somehow?
- I LOVE Rutger Hauer as Viking Elder, Ravn; it’s sad that we won’t be seeing more of him.
- Uhtred went through, what, three name changes in this one episode?
- Lord Uhtred: “Danes. The Devil’s turds.”
- Ravn: “Men who take their orders from the Gods are unpredictable.”
Your Turn: So what did you make of the premiere? Are you looking forward to the series, or is to too much of a GoT copycat?
The Last Kingdom airs Saturdays at 10pm EST on BBC America (in the US)