A surprisingly introspective episode sets us up for a doozy of a finale, all while showcasing The Last Kingdom‘s best elements.
Let’s bitch it out…
Here we are at the penultimate episode of The Last Kingdom’s first season, and while it has been a wild trip getting here, it has also been a remarkably focused one. ‘The Sack Of Wessex’ showcases much of what makes The Last Kingdom so great: nuanced performances by the actors, wonderful small scenes that build and flesh out the characters and the world they inhabit, set-piece battles, “big picture” politicking and strategy, a touch of humour, and economic storytelling that imbues every scene with a momentum that carries you into the next. While ‘The Sack Of Wessex’ starts of with a huge pivot-point for the story, at its core it’s an introspective look at how Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) and Alfred (David Dawson) prepare for the challenges in the remaining episode and seasons to come.
The episode opens with with Uhtred and Leofric (Adrian Bower) coming to terms with the fact that the next morning one will kill the other. They’ve been sentenced by Alfred to battle to the death, and the scene, while short, is deceptively complex. There’s the standard posturing, but it masks the fact that each man is trying to come to terms with having to murder his best friend. At the same time, both makes no bones that they will be fighting to win. Leofric, in particular, won’t be laying down his life in some grand sacrifice. Nope, he’s in it to win. Fate, religion, and honour are all gently touched on here; these themes are continually referenced throughout the episode.
Alfred is smart enough to realize that losing at least one of his best warriors isn’t in Wessex’s best interest, so the morning of the fight he offers Uhtred an “out”: if Uhtred sends Iseult (Charlie Murphy) back to Cornwall and resumes his debts to the crown, Alfred will nullify Uhtred’s crimes. Of course our overly proud hero refuses the offer, so the fight is on.
As Leofric and Uhtred face each other the fight goes back and forth; while they dual, the Vikings (including Emily Cox’s Brida) use the opportunity to sneak up on the capital and attack. With the Danes rampaging through the city, Alfred and his retinue flee while Uhtred, Leofric, and Isuelt escape together. Ultimately the two groups meet up again in the Marshlands where the rest of the episode takes place. It’s here that things get introspective.
We see a lot of Alfred this episode. His newborn son is deathly ill, and no amount of praying can heal him. Running out of options, Iseult offers to use her skills to heal the baby, much to the terror of Alfred’s wife who is a joyless and pious Christian. Shit gets downright existential as Alfred and Uhtred debate the future of England, Edward (Albert’s sick son), God, the universe and everything. Alfred fears why the prayers aren’t healing Edward; after all if God is on his side but won’t heal an infant, what does that say about England’s future? Uhtred wonders why the Saxon’s can’t realize that their God – if he exists at all – created the Danes the same as he created the forests and oceans and Saxons.
It sounds tedious, but isn’t. The writing is sharp and the performances are nuanced, especially David Dawson as Alfred, and the scenes are intercut with what’s happening back in Winchester with Guthrum (Thomas W. Gabrielsson) and the rest of the Vikings so things move briskly. At any rate, it’s clear that Alfred’s not sure what’s worse: losing his sick son, or having him successfully healed by “pagan” medicine.
In this small encampment in the marshlands of Wessex, The Last Kingdom once again wonderfully represents at the individual level the cultural and religious changes that are sweeping the entire country. Meanwhile in the “big picture” side plot, Alfred realizes that his only hope to save Wessex – and England – is to lure the Danes into one last battle, a battle around which he can unite his forces to deliver a final blow to the Vikings. Not exactly subtle foreshadowing for the finale. Uhtred comes up with a plan to burn the Viking ships, and force them into the battle Alfred wants. There’s some great action in the last few minutes of ‘The Sack Of Essex’ as Uhtred once again takes advantage of the Dane’s emotional instability to goad them into an ambush.
It looks like everything is all set for the Big Battle next week, and while I’m excited to see the two armies clash, I’m more interested in seeing where Uhtred, Alfred, and Leofric end up.
- Iseult shows some serious chutzpah by asking the king if he “passes blood from his arse.” Bravo.
- I haven’t met one of these Viking bad guys that I haven’t had a blast watching. Ubba (Rune Temte): straight-up crazy. Guthrum: Calculating and crazy. Skorpa (Jonas Malmsjö): Cannibalistic and crazy. Crazy is a recurring theme.
- Finally, it is super satisfying to watch Guthrum shoot down Aethelwold’s (Harry McEntire) attempt to usurp the crown.
- Brida, to Leofric: ‘How did you manage to get such a big head into such a small helmet?’
Leofric: ‘It was necessary.’
Your turn: Whose been your favourite Viking bad guy so far? What are you looking forward to most in next week’s episode?
The Last Kingdom airs its first season finale next Saturday at 10pm EST on BBC America (in the US).