It’s the ninth century and Wessex stands as the only English kingdom not to be seized by invading Danish forces. Uhtred, a boy of noble Saxon blood, is captured by the Danes after following his distant father into battle. He must then juggle his heritage and adopted culture to reclaim the land that is rightfully his.
Developed by the same production company as Downton Abbey, the Last Kingdom had been aired on BBC America earlier in the month to favourable reviews. At the helm is the trusty Nick Murphy, whose credits include last year’s crime serial the Prey, a frantic, Fugitive-esque ITV three-parter, and the BAFTA-winning 2009 drama, Occupation, which followed the British Army’s invasion of Basra.
Fans of the Saxon Stories books have bemoaned the lack of historical accuracy, as well as questionable loyalty to Bernard Cromwell’s source material. Saxons are shown brandishing Roman shields, and the show’s protagonist, Uhtred, has been changed from a blonde to a brunette. In spite of these translational hiccups, the season opener has many of the conventions you will have come to expect from the Nordic fantasy genre brought in vogue by Vikings and Game of Thrones.
There’s no skimping on the blood with numerous closeup shots of swords slicing through warrior’s limbs — even someone’s neck at one point, in plain sight. It makes a change from years of seeing swords come out of enemies spotless in Merlin and Robin Hood. And we have the typical rape and pillaging, banishment, betrayal, biting wit, but no dragons. I’m sorry.
The smoke-swamped battlefields speckled with flaming trees, other fiery settings, overhead forest shots and beautiful pastel-coloured, coastal scenery are easy on the eye courtesy of cinematographer Chas Bain. Numerous one-liners stem from the vikings lust for hurting people, such as old Uhtred frivolously muttering that he “needs to kill someone” whilst scouting invading forces, despite being vastly outnumbered. Such is the casualness of violence depicted in the series, a king decides to blind a culprit in just the one eye after learning that he stripped his daughter only half-naked. Very kind of you, sir. John Lunn’s soundtrack is somewhat similar to the howling numbers that accompanied Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, but often serves as a reminder of “show, not tell” during the episode’s more poignant and harrowing moments.
Tom Taylor continues to impress after his exploits in Doctor Foster as a son left in the dark by his deceptive parents. Here he plays a younger Uhtred, covering the timespan between his Saxon early years to being adopted — technically bought — by the Danes that originally enslaved him. Taylor naturally pulls off the jovial exchanges with elder clansmen and creates an authentic dynamic in the limited screen time he is given. (It’s worth mentioning that he is not scheduled to appear for the rest of the season.)
The surprise performance of the hour was Joseph Millson as Uhtred’s scheming uncle, who seemed destined to play cardigan-wearing dads in kids TV for the considerable future after his turn in the Sarah Jane Adventures. Millson looks set to play a significant part in the rest of the series and it’ll be fascinating to see what he can do with such a huge gig. That’s if the writers decide against channelling their inner Game of Thrones and have him fall off a cliff two minutes into the next instalment.
Cromwell’s novels have been criticised for not closing out the story despite now being on his ninth book. Hopefully the Last Kingdom won’t suffer the same stagnant fate whilst following Alexander Dreymon’s older Uhtred.
Quote of the episode:
“Did he die well?”
“Well he shouldn’t have been king.”