The Last Kingdom, BBC America’s new historical drama, tells the story of the ninth century conflict between Saxons and Vikings for control of most of what we now think of as England, through the eyes of Uhtred, a noble Northumbrian boy who is kidnapped and raised by the invading Danes. It’s based on a series of novels by Bernard Cornwell — but more on that in a bit.
First, let’s recap the plot of the first episode; I’m going to go fairly high-level here because a lot happens, and you presumably don’t want to read thousands of words of me trying to describe battles. So! We start in Northumbria in 855, with Earl Uhtred and his family, including sons Uhtred and Osbert. Viking ships are headed their way, and Uhtred Sr. sends Uhtred Jr. to do some reconnaissance but not to engage — so of course Uhtred Jr. engages and gets himself killed. The younger son is promptly rebaptized Uhtred, and this, the third Uhtred we meet, is the one this story is actually about. (This was not the least confusing start to a show I’ve ever seen!) The father goes off to fight, leaving Uhtred in the protection of his trusted priest Beocca his uncle — who is of course plotting against him; it’s all very Lion King. The father dies in battle soon enough and Uhtred is kidnapped by the Vikings, which turns out to be a much safer fate than being left with his uncle. He’s raised by an earl named Ragnor, and he’s technically a slave, but more or less raised as a son, and the family includes children roughly his age as well as a female slave named Brida.
The children play war games, as is natural, and at one point a bully named Sven ties Ragnor’s daughter Thyra to a tree and rips her dress to her waist. It feels weird to say I liked that, but I thought it was a perfect way to help establish the horror of this world, and that it was the kind of “game” that should probably show up more often in shows about people at war — of course the kids growing up watching their parents pillage and be pillaged would include simulated rape in their “play.” Uhtred stops Sven, and when Ragnor finds out, he cuts Sven’s eye out and banishes his family. Sven’s father runs to Uhtred’s treacherous uncle, who had assumed Uhtred dead; now he tries to ransom him. Family priest Beocca makes an excuse to talk to Uhtred and tells him a) that his uncle will kill him and b) to run to King Alfred in Wessex. Luckily, Ragnor buys Uhtred instead, and tells him he’s now his son.
We then flash forward: I missed the exact year, if they showed it, but Uhtred is a young adult, and his foster-sister Thyra is about to marry. This prompts Ragnor to ask Uhtred when he’s going to hook up with Brida already — I’m paraphrasing but only barely; it’s pretty hilarious — and Uhtred, bless him, replies “Brida has her own mind.” Nevertheless, they have a romantic encounter in the woods that night — and so are conveniently out of the way when Sven’s family attacks Ragnor’s settlement, killing many (including Ragnor) and capturing Thyra — the same girl Sven assaulted as a child. Uhtred and Brida are left, hiding, wondering what to do. (Uhtred: “I need to kill someone.” Brida: “No.” I love her.) Instead, they dig up Ragnor’s buried treasure. Brida suggests they find a new lord to serve, but Uhtred instead says he’s going back “to the beginning:” He delivers the head of his uncle’s henchman to his uncle at the castle that should be his and says he’ll take what’s his.
I definitely enjoyed this first episode, and while it obviously burned through a lot of plot, it also set up some themes I’ll be interested to trace through the season. Uhtred is obviously torn between two cultures, and the most obvious example of this is in the treatment of religion: there’s a general dichotomy between religion and pragmatism as well as the specific conflicts between the Christianity of Uhtred’s birth family (and Beocca) and the paganism of his adopted people. (They seem weirdly tolerant of Uhtred’s Christianity, I have to say.) Beocca also talks a lot about the importance of the written word, which sets up another thematic question: Who writes the story? History is written by the victors, we’re told, but Beocca believes history to be written by the literate, and therefore that rulers should learn to read and write just as they should learn to fight.
Speaking of reading! As I mentioned, this show is based on Cornwell’s Saxon novels (the first of which is called The Last Kingdom), and while I don’t think adaptations should be judged solely on their faithfulness, and absolutely think they need to stand alone, I thought it would be interesting to read along and discuss the episodes in this context as well. (It also helps me keep the names straight.) The novel spends even more time on Uhtred’s childhood than the episode did, which makes me wonder whether this season will be based just on the first book or on multiple books. A few of the differences that have jumped out at me so far: Brida shows up much later; the order of the clash with Sven and the failed ransom attempt are switched, so the causal relationship between those events is not in the book; Beocca doesn’t mention Alfred; the political situation is (understandably) simplified on the show.
I did notice one difference that’s pretty major, but I’m not yet sure what it means: as mentioned above, the show starts in 855, but in the book, the same events happen in 866. This means that book Uhtred is six years younger than Alfred, but show Uhtred should be four years older than the king. And yet in this episode Beocca tells Uhtred about Alfred — a scene that does not happen in the book — when Uhtred is still a child; Alfred’s reign didn’t actually start until 871. I know this is nitpicky, and I’ll let it go if it seems like it’s just a random inaccuracy going forward, but messing with the fictional character’s timeline to contradict that of the very famous, nonfictional king is a bizarre choice if there’s not some reason for it. (It’s also possible that I misread the year in the episode. If anyone saw something different from 855, let me know!)
(Image courtesy of BBC America.)