The third episode of BBC America‘s historical drama The Last Kingdom continued the show’s themes of both societal and personal culture clash as it catches the kingdom of Wessex at a pivotal moment of political upheaval. Thanks to Uhtred’s information, they do well in their battle against the Danes, but King Aethelred is mortally wounded. His generally disappointing son Aethelwold wants to be king, and young Odda tells him to go to the king’s deathbed and claim the king whispered he should be heir even if he’s unconscious. But he gets there too late – Aethelred is already dead – and tries to claim the crown anyway. He’s a terrible liar, and everyone knows that Aethelred actually bequeathed the crown to Alfred, so Aethelwold promptly gets himself sent away to a monastery for, um, “education.” He shows up again at the end of the episode, still claiming to be king. (Historical note! Aethelwold was actually a baby when his father died, so this . . . was not a thing. But he did try to claim the crown after Alfred died.) Alfred is a reluctant king, seeing the crown as a burden from the start. He’s still beating himself up about his affair with the servant girl, and his inability to eat meat is most un-kinglike. (Modern scholars think he might have had Crohn’s disease.)
So now, of course, Uhtred must decide where he stands vis-a-vis the new regime. Brida, who is actually much more of a character on the show than in the book, hates Saxon culture and wants to go back to the Danes, but Uhtred insists that they’re just trying to use Alfred (to get Uhtred’s land back), not join him. Alfred tries to tell Uhtred that since he’s the king of Wessex he doesn’t really have jurisdiction over Northumbrian disputes, but Uhtred very cleverly uses Alfred’s “one united England” schtick to claim rank and demand land. Alfred wants to use Uhtred just as much as Uhtred wants to use Alfred, and this tension – for how long can they use each other in peace? – is a major driving force in the narrative.
Meanwhile, let’s check in on the Danes! Ubba is upset that Guthrum went to battle without him, but I don’t think Guthrum really had a lot of choice. Alfred wants to make peace with the Danes, so he sends Odda to request a negotiation. Guthrum agrees but is hilariously unimpressed, and steals Odda’s horse, but agrees to meet with Alfred. Alfred, reasonably, wants Uhtred there on his side for this negotiation, to help him navigate Danish ways, so he gives Uhtred chainmail and makes Odda apologize and bow to him; Alfred’s contention is that Uhtred will be useful as a “specimen of the heathen mind in council.” He clearly doesn’t trust Uhtred, though – “Are you offering me your sword or are you selling me your sword?” – and he wants to sidestep Uhtred’s inheritance issue and tie him to Wessex by having him marry into land and a title. Uhtred resists, for now.
Alfred is anointed as king and he, Uhtred, and the rest head off to negotiate with the Danes; Uhtred does indeed help Alfred understand the Danes, to hilarious effect: regarding the bone one of the Danish leaders wears in his hair: “It’s his mother’s rib.” “How endearing.” Uhtred’s not an unmixed blessing, though, as Ubba sees him and wants his head. Alfred has his men transcribe the negotiations, continuing the show’s theme of the importance of literacy in controlling the message. Alfred tries to pay the Danes to leave, focusing on the idea of them losing men if they stay, as Uhtred advised, but they’re really unworried by this whole situation and the negotiations don’t change much.
Alfred is happy with Uhtred’s help, though, and seems to realize that a transactional approach toward Uhtred will probably be more effective: he gets Uhtred to swear a year’s service in return for a reward, though he carefully doesn’t quite define the reward, so I assume that will blow up in Uhtred’s face. He says that he wants Uhtred to teach his men about the Danes, because “fear can be expelled with knowledge.” And Uhtred does train the Saxon soldiers and teach them how to use a shield wall, etc., but in the book Uhtred realizes that Alfred’s real aim is to keep a Northumbrian lord around to bolster his claim to all of England. (Of course, both reasons can be true at once.) Alfred also wants Uhtred to marry Odda’s orphaned goddaughter Mildreth, which would both tie Uhtred to Alfred and Wessex and decrease the land over which Odda has control and therefore decrease his power. Clever! They don’t call him “Alfred the Great” for nothing, I guess.
As Uhtred becomes more entrenched in Alfred’s court, however, Brida is increasingly unhappy. She does some sort of Danish (I assume) vision-prompting thing – maybe an herbal hallucinogen? – and sees herself on young Ragnar’s ship – without Uhtred. She wants to leave to find him, but Uhtred won’t go. It doesn’t help anything that Alfred and Beocca see Brida as “the devil on [Uhtred’s] shoulder.” That’s undoubtedly part of why they’re pushing Uhtred to marry, and Brida is not happy about that, nor that Uhtred promised a year of service without talking to her. Her situation is made even worse when she has a miscarriage, which, by the way, happened in the book when she was still a young teen, while Ragnar was still alive. So when young Ragnar shows up, Brida is all too ready to give him his father’s treasure and go off with him. Uhtred won’t break his oath to Alfred, though, so he says he’ll join them later. I’m curious for how long Brida will be off-screen, as they seemed to set her up as the main female character and love interest. But hey, if they want to switch off to Mildreth, that could be interesting. We’ll see!
(Image courtesy of BBC America.)