The Last Kingdom, which premiered on October 10 on BBC America, distinguishes itself from other historical programs — and there is a cluster of them — with quick camerawork, grounding establishing shots, and meticulous costumes. But that’s not it; the show also features empathetic characters and a plot that can harness TV fans from different genres. If the story is there, the viewers will follow. And Bernard Cornwell, whose novels make up the basis of the show, provides Murphy and company with punchy material.
Nick Murphy co-produces and directs episodes of The Last Kingdom. He wastes little time in plunging into the show’s narrative, too, for the story leaps right into a fiery war. There is little room for exposition, and little room for overt demonstrations of theme. From the get-go, Last Kingdom characters duke it out on a hilly battlefield, heads roll, eyes are gouged, and women are handled…carelessly. What does this sound like? There can only be one band of people this barbarous — Vikings.
While Kurt Sutter’s Bastard Executioner dwells on slightly esoteric history and seems to lumber on at points, The Last Kingdom starts amid a firestorm but dishes out a suitable hook for viewers to stake a claim on. Plus, Bastard Executioner tends to feature impulsive medieval characters, and much of what they do, the vengeance they disperse, seems unwarranted. Yet, in The Last Kingdom, much of what the main character, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, manages to accomplish in the show’s pilot already appears justified.
While you could resort to other historical programs — Vikings, The CW’s soap opera Reign, or BBC America’s own program Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or more magical fantasies like Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful, or Black Sails — the new BBC America series seems too promising to ignore. It’s well-rounded, aesthetically pleasant, and of course, features Rutger Hauer as a guest star in the pilot (you may know him from Escape from Sobibor or maybe even as William Earle in Batman Begins).
What may provide staying power for The Last Kingdom is the fact that it operates in a fairly accessible era — fans are always willing to delve into the age of Vikings. (Then, throw political hoops to jump through in there, and you may have a hit on your hands.) At this point, the show appears to be adhering to a loose sort of reality, for there have been no necromancers or healers depicted just yet. It may be a nice change of pace, too, for the enormous HBO hit Game of Thrones seems to control most, if not all, of the sub-genre.
In terms of writing, The Last Kingdom tosses a lot at viewers in the 75-minute pilot (which includes commercials), which is a particularly Kurt Sutter-esque technique. Like The Bastard Executioner writer, Kingdom showrunners unveil enough conflict(s), in a short amount of time, to fill a Danish king’s coffers. Yet the BBC America program seems to build toward the violence and the heartless back stabs; Bastard seems to resort to it intrinsically, sometimes too predictably.
Cornwell, who is also attributed writing credits on IMDb, along with Stephen Butchard, compose a swiftly moving, no-nonsense tale that will hook viewers — like Boardwalk Empire or Deadwood once hooked HBO viewers. Cornwell, king of contemporary historical fiction, is always sure to please, and so why should a visual adaptation of his work be any different?
This brings us to plot — elucidated more specifically. The episode begins as a Danish war party approaches a Northumbrian kingdom. Uhtred, the elder son, is killed by the fearless, unorthodox tribesmen/Danes. His head is placed at the gate of his father’s fortress. Then, the father, Lord Uhtred (Matthew Macfadyen) christens his youngest son as Uhtred, and hence his heir apparent.
The boy (Tom Taylor) wants nothing more than to follow his father into battle. When he is denied this right, he is put in the care of his uncle, Alferic (Joseph Millson), who secretly wants Uhtred killed. The arrogant Danes then take battle positions, drawing the “English” near. With the Danes’ impressive, mounted wall of shields, the English have a tough time breaching the line, and then are ambushed from behind by another group of Danes.
The “Vikings” then become marauders — killing Northumbrian kings, men, women, and children alike. Luckily, Uhtred is spared, for he showed up at the battlefield wanting to kill Earl Ragnar (Peter Gantzler), and demonstrates some warrior-like chops. Uhtred is taken into the care of the hegemonic Danes, who plan to colonize the English lands. Ragnar’s nuclear family also consists of Ravn (Hauer), who also takes a liking to the Saxon boy. After a botched attempt to sell Uhtred back to his family (his uncle, who now proclaims to be king), Ragnar retains the boy and raises him as his own. Slowly, the barbarous Danish invaders become something like antiheroes…
Years later, Uhtred is bred to be a Dane (Stockholm syndrome?), yet he still has sympathies to the people of the kingdom in which he was born. He also develops a romantic interest in fellow Anglo-Saxon captive turned Dane, Brida (Emily Cox), with whom he lies with toward the end of the episode. During this flare of romantic passion, however, Uhtred’s uncle strikes again, utilizing Danish dissenters to turn the village into a conflagration. Amid the flames, Ravn is mortally wounded, and Ragnar puts his wife out of her misery, and then falls only after striking a few traitors with his flaming sword — and flaming body. (He does not decide to “stop, drop and roll.”)
Pledging his revenge against the people who killed Ragnar, Uhtred says, “I need to kill someone. I choose him.” He focuses this anger on a slightly portly man, an agent of his uncle’s. After dealing with him, Uhtred and Brida ride off aboard their burly white mounts and head back toward Bebbanburg, so that the true alderman of his former shire can claim his title. Back in the Anglo-Saxon lands, it appears that only Beocca (Ian Hart), a cleric and confidant of Uhtred, will abet with the usurpation that’s sure to take place.
Be sure to catch The Last Kingdom on BBC America on Saturday nights at 10 p.m.
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