9 reasons you should catch up with The Last Kingdom
Ivan Radford | On 19, Mar 2017
With The Last Kingdom back on BBC Two for Season 2, and Season 1 now available on Netflix UK, here are seven reasons why you should catch up with the entertaining historical epic.
1. It’s not Vikings
Another show about Vikings? After History and Amazon Prime Video’s accomplished series, you’d be forgiven for thinking another swords-and-shields drama is unnecessary, but The Last Kingdom is different – for starters, it’s not about vikings, but about England and King Alfred’s (David Dawson) attempts to get rid of his Norse nemesis and bring the country together. That means we don’t spend our time in Kattegat trying to sympathise with brutal warriors, instead hanging out in Wessex, which gives The Last Kingdom a welcome tone, voice and focus all of its own. And with Alfred already of age, we don’t even have crossover with Vikings’ characters, such as Ragnar Lothbrok. In short, you can still get your viking fix, without feeling like you’re cheating on your other Danish favourites.
2. It thinks big
Uniting the whole kingdom in the face of a viking threat? It’s only eight hours long, but the Beeb’s series thinks big, stuffing its script with endless characters from the pages of historical author Bernard Cornwell’s novels. There’s Alfred, Nordic leader Ubba (Rune Temte), Ubba’s second-in-command, Guthrum (Thomas W. Gabrielsson), a non-Lothbrok Earl Ragnar (Peter Gantzler), his blind dad (a brief turn from Rutger Hauer), nasty warrior Skorpa, Guthred (Thure Lindhardt), destined to be king of Cumbraland, Alfred’s wife, Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth), and Alfred’s nephew, Aethelwold (Harry McEntire), who is still bitter about not being king himself.
They all help to create a show with ambitious scope and, once you get past the initial, sprawling wave of people, a surprisingly coherent theme – a study of national identity, unity, and what it means to be English that feels oddly pertinent in 2017.
3. It acts small
Our focus, though, is firmly on Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon). Captured by a raiding party by Ragnar when just a boy, his family was killed by the cruel Kjartan, and he was raised by the vikings. It’s only later, as an adult, that the orphan finds himself under the wing of Alfred, who hopes to use his knowledge of viking weapons and culture to help fight them off. Uhtred, though, isn’t a man who thinks in such grand, sweeping terms – despite his bravery, he’s mostly immature and pig-headed, a rogue man running roughshod through the ages of history, mostly concerned with his own survival.
Alfred’s search for a national identity, meanwhile, is echoed by Uhtred’s own conflicted journey, which is given weight by the strong supporting cast around him. On the one hand, there’s Brida (Emily Cox), the bad-ass best friend of Uhtred, who chose the Danes over her former lover, and, on the other, Father Beocca (Ian Hart), Alfred’s most trusted priest, who also tutored Uhtred as a child.
4. Bloody action
A show about vikings wouldn’t be much of a show without some action, and The Last Kingdom certainly doesn’t skimp on skirmishes, with the English and the Danes repeatedly clashing, not to mention the tussles that Uhtred and his own little army keep getting involved in, as he seeks to reclaim some stake in English land – his birthright that was taken from him. Crossing paths with mercenaries, regional kings with hidden treasures and more, his quest winds up climaxing in the battle of Ethandun, which sees Uhtred lead the Saxons against Guthrum’s horde of Danes, a face-off that ultimately leads to a growing sense of appreciation for the English faith by Guthrum. That fusing of set pieces and substance is woven throughout the season, right down to Uhtred teaching the English how to use viking military tactics themselves.
5. Surprising deaths
All these battles mean a whole heap of surprising deaths – once the show gets up to speed, The Last Kingdom rivals Game of Thrones for shocking departures and a rapidly climbing body count. That ruthless approach pays off the further into the season we get, partly thanks to our increasing emotional attachment to Uhtred, who finds himself surrounded by loss, but also because it means the initially cumbersome size of the ensemble becomes whittled down to something easier to follow. The Last Kingdom may start off uneven, but the more people die, the better the show gets. Which only makes each one more satisfying.
6. The cast are great
The cast do a strong job of bringing to life the conflict, both political and personal. From the off, Matthew MacFadyen (making a disappointingly short appearance) sets the acting standard high, with David Dawson’s cunning but kind Alfred bringing weight to the historical plotting, and Dreymon’s charismatically irresponsible lead presence keeping us hooked. Best of all is Adrian Bower as scowling Saxon warrior Leofric, who grudgingly becomes Uhtred’s friend and fellow fighter – but still calls him “arseling” regardless.
7. The women are interesting
When it comes to historical dramas, there’s an annoying tendency for female characters to be overlooked and under-clothed, but The Last Kingdom gives us a number of intriguing, intelligent women, from Cox’s forthright Brida to Amy Wren as Mildrith, Uhtred’s wife, who is scorned, shirked and not afraid to stand up to him about it. All of that’s mostly thanks to Charlie Murphy’s Queen Iseult, Uhtred’s new love interest, who makes an immediate impression, despite only being in the season’s final few episodes.
8. There’s more history left to tell
Even once we’re treated to an epic climactic battle, there’s still far more history left to be told, as Alfred continues to pursue England’s strengthening political union. Indeed, creators Gareth Neame and Nigel Marchant have just returned for a second season, which already promises more bloody slashing and engaging storytelling.
9. It’s on Netflix
Season 1 of the show is now on Netflix, so it’s all there for you to binge on. Indeed, the streaming giant is now a co-producer of the series, owning the exclusive rights to the programme in countries outside of the UK – and seals of approval don’t come much higher than that.
The Last Kingdom Season 1 is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription. Season 2 airs on BBC Two on Thursdays.