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Misplaced heroism tears apart Uhtred’s life on The Last Kingdom

Illustration for article titled Misplaced heroism tears apart Uhtred’s life on The Last Kingdom

It was inevitable that after two episodes of frantic action and a furious plot pace that The Last Kingdom would take a step back and contemplate where it’s going. “Episode 3” is a much slower episode, one that’s more reliant on mood and deep thematic work than battles and chases to push forward storylines and character arcs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as “Episode 3” proves that while The Last Kingdom might be a bloody historic epic, it’s also a thoughtful period piece, one that’s as interested in telling nuanced, introspective tales of individual heroism and tested loyalty as it is looking to craft a grand-scale drama about English unity.

Such a focus on character rather than brutality is evident from the very opening moments of the episode. Where “Episode 2” ends with the Saxon army perched atop a hill waiting for their clash with the Danes, this week’s episode completely skips the battle and jumps right into the aftermath. It’s an intriguing decision, especially considering that The Last Kingdom has shown a propensity for well-choreographed and directed fight scenes—and there’s certainly nothing wrong with a little bloodlust when it comes to watching a historical drama—but it’s one that sets the meditative tone for the episode. This is an episode that’s chiefly interested in exploring themes of heroism and identity, themes that were certainly on the fringes of the first two episodes but that still remained largely unexplored. If The Last Kingdom is aiming to be more than just another historical drama in a market flooded with them, it needs to go beyond the surface appeal of its setting and atmosphere. By skipping the violence in favor of a more muted but still impactful approach to understanding these people and this time period, the show distinguishes itself as more than run-of-the-mill genre fare. There’s admirable depth here and it elevates an episode that could otherwise fall flat given how little the plot moves forward.

So much of the episode’s success is the pervasive, powerful musing on heroism and identity. While I’ve said in previous reviews that the show has done a remarkable job of crafting fully-realized characters in such a short amount of time, it’s not really until this week’s episode that the true depth of the writing and performances is evident. “Episode 3” largely concerns itself with Alfred taking over as King after the death of his brother in battle and Uhtred and Brida’s continually conflicted loyalty between the Danes and Saxons. At the heart of these stories is a personal, existential conundrum, one that hounds at Uhtred and Alfred even as they present a confident and assured exterior. Uhtred has the most obvious test of faith, loyalty, and identity; his very essence is steeped in both English and Danish culture.

Torn between those two sides, and really playing to both, Uhtred sees himself as a man motivated only by his own selfishness. After seeing both his biological (Uhtred) and adopted (Ragnar) father killed, he soldiers himself against personal connection and fealty. The Last Kingdom isn’t interested in only exploring how such torn allegiances impact Uhtred. In fact, “Episode 3” sees many of the characters surrounding Uhtred dealing with his selfishness and lack of commitment or purpose. It’s evident in small moments, like when Ubba and Guthrum look him over during negotiations with King Alfred, or when Beocca is shocked by Uhtred’s loose tongue when speaking to Alfred. And of course there’s the bigger moments, like when Brida, decidedly a Dane, must leave her love behind because his rash act of dedicating himself to Alfred for one year has left her abandoned. This sharp focus on pseudo-tertiary characters makes sure that The Last Kingdom isn’t just another story about a conflicted white male, this time dressed up in 9th century period garb, but rather a much more rewarding and layered story of many people during a time of great change and violence.

The show’s equally sprawling but personal focus means that just about every character beat feels consequential. Brida having a miscarriage has the potential to be nothing but a moment of contrived pathos, a way to put the character (and Uhtred) through emotional turmoil, but the consistently patient character work means that the devastation is more than easy emotional manipulation. It’s a moment that foreshadows the separation of Brida and Uhtred, the fact that their “family” is literally being buried before it has a chance to live a dark omen for their relationship and a manifestation of the ever-growing divide between Uhtred’s longing for Bebbanburg and Brida’s plan to just run away.

Struggles with identity and loyalty dominate “Episode 3,” from King Aethelred’s son boasting about his noble claims without actually taking the responsibility of being an heir, to Young Ragnar returning and attempting to parse out whether Uhtred is capable of the crimes lobbied against him. The 9th century setting and the continuous Viking dominance obviously drives home the point that The Last Kingdom is about shifting values and questionable motivations, but it’s the character’s actions that pack an emotional punch and add welcome gravitas and detail to the more meditative plot elements in “Episode 3.” When Uhtred and Brida are separated at the episode’s end, it’s not just emotional because it’s the end of their current journey together, but also because “Episode 3” has spent most of it runtime showing how Uhtred’s rash choices have led to this separation, and how so many others, like Beocca, Alfred, and Ubba, are relying on Uhtred to continue to make such rash decisions. Uhtred’s selfishness, and his “I don’t give a shit” attitude, adds to his charisma, but it’s also his greatest weakness. “Episode 3” sees that weakness preyed upon, tearing apart Uhtred, his relationships, and the life he’s hoping to lead.


Stray observations

  • Great small moment when Beocca snickers at the Viking rituals Brida is describing. He obviously cares for Uhtred, but he’s far from lenient when it comes to accepting the Danish ways.
  • It’a always great when Brida calls out Uhtred, like when he’s boasting about how his knowledge helped the Saxon fight off Guthrum and Brida sarcastically (and angrily) calls him a “hero of Wessex.”
  • Uhtred on Beocca: “The priest doesn’t lie, despite him being a priest.”
  • Did Brida say that Young Ragnar’s ship, in her vision, was called the Windviper? Because that’s a damn cool name for a ship.
  • The Last Kingdom does a good job of contrasting the rituals and values of the English and Danes without presenting one as superior to the other. Tonight’s best example: King Alfred and Ubba preparing for the negotiations, where the former is being blessed by priests and Ubba is consulting his sorcerer about what he should demand.