There’s been a single question dominating The Last Kingdom for the last few episodes: when will Uhtred learn? Time and again Uhtred has sacrificed and made rash decisions in the hopes of reclaiming Bebbanburg as his own, and yet time and again he’s been given the short end of the stick. Sure, his loyalty to Alfred awarded him a wife and son, but as one of Alfred’s priests notes when he’s sent to fetch Uhtred, his land isn’t much to bear witness to. Uhtred has given up much for little in return, and his murderous rage at the end of last week’s episode was the physical manifestation of all his pent up frustration.
“Episode 6” doesn’t exactly deal with the consequences of that killing directly—more on that as the series continues—but it does present a different version of Uhtred. I’ve mentioned before that Uhtred is a conflicted man, one torn between his Saxon heritage and his Danish upbringing, but that’s not exactly right. He was never so much conflicted as he was a mix of identities and traditions. For Uhtred, there was no conflict; he considered himself both a Dane and a Saxon, picking and choosing how the two identities applied to his life and his choices. I’m backtracking on the use of “conflicted” because “Episode 6” seems to be the first time that Uhtred truly is torn between his allegiances. It’s not that he’s unsure who to fight for, but rather he’s torn between the two paths set out for him.
Throughout the series Uhtred’s goal has been to take back Bebbanburg, but as he reveals to Mildrith early in “Episode 6,” despite his title the Saxons will never accept him as an Alderman. He’s coming to the realization that no matter what he does to prove his loyalty, he’ll never be truly respected or treated as an equal. Uhtred is disillusioned, and it’s turning him into a more monstrous person, as he lashes out at Mildrith before taking off on a raiding mission. For all his wrongdoings, Uhtred has always had a big heart, but with each new episode it grows colder, and Uhtred’s face more weary than before.
Naturally, his disillusionment leads him to embrace his Danish upbringing, setting out for a raid on Cornwalum with Leofric, a tagging-along Aetholwold, and a number of other Saxon men. What follows is five days of fruitless searching, only for the party to then be confronted by a priest looking to hire Uhtred and his men on behalf of King Peredur. Peredur has lost control of a fort and is looking to get it back, and who better than Uhtred the Godless to do so. Initially, this plots feels rather superfluous, and the introduction of the King, along with his shadow Queen, Iseult, rushed and inconsequential. By episode’s end though, The Last Kingdom has done a good job of bringing all the plot lines back together, showing how Uhtred’s time away from Wessex has only emboldened his enemies rather than allowed time for his hotheaded behavior to be forgotten.
Still, the insertion of Iseult into the story is a bit jarring. When Mildrith was bethrothed to Uhtred, it came at the disposal of the wonderful Brida but it made sense from a storytelling perspective. It was the first of Uhtred’s many fruitless sacrifices and sets the stage for his more irrational behavior in subsequent episodes. In contrast, the romance with Iseult feels like a necessity of plot rather than an organic happening. Part of the problem is that there’s no time to really build any backstory. We meet the shadow Queen at the same time Uhtred does, meaning that his immediate attraction to her can’t help but feel somewhat unwarranted, or at least curiously out of place. Sure, he’s ready to move on from Mildrith and take up some sort of new life, but the storytelling feels hurried, which stands in contrast to The Last Kingdom’s otherwise deft touch throughout this season.
Despite the fact that the raid moves the show away from its central narrative for a little too long, and hastily introduces a few new characters, “Episode 6” still holds together because of a few tense, beautiful set pieces. First there’s Uhtred riding with Peredur to reclaim his fort, only to realize he wants him to fight an army of Danes. Uhtred meets with their leader, the vicious Skorpa of the White Horse, a man labeled a Lord of War, and forms an alliance and turns on Peredur. It’s a stunning sequence, the camera staying low to the ground and shooting up, the brutality unfolding against the backdrop of the blue sky and the burning sun. Plus, Skorpa bites a man to death like he’s a regular on The Vampire Diaries, so consider me appropriately excited. The fact that Skorpa later turns on Uhtred and makes off with the silver, while leaving Iseult, only adds depth to the scene, showing that Uhtred’s conflicted nature leaves him in limbo, outsmarted by Alfred and outmuscled by Skorpa.
The second set piece is the episode’s final cliffhanger. Having returned from his raiding, where he’s also settled his debt for Mildrith’s land and been assured he will no longer be tried for the murder of Oswald, Uhtred is beckoned to Wessex to confront new charges against him. He’s being held accountable for killing Saxons and for raiding, but lies permeate the council. Uhtred’s crimes are punishable by death, but as a warrior, Leofric, once his friend but backed into a corner now, offers to fight him to the death, a noble way to end Uhtred’s trial. After all, a fight to the death is ultimately decided not by skill, but by God, according to the Saxons.
It’s a thrilling scene, with lies and half-truths being thrown around without hesitation, Uhtred unable to keep up with it all and defend himself. The tension builds and builds until Leofric suggests the fight to the death, and that’s where “Episode 6” ends, with the two men set to due battle the next day. “Episode 6” may be a bit more unfocused when compared to previous episodes, but it certainly doesn’t lack for tension and excitement.
- I hated spoiled Aethelwold, but I love comic relief Aethelwold.
- Great thematic undercurrent musing on the crippled morality of religion this week. There’s Uhtred easily paying off (or buying off) his debt to the church. Also, the priest treating Mildrith’s situation as a good thing, as her land will be given over to the Saxon church.
- More Skorpa please!
- Aethelwold ask Uhtred to critique his battle performance: “You’re as much a warrior as you are a King.”
- The worst part about Uhtred leaving Mildrith is that she’s going to go back to gross Odda.