This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
‘Sblood, zounds, fustilarian… of all the historical expletives drama has taught us over the years, I think I’m going to get the most use out of “Devil’s turds”. That’s how Saxon Lord Uhtred (Matthew Macfadyen modelling a hawk) describes the Danes spotted sailing into Northumbria in the tense opening moments of BBC Two’s new Viking-era drama, The Last Kingdom.
He’s not being overly harsh, as it turns out. From the off, the Danes behave in an unquestionably turd-like manner. Their idea of teaching you a lesson is to swagger up to your dad’s house looking like a Bungle after a spin in the tumble dryer, and pulling your decapitated head out of a bag. That’s the fate of poor Uhtred, son of Uhtred, necessitating his dad to move his second-born son Pez dispenser-like up the line of succession and christen him anew. The name he chose? Uh, Uhtred.
It only goes downhill from there, and it’s not long before Lord Uhtred is Lord Uh-dead with a bolt hammered through the back of his Uh-head. When it came to military engagement, you see, the Saxons barrelled into battle with the strategic finesse of a week one team on The Apprentice (team name: Saxonus “it means really bad at battles in Old Norse”), and were quickly foiled by the interlopers’ ability to hide both behind their shields and down a hillside.
That left young Uhtred 2.0 (Tom Taylor, one to watch) a Danish hostage. A hop, skip and a jump down the timeline later, and Uhtred 2.0 is a strapping young man (Alexander Dreymon) and more importantly, an adoptive Devil’s Turd, or Dane, if you’re being fussy.
Thus is the hero’s conflict in The Last Kingdom established. Uhtred was born Saxon but reared a Viking. Which will win out? (For the purposes of illustration, Uhtred has two symbolic amulets—one Saxon, one Viking—to pull out and furrow his brow over from time to time.) Over the next nine episodes, will he help his adopted kin conquer England’s last kingdom of Wessex, or join forces with his blood kin to give the Danes a hiding and force them back whence they came?
As things stand, both of Uhtred’s Ugg-booted feet are firmly planted in the Viking camp, which happens to have just been burnt down by a lackey of his uncle’s (Joseph Millson playing Scar from The Lion King) and a Dane with a grudge and a ponytail that appears to run diagonally from the crown of his head through his skull, emerging at the tip of his chin. Uhtred’s final act of the episode is calling out Uncle Scar with a repeat of the Bungle/tumble dryer/decapitated head trick, and riding off into the Northumbrian distance with a box of his adopted dad’s silver.
The Last Kingdom has plenty to recommend it, not least a healthy serving of properly squelchy violence. The battle scene in which the Vikings lined up on either side of the Saxons to form a kind of death sandwich, was brutal, bloody stuff. Lord Uhtred’s death—a sword plunging out from his head as if we were watching in 3D—was particularly gruesome. But it was nothing compared to Ragnar’s flaming, sword-swinging kamikaze exit. Let’s hope they have Savlon in Valhalla.
It wasn’t just soldiers getting gorily offed either, with a surprising amount of violence meted out to minors in episode one. Marauding Danes, as it turns out, weren’t big on pre-teen safeguarding.
It was an efficiently done thing, this episode, setting up all the traditional conflicts, rivalries and romances required for the coming weeks. It looked a treat too, England evoked with desaturated, desolate landscapes, and the rival camps clearly characterised so as to make an easy distinction.
The cast was also strong, though it’s a pity its early highlights, Rutger Hauer as wise, blind Ravn, and Tom Taylor as the young Uhtred, aren’t coming back. At least Ian Hart’s priest survived to live another day. Fingers crossed, we can look forward to Uhtred’s companion Brida (Emily Cox) having more to do than play the blockbuster love interest and urging the brave, heroic man not to do the brave, heroic thing in future, too.
Overall though, thumbs up to a promising, bloody start.
Now, who’s impressed I got through this entire review without a single mention of Game Of Thrones?