This The Last Kingdom review contains spoilers.
The Last Kingdom Season 4 Episode 1
Back to where it all began. There’s pleasing symmetry between this season four opener and The Last Kingdom’s first ever episode. Both start with Bebbanburg fighting off marauding invaders, both end with our hero vowing to reclaim the fortress from his usurping uncle, and in between, both see a boy plucked from his faith and thrown in with a band of warrior-strangers.
Making Uhtred’s son a devout Christian lost to his roots is a poetic way to reframe The Last Kingdom’s constant themes of family, faith and identity. It took three seasons for our Pagan hero to reconcile his warring Saxon/Dane selves, and now a kid with the same name as him is beginning the same process right from the start.
Young Uhtred (we definitely needed another Uhtred, it’s frankly too easy to follow all the names on this show) can also step into the gap left by Alfred. For years, Uhtred and the king of Wessex were two men divided by faith, neither understanding or respecting the other’s religion. Their reconciliation prior to Alfred’s death was all the more meaningful because of that, and now Young Uhtred can play the part of his father’s faith-antagonist.
Beocca will be a bridge between them, no doubt. What emotion there was in this busy, stage-setting episode was all down to Ian Hart’s priest, the heart of this show. When Uhtred bid Beocca farewell from the Abbey with the words “Thank you, father”, it was clear to everybody, including them, that he didn’t mean the honorific. The priest has been Uhtred’s most constant father figure, and if anybody can help him raise a wilful and rebellious son, it’s Beocca.
The Last Kingdom has long shown that family doesn’t mean blood relations. As proven by Aelfric and Aethelwold’s villainy, and the shady disappearance of King Edward’s firstborn, bloodlines, inheritance and the laws of primogeniture lead to resentment and betrayal. But with Uhtred’s sights once again set on reclaiming his ancestral lands, his thoughts have turned to his legacy, and to his eldest son (now played by The Crown’s Finn Elliot).
Our reintroduction to Aelfric was only a reminder of his villainy. This is the uncle who planned to have the 12-year-old Uhtred killed, bargained for his head as an adult and attempted to forcibly marry the woman Uhtred loved. Aelfric’s still every inch the Sheriff of Nottingham-type, loathed by his subjects and disdained by his peers, fixated only on his divine right to have more stuff than everybody else. The ‘pep talk’ he gave to his men after the skirmish with the Scots showed Aelfric to be half the leader his nephew is. Where Uhtred inspires loyalty and promises his men rewards, Aelfric screams and spits, promising only punishment.
Cut from the same cloth is Aethelred, who’s currently ransacking the villages of East Anglia, having swallowed Haesten’s misinformation about Cnut having left for Ireland. He may well have an almost complete set of Saint Oswald’s body parts, but as Brida says, he’s only thinking with one of his own.
Enter: Eadith, something Aethelred’s desperate to do. The Lord of Mercia’s new mistress and her brother Eardwulf appear to be very much the Margaery and Loras Tyrell of The Last Kingdom. She’s a right sort using her sexuality for political influence while he’s a soldier in the closet (in ninth century England, the closet contained so many people, it could have been a kingdom entirely of its own), and they’re both trying to protect the family name.
Risking hers is Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia and Uhtred’s new lover. It’s not just sweaty candle-lit shagging for those two (though it is quite a lot of that). The look they shared at the Abbey after she gave him a plan to infiltrate Bebbanburg said love.
Worryingly though, so did the look Aethelflaed’s servant Aldhelm gave her when he picked her up from her dirty weekend in Cookham. “Lady, you know I do not speak in envy.” Man, you keep telling yourself that.
Also side-lined is Queen Aelswith, whose influence at court is humiliatingly on the wane. Eliza Butterworth is rarely given enough to do in The Last Kingdom, but she works wonders. Her delivery of the line “My new rooms are comfortable, if rather near the kitchens” said everything about the insult to Aelswith’s not-insignificant pride since Alfred’s death.
In the palace, Edward’s father-in-law’s feet are firmly under the table, much to everybody’s dismay. Will Father Pyrlig take Beocca’s advice to rid Winchester of the serpent in its garden before his influence grows further?
Politics, love, laughs, axes flying into faces, characters who can fill your heart with a look, and baddies you’re desperate to see punished…, it was all there in episode one. Welcome back, The Last Kingdom, you have been missed.