This The Last Kingdom review contains spoilers.
The Last Kingdom season 4 episode 2
Ptang, squelch. And that’s it for Aelfric. After decades of enmity, the much-hyped showdown between uncle and nephew ended with a single crossbow bolt fired by neither one of them. What’s the term for that? Premature gratification? It’s the result we all wanted, but over too quickly.
The Last Kingdom has never been one to take its time. Chomping through two books a season, it’s a galloping kind of show, riding the length and breadth of the country with its sword held aloft, screaming through chapters as it goes.
Emotional turnarounds tend to happen quickly or off-screen, or not at all. As yet, we have no idea why Aelfric banished his son and why Wihtgar returned to kill him. All the better to surprise us with. More context though – even a single scene between the newly reunited father and son to show us a little of their conflicted relationship – might have made that surprise richer when it arrived.
Similarly, Young Uhtred’s shift from seeing his father as a Pagan murderer to falling into line with his plan happened in minutes. The boy’s internal conflict found no expression on screen. He hated his father, planned to save his soul, and then heroically declared himself his heir. Was Father Beocca’s speech on bending the biblical rules when it comes to villains all it took? Or did the Bebbanburg blood in his veins simply boil over?
Psychological depth may have been missing from the assault on Bebbanburg, but excitement and action were in plentiful supply. From Uhtred’s Indiana Jones-style roll under the gate to the guards efficiently dispatched as Finan and co. infiltrated the fortress, there wasn’t a second to breathe out. After the arrival of Wihtgar’s motley south seas crew with their “weapons of the desert”, we knew Uhtred and his men were in trouble. It was tense, well-choreographed, sustained action.
More of that came courtesy of the boys’ adventures up north (“They do not love a priest in Grimsby”), and Cnut and Brida’s bloody assault on Aylesbury – another swords and squelch-fest that culminated in the couple treating the Mercian palace like an Airbnb, raiding the cupboards and humping on Aethelred’s bed. Well, it’s not as if he and Eadith (who proved herself this episode to have many more scruples than her ambitious brother) were using it.
The thrills were complemented by the more meditative half of episode two, which let us inside a character’s mind with great success.
Aelswith has always felt a rather thankless part. She’s the most humourless, action-less character in a show that thrives on humour and action. Her pious hatred of Uhtred makes her an antagonist, but she’s neither as exciting as a blood-drinking Viking, or as treacherous as the other scheming Saxons. Even so, actor Eliza Butterworth has managed to convey Aelswith’s inner life and struggle in even the briefest of scenes. Here, she was finally given a plot of her own, and it paid excellent dramatic dividends.
Aelswith attempting to atone for her past mistakes gave the character some long overdue development. Realising her error in allowing Lord Aethelhelm into the court, she searched her conscience and found more sin, including the banishment of Edward’s first wife and children. Divorced from her faith-based certainty that her every decision was a holy one, Aelswith softened in doubt. Her empathy overtook her piety, and her Alfred-like struggle to be both holy and human was totally engrossing, as seen in her meeting with her first grandson.
Was that ‘Aethelstan, the first King of all England’ caption given to the boy on the staircase this show’s first ever historical spoiler? No matter. Don’t get comfy, weaselly Lord Aethelhelm. Your bloodline’s days on the throne are clearly numbered.
Can the same be said for Uhtred, who was left in a perilous cliff-hanger. He may be finally inside Bebbanburg’s gates with his hated uncle dead at his feet, but he’s somehow further away than ever from his goal. Destiny, you funny old so-and-so.