This The Last Kingdom review contains spoilers.
The Last Kingdom Season 4 Episode 5
“I had looked to this moment for many years and now it is here, why do I feel that I want to cry?”
Aethelflaed’s surprise at her lack of schadenfreude on the occasion of her husband’s death is shared by us all. King Aethelred of Mercia’s downfall should have been a high day. That cruel coward’s final breath should have filled the streets with tumbling clowns, overflowing banquet tables and artist renditions of that excellent time he was forced to sleep in a pig sty.
But no. Some wizardry took place that meant on his deathbed, Aethelred cut a pitiful figure. He was lost, repentant, even gallant when he promised his wife the protection she sought for her daughter Aelfwynn – whom he claimed as his for the first time in memory. (The series has always hinted that the girl’s real father is the Dane Erik, with whom Aethelflaed fell in love while she was held captive by his brother Sigefrid in series two). In episode five, the pudding boy became… sympathetic, and all it took was a fatal amnesiac head injury.
That’s not all it took. It also took Toby Regbo’s finest performance in the role, a rich and surprising script by Martha Hillier, and lighting by DP Tim Palmer that made every shot of the dying Aethelred look like a Baroque painting of Christ. It all combined to give the character some last-minute humanity, offering viewers a surprising take on an old villain and the establishment of a new one.
That’s Eardwulf (Jamie Blackley), who may well have just committed the most sickening murder in The Last Kingdom history. We’ve seen countless swords slide into gullets and and endless victims choke on their own bubbling blood in The Last Kingdom, but there’s never been a sound quite as unsettling as that of Aethelred’s skull popping like a dropped egg.
It was a turning point for Eardwulf, who – enticed by the prospect of the Mercian throne – went from self-serving schemer to Slytherin Head Boy in a single episode. The distance between him and his sister Eadith (Stefanie Martini) has grown steadily since they were introduced as co-conspirators at the beginning of the season, and now, they’re on opposite poles. He’s a monster and she’s on the side of good, as proven by her aiding Aethelflaed’s escape.
Confined women, and the narrow paths available to them at this point in history, was the unifying theme of this episode – as symbolised by Aelfwynn’s caged songbirds (what else is a royal princess?). Seeded by the story of Aelswith’s changing fortunes after the death of Alfred, The Last Kingdom shows how the safety and status even of privileged women in Saxon England was dependent on the protection and wisdom of male relatives, both of which are in short supply here.
However unlikeable it makes her, Queen Aelflaed’s rivalry with Aelswith is only that of a woman striving to hold on to what power she’s temporarily afforded by her son and husband. Both women are caught in the same trap. The same goes for Eadith and Aethelflaed, though Eadith’s conscience made them allies instead of rivals. Why would this particular mistress help this particular wife? Because who better to understand being at the mercy of a brother’s questionable judgment and the lust of a man like Aethelred?
Aethelred’s mistress wasn’t the only one left in danger by his imminent death; Aethelflaed and daughter Aelfwynn faced threats to their freedom. “At best they will send you to a nunnery and marry your daughter to the highest bidder,” warned Uhtred, and it would have proved just so had Eadith and he not intervened. It’s hard to know which was the thematic line of the episode – Eadith’s “Women are used to being mistreated. We are taught to endure it,” or Aethelflaed’s “I do not wish to be confined.” Both are poster-worthy.
Giving Regbo’s moving performance its due, Millie Brady was the episode’s strongest player. Aethelflaed and Aethelred’s scenes had a quiet intensity, and Brady conveyed her character’s struggles – between duty and desire, fear, anger and pity – with a royal bearing. (The restraint it took not to laugh full in Aethelred’s face when he told her “I know I have not always treated you with kindness” was regality itself.)
Elsewhere, we met Uhtred’s daughter Stiorra, who, with her last-minute plan, appears to be a chip off the old block. There was warmth in reunions between parents and children, and in Father Pyrlig drinking away his problems in a pub, next to a snoring pig.
The real meat of the episode though, was its politics. Successors, Witans, betrothals, Ealdormen talking in circles and children being traded like a bag of silver. Mostly slow, quiet and intimate, it was a total change of pace from the exuberant action of the previous episode but no less gripping for it. The same deadly blows were struck, just using very different weapons.