This review contains spoilers.
How on earth did the real-life Alfred and Aelswith and Aethelflaed and the rest of them cope without the fictional Uhtred, son of Uhtred? As episode seven proved, they’re utterly lost without him.
As the person they turn to when things go wrong, Uhtred is basically everyone’s nice dad. He’s who they call to come and pick them up in his Volvo from a shit party after the last bus. He knows where everyone’s birth certificates are kept and why the car’s making that weird noise. Uhtred’s the one who tucks a tenner into their coat pocket when they hug him goodbye on a night out, slices off the heads of their enemies and negotiates their release from kidnap by bloodthirsty Danes. You know, dad stuff.
In his dad-like wisdom, Uhtred also knows that Aethelflaed and Erik’s kidnapping romance is doomed. However much she wants to make a new family with the drummer from Lamb of God, no daughter of Alfred could ever marry a Pagan – the King of Wessex barely let one rescue her. Not to mention that she’s already married to a pig’s arse whose humiliation this episode was sweeter than a MasterChef dessert special.
Usually, Aethelflaed and Erik’s love story would prompt me to point out that the speed at which The Last Kingdom tears through plot does it no favours (changes happen too quickly, character developments have no time to bed in, etc.…) but seeing as Aethelflaed’s what, sixteen years old, this all rings entirely true. One kind word from a guy with soulful eyes and toned upper arms at her age and I too would have chucked my family duty under the bus and packed a bag. That part’s a documentary.
Putting Beocca and Thyra’s story side by side with that of Aethelred and Aethelflaed is simply good storytelling. Every display of love between the former serves to highlight the lack of the same between the latter. Beocca and Aethelred each arrived back at the ransacked camp shouting their wife’s name, but while one’s cries betrayed anguish, the other’s betrayed only self-concern. “She’s the daughter of the king, they wouldn’t dare,” said the pig’s arse, clearly worried about how all this was going to reflect on him. Beocca, on the other hand, broke our hearts with his desperate tear-filled prayers and search for Thyra. Their reunion was so moving, it may even top minute 2:40 in this video for sheer unbridled romance.
If Ian Hart was terrific in that belter of a scene, so, later on, was David Dawson. Dawson is able to pull off that trick great actors have of showing exactly how much inner turmoil their character is suffering while keeping their faces millpond-still. Alfred’s panic and fear was contained under his kingly demeanour (well, not all of it. There was every chance he was going to pull a Liam Neeson in Taken when Aethelred first delivered the bad news), but we all felt how much he was suffering, no matter how much he tried to swallow it down with prayer and rationality.
The growing resentments and rivalries at the Winchester Witan made for a good watch this week. Odda the Elder laying into useless, arrogant toad Aethelred, much to the horror of Shady Macbeth, was a great moment, as was the pantomimic revelation of Aethelwold eavesdropping on Odda and Alfred later on. Whatever Odda has been planning in his cups, it doesn’t bode well for him. Nobody would take kindly to the suggestion that the best thing for all involved is for your beloved daughter to top herself, however sanctified it’d make her in the next life.
Over in Cookham, where Gisela added eel-fishing to her list of attributes (which so far includes: a sharp mind, solid gender politics, extreme physical beauty, good taste in shawls, and now angling), Uhtred welcomed Leofric’s nephew aboard the team before marching off to secure Aethelflaed’s release from Beamflot.
It was satisfying to be able to cleave apart the brothers Sigefrid and Erik during our time spent at Beamflot. Instead of presenting a united front of interchangeable beardy machismo, it was made clear that Sigefrid’s the rowdy bad influence, and Erik’s a sensitive sort more likely to write you an acoustic ballad about moonlight and love’s plight and not wanting to fight than to sexually assault you in your prison cell.
It was equally satisfying to see Aethelflaed successfully defend herself against Fat Tim Minchin’s attack, particularly so using the splinter-less royal bucket with which he’d earlier mocked her. That woman’s first decree as Queen should be to issue every woman in Saxon England with a night bucket and a knife. Lord knows they could use them.
Speaking of characters who deserve to have a bucket of piss thrown over them, Aethelred wasn’t having fun this week. The King of Mercia was insulted, KO’d, woke up in a pigsty and forced to eat dinner with his bum out. Terrific stuff. Toby Regbo was a sound casting pick here. Aethelred having a face that would have been used to advertise baby powder in the 1920s makes his slimy villainy all the more complex. His mealy-mouthed attempts to negotiate for his wife’s release were as pathetic as he is. If he got his way, Aethelflaed would be going from one jailor to another.
That’s precisely the kind of point The Last Kingdom has been making throughout series two, which has shown more interest than ever in how women were historically treated – as fields to plough, as bargaining chips, as walking piles of silver and as chattel. That was shown nowhere better than in this episode, in which a group of men sat around making fart jokes and debating the value of a woman as if she were a second-hand Ford Mondeo.
It’s enough to make you wish this was more fantasy than historical drama. What I wouldn’t give to see Brida, Hild and Gisela abseil in to Aethelflaed’s cell like a Saxon Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, snatch her up and leave all those important, powerful men for dust.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here.