This review contains spoilers.
If that were the final ever hour of The Last Kingdom—and with the show on such excellent form, I dearly hope it won’t be—it would make a fitting finale. After painful tragedy and thrilling action, episode ten gave an answer to the drama’s central question. Is Uhtred Saxon or Dane? Thor’s hammer, or Bebbanburg amber?
Both, of course. “My name is Uhtred, son of Uhtred. My name is Uhtred Ragnarsson,” he concluded by the water’s edge, “Destiny is all.” Just as Hild had assured him in the previous episode that he was father, husband, warrior and more, Uhtred made peace with his dual cultural identities. It was a key conclusion both for the character and for this series, which has rallied for tolerance, inclusivity and union every chance it’s had.
Thyra’s tragic death was an object lesson in how intolerance and division spread by those in power enables racism and bigotry. Aethelwold may not have lit the fire or called her a Dane whore in public, but his conscienceless scheming created the hostile environment in which Thyra was persecuted to death. The loss of her not only sharpened poor Beocca’s appetite to fight, it was a rousing reminder to all of us that we all need to battle intolerance wherever it’s found.
The whole episode, the whole series even, was a lesson in unity winning out against isolationism. Like a bloody, violent retelling of that old Stone Soup folk story, it was a reminder that we’re stronger together than apart. The united forces of Mercia, Kent and Wessex, managed by Uhtred’s strategic nous, were able to fend off the Danish troops. If one part of that union had broken, or decided as Lord Sigebriht planned, to look only after their own, the whole thing would have failed.
The Danes failed. The fact that I’m writing this today in English not Danish is something of a spoiler for that. Against a united front (and back, and sides – a triple decker death sandwich!) those hairy warriors folded like ironing boards, despite being more numerous and higher-energy than a group of Haribo-ed up year sevens on a school trip. Every time we cut to the Danish camp, they had their swords in the air and were hooting and screaming like the crowd on ITV’s Gladiators. It wasn’t enough for them to win. For that, The Last Kingdom teaches, you need something to fight for other than silver.
The Saxon preparation for that final battle (directed with mud, blood and guts by Ed Bazalgette) was more cerebral, with a tense, impromptu public forum in which Edward took an all-important step in going from Aetheling to Rex by finally standing up to his mother. It was a gripping scene that gathered together all the major players in one location to thrilling effect to answer another question central to series three. Was Uhtred in, or out? Would he wash his hands of Winchester, a place he’s been held captive more times than he’s had hot dinners at the Two Cranes Inn, or would he stay and fight?
Did you really need to ask? Unlike Cnut and Haesten (both of whom appeared to survive the battle), our hero is a man of honour.
The same can’t be said for Aethelwold, whose lower-than-a-snake’s-belly-plotting led him only to the pointy end of Uhtred’s sword. It was a mercifully quick and unavoidable death. Actor Harry McEntire has been tremendous in the role, and even through the prosthetic, managed to convey the pathetic fear that drives his character as he pleaded desperately for his life. Aethelwold won’t be missed, but McEntire will be.
Until, or if, it returns, this whole show will be missed. The second half of series three has been excellent. Creator Stephen Butchard has used Bernard Cornwell’s novels not only to entertain and involve us with characters we care about, but also to tell us something about the England of today. Funny, perceptive, emotional and painful, this run of episodes has been The Last Kingdom’s crowning achievement.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here.