As The Last Kingdom is now a Netflix-only deal, we’re reviewing the new series an episode a day. Please keep spoilers for future episodes out of the comments. Destiny is all!
This review contains spoilers.
No abbesses were harpooned in the making of episode eight. There were no big bloody battles, squares formed or shield walls raised. The conflict in this instalment was all theological, drawn from The Last Kingdom’s fundamental clash between Christianity and Paganism.
This far down the line, that cultural and religious battle is no longer embodied solely by Uhtred, the born Saxon raised a Dane. It’s a richer theme now, also enacted in Alfred and Aelswith’s discord, and Thyra and Beocca’s marriage. One half of each couple showed themselves to be pragmatists this episode, while the other two’s Christian beliefs wouldn’t admit any room for alternatives.
Thyra, baptised a Christian, clearly hasn’t forsaken the gods of her youth. Her fright at hearing that Ragnar was trapped in the icy realm of Niflheim and willingness to go along with Uhtred’s blood ritual was proof of that. Thyra’s Christianity is pragmatic, enabling her to marry the man she loves and live among Saxons.
As the big pile of excavated dirt outside their house proves, those Saxons haven’t exactly proved themselves welcoming. Feeling threatened in the coming instability, Thyra dug herself a hiding place, and well she did, for Uhtred’s sake. After a tense stand-off that reminded us once again that we love Finan, Aethelwold’s men were forced to leave dissatisfied. (It doesn’t do much for The Last Kingdom’s progressiveness to feature yet another facially disfigured villain, but something tells you that Aethelwold’s days are almost as numbered as his uncle’s.)
Most episodes of The Last Kingdom contain at least one perfect line, and this one came delivered by the terrific Ian Hart. When chided by Thyra for discounting her Pagan deities because, as she said, she did not dismiss his god, an exasperated Beocca pointed to the heavens and replied, “Because my god is God!”. It’s a simple, impeccable expression of religious certitude that illustrates centuries of historical and no doubt, future conflict. It’s an irresolvable stance: everybody’s god is God.
Aelswith’s God definitely is. Eliza Butterworth could be said to have drawn the short straw with Aelswith in terms of viewer popularity. The character’s inflexible piety makes her something of a buzzkill who spends her time complaining and trying to have our hero executed. She’s harder to like than, say, a Finan, but not fun to hate like an Aethelwold. She’s neither a warrior like Brida, Hild or Aethelflaed, or a familiar favourite like Beocca.
Butterworth’s skilled performance though, shows what a valuable character Aelswith is in depicting the faith of the period. This week’s prayer to keep son Edward’s rule pure of Pagan influence conveyed real desperation, showing how painfully ruled she is by her beliefs. Though pious, her husband Alfred is able to look past Uhtred’s heathen soul and see a powerful military strategist his son will need. Aelswith is simply distraught at the idea that Edward’s reign could become as compromised as her husband’s if soulless Uhtred is allowed to be a part of it.
She may have a point – he did drown a woman this episode. Though he wasn’t happy about it, and in the world of The Last Kingdom, Skade was more devil than human. Hot on the heels of the Sihtric twist, Uhtred pulled another trick by pretending to be under Skade’s spell. That’s the end of her pouting and plotting and attempting to make the gag-worthy act of drinking somebody else’s blood seem sexy. The curse is finally lifted, and frankly, good riddance. Skade was just a shade compared to this show’s rich characters, a cardboard cut-out bad, mad girl whose death added up to as much as her life, i.e. not much.
This may have been a quieter hour than previous instalments, but Uhtred’s return to Winchester gave it tension, and its focus on religious disagreement gave it focus. It also had beauty to spare – in the shot of Skade floating like Ophelia in the water, and in the final shot of Alfred looming silently from the darkness behind Uhtred. “The king is a ghost,” Uhtred had said earlier in the episode, and here, he looked every inch the spectre.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here.