After announcing that a review of this BBC series would appear two weeks ago, I decided that I shouldn't risk spoiling things for any British readers of this blog. This eight-part miniseries, hopefully the first of several, aired in the U.S. two weeks ahead of its British broadcast schedule. It adapts the first two books of the prolific Bernard Cornwell's "Saxon Stories," nine of which have come out since 2004. They imagine the role played by a fictional hero, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, in the survival of the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex, and with it the idea of England, in the face of invasion and plunder by Danish raiders in the 9th century C.E. Uhtred is both Saxon and Danish; born the former, he is raised a Dane and a pagan after Danes kill his family. When particularly bad Danes kill most of his new family, Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) maneuvers between Danes and Saxons, seeking recognition as an aelderman and security in land. He is torn by his dual heritage, realizing his best hope of advancement lies with Wessex and its ambitious king Alfred (David Dawson), yet bristling under Alfred's authoritarian notion of Christian kingship and resentful of lingering suspicions of his ultimate loyalty. He has enemies in both camps: the Danish warlord Ubba (Rune Temte) and the Saxon noble Odda the Younger (Brian Vernal), who resents Uhtred's advancement and his arranged marriage to Mildrith (Amy Wren). He has lovers in both camps, not only Midrith, whose religious fanaticism and cultural chauvinism ultimately alienate her from Uhtred, but also the Danish warrior woman Brida (Emily Cox), his childhood playmate turned first lover, who can't cross cultural borders as he can, not to mention the "witch queen" Iseult (Charlie Murphy), a soothsayer Uhtred acquires and falls for while raiding Cornwallum with his ball-busting Saxon sidekick Leofric (Adrian Bower). Over the course of the series Uhtred becomes a more cosmopolitan if not entirely civilized figure, encompassing more of England's heritage than anyone else even if he's not sure what to make of it all, except to remind us at the CW-like opening of every episode that "Destiny is all."
One unintended consequence of watching The Last Kingdom was my decision to quit watching the American series The Bastard Executioner. Set several centuries later, during the reign of Edward II, Bastard was a poor imitation of British historical drama that lacked any semblance of authenticity. Nothing seemed right, from the over-familiar way in which everyone addressed nobility to the horrid accent Katey Sagal employed as this show's witch-woman. I tolerated all of this until Last Kingdom exposed how little actually happened on Bastard -- its main character was like a king on a chessboard checked on every move as he staggered from square to square --and how lousy all the acting actually was. Compared to Bastard's hero, Last Kingdom's Uhtred is a truly heroic, epic figure. Most importantly, he's a hero you can empathize with to an alarming extent. The Bastard Executioner was a self-pitying dope who looked like Thor's developmentally-challenged baby brother. He had a vengeance storyline to motivate him, but nothing like the rage Alexander Dreymon brings to Uhtred. While the rat-in-a-maze quality of Bastard Executioner only induced ennui, you empathize with the fury Uhtred feels at the forces that frustrate him. While I finally couldn't care what the BE did, I found myself rooting for Uhtred to take his frustrations out on the buttheads, barbarians and fanatics who made life difficult for him. I don't know if this is quite what either Bernard Cornwell or the BBC writers intended, but I found myself sometimes wishing that Uhtred would just throttle Alfred the f'ing Great. And this wasn't because I was sick of the show's complications. It was because actor and writers were so successful at getting us to identify with Uhtred's point of view -- and David Dawson nailed this Alfred's cold imperiousness -- even as we realized that history, if not justice on the show's own terms, were on the king's side. Why should Uhtred have to bow and scrape the way Alfred insists? Why should he have to humiliate himself in public penance alongside Alfred's feckless nephew? Because we in our secular age don't really get it ourselves, we empathize when Uhtred doesn't get it; it really does seem picayune and stupid to us. The Danes are little better; leaders like Ubba will kill you on the spot if you cross them, but at least they don't expect their own people to grovel before them.
Yet as the series builds to its tremendous climax, possibly the best mass battle scene ever made for TV, you see both sides evolving as Uhtred evolves. Alfred bends during a desperate time after he's driven from his capital and his son takes ill. Despite the opposition of his still-more devout queen, the king takes Uhtred's advice and entrusts his child to Iseult's healing arts. He learns, as Uhtred's military advice has already shown him, that pagans are not all evil and can be of help to him. On the other side, paramount Dane Guthrum (Thomas W. Gabrielsson) doesn't entirely share his compatriot's contempt for Christianity, recognizing the way it emboldens individuals and inspires multitudes. While Uhtred tips the scales in the Saxons' favor, Guthrum is willing to give God the credit and accepts baptism as part of a treaty with Alfred. As I said, a lot happens in these eight episodes, with a lot more to go if the BBC goes on to adapt the remaining novels. It's good to know that all those novels are out there if they don't, but I don't see why they wouldn't. The Last Kingdom is first-class television in the approved modern "serialized" style with a terrific ensemble cast. Adrian Bower's Leofric steals nearly all of his scenes in badass comic relief, while Rune Temte's Ubba is a truly frightening antagonist, topped only in loathsomeness by his late replacement, Jonas Malmsjö's Skorpa. Brian Vernal's Odda becomes more of a villain as the show goes on, while Harry McEntire as Aethelwold, Alfred's troublesome nephew, evolves enigmatically, always potentially a villain, almost always more certainly a fool, yet potentially still more as well. We won't see all of them again if the series resumes, but they leave us confident of what we'll see in the future. Anyone who starts watching The Last Kingdom should finish wanting more.