The next great binge-watching series on Netflix that is highly recommended is the BBC fare The Last Kingdom.
The series begins in the late Dark Ages in 866 A.D. Danish Vikings are rampaging all across England and in the south, the Kingdom of Wessex pretty much stands alone in trying to stem the tide of Danish forays.
The Last Kingdom is based on The Saxon Stories series of books by Bernard Cornwell.
The BBC financed the first two seasons, and Netflix has taken over the next two, which resulted in an increase in production values.
The fictional protagonist of the story is Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Born as Osbert, he is re-baptized as Uhtred after his elder brother is killed by the Danes. His father and other Saxon noblemen of Northumbria are killed in battle after the Danes take over the kingdom. Only his uncle and step-mother survive. Uhtred and a Saxon girl named Brida are taken as slaves by the Dane Earl Ragnar and raised as Danes.
As Uhtred and Brida are off in the forest making charcoal, a disgruntled Viking attacks Earl Ragnar’s hall while everyone in it sleeps. Ragnar is burned alive and his daughter Thyra, who was about to be married, is taken hostage.
This sets the tone for the entire series. Uhtred is torn between his vow to avenge his adoptive father’s death, while simultaneously hoping to reclaim Bebbanburg from his uncle, an uncle who vows to kill Uhtred to keep Bebbanburg for himself. Uhtred is forced to choose between the kingdom of his Saxon ancestors and the Danes who have raised him.
As Uhtred meets Alfred, the newly crowned King of Wessex, things really take off. The two are bonded throughout the series by fighting together and through times of betrayal and hate but always with respect for one another. At one point, Alfred tells Uhtred, “The birth of an England, the idea of a single kingdom called England, has to begin here. There is nowhere else.”
Uhtred, played outstandingly by German actor Alexander Dreymon, and Alfred, portrayed by David Dawson, stand out in a great ensemble cast. Mark Rowley plays Finan, the Irish right-hand man of Uhtred is similarly superb. While most of the European cast may not be well-known in the U.S., the writers spend time in some terrific character development.
Early in the series, it is all about the men, with possibly the exception of Brida, but as it goes along, the women characters rise to the forefront and take a much more active role in the story. Brida’s character changes from somewhat of an anti-hero to a cruel, villain, as her bloodlust takes over while living with the Dane Cnut, who plotted her previous lover’s death. While all of the women characters are compelling, Skade the witch, who appears in Season Three and is played by Thea Sofie Loch Næss, stands out. She and Uhtred steal every scene they’re in.
But, a word to the wise, don’t get too attached to the characters as the writers kill off many of them in the action.
The Last Kingdom Is Swords, Sex, Gore, and Intrigue
The intrigue, shifting alliances, and betrayal occur at a dizzying pace.
Furthermore, the series has plenty of action and, as Netflix took over, the battle scenes took on a much larger scale with a lot of severed heads and bloody gore. An opening battle scene in Season Four was especially excellent.
Many of the critics of the show, who haven’t watched it, call it a rip-off of HBO’s megahit Game of Thrones or The Vikings, but that is not true. The Last Kingdom, while having some of those same situations, stands on its own.
The photography is breathtaking, using sets in Hungary as the backdrop for the story. The costumes for the actors are terrific, with Saxons and Danes clad in furs, armor, chainmail, and leather.
The Danes, in particular, have been adorned with beads and metal studs woven into their beards along with some intriguing hair cuts. Whether these are historically accurate or not isn’t important; it just adds to the visual appeal of the show.
A couple of cameos are worth noting. As a young boy, Uhtred is trained in the Danes’ cruel, unyielding ways by the old Dane Ravn played by Rutger Hauer. And in a role perfectly suited to him, Magnus Samuelsson, formerly the World’s Strongest Man plays Clapa, an enormous Dane who is loyal to Uhtred.
The Last Kingdom is a nice blend of history and fiction. The Danes gleefully murder, rape, and loot their way across England, enjoying every second of it. The Saxons are initially portrayed as wimpy, effete, and ineffective, unable to take on the Danes until they adopt their brutal tactics and fight them on their own terms. Historically, this is not far off. The Danes, Swedes, and Norwegian raiders who spent centuries as the scourges of the shores of England were as tall 1,200 years ago as Western mankind is today.
There is plenty of humor, especially among Uhtred’s loyal followers like Finan. One of the great — if blasphemously dark — humorous moments occurs when Uhtred describes the differences between the Saxons’ version of heaven to the Danes’ Valhalla.
The Last Kingdom is about the clash of cultures between the Saxons and the Danes and one man’s struggle to find his own path while being part of both. It is an engrossing drama with plenty to satisfy everyone.
And the good news is that the crew is already at work on Season Five.
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