What with all the shows about Vikings populating the airwaves these days, why not check out The Last Kingdom on Netflix? Loosely based on the struggles of the several Anglo-Saxon Christian regional kingdoms that existed prior to England’s unification in 927 and “the Danes,” as the pagan raiders from Scandinavia are called, the tale takes place starting in 866 and primarily focuses on Wessex in the south of England, where King Alfred, who would go down in history as Alfred the Great, rules.
BBC produced the first two seasons of the show, which aired in 2015 and 2017. Netflix then purchased the show and took over both distribution and production for seasons 3 through 5, with the show ending earlier this year. The program is based on a series of historical novels by English author Bernard Cornwell that rely in good part on the biography of Alfred written by ninth-century historian Asser in the 890s.
Alfred dreams of uniting all of England’s autonomous regions into a single nation-state. The principal obstacle to his dream: the Vikings. Decade after decade sees alternating periods of peace and war and the TV series settles on making this into an existential struggle between Christianity and the pagan pantheon of the gods of Aesir (Odin, Thor, and company).
The British Isles, ca. 866
The hero of the series, however, is not Alfred. Rather, it is a Saxon raised by Danes, Uhtred (nee Osbert), the rightful heir to the throne of Bebbanburg in Northumbria. Osbert’s evil uncle has disenfranchised him and usurped the throne. Captured by Viking invaders following a battle that kills his parents, Uhtred comes to be loved by his captor, Ragnar the Dane, and becomes an adopted son, growing up to be a doughty warrior who vows vengeance against his uncle and intends to reclaim his birthright to the throne of Bebbanburg.
But Uhtred’s quest will not be a simple one. Instead, he becomes involved in Alfred’s machinations and allies himself with the King, rising to head of Alfred’s palace guard and ultimately, commander of the army of Wessex. Most of the series presents numerous instances of Uhtred coming to Alfred and Wessex’s rescue as they are set upon by various Viking invaders. Yet, nonetheless, Uhtred refuses to accept Christianity, which sets him up for ongoing conflicts with Alfred and Alfred’s ultra-dogmatic queen. While the show received excellent ratings on Rotten Tomatoes overall, there were a few outliers, and I now find myself among them.
I fell out of love with the show and stopped watching during episode 2 of season 3. At that point, Uhtred had lost his third wife, who died in childbirth. It seemed to me that Uhtred was destined to lose one wife per season and frankly, I just could not see that as any kind of a plot device worth pursuing. Far more aggravating for me, were King Alfred’s constant condemnations of Uhtred’s sinful acts, such as killing the occasional cleric (in one case, on purpose, in another, quite by accident) or choosing to unearth his third wife who, although a pagan, was given a Christian burial while Uhtred was off fighting Danes and then giving her a proper Viking send-off with a funeral pyre.
History records Alfred as a learned, patient man, not a dogmatic and subservient ass-kisser of any Christian cleric. The constant yo-yo-ing of the relationship between these two protagonists, along with the “wife of the season” trope, finally just wore me out.
Great production values with epic battles, fine acting by all and sundry, to be sure. But in the end, a story arc that was just too tiringly repetitive. Farewell, Uhtred.