Seven Kings Too Many
The closing movie to ‘The Last Kingdom’ saga puts what’s good about the series in shorthand
The movie Seven Kings Must Die wraps up the Netflix show The Last Kingdom with a corny flourish that’s not always successful and mostly echoes the high points of the show during its peak, its first three seasons.
The Last Kingdom, based on the old-fashioned historical novels of Bernard Cornwell, became one of the best Netflix series of all time by following a simple formula: it’s a mix of swashbuckling action, absurd melodrama, gallows humor bordering on the scatological, with a dash of history, anchored by a legendary performance from German actor Alexander Dreymon as Uthred of Bebbanburg, a Saxon lord raised by Danish invaders. He’s a man of divided loyalties caught in the tides of British history between the Dark and Early Middle Ages, between paganism and Christianity, and between the sheets of many beautiful women.
Seven Kings Must Die contains all the basic elements of a Last Kingdom storyline. Uthred must choose between his king and his Danish roots. He must defend his home, and when he fails to do so, he ends up wandering melodramatically in the wilderness. Meanwhile, scheming assholes scheme assholishly, and seemingly peaceful Christian priests wield surprisingly effective swords. The film features filial betrayals, daring rescues, people wearing ample fur, lots of blood and dirt, and one epic battle scene featuring a shield wall that filled me, as a great fan of The Last Kingdom, with much nostalgia.
But unlike most pop-culture properties, which could definitely stand a little editing to rid themselves of narrative bloat, Seven Kings Must Die has the opposite problem. Part of the fun of The Last Kingdom was that it went on for 10 hours a season, leaving ample time for narrative reversals, betrayals and un-betrayals, shifting loyalties, and intense cliffhangers. In one season, Uthred spent half the time as a prisoner aboard a slave ship, and yet by the end, there he stood on the front lines of King Alfred’s Army again. He goes from Dane to servant of the king, and back again. He loves and loses tragically. In another season, he spent several episodes under the erotic spell of a crazy woman pretending to be a witch. Yet by the end, there he was again, taking the knee.
The series-ending movie has all these elements as well, but they pass by quickly, almost in code, telling its loyal viewers “you know the story beats, let’s just skip them and get to the uniting of England”. But no one actually cares about the uniting of England, which was not yet posh in the 9th century. They want to see Uthred hoist a flagon with his mates and tell the royal advisers to go screw. Uthred has his moment of shame, but he’s in court 10 minutes later begging the king’s forgiveness.
At its peak, Uthred had a great foil in King Alfred, played with wonderful wit and subtlety by the British actor David Dawson. He also had a dark shadow in his childhood love Brita, played by Emily Cox, who turned into a vengeful warrior queen, and an appealing love interest in the angelic Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia, played by the ridiculously beautiful British model Millie Brady.
In the movie, all those characters have gone, and only Uthred remains, along with his loyal buddies Finan and The Other Guy, as well as a few other minor characters. He has control of his fortress, so all that remains is to conclude the story of the uniting of England, a country no one gives a toss about any more, not even the English. The king is weak and boring, the ladies unappealing, and the remaining Danish marauders distinctly uncharismatic compared with those in previous seasons. It’s always nice to see Uthred and the gang, but the gang’s not all here anymore, so what’s the point?
Finally, there is the “Seven Kings” angle. When three of the Kings represent the Isle of Man, the Orkney Islands, and the Shetland Islands, you just have to laugh. These days, we call those “Mayors.” A movie called Seven Kings Must DIET, now that I would watch. It would also fit in very well on Netflix’s slate.