Destiny is all
A virus rose in the land, threatening to tear the people apart. We needed a reluctant hero to emerge, beholden to nothing but his sense of honor. And then he appeared, Uthred Ragnarsson, the main character of The Last Kingdom, whose fourth season arrived on Netflix just in time on Sunday. He’s the perfect hero for his time, and ours.
No one would argue that The Last Kingdom is good TV in the sense of, say, Mad Men or Succession or Better Call Saul. It’s about as subtle as a mace blow to the head. The writers draw the characters broadly, it has ridiculous and sudden plot twists. The sex makes the screwing on Cinemax look like homemade porn. And yet scene for scene, it’s the most fun, engaging, and suspenseful show around. There’s grime and blood and castles and swordplay, just like Game Of Thrones. But there’s also a subtle wink to the proceedings, like in Xena: Warrior Princess. But also like in Xena, The Last Kingdom has a genuine sense of adventure and romance, and a well of deep feeling. Uthred is many things, but he’s not dispassionate.
The German actor Alexander Dreymon embodies Uthred as much as any actor has inhabited his character. He’s swashbuckling, tough, and cheesy, like Jean Claude Van Damme crossed with Errol Flynn. This season, the show has saddled Dreymon with a terrible haircut that makes him look like a second-rate EDM performer, as well as six more layers of tragic loss. Uthred loses someone close to him more often than I misplace the keys to my Prius.
When we left The Last Kingdom, Alfred, the king of Wessex, died of his unspoken malady before he was able to unite Britain. This left England and the show at a loss. David Dawson, the actor who played Alfred, imbued the show with a kind of devious intelligence than these sorts of sword-and-mud epics usually display. With his loss, we also lost the show’s central tension. Uthred was born a Saxon nobleman, but then circumstance tore him from his family. Danish marauders adopted him. And then through a series of plot twists, he became England’s greatest pagan warrior, sworn to uphold the honor of a Christian king. Uthred swung back-and-forth between England and the Danes with more divided loyalties than a Democratic governor in a Red State.
The fourth season finds Uthred more of a free agent than ever. Yet the story doesn’t feel Alfred’s loss quite as keenly as I thought. Our hero finds himself sworn to protect and also fuck Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed, the lady of Mercia. Aethelflaed, played quite campily by Millie Brady, finds herself battling her moron husband, Aethelred the Unready, her moron brother, Edward, and various filthy Danish marauders. Despite experiencing unspeakable tragedy at the outset, Uthred manages to regain his glint and and his boner and fight for what his right.
Every episode follows a similar format: The good guys get into quite a pickle, and then Uthred rescues them by coming up with some sort of ludicrous battle trick. Nevertheless, someone that Uthred loves dies tragically. And then someone betrays him. Then he has sex and drinks a flagon of ale. Meanwhile, back in Winchester, there’s court intrigue, usually involving a monk or a nun and some old guys in robes. We see an exciting battle scene, and another cliffhanger. Will England survive?
None of this matters, of course. The Last Kingdom purports to be a historical drama, based on the silly novels by Bernard Cornwell. But the history plays pretty loose. It might as well be The Chronicles Of Narnia.
Most of the people in the show live in conditions that make our current predicament seem like a government-sanctioned walk in the park. Death by Coronavirus would be like a vacation compared to the daily flayings these people receive. And yet somehow The Last Kingdom makes tough and stressful times seem fun. Someone always comes up with a plan at the last minute, and there’s always someone left alive to do the fighting. Also, the battle scenes are awesome, and the Danish characters are always saying things like “RRRRRRARGH!”
And that perfectly expresses my feelings about our current moment.