Saturday, October 24, 2015

Television Reviews: The Last Kingdom

The Last Kingdom
This new BBC America series is based on Bernard Cornwell's series of historical novels set in 9th century England around the time of King Alfred the Great. In some aspects it shares DNA with James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking/Last of the Mohicans tales in that the series' primary character is a man who has mixed allegiances, based on the clash between his birth and his upbringing. It's also similar to Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles, which were reviewed earlier here. And like George R.R. Martin, without whose successful Game of Thrones adaptation this television series probably wouldn't have been made, Cornwell has not yet completed the books. Although I suppose being based on history there won't be too many surprises to be found in the remaining novels. I mentioned Game of Thrones. Like that series this series, at least based on the premiere doesn't intend to stint on the violence and general gray-blue tint which has seemingly become required for hack-n-slash dramas set back in the days when men were men and before anyone had discovered electricity or anti-perspirant. But the series also has or to be fair may have enough emotional involvement to hook viewers who otherwise might be bored silly watching some bearded men (or women for that matter) swing a bloody sword and declaim at length about how at long last their time for revenge/justice/payback has arrived. I'm not sure this history is well known outside of a relatively small group of English history buffs but 9th century England was (before the rise of Alfred) a place that was under constant attack by and slowly falling under the domination of the Vikings. 

Danish, Norwegian and even a few Swedish raiders and armies all invaded England or successfully extorted huge sums from English(Anglo-Saxon) nobles and rulers in order to put off an invasion.The English were not necessarily outnumbered but had no navy and little ability to coordinate defense against swift and sudden Viking attacks. The English were also divided and just as likely to fight each other as the VIkings. In the Kingdom of Northumbria, which is where this story starts, an English nobleman (Matthew Macfayden) whose demeanor virtually screams out Ned Stark, grimly tries to mount a defense of Bebbanburg, his piece of Northumbria. He doesn't get any help from the other lords, who have either made a separate peace with the Danes or dislike him so much they refuse to help even against the pagan. But things don't go well. His older son, whom he commanded to perform reconnaissance, instead tries to give battle and is killed. Undeterred the lord renames his younger son Uthred (the traditional name of the first born son), makes him heir, and rallies his men for battle. Despite their numbers the English lack battle sense, fall for Viking tricks, and are flanked and slaughtered. Uthred, disobeying orders and sneaking out to watch the battle, sees his father die. In insane grief the boy tries to fight but is obviously no match for grown men. Fortunately the Vikings are more amused than threatened and take Uthred as a thrall (slave).
After a bit of rape and pillage the Danes depart along with Uthred and an English girl his own age named Brida. Adding insult to injury Uthred's uncle claims rulership of Bebbanburg for himself, though the claim legally belongs to Uthred. Uthred's new Viking "owner", Earl Ragnar (Peter Ganzler) proves to have something of a soft spot for Uthred, as do his wife and father. Considering that in battle Ragnar is both vicious and merciless this is considered humorous by many. Ragnar prevents Uthred from being sold back to his uncle once he learns that the uncle intends to murder the boy. Uthred (Alexander Draymon) grows to manhood and is considered a son by Ragnar and company. He carries weapons and is greatly trusted. This is even more the case because Uthred protected his adopted sister (Ragnar's daughter) from a rape by the son of one of Ragnar's retainers. Ragnar dispenses a harsh justice. However no good deed goes unpunished. After a horrible bit of Viking-on-Viking treachery Uthred and Brida (Emily Cox) once again find themselves cast out with their adopted family murdered or enslaved. Uthred will need to find out who he really is. Christian or pagan? Saxon or Norse? Which father will he follow? Can his mixed identity be the key to saving England from the Danes or helping the Danes to stamp out the last vestige of English independence. One thing that Uthred already knows though is that he wants revenge.
Because a great many of the names sound like the noise somebody makes when you punch them in the solar plexus, the story can occasionally be hard to follow. The story is adept at looking at people from different points of view. Ragnar is a harsh, even brutal man but he's not even close to being the worst of the Vikings. And he gives good reasons (well good from his perspective) as to why the Danes have to do what they do. This is worth watching every now and then I think but I don't yet think it's must see TV. Time will tell.
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