PULL, YOU BASTARDS!
Beware! Spoilers ahead, big time. DO NOT read this if you have not seen Episode 3 of Season 2. Even if you’ve read the book, this episode differs enough from the novel that I don’t want to spoil it for you, so proceed at your peril. Go watch the episode, but don’t forget to come back.
Guthred made a bargain with Uhtred’s Uncle Ælfric to trade Uhtred’s freedom in return for 200 armed warriors. Too bad for Guthred that the fine print specified that Ælfric wanted Uhtred’s head, and selling him to a slaver wasn’t good enough.
So right away we have everyone pissed at Guthred, especially Ælfric. Ælfric, the Viking brothers Sigefrid and Erik, and even Gisela desert Guthred. His plan to lay siege to Kjartan at Dunholm was likely to fail in any case. So, the vikings run amok through his kingdom, with Sigefrid gleefully calling himself the Lord of Chaos. Guthred is helpless without Uhtred’s sword and cleverness. He’s left with no friends but Abbot Eadred and Brother Trew, and the three of them deserve each other. Before she leaves, Gisela gives Sihtric (Kjartan’s bastard son who is sworn to Uhtred) a note to give to Hild, trusting that the nun will eventually return to Eoforwic. Presumably it has the name of the slaver who has taken Uhtred.
In Winchester, Alfred and Æthelflæd are looking at a map (I love maps) as a way of bringing up the idea of a marriage alliance with Mercia.
If you have never seen the Gough Map, you should take a look at it. I think it may have been the model for the one we see here. Æthelflaed, of course, is prepared to do her duty in the marriage market, which makes her the exact opposite of Gisela who balks at any mention of marriage, although Abbot Eadred is clearly leaning toward such an alliance with Ælfric.
Every so often in this episode we check in with Uhtred and Hallig and their new friend Finan (Mark Rowley). We see them rowing. We see them baling to keep their feet from rotting. We see them shivering violently in rain and snow. We see them whipped. There is nothing on the ship in the way of comfort or sanitation or even room to move. We see them growing more and more physically wretched and mentally/emotionally damaged.
According to Paddy Griffith’s The Viking Art of War, an extended voyage on a longship (they go to Iceland!) was an endurance test, even if you weren’t a slave. If you were clothed for bad weather, in skins or wool that had been treated with fish oil to repel water, you would still have gotten soaked. And baling in rough weather was not only a matter of keeping your feet dry, but of keeping the ship afloat. Uhtred and his friends are not dressed for the weather and they are clearly ill treated, underfed, suffering, and barely clinging to hope. The show did a darned good job of portraying the abject misery of the slave crew’s plight. The shipmaster is a horribly inhuman creature, and although the writers cannot duplicate what occurs in the novel, they invent a particularly heart-wrenching incident to get the point across.
In Winchester Alfred gives a feast for Ceolwulf (David Gant). This is not in the novel, and it is a wonderful addition, wonderfully written and acted. Ceolwulf was the ruler of Western Mercia, and in this scene he is yammering about wanting men to fight the Danes while Alfred is trying to nudge him toward an alliance. We are one, Alfred says gently. We are not one! Ceolwulf barks. I want warriors to help me against the Danes, and you want to make Mercia an appendage of Wessex. He’s right. That is exactly what Alfred wants.
The fact that Ceolwulf is even in the story is awesome because his reputation has been one of a puppet king put in place by the Danes; but two years ago a coin hoard was found that seems to indicate that Ceolwulf was much more significant than has been thought, and that Alfred and his chroniclers have, until this discovery, pretty much rubbed him out of history. So the writers are really digging into the actual history of the period to add depth to the show. And then Ceowulf keels over dead, and for the first time, we see a stunned, speechless Alfred. It’s priceless. Oh, and we meet Æthelred (Toby Regbo), who will soon be pledged to wed Æthelflæd, and he is gently bullied by her parents into offering a bride price that involves land. Alfred is all about the land.
What did you think of Æthelred? In the novels he is Uhtred’s cousin on his mother’s side, and Uhtred calls him a “bumptious little shit”. (Æthelwold now – Alfred’s nephew – he’s a bumptious little shit. He hasn’t said much so far, but whatever he does say is always pissy.) We haven’t seen much of Æthelred yet, so the jury is still out, but I’m wondering if they’ll make him as bad as he appears in the books. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself, and poor Uhtred is still on that boat.
When Uhtred is finally freed (it’s been a year!) there is a tender moment with Ragnar, and then an even more tender scene with Hild. It is set in Northumbria instead of in Hild’s Winchester convent, but this works just as well.
Now there are two strings still left hanging: Gisela, and Ragnar’s oath to return Uhtred to Alfred. Gisela has taken refuge in a convent but Abbot Eadred finds her and proxy marries her to Ælfric. What happens next plays out pretty much as in the novel, except that Hild is there. And the shocked look on Hild’s face as she watches Uhtred’s savage attack on the abbot will likely lead to the convent that, in the novel, she founds in Winchester.
And then Uhtred goes to Winchester to see Alfred, who is messing with candles.
Yes, Alfred – along with everything else he did – was a kind of inventor. He experimented with candles until he found the exact candle height, width and weight that would burn for four hours. He scored the candle at approximately one hour intervals so that he could gauge the passing of each hour.
He also designed the horn lantern to protect his candle by inserting pieces of thinly sliced horn into a wooden frame around it so that a stray breeze would not affect the burn rate.
Where was I? Oh yes. In Winchester canny Alfred uses Uhtred’s murder of Eadred to force Uhtred into his service again. Kings can do that, and Alfred does it while he is messing with his candles. I love this show!
Photos: Netflix/BBC2/The Last Kingdom