THE PATH NORTH
Uhtred is back! The eight episodes of THE LAST KINGDOM Season 2 must cover events in two of Bernard Cornwell’s novels – Lords of the North and Sword Song, so screenwriter Stephen Butchard has a lot of ground to cover. He throws us immediately into the year A.D. 878 and deftly introduces us to the major players.
Twelve of these characters we met last season; another eleven are introduced in this episode. I’m going to mention every single one of them, so try to keep up.
After a brief look at events in the life of Uhtred as portrayed in Season One, we are swept into Winchester and the court of King Alfred (David Dawson). His daughter Æthelflæd (Millie Brady) has grown into a dark-haired young woman and is practicing her sword skills. If, as in the books, she is only 14, she is a VERY MATURE 14. I suspect she has been cast quite a bit older here because her father and Ealdorman Odda (Simon Kunz) are discussing a husband for her, and although the Anglo-Saxons had no qualms about marrying off their 14 year old daughters, modern audiences might balk. So Æthelflæd has been given at least 3 extra years and a sword. Nice touch, that sword. One day she will lead armies, but that’s in the future.
Alfred introduces the theme of this entire season during a meeting with his witan, warning that there are Danish troublemakers, Sigefrid (Bjorn Bengtsson) and Erik (Christian Hillborg), up north and that a day of reckoning is to come. His nephew Æthelwold (Harry McEntire), who resents his position as Not-the-King listens attentively. Moments later Brother Beocca (Ian Hart) – Uhtred’s friend and former teacher – introduces Brother Trew (Peter McDonald) from Cumbraland who reveals that St. Cuthbert has told his abbot Eadred in a dream that Cumbraland’s heir to the throne, Guthred, has been enslaved by the Danes and must be rescued. Please help.
Alfred, who is already thinking about the troublesome north, instantly agrees, and a few scenes later he will speak of his hopes for (designs on) Eoforwic to his wife Ælswith (Eliza Butterworth), who, I must say, looks quite fetchingly sexy in this scene and comes on to her husband a bit like Lady Macbeth. Ælswith! You naughty!
Historical fact: Alfred sired 6 children, one of them illegitimate – so we are seeing, in this scene, another side to the rather pious Alfred.
Meanwhile, our hero Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) has been traveling north with two companions – the nun Hild (Eva Birthistle) and the young man Halig (Gerard Kearns). (And no, Halig was not in the novels.) Hild has replaced Brida as Uhtred’s Voice-of-Reason, and although he would like to see her in his bed as well, in this tv version she keeps him at arm’s distance. She goads him out of drinking and whoring, and sets him on the path to Dunholm, to rescue his sister Thyra and avenge his adoptive father, Ragnar Ravnson.
They soon arrive in Eoforwic where the Saxons, led by the firebrand Fr. Hrothweard (Richard Rankin), have taken advantage of the temporary departure of those Danish troublemakers Sigefrid and Erik to murder every Dane they can catch. Uhtred rescues the Danish warlord they have tied up and are tormenting – Haesten (Jeppe Beck Laursen) – and sets him free. (He’ll be back.)
And, oh look! Beocca and Brother Trew, sent north by Alfred to rescue Guthred, just happen to already be in Eoforwic, and Uhtred’s turning up there saves them having to go look for him. Alfred wants Uhtred to help them free Guthred, and when Uhtred learns that the young man is being held on the lands of Uhtred’s old enemy Kjartan, he sees fate at work and agrees to help. If this seems a bit coincidental, well, it is. It didn’t happen quite this way in the book, but Butchard only has 8 episodes to tell the story. Give the guy a break! Besides, it’s logical that Beocca would start looking for news of Uhtred in Eoforwic, so I quite happily bought this fortuitous meeting of the rescue team.
In the book Uhtred drives away the slavers who hold Guthred and who are working for his old enemy, Kjartan’s son, Sven-the-One-Eyed (Ole Christoffer Ertvaag) by disguising himself as a leper. Butchard riffs on it by setting it at night, adding a creepy wolf’s skull to Uhtred’s disguise, and tossing in some real lepers. (About that skull. I thought it was a horse skull, but a keen-eyed reader and zooarchaeologist informs me it is a large dog or wolf skull…thank you!)
It works beautifully, and I especially liked Beocca’s enthusiastic role playing to assist Uhtred. The priest has hidden depths we have yet to see.
Uhtred as a phantom horse lord sends Sven into the wilderness, hands bound, to relate his horrifying experience to papa Kjartan (Alexandre Willaume). It’s there, in Dunholm, that we get our first glimpse of Thyra (Julia Bache-Wiig), looking like a cross between Miss Havisham and mad Ophelia.
She is living in a cell below ground, surrounded by fierce hounds that appear to be under her control, so Sven keeps his distance. Clearly, she has not had a happy time in captivity, but she’s found a way to cope.
Then Uhtred and Guthred (Thure Lindhardt) arrive in Cumbraland to be greeted by Abbot Eadred (David Schofield) who, despite the vision of Guthred sent him by St. Cuthbert, mistakes the far better garbed Uhtred for the king and then hates Uhtred for making him look a fool. Calls him a pretender and snarls that he is someone to be watched. Poor Uhtred just can’t seem to get the clergy on his side. But he’s far more interested in Guthred’s sister, Gisela (Peri Baumeister), anyway.
Ahem: Uhtred ♥ Brida Mildreth Iseult Hild Gisela. Just sayin’.
I was very excited when St. Cuthbert’s coffin was carried in and they opened it up! I was searching for the gospel book that was buried with him – the one that I saw at the British Library a few years back. But alas, it wasn’t there. St. Cuthbert’s Corpse (Corpse) was there, though. Luckily for Alexander Dreymon they skipped the part where Uhtred had to kiss the saint’s lips. And I’m sorry, Abbot, but that saint looked pretty corrupted to ME!
While Guthred is being crowned in Cumbraland, Alfred is in Winchester having a little talk with the hostages Brida (Emily Cox) and Ragnar (Tobias Santelmann) that hints that the king is planning something involving them – set up for a future episode, surely. I love how, when he gestures to them to sit in some very nice, comfy chairs, Brida hooks her leg over the chair’s arm, reminding Alfred – lest he forget – that she’s no lady; she’s a Dane, dammit!
And in Dunholm Kjartan discovers that Uhtred has hooked up with Guthred, so he orders his man Tekil (Marc Rissman) to join Guthred’s army, kill the king and “bring me Uhtred!” More set up for what’s to come.
So there you have it: 23 significant characters and a breathtaking first episode. Bet you can’t watch just one…
Great recap. You do know how to tell a tale, Ms. Bracewell! (Next: I’ll be reading your “Shadow on the Crown.”)
Allow me just a tiny correction (since I’m a zooarchaeologist): no horse skull, but a (large) dog/wolf skull.
Thank you for the compliment, and I’m especially grateful for the the correction regarding the skull. I’ve corrected the post per your information. What a fascinating field yours must be!