Episode 2 of this season’s The Last Kingdom picks up right where the first episode left off, following the two story lines of 1) Uhtred’s effort to re-take Bebbanburg and 2) Cnut and Brida’s effort to conquer Mercia and Wessex. But there is a third storyline that lies beneath both of these: family politics that impact royal succession and decision-making. And while much of what we are watching here is fiction, the family politics regarding succession were very real, although greatly simplified here and woven through with fictional interactions.
Historically, because King Edward’s first marriage, to Ecgwynn, brought him little dynastic advantage, she was sent from court, and no doubt placed in an abbey, so he could marry Aelflaed who had a royal bloodline. (An historical aside: remember that murdering little weasel Aethelwold? Well, Aelflaed was the real Aethelwold’s niece.) Anyway, when Edward’s new wife gave him a son, his firstborn son Aethelstan had to leave court. Edward’s second wife was indeed anointed queen of Wessex—an honor and title that Edward’s mother was never given, and The Last Kingdom plays on that by portraying Aelswith’s resentment and her vain efforts to stop the coronation. Aelswith has always been a complicated character, and Eliza Butterworth does a marvelous job of showing us every facet of her personality.
In this episode her frustration at seeing her young grandson’s preference for his maternal grandpa over her sends her in search of her other grandson; and anyone watching who has never heard of King Aethelstan now knows who he was. I loved that moment of revelation.
There is, too, an excellent scene in which King Edward is pummeled with conflicting advice from his father-in-law, his mother, his sister and a couple of advisors all at the same time. It’s a veritable cacophony that highlights how family politics impacted royal decision-making. Edward is not amused, and seems almost frozen with indecision.
Now let’s consider the Cnut and Brida ‘Let’s Kill Aethelred to draw King Edward into a trap’ story line. The mindless slaughter—of Saxon families by Cnut’s Danes and of Danish families by Aethelred’s Saxons—is making Season 4 horrifyingly violent. Mind you, Bernard Cornwell can write a battle scene that covers five or six pages, but they are battles between armed forces, not the mindless slaughter of unarmed townsfolk. I get it that this is an effort to portray the cruelty of both Cnut (Magnus Brun) and Aethelred—and of Brida, who becomes more bloodthirsty with every scene—but I hope that we don’t have to watch much more of this kind of bloodshed.
Brida reminds me of Lady Macbeth: Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me, from the crown to the toe, topfull of direst cruelty. She and Cnut are getting on famously right now, so much so that there appears to be a baby on the way. But if she finds out that Cnut was behind the murder of her beloved Ragnar, Cnut had better watch out, and that seems to be where this plot line is heading.
Aethelred’s determination to conquer East Anglia, which takes him all the way to England’s eastern coast when he should have been protecting Mercia is adding to Edward’s woes. It saves Aethelred, though, from the butchery the Danes are wreaking at Aylesbury. He doesn’t know how fortunate he is, though. He’s busy trying to seduce Eadith while she’s busy trying to avoid his bed. And she’s really worried that Aethelred is going to order her brother to kill Aethelflad which, give Eadith credit, she does not want.
While the Danes are rampaging in Mercia, while Aethelred is rampaging in East Anglia, and while King Edward is trying to figure out what to do about them, our hero Uhtred is on his way home to Bebbanburg.
He only has about 20 men to attack this impregnable fortress, but Uncle Aelfric only has 40 men within the walls to defend it, right? Umm, no. Two ships have arrived in the very nick of time, filled with warriors led by a surprise guest named Wihtgar (Ossian Perret), and we can tell that they are going to throw a monkey wrench into Uhtred’s homecoming.
As Uhtred’s ship approaches Bebbanburg he worries that he is taking his men toward defeat, that it is not the right time to attempt this. Fr. Beocca, though, assures him that he will succeed, and Uhtred has already set in motion his plan for getting into the fortress. Young Uhtred is integral to that plan’s success, and he does what his father has told him to do (he’s been raised by monks, and he knows about obedience).
He lies through his teeth to get himself and his monkish companions into Bebbanburg, and he displays courage, defiance and determination when his father’s plan goes all to hell.
The scenes at Bebbanburg are full of plot twists and the slow build-up of tension, with a final, stunning, cliffhanger of a reversal. When the credits rolled I was still holding my breath.