The final episode of this season’s The Last Kingdom is set in Winchester where events cascade breathlessly one after another. Winchester has been under siege for 30 days, and the no man’s land between the Saxon camp and the city walls is littered with bodies, spent arrows, and rats. Ugh. Imagine the stench! Because King Edward’s repeated efforts to throw men against the town have failed to dislodge the Danes, he’s about to set fire to the city, which is exactly what his mother predicted he would do. In his mind the people trapped within the walls are already lost, and he’s willing to sacrifice them and Winchester so that Wessex can grow stronger from the ashes. Uhtred tries to talk him out of this mad idea, but Edward is adamant. Fr. Pyrlig observes that Edward is a boy who is suffering, and it is an apt description. All through this episode the king acts like a spoiled, furious, irrational child.
Inside the city, Brida is no more rational than Edward. When the king sends an emissary with an ultimatum she casually fells him with a single bow shot, so that even that creep Haesten looks at her askance. She is spiteful and angry, still hot for revenge. Frustrated by Sigtryggr’s inaction, Brida announces that they need to kill Uhtred’s daughter in front of his eyes to force Uhtred into action.
Sigtryggr, though, is as calm and thoughtful as Brida is fierce and frenzied. Unlike her, he is after a much bigger prize than mindless vengeance. He’s spent the past month listening to Stiorra read to him from Alfred’s Chronicle and he’s not only gained an understanding of his enemies, but he’s formed a bond with the daughter of the man likely to be his most formidable adversary.
So he chides Brida for her anger and orders his men to protect the city against fire while he chooses the most valuable royal captive to use to coerce Edward into giving him what he wants.
The captives are looking somewhat the worse for wear. Edward’s queen is whining, but not his mother. Aelswith is stoic, fully expecting to die and prepared for it. Death is all they’ve been talking about, and Edward’s sons have been listening, especially Athelstan.
When Sigtryggr stalks in and asks which royal child Edward loves best, the adults are certain that whichever child he takes will be doomed. Athelstan, as stoically unafraid as his grandmother, calmly announces, “I’m the elder brother. I should be chosen.” What a kid! He’d make a great king!
Sigtryggr is on a mission, and he climbs to the city parapet and shouts for Edward to approach and talk with him. Edward refuses. I would, too, because a few minutes ago we saw Brida fire an arrow at the last guy who went out there. But then both of Edward’s sons join Sigtryggr, and although Aldhelm warns him not to approach them, Edward does, drawn by the sight of his boys. (Children in peril. I hate when that happens.)
Edward orders Sigtryggr to leave, but the Dane only laughs because he holds all the cards. Edward makes wild, empty threats—I’ll find your children and take out their eyes—and is met with Sitryggr’s chilling response: retreat, and I’ll let one of your sons live. You choose which one. Faced with such a horrible choice, Edward breaks down. (And this is a terrific performance by Timothy Innes.) Never once, though, has Edward thought to ask Sigtryggr directly what it is that he wants. It will be up to Uhtred to do that.
Young Uhtred has arrived at the Saxon camp, and as father and son listen to Edward’s tormented search for a way out, Uhtred comes to a bold decision. He knows that if he can talk to Sigtryggr, he can end the standoff. With bravado that amuses Sigtryggr, he offers himself in place of Edward’s boys.
Sigtryggr agrees, and everyone in the Saxon camp except Uhtred’s men believes that our hero is about to die. And if Brida had her way he would die. But Aelswith nailed it last episode when she perceived that it was the MAN, not Brida, who was really calling the enemy’s shots. Sigtryggr promises bloodthirsty Brida that she can have Uhtred when he’s finished with him, and he takes Uhtred off for a little chat.
Their meeting begins with a 10th century male bonding ritual that involves one man swinging a large sword and the other trying not to be gutted. Once they are satisfied that they have each other’s measure Uhtred asks Sigtryggr what he wants and a long bargaining session begins.
Haesten, who is a horrible human being that we hate—but in a good way—is important in this episode as a catalyst for moving events along. He’s already hidden poor Eadith in an attic. Now he’s spying on Uhtred and Sigtryggr, and he tells Brida they’re talking about a truce, which is the last thing she wants. Disgusted, and possibly hoping to goad the Saxons into attacking the city, she throws Uhtred’s sword over the wall. Edward sees it as a sign that Uhtred’s efforts have failed, and when Aethelflaed arrives with an army offering him her full support, the Saxons attack. Winchester’s gates are battered open and in the midst of a fierce battle, Uhtred has to make his way, swordless, to Edward and convince him to negotiate. It was pretty sweet, watching the two forces form shield walls to stop a battle rather than start one.
The haggling begins then between Sigtryggr and the Wessex royals, and Uhtred leaves them to it, only to be viciously attacked by Brida. All her fury and hatred spills out, and when Uhtred overpowers her she warns him that if he lets her live she will be his undoing. Of course he lets her live, and the last time we see her she is laboring alone to deliver the child that she will breed to hate all Saxons.
At episode’s end, Sigtryggr is given lands in York along with a willing hostage in Stiorra, who sees an exciting future beckoning and grabs it with both hands. Haesten has disappeared, having fled when the fighting began, and Eadith, who was wounded in the confusion, is being tenderly cared for by Finan. Aelswith is dying, poisoned by that snake Aethelhelm whose attempt to rid Athelstan of his grandmother’s powerful support backfires when Edward finds the boy an even better protector: Young Uhtred may be going back to his abbey, but now Uhtred has Athelstan, eldest son of the king, in his care.
Teach him of Northumbria, Edward tells Uhtred. It is the last kingdom. Without it, there will be no England.
Destiny is all, Uhtred’s voice booms over the final shot. Hopefully, the destiny of this terrific series, with its excellent scripts, talented and creative production crew, stunning settings, and brilliant actors, will bring it back for more seasons to come. Wyrd byð ful aræd.