The first four episodes of this 4th season were based on Bernard Cornwell’s novel The Pagan Lord, and they followed its two major story lines: Uhtred’s attempt to seize Bebbanburg and Cnut’s attempt to seize Mercia. The Netflix series, however plays fast and loose with the plots and the characters. Why? Because it must. Cornwell’s novels are narrated by Uhtred, which means that he has to witness everything. He cannot relate in detail what is happening in Winchester while he is in Bebbanburg. But because the narrator of the tv series is, essentially, the all-knowing camera, it can be in both places and explore the personalities and motives of a large number of characters in much greater depth than we get in the novels. For example, King Edward and Lord Aethelred are distant figures in this book. We never really get inside their heads. We only see them, when we see them at all, through Uhtred’s point of view. Neither character makes more than a brief appearance in the pages of The Pagan Lord, but in the tv series we see them up close and personal, revealing themselves through their dialogue, their actions, their expressions and body language. The acting is top notch. Is one medium richer than the other? Not in my mind. They are both rich, just in different ways.
At the end of Episode 4, the Battle of Tettenhall is over and we’ve reached the conclusion of the two story lines of The Pagan Lord. (By the way, that battle ended very differently in the novel. If you haven’t read the book, you should. You will be astounded!)
Now, in Episode 5, the story line concerns the decision about who will rule Mercia, based on Cornwell’s book, The Empty Throne. The theme of royal family politics is still in play, complicated by the grievous injury and impending death of Lord Aethelred (Toby Regbo) and the marriage prospects of his young daughter who, he reminds Aethelflaed (Millie Brady), is not his (at least, not in this Netflix series).
Unrest among the nobles, always a factor in the face of regime change, is vexing both Lady Aethelflaed and King Edward (Timothy Innes), and there are two snakes in this thorny garden in the form of Ealdorman Aethelhelm (Adrian Schiller) and Commander of the Mercian Guard, Eardwulf. They are both deadly, but Aethelhelm is sinister and intelligent while Eardwulf is mean-spirited and sparrow-brained. Eardwulf’s sister Eadith tries to persuade him that they should leave before Aethelred dies, but her brother scoffs at the suggestion. He sees opportunity in the chaos that will result from the death of the Lord of Mercia.
A younger generation has already been introduced in the characters of young Uhtred and of Edward’s son Athelstan, and now Uhtred’s daughter Stiorra and Aethelflaed’s daughter Aelfwynn join them. All the children are sheltered at one of Aethelflaed’s estates, and Uhtred leaves men there to protect them while he and Aethelflaed go with Aldhelm to deal with the political mess in Aylesbury.
King Edward and that snake Aethelhelm are making their way to Aylesbury, too, because Edward wants to make certain that there will be no more instability in Mercia. Aethelred needs to be reprimanded for deserting his people, Edward opines, and in response to a query from Aethelhelm, Edward casually mentions that his mother must be publicly rebuked for asking the Welsh for help.
Several scenes later, slimy Aethelhelm, who has it in for Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth), will twist Edward’s remark and use it for his own treacherous ends. Down in Winchester, Aethelhelm’s daughter Queen Aelflaed, in a showdown with Edward’s mother, has Aelswith locked up, per Aethelhelm’s order which goes way beyond what Edward wanted.
Aelswith, undeterred, speaks to a palace guard, hands him a bag of money and tells him he will be well rewarded if he follows her instructions, but we don’t know what those instructions are. What is Aelswith plotting?
Back in Aylesbury Edward discovers that he can’t reprimand Aethelred because he’s dying, and Aethelred’s character is given some grace in his final scenes because his head injury prevents him from remembering very clearly what a creep he was.
We even feel a little sorry for him, especially when he agrees to Aethelflaed’s request that she will have approval over who her daughter will marry. Edward, though, hasn’t agreed to any such thing, and under the influence of slimy Aethelhelm he declares that his niece will marry Eardwulf which will make Eardwulf the next ruler of Mercia.
Eardwulf, sparrow-brain that he is, goes jubilantly to Aethelred’s bedside to share this wonderful news with him and is astonished when Aethelred, who can’t remember much of anything, but does remembers something about Eardwulf that he doesn’t like, says, “You have a stench about you. You will never rule Mercia.” And those are his final words. Eardwulf’s sister Eadith sees her brother murder Aethelred and, because he is venal as well as stupid, Eardwulf takes a ring from the dead man’s hand and slips away.
No one, except Eadith, sees anything suspicious about Aethelred’s death because his wound was mortal. Edward, despite his sister’s protests, is determined to wed his niece to Eardwulf. He sends men to fetch Aelfwynn. When Aethelflaed learns of this, she still thinks she can dissuade her brother, but she doesn’t want her daughter in Aylesbury. She sends Uhtred to take the children to Chester where she will meet him.
The men sent to fetch Aethelflaed’s niece are outwitted by Stiorra without any help from her father, revealing a character that is brave as well as clever.
Edward, under the insidious influence of Aethelhelm, has his sister locked up so no one will see her lack of grief at her husband’s death. But although Aethelflaed has been abandoned by her brother and by the Mercian ealdormen, she still has friends. Eardwulf’s sister Eadith, who knows that her weaselly brother cannot be controlled and will bring nothing but disaster, works with Aldhelm to spring Aethelflaed. “I’ll ensure you never go penniless for this,” Aethelflaed says as she sends Eadith to find Uhtred so they can all meet up at St. Milburg’s Priory where no one will think to look for them.
So it looks like, in the next episode, many of the major characters will be hitting the road while the throne of Mercia sits empty among squabbling Mercian ealdormen who might add even more trouble to what’s already in play.