This 5th Season of The Last Kingdom, if it follows the pattern we’ve seen in the past, will be based loosely on two of Bernard Cornwell’s novels: Warriors of the Storm and The Flame Bearer. Episode 1 opens with Uhtred (Alsexander Dreymon) giving us a quick voice over review of the events that took place in Season 4, which most of the rabid fans of this show have just spent 10 hours re-watching, am I right?
A number of years have passed since we last saw this group, and we last saw Brida (Emily Cox) giving birth to Cnut’s child and swearing vengeance on all Christians in Britain. There have been rumors that she has died and been reborn, and Uhtred senses that he’s not seen the last of her.
The real action of this new season begins in Iceland where Brida looks ageless among her gathered warriors. Standing near a smoking fumarole, Brida refers to her daughter (Emili Akhchina) as a seer and, blindfolded, the girl chooses one of the gathered men who willingly throws himself into the fumarole as a sacrifice to the gods for the success of their upcoming endeavor. In the distance a volcano erupts violently to Brida’s delight. She interprets this as a sign from the gods, and she gleefully urges her viking warriors toward their ships. We’ve seen Brida headed in this mad direction over the past season, and now it’s clear that the poor sacrificial viking is not the only one who’s gone over the edge.
Meanwhile, in the village of Runcorn which lies on the border between Mercia and Northumbria, It’s November, the Blood Month, so called because this was when the herds were culled in order to guarantee enough feed so that the remaining stock would survive the lean winters. Uhtred is uneasy. He senses a change in the air – something wrong, although Finan (Mark Rowley) tries to lighten his mood. Uhtred’s merry men are preparing to hunt wild boar as part of the Blood Month celebration, and we’re re-introduced to all of them, including King Edward’s eldest son Athelstan (Harry Gilby) , now about 17 who has been raised and trained by Uhtred at Edward’s request.
When Athelstan, alone in the woods, is attacked yet manages to kill two of his assailants and drive off a third, the tension between a protective Uhtred and an eagerly ambitious Athelstan is revealed. Uhtred’s unease increases as, gazing up at a murmuration of sparrows, he sees birds falling from the sky. Like Brida, Uhtred reads omens in nature.
In York we have our first significant departure from the events of Warriors of the Storm. Uhtred’s adventure to Ireland to rescue Stiorra (Ruby Hartley) and Sigtryggr (Eysteinn Sigurdarson) has been edited out. They are already king and queen in York, ruling over both pagans and Christians. The tension between these two groups is reflected in the tension between Stiorra and Sigtryggr. A pagan like her father, Stiorra is not quite as sanguine about the Christians as Uhtred has become, while Sigtryggr tries to be more even-handed than his wife. Their peaceful reign is threatened, though, by the arrival of Rognvaldr the Raider (Micki Stoltt) , Sigtryggr’s brother from Ireland. Right from the get-go, Stiorra doesn’t trust him, and the threatening sound-track warns us that Rognvaldr is up to no good. A few scenes later, when we hear him chanting in Icelandic, we are as worried as Uhtred and convinced that Stiorra should be even more worried than we are.
Back in Runcorn another old friend, Eadith (Stefanie Martini) , arrives unexpectedly from Frankia. Last time we saw Eadith she was making merry with Finan, and although he’s married now Finan seems to be recalling past adventures with Edyth. Although she’s welcomed, Uhtred is still uneasy because the Lady Aethelflaed is expected and anyway, he doesn’t like or trust surprises.
That night Eadith is out clandestinely picking herbs and when she returns to her quarters she finds a surprised Uhtred in her bed. He’d been expecting someone else—an honest mistake—and he leaves right away. Even so, there’s a glance between them that makes me raise my eyebrows.
Just outside of Rumcorn we are re-acquainted with Aethelflaed (Millie Brady), her mother Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth), her daughter Aelfwynn (Phia Saban) and Lord Aldhelm (James Northcote). They are our old friends, each one in perfect character, just like we remembered them, and we’re so happy to see them again, especially Aelswith who we weren’t sure survived the last season. We also meet the priest Benedict (Patrick Robinson) who is going to settle with Uhtred’s people—a gift from Aethelflaed that we know Uhtred is going to just love. There is still an obvious tenderness between Uhtred and Aethelflaed, and a strong bond between them, exemplified by the fact that Uhtred senses that there is something that Aethelflaed knows but is not telling him.
Aldhelm brings news of raiders on the coast who massacre, not for silver, but for their gods. We know who this has to be, but Uhtred doesn’t and he’s more worried than before.
Down in Winchester we are disgusted but not surprised to find that Aethelhelm (Adrian Schiller), King Edward’s father-in-law and the grandfather of Edward’s son Aelfweard (Ewan Horrocks) was behind the attack on Athelstan. As he explains, when two boys have one claim, both cannot thrive; and he wants to make sure that his grandson comes out on top and Athelstan, hopefully, dead.
We’re overjoyed to see Fr. Pyrlig (Cavan Clerkin) at the king’s court. Personally, I’m enormously fond of Pyrlig. And Edward (Timothy Innes) is there as king of Wessex, doing kingly things as well as shmoozing with beautiful women and taking digs at the wife he does not love (Amelia Clarkson as Aelflaed). She knows all about the attempt on Athelstan’s life and is disappointed at its failure because, she asserts, the boy is being trained as a killer who will one day come after her son. She’s projecting her own impulses on Athelsatan, of course.
It’s festival time at Runcorn and we’re holding our breath because Fr. Benedict is making interminable benedictions and we just know that something bad is about to happen because we can see warriors making toward the settlement from the river. Sure enough, there’s a party-crasher. It’s Uhtred’s son (Finn Elliot) the priest (who stumbles into the gathering badly wounded and in pain, his garments bloodied below the waist. Brida’s work, he tells his anguished father. (Those of us who’ve read the book might, like me, have been hoping that this scene would be edited out. Alas, no.)
At presumably the same time up in Jorvik, Brida and her followers, in collusion with Rognvaldr, take the town by surprise. A battle rages, but it’s looking bad for the good guys, and as the camera cuts away we do not know what has happened to Sigtryggr or Stiorra. In Runcorn Uhtred is standing at the river’s edge, shouting for Brida. But Brida’s is 100 miles away, in Jorvik.
A few notes:
Although in the books Uhtred has two sons—the eldest originally named Uhtred but taking the name Fr. Oswald when Uhtred disowns him—in this show the two sons are combined into one.
Uhtred’s settlement of Runcorn is on the River Mersey about 21 miles east of where Cornwell has imagined Brunanburh to be. Nobody knows where Brunanburh was actually located.
Brida has been flipping out in Iceland in this show, instead of in Dunholm (Durham) which had been, in the novels, ruled by Ragnar until he died. In the novels she has no daughter, but she is attended by two little girls she calls seers who have been blinded rather than blindfolded. Thank you, TLK, for sparing us that!
Aside from the youngsters who are now played by older actors, the only character in the show who appears to have aged at all is King Edward. In the book Uhtred has grey hair and Brida is a veritable crone. But hey! These characters have to live through this season as well as a feature film, so I for one am cutting them some slack. Edward! The beard suits you. Gravitas. You needed it.
In the novel there were some thrilling scenes having to do with the trip to Ireland and some amusing scenes having to do with a woman named Mus. The scenes about Mus especially added a bit of humor to the story, and without that this episode is quite, quite dark. Good, yes! Foreboding and tension-filled, yes! But dark. Excellent writing and dialogue, and the acting, as usual, top notch. Welcome back, The Last Kingdom!