The scripts for The Last Kingdom are based on the novels of Bernard Cornwell, on the history of 10th century England, and on what emerges from the creative minds of the showrunners. This final season has four previous seasons of accumulated story and character development on which to draw. It has, in essence, its own history.
We have seen beloved heroes die: Alfred, Leofric, Ragnar, Beocca, Aethelflaed, Steapa, Osferth, Gisela—the list goes on. So many wonderful characters, each with a compelling story. We have seen children grow, have seen the bond among Uhtred’s companions tighten and strengthen amid danger and heartbreak. We have watched loathsome villains pay the ultimate price for their deeds—characters we loved to hate: Skade, Aelfric, Aethelwold, Cnut, Kjartan, Bloodhair, Sigefrid. My vote as THE WORST goes to Skade.
And then, of course, there’s Brida.
In the early seasons Brida’s character development and her story were similar to what we saw in the novels. She was a Saxon child captured by the Danes and raised with Uhtred in Ragnar’s household, and she became Uhtred’s first lover. She was taught to hate the Saxons. Cornwell writes, in Uhtred’s voice: “Start your killers young, before their consciences are grown. Start them young and they will be lethal.” That surely applies to Brida. And while Uhtred struggled continuously between identifying with his Saxon roots and his Danish upbringing, constantly wavering back and forth—was he Saxon or Dane?– Brida never wavered. Brida was more Danish than the Danes! She was a woman warrior and even a sorceress. She was a kick-ass, sometimes foul-mouthed, irreverent, sometimes erratic spitfire. Yet even as fans of the early seasons embraced her fiery, obstinate, passionate nature, those of us who had read the novels already knew that Cornwell would slowly darken and twist that nature into something hateful.
In the novels we don’t really see all of Brida’s backstory and the incidents that embitter her, but the series invents many of them. She is imprisoned by the Saxons. The armies she leads against them are beaten again and again. Her beloved Ragnar does not die a natural death, as in the books, but is butchered by a Saxon in league with Ragnar’s Danish ally. She is captured, enslaved and tortured by the Welsh. Her ally Sigtryggr betrays her by making peace with the Saxon king. Her daughter meets her death in that fatal, heartbreaking leap at York. In Brida’s mind, these are a litany of crimes against her personally, and against her gods. Yet as she wanders through the wilderness of Mercia with Pyrlig she responds to his gentle prodding, unburdening herself. “I’m lost. There is no life for me after this. I am alone.”
There was no such unburdening in Cornwell’s novel The Flame Bearer. He describes Brida as “an enchantress, white-haired and wizened now, chanting her skald’s songs about dead Christians and of Odin triumphant. Songs of hate.” In her final scene in the novel she is a malignant, cackling crone who has ordered Stiorra’s little daughter to be blinded with a metal spike.
Yes, the Brida of both the series and the book cruelly gelds young Uhtred; in this episode she goes further and turns viciously on Fr. Pyrlig. But in the novel there is no final, private sword fight between Brida and Uhtred at the site of Ragnar’s burned hall where she goads him to kill her and, when he will not, pleads with him for death. In this scene we are given an aspect of Brida that the novel did not offer. There is despair: “Something has died within me, Uhtred.” And from Uhtred, surprisingly, there is forgiveness: “If my son could forgive you after what you have done to him, then I must do the same.” There is a moment of remembered tenderness as Uhtred places his forehead against hers and whispers, “Trust me.”
And this final scene between them does something that cannot be done in a book, at least, not quite like this. The flashbacks that intersperse the sword fight between Brida and Uhtred take us into Uhtred’s memories of her—the cruel avenger; the bitter enemy; the heartbroken friend weeping over Ragnar’s grave; the lover; the little girl who has, like the boy Uhtred, just witnessed the destruction of her entire world.
I’ve never seen anything quite like it, that I can think of. I thought it was brilliant and a masterful use of the history of this series.
The hand that takes Brida’s life is the same one as in the novel, but the circumstances are utterly different. Anyone watching with attention must have known that it was coming even if they hadn’t read the book. I don’t see how it could have ended any other way and still be true to Cornwell’s vision.
Actress Emily Cox had to go through strenuous physical training for this role. Along with that very physical portrayal of a viking warrior, she brilliantly explored the many facets of Brida’s personality. We loved her, hated her, pitied her. I suspect I’m not the only one who wept for her.
As for Alexander Dreymon, his acting chops have expanded over this series, and this season in particularly he must be commended for his stunningly powerful performance.
Yes, there were other things that happened in this episode. I’ll deal with them tomorrow.