Spoilers Ahead. BEWARE!
It’s an interesting exercise to try to imagine how long it took for news to go from place to place in the early medieval period. For example, how long did it take for word of the death of a king to travel the length of England in the 9th century? Days, perhaps weeks. And when word of such a significant event spread, was it in fact true? In Episode 5 of THE LAST KINGDOM 3 the Danes learn that Alfred is dead, except that we’ve just seen him preparing for war. Someone is in for a surprise.
But the arrival of news of Alfred’s death is immediately followed by the discovery of Ragnar’s murder – a departure from the plot line of THE BURNING LAND. Emily Cox is wonderful as Brida, conveying grief, anger, fury, despair and suspicion all at once. Cnut has promised Æthelwold that he will protect him, but if Brida ever learns that he murdered Ragnar, the dweeb doesn’t stand a chance and Cnut doesn’t seem like the type who would expend much energy protecting a sniveling Saxon. The viking army stays together, though, despite Ragnar’s death. Meantime Haesten is down in Benfleet trying to impress Skade and getting nowhere. They trade boasts, threats, and promises, and although Haesten is a brute Skade has no trouble keeping him off balance and wary of her. It’s hard for us to know if she wants Haesten to kill Uhtred or the other way round. It seems what she really wants is the winner, and she doesn’t much care who it is.
Æthelflaed, though, knows who she wants, and it’s not her husband.
Uhtred is only unwilling to take what she is offering because he believes that Skade has power, that Skade will know if they become lovers, and that she will destroy anyone he cares for if he doesn’t find a way to prevent her; and when Brida arrives with news of Ragnar’s death Uhtred is even more convinced that Skade’s malevolent power is responsible. Which means he has to go after her. But he needs men if he’s going to attack Haesten at Benfleet. So at Æthelflaed’s urging they go to Alfred – or rather, into a mare’s nest.
Æthelred is there, and he’d just as soon see Uhtred and company dead; and Alfred, who is drawing on all his strength just to stand upright is unwaveringly hostile. He refuses Uhtred’s request to mount an attack on Haesten.
And now we have another significant change from the novel, but it still works beautifully. Instead of Æthelflaed riding with Uhtred to defend Mercia by attacking Benfleet and Alfred later sending Edward with an army as in the novel, it is Edward who goes to Uhtred and promises him that he will have the men he needs. It is Edward who tells the king that he is not yet ready to defend Wessex against a massive Danish army. He needs more time. So Uhtred goes to Benfleet with a small company, although he has no way of knowing if Edward and a large army will follow as promised.
At this point we are given a couple of terrific images that foreshadow the future. The first is that moment when Æthelflaed and Edward stand together, watching as Alfred’s troops cheer their king.
Anyone who knows the history knows that brother and sister will rid Wessex and Mercia of the Danish threat, that they will finish what their father has begun.
And then there is that moment when Alfred painfully reaches for his sword and raises it to the shouts of his warriors. It’s a moving image that is a nod to the statue of the king that stands on Winchester’s High Street today.
This entire series—its story, its haunting landscapes and dark, brooding interiors–seems to echo the stark, sad beauty of the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons.
So Uhtred leads his small band to Benfleet. There’s some trash talking between Haesten and Uhtred, and anyone who has read the novel is asking, “Will there be bees???” And then we forget about the bees because Haesten attacks and Alfred, hidden with his army among the trees, watches in grim silence as Uhtred and his men are surrounded and the slaughter begins. Edward is protesting, and Alfred is unmoving until, at last, we perceive what Alfred is doing, except he seems to be taking things too far, and then—the credits roll.
On to Episode 6. And who knows? There may still be bees!