“I cannot resist Skade,” Uhtred’s voice intones during the teaser at the opening of Episode 8. “She has invaded my heart and my mind.”
Surely I am not the only one who, upon hearing this, sat up abruptly and thought, REALLY??? His MIND, maybe. But his HEART?
There is a royal wedding about to take place in Wessex, and in this episode screenwriter Stephen Butchard explores the rather fraught marital—and in the case of Uhtred and Skade, extra-marital—relationships of his characters, beginning with our hero and the witch.
Uhtred appears to be a man obsessed with his woman. On shipboard after snatching Skade from Haesten, Uhtred wakens to find Skade holding a knife above him. (Excuse me? After what she did to Bloodhair, who left them alone together with Uhtred asleep and Skade holding a knife? Yikes!) But Skade merely slices her palm and allows Uhtred to lick blood from her fingers as she foretells his victory over a dying Alfred. Finan watches, worried, from a distance. Presumably Uhtred is sleeping with Skade, although we don’t see it. At Cookham he tells Hild, “Who I bed is no business of an abbess,” and later “A man needs a woman.” Finan observes, “A GOOD woman,” and calls Skade the Devil.
Finan and Osferth are both worried about Uhtred’s liaison with Skade, and all the men fear her. As well, they should. She is cruel, unpredictable and dangerous. She’s like a venomous serpent–beautiful, quick to strike and deadly. The monkish Osferth wants to know why the evil woman isn’t dead yet and Finan is clearly of the same opinion. Nevertheless, Finan goes to Winchester on Uhtred’s orders, although he’s uneasy leaving Uhtred behind in Cookham with Skade.
Now, in THE BURNING LAND, a maddened and raging Skade meets her end coiled atop a heap of treasure like a dragon, lovingly embraced by Bloodhair as he sinks his knife into her belly. But in the show Bloodhair is already dead, and Brida has said that in order to break Skade’s curse Uhtred must kill her without shedding blood or breaking the skin. So when we see Skade waist deep in a mere and Uhtred wading in to join her, anyone who has been paying attention is pretty sure about what’s going to happen next.
Skade, though, has not been paying attention. As Uhtred embraces her she gloats, “I own you.” They are the final words of a woman who talked way too much. Uhtred acts to rid himself of Skade’s curse. It’s not punishment for her deeds; it’s not anger; it’s purely self-preservation. The scene that follows, between Uhtred and Osferth, reveals how shaken he is by what he’s done. Also, it’s a nice touch to have Uhtred, who has been putting on an act about Skade, to enter Winchester with a band of players.
Next we look in on Æthelred and Æthelflaed as they arrive in Winchester for the royal wedding. He’s taunting her. She’s nagging him. All is not well between the Lord and Lady of Mercia, but this is nothing new. Meantime, Aldhelm is watching, and I am wondering what is going to happen with him. In the novel he is Æthelred’s unapologetic, loyal hound and already dead at Uhtred’s hands by this time. Here he seems to be going in another, more sympathetic direction, loyal to Mercia, and one has to wonder where that might lead.
Even Beocca and Thyra, who adore each other, are having a bumpy ride in this episode thanks to Uhtred. He needs her blood to send Ragnar to Valhalla, and she happily agrees. Beocca, as we would expect, is outraged because he sees it as a disgusting pagan ritual. He storms out of the house wanting no part of what they’re doing. But despite his fear for his wife and his anger at Uhtred, Beocca immediately becomes their defender against Æthelwold’s gang of thugs and then goes to the king to plead with him on Uhtred’s behalf. Of course, he does walk perilously close to danger’s edge when he informs the king that the outlawed Uhtred is in Winchester and “You can have him found and executed, or you can speak with him.” We do not know yet how that interview will go, but the final image, of Alfred watching Uhtred from the shadows, is chilling.
The couple that gets the most attention, though, is the royal pair: Alfred and Ælswith. Even when they agree, they disagree–take Æthelwold for example. Alfred says he should be watched. Ælswith says he should be dead. They are constantly wrangling—over Æthelwold, over Edward, over whether the ailing Alfred should even be standing upright, but mostly over Uhtred. Alfred’s insistence that when he is gone Edward will need Uhtred at his side is a bitter pill for her to swallow.
As Alfred grows increasingly ill, he becomes less patient with the woman he has never loved but has always endeavored to respect. At the same time her growing despair in the face of his approaching death makes her more overbearing, overprotective and outspoken, and earns her frequent rebukes from the king. This ongoing and increasing conflict between them is not in the novels because they are written from Uhtred’s point of view and Uhtred is seldom at court to see it. Ælswith’s dislike of Uhtred is there, yes. And it’s mutual. But the show has really focused a harsh light on the marriage made purely for political reasons—as most (maybe all?) royal marriages at that time were—and it does not bode well for Edward and his new bride. (His second bride. He will be known in history as Edward the Elder who married 3 times and had 13 children. That we know of. Where did he find the time???)