The first episode of the long-awaited Season 4 of The Last Kingdom covers a lot of ground—re-connecting us with on-going characters and introducing some new faces. It appears to be following the two major story lines from Cornwell’s 7th novel, The Pagan Lord. The first plot involves Uhtred’s return to Bebbanburg and his attempt to retake it. The second focuses on the Danish armies under Cnut and their efforts to conquer Mercia. How the story lines play out on the show, though, differs greatly from what happens in the novel.
The episode opens with a desperate, bloody battle in Northumbria between our hero’s nasty uncle Aelfric, (Joseph Millson), who stole the fortress and its lands from Uhtred, and a Scottish horde that is eager to dislodge him. Aelfric escapes with his life, but his repellent nature is on full display as he vilifies his men.
Meantime, miles away in southern Mercia, the very opposite of a battle is taking place in Uhtred’s bedchamber. Anyone who is not familiar with Bernard Cornwell’s brilliant novels which are the basis for this series might be surprised to see Uhtred making passionate love to the Lady Aethelflaed, but this scene pretty much mimics Cornwell’s first reference to their coupling back in The Burning Land (Book 5) when one morning we discover that she is with him in his bedchamber, her feet bare as she joins him to gaze out the window. There were plenty of hints that this romantic liaison was coming, of course, but nothing explicit, not even a kiss, until now. Nevertheless, in the space of a single scene we learn that Uhtred (Alexander Draemon) and Aethelflaed (Millie Brady) are now lovers, and we are reminded, when they’re interrupted by her supporter Aldhelm (James Northcote), that she is married to Ealdorman Aethelred who hates her and who has not just one lover, but many.
Speaking of Aethelred (Toby Regbo), his newest near-conquest is a beauty named Eadith (Stefanie Martini) who is playing a ‘come hither’ game that is frustrating the ealdorman. She appears to be out for whatever she can get from him without giving anything in return.
We hope she wins, but her brother, Eardwulf (Jamie Blackley) is worried that Aethelred will slip from the hook if she’s not a little more forthcoming. As the commander of Aethelred’s household guards, Eardwulf has been talking with the Dane Haesten who’s been feeding him information about the movements of Cnut’s Danish army.
At this point longtime TLK fans are shouting at the screen “Haesten is a spavined weasel. Don’t trust him!” But Eardwulf can’t hear us.
Haesten (Jeppe Beck Laursen), of course, is in cahoots with Cnut (Magnus Brun) and Brida who are hungry for conquest and are happily misleading the Saxons about their plans. The character of Brida—the spunky girl who was Uhtred’s love in Season 1 and later Ragnar’s woman—has been slowly evolving into a bitter creature who hates all Christians. It’s an accurate reflection of her character development in the books, and Emily Cox’s portrayal of Brida is spot on.
Down in Winchester there is unrest within the royal family. King Edward’s mother, Lady Not-A-Queen Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth), resents her son’s dependence on his father-in-law, Aethelhelm (Adrian Schiller) while she’s been demoted to a new position as the king’s annoying and ignored mother.
It’s true that she was annoying when Alfred was alive, but at least he listened to her counsel. Her son merely sends her to her room (near the kitchens) and when she complains to Fr. Beocca about Aethelhelm’s ambition he tells her, “You cannot invite a serpent into the garden and be surprised when it slithers on the ground.”
Good old Fr. Beocca (Ian Hart). We’re so glad he’s still around, along with Hild (Eva Birthistle), Fr. Pyrlig (Cavan Clerkin), Steapa (Adrian Bouchet), and Uhtred’s merry gang of loyal followers Finan (Mark Rowley), Sihtric (Arnas Fedaravicius) and Osferth (Ewan Mitchell).
Uhtred’s son, Uhtred, makes his appearance near the episode’s end. There were two sons in the novels, and the show runners have decided to combine them into one figure. He and dad do not get along, which is not surprising, given that the boy was raised by monks to be a fervent Christian per Alfred’s command. I loved Uhtred’s grumbling aside that Alfred still torments him. Uhtred the elder really tries to reach out to the boy, but Uhtred the younger is a typical teenager—resentful, surly, defiant, and mouthy for a monk—to the great amusement of Uhtred’s merry band. His personality is very different from either of the sons in the novels. He’s actually a lot like his father, and adorable. Played by actorFinn Elliot.
There seems to be a father/son theme running through the episode. In a lovely moment Uhtred calls Beocca ‘father’, and he doesn’t appear to be using it as a title but as a relationship. Edward seems to have accepted Aethelhelm as a father figure, despite trying to be his own man. Edward’s rejected son, Athelstan, is mentioned, and as he is important I think we’ll be seeing him soon. Cnut’s two sons have joined him from Ireland. Aelfric is in trouble because his only son is dead, another digression from the novels. And Uhtred reclaims his own son from the abbey, although the jury is still out about how that relationship is going to go.
It’s a wonderful beginning to a new season. And now, on to Bebbanburg!