Episode 3 of Season 4 of The Last Kingdom is permeated with threat, devastation and loss. There is no place in the dialogue for ribald humor or even wry jests among Uhtred’s companions. The father/son theme continues, and the contrast between Uhtred and his cousin Wihtgar could not be greater.
It begins at Bebbanburg. The cliff hanger we were clinging to, wide-eyed, at the end of Episode 2 is almost immediately resolved when both Uhtred and Beocca try to defuse the tense situation between Uhtred and his cousin, who apparently has never learned to play nicely with others. We do not know why the father he’s just murdered had expelled him from Bebbanburg in the first place, but perhaps it was because of an overarching ego, ambition, cruelty, and a total lack of compassion and reason. We’ve been getting those vibes from Wihtgar, and now they’re confirmed. Uhtred’s response when Beocca throws himself in front of Wihtgar’s arrow aimed at young Uhtred is one of maddened outrage and despair, and as his men make their desperate escape, with Finan dragging Uhtred from the slaughter yard, it starts to rain. Or maybe I was just getting all teary-eyed.
Shipwrecked, sick, and wounded, the men finally make landfall. Uhtred is heartsick and devastated. Even Finan can’t comfort him, at least not right away. I was impressed with the dialogue here, especially Uhtred’s despair that he could not retrieve Beocca’s body, that the priest would lie among strangers. Burial rites were important to all peoples in this age, and we are reminded of Uhtred’s rage when his pagan wife Gisela was given a Christian burial, and how he exhumed her body to place it on a pyre as she would have wished. (Historical aside: 100 years later King Swein Forkbeard’s body, buried in England, would be exhumed and borne to Denmark for fear the English would find his English grave and desecrate his corpse.)
We don’t know where in England Uhtred and his companions are, and neither do they. Uhtred is lost—physically and emotionally. He has lost Bebbanburg, and he has lost Beocca, who was the one constant in his life. Over the course of the episode, as he and his men appear to wander aimlessly, Uhtred grapples with his loss, with his role as a leader of men that he believes he can no longer fill, and with his strained relationship with his son. Finan is now the one constant in his life from the days when they were slaves together, and it’s Finan who holds the team together and seeks to ease the antipathy between young Uhtred and his father.
Finan finally gets through to Uhtred, too, as he buries the cross Hild gave him because he cannot bury Beocca. “If Beocca were here he would tell you this is not the end,” Finan insists. “We’ll get more men and return to Bebbanburg. We’ll batter down the gates!” The insertion of scenes of Beocca with Uhtred from earlier episodes was quite moving. Ian Hart, we will miss you!
In Winchester the father/son theme is playing out in an altogether different way as family politics continue to roil. King Edward is attempting to out-think Cnut, and he’s spot-on, actually. Cnut is trying to lure him into a battle that Edward knows he can’t win, not without Aethelred’s Mercians who are in East Anglia where Aethelred is pretending to be a king. (Have you noticed how Aethelred is almost always wearing that pointy crown, yet he’s not a king?) Wessex, though, not Mercia, is Edward’s first concern. His mother, a Mercian, insists that his father Alfred would go to Mercia’s aid, and that only puts Edward’s back up. The most he’ll do is send a messenger to demand that Aethelred hightail it back to Mercia, which doesn’t please the Mercians in the family one bit.
Aethelflaed, remembered historically as a Mercian leader whose close and constant cooperation with her brother Edward against the Danes was a brilliant coordinated strategy, at this point in our story decides that she has to force Edward’s hand. She sets out for Mercia to raise the fyrd against Cnut. When Edward finds out what she’s doing he’s angrier than ever because she’s forcing him to send troops to help her. Father-in-law Aethelhelm, though, counsels that there’s an advantage to just sitting back and allowing Mercia to lose to the Danes and letting Aethelflaed meet whatever fate awaits her, thus revealing himself to be the snake that Beocca said he was.
Concerned for her daughter and frustrated by her son’s refusal to lead his army against Cnut, Aelswith sends Fr. Pyrlig to the Welsh king to enlist his aid against the Danes. She perceives this as a battle for the soul of England—Christians against pagans. And if Fr. Pyrlig gets in trouble with King Edward for bringing the Welsh into the mix, well, it’s God’s will. Oh Aelswith! You are so hard to love!
Edward’s messenger to Aethelred runs into that handsome weasel Eardwulf first and is murdered before he can tell the ealdorman that Mercia is in trouble and that Eardwulf was an idiot for trusting Haesten’s information about Cnut’s departure for Ireland. Speaking of Haesten, we’ve known for some time that he had to spill the beans to someone about Cnut’s involvement in Ragnar’s murder, and it’s no surprise that when Haesten and Uhtred meet on a trail in a forest somewhere in England (what are the chances of that?) he fills Uhtred in on all that’s been happening in Mercia and Wessex, he gleefully vilifies Aethelflaed, then slyly reveals Cnut’s crime to prevent Uhtred from gutting him.
Haesten’s news that Aethelflaed is in trouble sends Uhtred toward Aylesbury, with Cnut’s sons in tow as hostages. On the way he has a heart to heart with his own son, and they come to an understanding.
In Aylesbury Uhtred finds that Aethelflaed is desperately short of defenders. She doesn’t know if Edward is coming. She doesn’t know if Aethelred is coming. She doesn’t have a clue about Pyrlig’s mission to the Welsh.
And on a ridge outside of Aylesbury, a gang of Cnut’s men are preparing to attack, with orders to capture the Lady of Mercia.