Episode 8 of The Last Kingdom 4 begins in Wales. And by the way, these Welsh segments of the series are unique to the tv drama. They are not based on events in Bernard Cornwell’s books, and this is one time when having read the books makes it more difficult for me to be objective about what’s happening on the screen. Personally I found most of the scenes in Wales this episode hard to watch, but they do accomplish several important things.
To begin with, Brida’s baby bump gives us an idea of the passage of time. At least 3 months, maybe 4, have passed since we saw her in Episode 2 before the Battle of Tettenhall when she was newly pregnant. And I think that another month goes by over the course of this episode. None of this is a surprise, given the distances that the characters have had to travel this season, but it helps to have the time frame reinforced.
The Welsh segments introduce the character of Sigtryggr, who is not quite as boyish and exuberant as I imagined him when I read the novels. I hope he lightens up.
The violence and viciousness of Brida, the Welsh, and Sigtryggr are a pretty heavy-handed contrast to the discussions about God, sacrifice, leadership and responsibility taking place in Aylesbury. Even as I understood what the writers were doing here, I didn’t really enjoy it. It’s a little like having to take a bad-tasting medicine. Nevertheless, the character of Brida is the Brida that we know from the novels. The difference is, we’re witnessing her descent into savagery, while in the novels it was sprung on us.
I have a couple of quibbles about that unlikely nighttime battle between the Welsh and the Danes. Back in Season 2 there was a nighttime battle beneath a full moon, remember that?
The full moon made that earlier battle somewhat believable, although in reality battles would have ended when night fell. This time King Hywel is using darkness to cover his movements, and that’s REALLY stretching believability for me. Go take a walk in the woods in the dark and see how far you get without tripping over something or bumping into a tree. Still, Sigtryggr’s response makes for exciting watching, with its flaming pit and fire arrows, (and he didn’t even need Melisandre to ignite that trench). Coal would have been abundant in Wales, and coal tar fumes are highly flammable; the Danes (and the script writers) are making use of that, although that looks like oil in the trench, but okay. This reveals Sigtryggr’s cleverness and ingenuity. It’s the longbows, though, that bother me. Sigtryggr shouts for his men to raise their longbows and, yes, it’s a quibble, but it is the Welsh who used longbows, not the Danes. Just sayin’.
At the end of the Welsh segments sparrow-brained Eardwulf shows up like a bad penny, and the Danes are heading into Wessex to take Winchester and make Brida happy.
Meantime, in Aylesbury, the search for a new Lord of Mercia is playing out in a way that’s different enough from the books to make me a little regretful that the series didn’t stick closer to Cornwell’s story line. Aethelflaed has more agency and more ambition in the novel, and in this series I missed the conversations and the collaboration between Aethelflaed and Uhtred about putting her on that empty throne that took place in the book. Here, Uhtred’s decision to relinquish the throne to her seems to be something he thinks of on the spot. It’s a surprise to everyone, including Aethelflaed, and it makes her seem far less assertive than I’d like to see her.
The theme of royal family politics is in play again, with Edward deciding that Uhtred should rule Mercia, Aethelflaed opposing it, and Aelswith telling her daughter to accept her lot as a woman with no voice in the decisions of men. Aelswith’s expression of astonished approval when Aethelred takes the throne is priceless.
Edward, of course, behaves like a jealous kid whose big sister has just snatched his favorite toy, Uhtred has to raise the Mercian fyrd to support Aethelflaed, and when Edward is still grumpy his mom has to step in once again and reason with him. She persuades him, too, that it would be dangerous to take Athelstan to Winchester, and Edward approves of her plan to take the boy to Bedwyn and raise him there.
Uhtred’s son and daughter, who’ve only just been re-united, are bidding each other farewell. Young Uhtred is following his priestly calling and returning to his abbey in Wessex, so now instead of being Uhtred’s warrior son, he is going to be the priestly son. Young Uhtred has to play two roles at once. Stiorra has been hanging out in the tavern with Finan and company, a bit of a wild child and the polar opposite of her brother. Young Uhtred regretfully refuses to take her with him into Wessex, and she watches him leave, convinced she’s going to be married off to someone she despises. Stiorra has no illusions about the fate that awaited most young women in the 10th century: marriage or a convent.
Eadith is rewarded for her care of Aelfwynn with a bag of silver and Aethelflaed’s promise of a comfortable cell in a convent. She takes the coins but turns down the convent and instead asks Finan to let her travel with Uhtred’s merry band when they leave Aylesbury. Eadith is no dummy.
So at the end of the episode, Young Uhtred is riding alone into Wessex. Uhtred and company will be escorting Aelswith and Athelstan into Wessex. Presumably, Edward will soon be returning into Wessex. And what they don’t know is that Brida, Sigtryggr and an army of Danes are also making for Wessex. Hold on tight. There’s trouble ahead.
And just in case you’re wondering, I very much doubt that catechumens in Anglo-Saxon England had to get buck naked when they were baptized.