Every single episode of The Last Kingdom has elements of tenderness, threat, heartbreak, tension and fear. The show pulls us into the lives of its characters and enfolds us in the history into which they’re mired; makes us care about them, worry about them, laugh with them, and grieve with and for them. Yes, it’s just a story. But it touches us and moves us because it is based in the truth of human experience. Stories like this happened, and not only in some other century. They are happening today.
Episode 2: We’re back in York on the night of Brida’s surprise attack. Her men are ravaging, plundering, slaughtering. One of them finds Stiorra and her handmaid, but they escape his hands even as Rognvaldr continues searching for them. Stiorra and a few of her women takes refuge in an underground chamber, and she watches from hiding as Sigtryggr, outnumbered, is forced to submit. Brida humiliates him, laughing and cooing, luxuriating in bloodshed and cruelty. Emily Cox is doing her very best to make us despise Brida, and she’s succeeding brilliantly.
The showrunners tighten the screws of tension by having Brida toy with Sigtryggr and also with his brother who is supposed to be her ally. At scene’s end Sigtryggr is thrust alone into the fog-drenched night beyond the city with Brida’s promise that Stiorra will live only if Sigtryggr returns with Uhtred in tow. But Brida still hasn’t found Stiorra. And who trusts Brida, anyway?
In Runcorn winter is setting in and Uhtred, agonized for his unconscious son, is watching as Eadith tends the boy. And the showrunners, by combining the two sons of Uhtred from the book into this one son, have created a further anguish for Uhtred. His son will not be able to give him grandsons. There will be no more Uhtreds, son of Uhtred. (Remember, in this period, priests could marry and have children. But Young Uhtred has been gelded.)
Scouts are searching for Brida; all of Runcorn is on the alert, except for Cynlaef who is canoodling with Aelfwynn, but there has been no sign of Brida or her men. Uhtred knows that he’s been outplayed because while he expected Brida to come for him, he did not expect her to attack his children. So when Aldhelm rushes up with bad news, Uhtred already knows what it is. Brida is after his bloodline, and Stiorra must be in danger.
But there are other dangers besides Brida, and Eadith is stunned to discover that Aethelflaed has, apparently, late stage breast cancer. This is tragic news for Aethelflaed and everyone who loves her. Eadith is weeping, and anyone who’s read the books knew this was coming, but we’re weeping, too. True to her character, Aethelflaed, like her father, accepts her fate and steels herself to accomplish whatever she can before the end. In particular, she has a daughter who must take her place when the time comes. The death of a ruler is always a dangerous time for a kingdom, so she doesn’t want the news made public. The secrecy that Aethelflaed demands becomes a very big issue when Uhtred comes asking for troops to help save his daughter but Aethelfaed, anguished, denies him, throwing these once lovers into bitter conflict. Uhtred is on his knees begging her for men, but she has to refuse him sternly because, as Aldhlem confirms, if Uhtred knew of her illness he would be fighting Brida with a broken heart.
And this is one of the strengths of this show: the historical and the political are made personal. The dialogue in this show is terrific as conflict upon conflict builds in every single scene.
Down in Winchester Edward orders troops sent to support his sister in aid of Sigtryggr, insisting that they be under her command alone. And we wonder what sort of trouble that’s going to cause.
That weasel Aethelhelm tries to convince Edward to send men to kill Sigtryggr as well as Brida. When Edward doesn’t listen, Aethelhelm sends his favorite assassin to throw a spanner in the works up north, so we haven’t heard the last about that. Meantime Edward sends Fr. Pyrlig north to assess the situation. I’m hoping that this year they give poor Pyrlig a horse when they send him across country. Last season he had to walk to Wales!
In Runcorn there are farewells as Uhtred’s men prepare to leave, and the acting is so very wonderful as there is so much expressed yet unspoken. Eadith, practically broken herself, confides Aethelflaed’s secret to Finan because someone has to be warned that there is going to be trouble in Mercia.
Once Uhtred is gone Aethelflaed’s troubles increase, coming from those who should be supporting her: her mother, her daughter and her priest. Aelfwynn and Aelswith we can understand, but the priest makes me gnash my teeth.
And while we’ve been sobbing over Aethelflaed, poor Stirorra has been hiding in that hole for days, and now she watches more of her women cut down, although Brida does face a little hiccough when her blindfolded daughter messes up. Nevertheless, the tension and anguish are ratcheting up for Stiorra.
In Winchester Edward makes friendly with a woman who manages to impress him, and she impresses us, too, by neatly turning the tables on that weasel Aethelhelm when he tries to bribe her to go away. Eadgifu was, historically, quite a woman. We don’t see her in the novels, (that I can recall), but I think it was a masterstroke to add her to the show. I hope we’ll see more of her.
Up in the northern woods Sigtryygr and Pyrlig find each other, and when Uhtred and company show up the tension is relieved by some humorous byplay between Finan and Pyrlig, thank goodness! We needed a little lightness.
Sitryggr is outraged that Aethelflaed hasn’t given Uhtred an army and Finan is literally wringing his hands because he’s the only one who knows why. Even with so few men, Sigtryggr says he knows a way that will lead into the compound—perhaps. Meantime Stiorra has just been spattered with the blood of another murdered woman, and she’s had enough. Her disembodied voice calls to Brida, “I’m coming for you. You will pay for this.”
Brida shouts for her to show herself, and as the credits rolled I wondered how many people were sitting on the edges of their seats, breathlessly waiting for the next episode to start. More than a few, I suspect.