In the previous episode (Ep. 7), while I was totally fixated on Brida, the other story threads inched forward.
Aethelhelm approached the Scots king with the offer of a Mercian bride (Aelswith) in return for putting his grandson on Edward’s throne. King Constantin was intrigued but, wisely, didn’t trust Aethelhelm any farther than he could throw him. So he sent the lying swine to Bebbanburg with Wihtgar, and if these two guys were cats they’d be hissing at each other with bared teeth.
Aelfwynn, to no one’s surprise, managed to fall into the hands of Aethelhelm’s goons and bring Aelswith and Eadith along with her. Aelswith was canny enough to recognize who was behind their abduction and that their lives were in danger. She decided to act, and probably everyone watching raised dubious eyebrows when she claimed that she was schooled in how to protect herself. Aelswith???? But she was as good as her word, and I had to laugh when after disposing of her enemy she breathed that she felt like Michael the Archangel when he slew Satan’s armies. She forgot, though, that her grand-daughter was not schooled in much of anything, or maybe Aelfwynn missed the class on self-preservation, because Goon Number Two snatched her up and rode off into the night.
Uhtred, too, was having adolescent daughter problems, and even before Stiorra killed Brida. The former queen of York wanted nothing to do with her father, with the Saxon King, or with Christians. She called her father the arseling of the House of Wessex, rejected Edward’s offer as ruler of York and managed to get herself and her people exiled, to Uhtred’s anguish and consternation.
King Edward couldn’t escape the rebellious teenager problem, either, but his response was quite different from that of Uhtred and Aelswith. While they refused to give up on their wayward children, Edward wasn’t going to stomach his son’s disobedience. So despite the fact that Aelfweard was ignorant of the treachery of his grandfather, when the boy went north in a huff to find his dear grandpapa, Edward responded by marrying his mistress to legitimize her unborn child and more or less washed his hands of his misbehaving lad.
As Episode 8 opens Uhtred is confronting his daughter and getting absolutely nowhere. She is planning to settle with her people in the north, not go with her father back to Runcorn. For most of this episode Uhtred obstinately insists that his companions and his daughter must return to their shattered village even though everyone he trusts attempts to dissuade him. Even Fr. Pyrlig – yes! Pyrlig lives!
Fr. Benedict delivers Aelfweard to Bebbanburg and his disgustingly doting grandfather. With Aelfweard’s blackmail threat behind him, the priest listens to Aethelhelm’s talk of rebellion with misgiving and slips away in the night.
When Edward learns that his wayward son is nowhere in Wessex and has probably run to grandpa, the king is so wounded that he waxes philosophical. Why is this happening to him? He intuits that Aethelhelm is provoking him, and that there is a trap waiting if he should take the bait. So he makes a very firm decision that he is not going to move his army north but return to Winchester. He holds to that decision even when his mother storms in with news of Aelfwynn’s abduction and demands that Edward save the girl.
And while Edward’s position sounds like obstinacy, we have to remember that last season he nearly lost Winchester because he tarried too long in Mercia and left Wessex unprotected. He’s not about to make that mistake again.
I found myself warming to Eadgifu in this episode. She doesn’t come across as a schemer as she takes on the role of wise counsellor to the king. She honors Edward’s mother, and I especially like that she acts the straight man for Aelswith by giving her the perfect set-up for Aelswith’s boast about slaughtering a man with her bare hands. I laughed out loud.
A defiant, barely-a-lady Aelfwynn is delivered to Bebbanburg, but her threat to kill herself rather than wed the Scots king only earns her Aethelhelm’s scorn. The final image of the scene—the two of them seated in gloom with Aelfwynn the central figure in the key light—is held for a long time. It seems portentous, but I don’t know what to make of it.
Fr. Benedict brings word of Aethelhelm’s whereabouts and schemes to Aylesbury, and at the mention of Bebbanburg Uhtred begins to re-evaluate his next move. Like Edward he turns philosophical, and Fr. Pyrlig nudges him gently toward a decision.
In the final, tense scene of the episode Uhtred presents Edward with a plan to stop Aethelhelm and fortify the lands near the Scots border. Edward is mulish, refusing to be drawn north into a trap just so Uhtred, he points out, can regain Bebbanburg. He stays calm, firm, kinglike. He’s more like Alfred than we’ve ever seen him. But when he announces that he will offer the Scottish king half of Northumbria plus Aelfwynn in exchange for Aethehelm’s head, absolutely nobody supports the plan. Uhtred, Aldhelm, Aelswith, Fr. Pyrlig, Athelstan—all of them raise their arguments. Stymied by this opposition Edward pulls rank, nods to his guards, and swords are drawn, although there’s no blood spilled yet. Edward reminds what is essentially his witan how he dealt with the witan of Mercia, and he threatens to execute anyone who attempts to leave the city. Uhtred and Aldhelm are still defiant, and now Uhtred offers the king an ultimatum in return. Join us now while we have the advantage of time on our side, or stay here and flounder. Choose.
It’s a Mexican Mercian stand-off.