• Review - The Last Kingdom Season 1

    Single Issue XIV

    The Last Kingdom Season 1 (2015)
    ‘Today is a day for warriors. A day to kill your enemies. A day we make the pagans wish
    they’d never heard of Wessex. Today we fight for Wessex...’ -Alfred the Great
    The first season of The Last Kingdom is based on the Saxon Stories, a series of books written by Bernard Cornwell. Based primarily on the first two novels and taking place roughly seventy years after the world presented in Vikings, the Last Kingdom tells the tale of Uhtred, a noble Saxon from the lands of Northumbria. Captured by the Danes as a child and raised as one of them, Uhtred’s dual identity as a Saxon and a Dane is a constant centerpiece of the series. In addition to this, Uhtred suffers greatly by losing not just one family but two: his father dies in battle, and his adoptive father Ragnar the Elder is killed along with much of his family by vengeful Danes. Motivated by his own revenge against those that have wronged him, Uhtred travels to the court of King Alfred (not yet the Great) of Wessex to pledge his sword. But what he does not understand is how his influence will shape the course of English history as Alfred has his own plans for a united kingdom, led by Wessex, which is the last Saxon kingdom and on the verge of extinction by the invading Danes.
    Inevitably this series is going to be compared to both Game of Thrones and Vikings. I think that both are worthwhile comparisons, but let’s hold off on that for the time being. I believe that it is worthwhile to start by discussing the production values of this season. Production values on the series are some of the best I have seen in a TV series, an attribute I can say is largely due to it being a BBC production. The series has a lot of spectacle in the form of its battles, but I find the series has a lot of more subtle yet amazing aspects of its production. The costume design is simply incredible, with every actor and every extra wearing great looking costumes. The character design for Uhtred alone is very interesting as it shows the dual identity and nature of his upbringing. While many of the costumes are perhaps a bit extravagant (Saxon and Danish soldiers armed well with swords and mail and expensive helmets) I find it to be a necessary addition. As I understand it, the soldiers on both sides would have looked pretty similar in terms of clothing and weapons. That would have looked dull and in the midst of battle, very confusing. So even if it is not 100% accurate I find it to be a necessary change that helps the viewer more than harms history. In addition to the costuming and armor, I find the sets and the shooting locations in general to be top notch. Filming in such a relatively untouched and cheaper Hungarian countryside and other places helps keep costs low in key areas, allowing them to really go all out on their beautifully made and wonderfully detailed sets. The sweeping shots of the cities and villages are simply beautiful and the close up location shooting is impressive. The cinematography in general is a treat for the eyes as well.
    In addition to the sets and costuming, the series also has some decent battle scenes. The two largest battles are in the first and last episodes, and are for the most part really well made. In addition to the two battles, we also have a small amount of minor duels and other small fights that flesh out the story. All of the fights are good and exciting for the viewer, and plenty of blood to go around. The action is crisp and gory, and the brutality of shield wall fighting is more or less accurately portrayed. My one big issue with this is the fact that Uhtred is the one who has to teach the Saxons how to fight in the style portrayed in the series which is just plain odd considering that the Saxons should have already known this style just as well as the Danes. In addition, during the final battle there are some really obvious CG soldiers that are thrown in, distracting to the viewer. A shame it had to be so obvious but it did at least try to show the size of the battle adequately. Nonetheless, the battles, though sparse in this season, are entertaining spectacles, and quite bloody to behold.
    The characters are important, partially because there are so many of them and also because they are all so important in driving the story. One of my big issues with the series so far is the lead himself; Alexander Dreymon. As the lead, I am not entirely convinced by Dreymon’s portrayal as Uhtred. The character alone is bratty and kind of whiny, and is just plain unlikeable for much of the first season in comparison to the other characters, and the actor does not pull off those traits in any meaningful way. He certainly improves throughout the season, but there is something about him that stands out compared to the rest of the cast, and not in a good way. He kind of reminds me of a combination of Legolas and Jon Snow, which is not necessarily a bad thing but it does not come across well in this first season. For what it is worth, though, I do think Dreymon handles the conflicting nature of Uhtred’s personality and background (Born a Saxon, raised as a Dane) rather well. It’s just some other things that are hard to truly pinpoint that makes him seem uninteresting. He’s not outright terrible, but it may take some time before he is as convincing a protagonist as others (like Kit Harington as Jon Snow, if we are to be continuing the comparison).
    This casting issue is relatively small compared to the rest of the series, luckily. Leofric, played by Adrian Bower, is a wonderful character that you just want to root for, and indeed he is my favorite character. His wisecracks and nicknames in particular bring a bit of levity to the series in scenes that really need it. The actors playing the Danes are intriguing additions to the story as well. In particular, Ragnar the Younger, adoptive brother of Uhtred, is quite good and well played, and has an interesting story of his own. The true standout actor of the show though is David Dawson as Alfred. Alfred is a wonderful and complex character that, while hard to root for cause he’s kind of a jerk, is nonetheless fascinating to watch. His characterization is a bit off though in how he responds to story developments, but those issues are almost difficult to spot because of how well the character is played. Dawson’s subtle yet commanding performance and presence has been a huge part of why this series has worked. Though short-lived, Matthew Macfayden as Uhtred’s father was also awesome, and it was truly frustrating to see such an interesting character leave so early into the show. A surprisingly charismatic and interesting character arises in Aethelwold, played by Harry McEntire, who performs amusingly as the sarcastic and hedonistic nephew of Alfred. Finally, Ian Hart admirably plays Beocca, an adviser and friend to both Uhtred and Alfred, and I honestly cannot wait to see this character further develop throughout the series. There are perhaps far too many characters to really name, but luckily no one of them is poorly played in my opinion, at least not to the same degree as Dreymon's Uhtred.
    The writing and story are also worth mentioning. The dialogue alone is rather gripping even in the case of Uhtred, and it is really easy to get sucked into the conversations of the show. But I think that the overall story presented through the writing is even more interesting. The first season is an adaptation of the first two books from the Saxon Stories, and it is set up more or less in that way with the first “book” ending halfway through the series and immediately going into the next one. This form of adaptation has of course left things out, but I find that the pace is more or less good through this adaptation, and there really is no indication that the season splits between the two books as the directing and writing managed to keep the flow going throughout the story. My one significant issue with the story has to be Uhtred’s love life. Throughout the course of the whole Uhtred has a string of romances with three women across eight episodes. There is the brash Brida, the naive Mildrith, and the mysterious Iseult. While all the relationships are more or less fleshed out decently, it is still a lot of different romances to throw out in eight hours. There are other, small pacing problems as well but the romances are a huge indicator of the pacing problems of the show. Nonetheless, none of the romances are necessarily poorly done. I just find it a bit tedious and rushed, and it is entirely possible that it is much better paced in the books. Finally, the direction of the series is overall very good. I attribute these successes for the show to two factors; picking directors that actually know what they are doing, and the episodes all being written by the same person, head writer and showrunner Stephen Butchard. Despite its small faults, the series cannot be denied as a well produced one.
    Overall, I find the first season of The Last Kingdom to be a more than adequate but far than perfect season of television. It is similar enough to the comparable shows but also sets out to create its own identity. One of the main reasons this show felt so different from its comparisons is the large amount of melancholy throughout its narrative. The Last Kingdom is a drama about not feeling like you belong (Uhtred’s conflicting identities), as well as loss, betrayal, conflict and revenge. In many ways Uhtred’s story is just about growing up and becoming a different person, but the story told by both Bernard Cornwell and the showrunner is actually far more complicated for the audience. Uhtred as a character is a young, brash, complicated man who is constantly being made into a new person: he begins the show as young Osbert, becomes Uhtred after his brother’s death, goes from being a Saxon to a Dane and from slave to an adopted son, and eventually just having control of his own destiny, a constant recurring theme in the series. And that is just the first episode’s journey. The ramifications of this are further told throughout the season, and I imagine will continue throughout the series. Driven by revenge but also by the need for survival in dangerous times, Uhtred’s journey does not look set to be an easy one, nor a happy one. But while the story and everything else is interesting and fresh, the series still has a lot of room to improve.
    While I tried to not compare this show to its obvious comparisons, it is still worth mentioning that while it is similar to those shows in some ways, in many ways it is quite different. The Last Kingdom is not in the same league as Game of Thrones in my opinion; even with its pretty impressive budget I find it just does not look nearly as good as its obvious comparison. Nor does the series have the epic scope of its other obvious comparison,Vikings and its fantastic cast of characters at this point. But to be honest, that is completely fine. It’s not a perfect series, but it is one that shows a vast amount of potential. Its amazing cinematography, bloody and fantastic fight scenes, and wondrous and driving story make it an interesting watch for fans of this genre.


    Comments 12 Comments
    1. Commissar Caligula_'s Avatar
      Commissar Caligula_ -
      Not a single mention of arseling in the entire review?
    1. Gigantus's Avatar
      Gigantus -
      I thoroughly enjoyed the story line but then I am a sucker for historically based serials anyhow

      Great review as always.
    1. Leonardo's Avatar
      Leonardo -
      In contrast to Gig, I do enjoy the historical part especially since history has always been my favorite subject both in school when I was a kid and later in my life.

      Great article.
    1. Caillagh de Bodemloze's Avatar
      Caillagh de Bodemloze -
      I agree, Gen. Chris. Leofric is definitely the hero!
    1. Owlparrot3's Avatar
      Owlparrot3 -
      At least the battles look cool .
    1. Muizer's Avatar
      Muizer -
      Nice review! Only thing I would add to it is something about the comparison with GoT and Vikings is that The Last Kingdom lacks the tension that comes from having multiple protagonists across varying theatres, often with conflicting interests. The focus on one main character and some satellite minor characters doesn't allow for many dramatic twists and turns in the plot.
    1. Alwyn's Avatar
      Alwyn -
      Great review! I enjoyed both the series and your thought-provoking commentary. I agree with Caillagh - and agree with Gen. Chris that it was helpful to have distinctive designs for the Danes and Saxons, even if historically their clothes, armour and weapons would have been very similar. I wonder if the problem with Uhtred's character is that the writers give us reasons to pity him, but not to like him?

      I see what you mean about the issues with the pacing making the romances seem rushed. Muizer's idea looks like a good one to me - it would have been interesting to have episodes from the point of view of different characters (perhaps Uhtred's brother Ragnar, his sister Brida, the warrior Leofric and Father Beocca. (Like Uhtred, I see Beocca as someone with divided loyalties.)
    1. Poacher886's Avatar
      Poacher886 -
      I cant for the life of me understand why Netflix UK does not show the second season....when Netflix produced it!
    1. ♔Greek Strategos♔'s Avatar
      ♔Greek Strategos♔ -
      Ι'm planning to watch it ASAP. Thank you for reviewing it.
    1. Wulfgardt's Avatar
      Wulfgardt -
      Good series to watch for entertainment but history wise and use of historic props and set pieces just don't look too closely.i made that mistake and started noticing daft fantasy or out of period armours and other little things here and there that were just wrong for the time period,thats just me though.Apart from that i enjoyed it and look forward to watching season 2.
    1. Tyso3's Avatar
      Tyso3 -
      Ill be honest, my first viewing was pretty tepid, I pushed myself through the first season and then stopped watching after 2 episodes of the second.

      Like you, the main actor is really offputting. Bad acting, walks like a peacock and the sword he ALWAYS CARRIES (even when undercover) with the big huge 'IM UTRED LOLZ' hilt on it really made it look cheesy.

      However, on a second attempt i really got into the series, i pretty much ignored utreds acting and started enjoying the show for what it is, A novel based on historical times (like sharpe, same author).

      Season 2 and onwards were grate, the actor who plays skorpa is really freaky looking, perfect for a viking
    1. Beas7ie's Avatar
      Beas7ie -
      I read all the books and loved them. Bernard Cornwell is an amazing author. I highly recommend his Saxon Stories, King Arthur books(a bit more realistic tale of Arthur), and I also enjoyed his Archer's Tale series.

      So I saw the first episode when this came out and I was like What the hell happened? Most of the stuff was cut, and they turned the incredible Battle of Cynuit into a frekking pajama duel! Yes an epic clash of shieldwalls was changed to a pajama duel between Uhtred and Ubbe. And it was literally a pajama duel. Ubbe was in his sleeping clothes and refused to don his armor so Uhtred takes off that atrocious fur breastplate thing and fights without that.

      After that I couldn't take it seriously anymore and stopped watching it right there.

      If you want to see more about how bad this series is then Lindybeige has a pretty entertaining video about it.