The second season of The Last Kingdom has finished airing on BBC Two in the UK and is now available to binge watch on the iPlayer in its homeland and Netflix in nations like the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan and many European countries.
The second season adapts the third and fourth novels of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series, The Lords of the North and Sword Song, following Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Alexander Dreymon) as he fights to reclaims his ancestral lands from his usurper uncle Ælfric (Joseph Millson) and clashes with King Alfred of Wessex (David Dawson) as the Saxon kingdom fights off Danish invaders in the 9th Century.
By adapting two novels the second season was essentially two four-episode arcs. The first follows Uthred and his companions go to Northern England to help Guthred (Thure Lindhardt) – a slave prophesized to become king of Northumbria. Whilst Uthred is up North he may as well try and get revenge against the man who killed his adopted father and abducted his sister. The final four episodes take place three years later where Uthred’s loyalties to Wessex are questioned, whilst the Danes seize Lundun (modern day London).
Because the series was split into two separate arcs it meant that there was a divide in quality between the first half and second half – the second being the superior half. The first half was rushed and underdeveloped as it tried to juggle a number of plotlines – from Uthred helping a complete incompetent as king, his desire for revenge against the Danes who attacked his adopted family, the Saxons who betrayed his birth family, falls for Guthred’s sister (Peri Baumeister) and dealing with the rivalries within Guthred’s court. The worst example of this rushed storytelling was in Episode 3 wherein the space of an hour-long episode Uthred is sold into slavery, freed, suffers and recovers from the physical and psychological trauma to getting revenge against the priest who betrayed him. This would have been material could have been worth two or three episodes, but The Last Kingdom skips through it. Fortunately, the follow-up episode was an action-packed affair and one of the best episodes in the series.
The second half of the season was much stronger – showing a marriage alliance being formed between Wessex and Mercia and growing distrust between Alfred and Uthred as the conflict with the Danes starts to flare up. This half of the season told a story in a more condensed timeframe which benefited the show. This half of the season moves the action back to Winchester, the capital of Wessex, and allows for more political intrigue and personal conflict as Uthred butts heads with Alfred and his new son-in-law Lord Æthelred of Mercia.
This half of the series also shows more of the Danish faction, showing the relationship between the brothers Erik (Christain Hillborg) and Sigefrid (Björn Bengtsson) leading the assault. Erik is the rational, intelligent one whilst Sigefrid is a volatile warrior who seeks revenge against Uthred. Despite their differences, there is a clear love between the two and only gets fractured because Erik falls for a Saxon woman.
Although the first and second half of the season tell different stories: the first half does lay the foundations for the story in the second. The biggest storyline was Alfred arranging the marriage between his daughter Princess Æthelflæd (Millie Brady) and Lord Æthelred which plays a part of the final four episodes. The first four episodes also established Erik and Sigefrid, the Danes who hold Eoforwic (modern day York) and overthrown by the Saxons when they when they raid Scotland.
The Last Kingdom makes for an interesting companion piece with The History Channel’s popular series Vikings: both shows are set in the same period and tell it from two different perspectives. Vikings’ perspective is pretty obvious whilst The Last Kingdom shows events from the Saxons’ point of view.
The Last Kingdom pays attention to historical details like costumes and set design – religious and superstitious beliefs. This gives the show a sense of authenticity and that is the biggest advantage over some other historical shows – being a more earthy show. The Last Kingdom cannot match the scale of shows like Game of Thrones and Vikings – action is more sparse. The show decides to concentrate battles scenes to a few episodes. The fourth episode saw Uthred launch a stealthy raid against Erik and Sigefrid and lay siege on Donholm (modern day Durham); the second half of episode 8 showed Uthred and his soldiers raid into Danish territory before it turns into a major battle between the Danes and the Saxons. The best action sequences in the season were at the end of the sixth episode: it was a three-minute continuous sequence when the Danes launch a raid against a Saxon camp. It serves a great example on how to use shaky cam.
As a novelist Bernard Cornwell has found the sweet spot of being true to historical fact as possible, political and personal drama and bloody action scenes. And The Last Kingdom series does honor Cornwell’s writing – it has the political maneuvering like shows such as Game of Thrones and showing that there are heroes and villains on both sides of the conflict. The series also manages a few lighthearted moments, giving the series a sense of levity.
The Last Kingdom is a show that will easily please fans of Cornwell’s novels and it is a great historical drama – accepting that history is not black-and-white. It is definitely a show for Vikings fans should check out and The Last Kingdom find a great balance between fact and fiction.