The Last Kingdom (Season 4)
*Warning: This review contains spoilers*
The best historical drama to grace our screens. Based on the Bernard Cornwell novels, The Last Kingdom proves time and again that it can execute a compelling narrative, one that’s carried by a strong cast of characters in navigating the ever-changing dynamic between Saxons and Danes. The fourth season is all about change. The Saxon’s political landscape is frail as tensions rise between Wessex and Mercia, with men looking to exploit the weaknesses of their enemy as well as their kings. It’s a precarious landscape with new leaders rising among the fallen, carrying the weight of buried tensions and conflicts from enemies on all sides. This is why you should be watching The Last Kingdom.
The season kicks off with Uhtred finally making the march to reclaim his birthright, Bebbanburg. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for, but what was meant to be his hour of glory quickly turns into a nightmare as his expedition leads to one of the most heartbreaking deaths on the entire show, Father Beocca. Beocca saved him as a child and has supported Uhtred in all of his ventures. His oldest ally and friend. Beocca’s death shakes Uhtred’s core, makes him question his leadership, and reveals Uhtred’s own exhaustion of war. His grief was raw, and the void left behind was felt for the remainder of the season. However, it is also in this loss that we come to value the support of Uhtred’s remaining followers. Finan, in particular, rises to the occasion, becoming the voice of reason among the grief. The trio of Finan, Osferth and Sihtric have always provided moments of levity on this show, and their dynamic with Uhtred remains to be a bright spot, making you fear for their survival as Uhtred’s closest allies grow thin. The battle at Bebbanburg is a brutal loss for our heroes but opens up another thread of conflict ensuring that this will not be last we see of Uhtred’s rightful home.
Political manoeuvring has always been at the heart of The Last Kingdom, and once again Uhtred finds himself in the middle of the latest conflict between Saxon lords and the Danes. Uhtred has always been a man that leads with his heart, it’s why his men follow him so devoutly, yet it is also his heart that threatens to trap him under Saxon influence once again as his love for Aethelflead and the safety of Mercia lead him to the heart of the conflict. Edward is no Alfred, he is not as cunning or as wise in his youth, but when an opportunity to use Uhtred arises, he will not hesitate to exploit it.
The leading ladies
The Last Kingdom has always effectively explored the role of women in politics. Once again, this season brings the women to the forefront. Lady Aelswith has often been a thorn in Uhtred’s side. However, this season presents her as a sympathetic figure as her influence in court diminishes, giving her time to reflect on her own mistake. Here we get to know Aelswith, the mother as she attempts to guide Edward and Aethelflaed to a path that fulfils Alfred’s dream of a united England and uniting the family along the way.
Aethelflaed’s own journey puts her at the heart of the conflict between the Danes and Saxons. This season firmly asserts her position as the leader the Mercians choose to follow. Her leadership skills are at the forefront as she displays the courage of a warrior, the wisdom of her father, without forsaking her own compassion and heart. In one of the shows quieter moments, Mille Brady gets the chance to shine in Aethelflaed’s final scene alongside her ailing husband. It’s a moment that makes you sympathise with Toby Regbo’s Aethelred as he repents for mistreatment of Aethelflaed, but it’s in the stillness of Brady’s reaction that carried the emotional weight of her strength as the conflict between her duty and heart rages within.
The Last Kingdom has always explored how a woman’s position is shaped by the choices of men, and season 4 has several key moments in which our leading and supporting ladies use the position given to them by men to break the chains that confine them.
The burden of legacy is one that defines the season. With Alfred gone, Edward is shouldered with the weight of his father’s legacy while looking to consolidate his power in Wessex and its neighbouring kingdoms. Alfred’s dream of a united England is never far from Edward’s mind, but with a court rife with men of ambition, Edward becomes an easy target to influence. His struggle comes in establishing his own identity while simultaneously honouring his father’s legacy. The seventh episode treats us to an honest insight into Edward’s mindset as he confides in a bloody Uhtred of his envy and admiration of the Dane that inspires loyalty in all. It’s a moment that proved that Harry McEntire’s is more than capable of filling the void left by David Dawson’s Alfred.
Uhtred’s own legacy comes to the forefront as his children become a vital part of the journey. Having long struggled between his Saxon heritage and Danish upbringing, his children are a physical reflection of the internal struggle he’s long tried to reconcile. His son, Uhtred, taken by Alfred at a young age, was raised as a worshipper of God, while his daughter, Stiorra, reflects the free spirit of the Danes. Their introduction to the show reflects the changes in the political landscape as Saxons and Danes alike learn to live alongside one another in peace.
Each season introduces a slew of new faces that broaden the scope of the landscape of this world. With Mercia at the mercy of the Dane Cnut and Edward’s apparent abandonment of Mercia, eyes turned to Wales for aid. No love is lost between the Saxons and the Welsh, and while they emerged victorious in battle, the fallout of this incursion see the Welsh lose valuable assets, and will no doubt be a force to reckon with in the seasons to come.
We’re also introduced to another Danish lord, one that defies the expectations of leaders before him. Cast out of Ireland, Sigtryggr returns to Wessex and accomplishes something no other Dane has done, take hold of Winchester. Unlike Cnut and Brida, who act out on emotion, Sigtyggr proves to be a cunning diplomat, seeking land, not conquest. His siege at Winchester pushes Uhtred, Edward, and their allies to their very limits, and this forward-thinking Dane is yet another example of a changing landscape with the Dane seeking to settle among the Saxons on their own land in peace.
The Last Kingdom reminds everyone why it’s the best historical drama to grace our screens. The battle scenes are tense and engaging, the political manipulation subtle and unpredictable, and characters on all sides of this war are layered and sympathetic. This is the show that respects its viewers with its complex insight into 10th-century politics and over the four seasons, has become stronger in its narrative while continuing to explore relationships and themes that can resonate with the ones we carry in our own lives.
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