Series three’s penultimate episode is solemn, emotionally rich and potentially devastating. Spoilers ahead…
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This review contains spoilers.
Praise the gods for season three’s additional two episodes. In previous years, The Last Kingdom has been forced to race through plot and character development in order to cram two books’ worth of story into just eight installments. Working at that pace has paid dividends – there are no endless wagon journeys on this show, and there’s never been a single chance to get bored between dramatic confrontations and climaxes.
Being so plot-stuffed though, has also necessitated fleeting treatment of some key character building. Hild’s decision to reenter the church, for instance, or Thyra and Beocca’s courtship, had to happen more or less off-screen. Through necessity, incident trumped emotion.
Not here. Series three took full advantage of its increased run time to gift Alfred and Uhtred’s long and complicated relationship a satisfying and moving emotional resolution. The Last Kingdom held its nerve in a beautifully long, quiet and serious scene between the two men, cashing in the careful investment made in their characters over the years. They talked. And talked. And talked some more. And thanks to good writing and two strong performances from David Dawson and Alexander Dreymon, each word was as gripping as any battle scene.
In shivering pain, without his Witan or his wife, Alfred spoke with absolute candour. He recalled Iseult in series one (hooray for callbacks) acknowledged the great debt he owed to Uhtred, and the injustice that his name would not be recorded in the chronicles of Wessex. Humbled by the approach of death, he admitted his mistakes and made himself vulnerable. His final toast, dedicated to “a man I have never understood, but without whom I would not die a king,” crumbled me like chalk.
Farewell, Alfred Rex. And farewell to David Dawson, one of The Last Kingdom’s treasures.
Alfred’s death scene too, wasn’t rushed or overplayed. The king was there, hand outstretched, and then, like a bubble bursting, he was gone. The scenes that followed in the palace—Beocca’s goodbye, the children’s attendance at their father’s deathbed—were solemn and gentle. (Standing side by side, it’s now clear why we haven’t been given more scenes between Aethelflaed and her mother. There’s only a six-month age gap between the two actors, and it’s unavoidably obvious at such close quarters.)
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Uhtred and Hild were also given a warm and intimate hand-holding scene that didn’t drive plot but rewarded our affection for the pair. It summed up our hero’s current (and perennial) dilemma: Where does he truly belong?
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Winchester’s where he’s needed. Aethelwold’s Farage-alike campaign to exploit racial prejudice and destabilise the kingdom for his own end continues. However many times he says he’s “for Wessex” (write it on the side of a bus, why don’t you), he stands only for himself. A conscienceless egotist with the survival instincts of a virus, Aethelwold has spread his “rotten air” through Winchester regardless of the consequences it has for others. Edward’s children are now under threat, as is Thyra.
While it’s easy to believe that people would be inhuman enough to murder babies and torment Thyra in that way, it’s harder to believe that a show with as big a heart as The Last Kingdom would be so cruel as to let her die. Am I naive to hold out hope for a rescue?
A historical drama about culture clash and the dream of a united England can’t help but have felt inadvertently relevant to current affairs in the last two years. There was nothing inadvertent about Thyra’s abuse storyline though, which felt custom-designed to stand for the value of tolerance and inclusivity against a backdrop of cynically engineered racism. Beocca’s headbutt was the Joffrey-slap of this series, a moment when right and good taught bigotry and ignorance a lesson. I’m getting t-shirts made, obviously.