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It’s the penultimate episode of The Last Kingdom’s second season, setting up its storylines for a big finale and what the stakes will be.
The Saxons have recaptured an abandoned Lundun (modern day London) from the Danes but it was a ploy so the Danes, led by Erik and Sigefrid could launch a surprise attack on the Saxon camp and capture Princess Æthelflæd, the wife of Æthelred, Lord of Mercia and daughter of King Alfred of Wessex. Desperate to get his daughter back Alfred has to decide whether Uthred of Bebbanburg should lead the rescue mission, whilst in the Kingdom of East Anglia, Erik treats Æthelflæd with more kindness than her husband did.
Season 2, Episode 6 had a tremendous ending when the Danes attacked the Saxons and capture Æthelflæd and the follow-up delivers on this climax. Season 2, Episode 7 sees Uthred being allowed back into Alfred’s court, Æthelred getting his just desserts, and the budding relationship between Erik and Æthelflæd – despite the fact they are captor and captive. There is certainly satisfaction when Æthelred is berated by Odda the Elder, taunted by Aethelwold, Alfred’s nephew, and gets knocked out by a large Danish warrior. This humiliation whips the smug expression off Æthelred’s face and as Odda puts it: Æthelred’s “ambition outweighs his ability.”
Although Uthred leaves immediately after the battle for his freehold, saying he has been ordered not to return to Winchester, he does not rest on his laurels: he sends a couple of his men to gather intelligence about the Danes. Uthred does have his own self-interest – his clandestine mission allows him back into Alfred’s favor, but it also shows he is committed to the Saxon cause despite the treatment he received from Alfred and Æthelred.
Season 2, Episode 7 gives the Saxons and Danes an equal amount of screentime as they handle this situation. Within the Danish faction, the capture of Æthelflæd is a triumph where they plan to ransom her back and use the gold and silver to fund their conquest of England, but as the Danes celebrate some of them want to have their wicked way with the princess, with Erik having to stop them. He knows her value as a prisoner so tries to keep her comfortable and stops a potential rapist after Æthelflæd tries to fight him off with her piss bucket. But even Erik isn’t above having a sneaky look when Æthelflæd bathes. He is a well-rounded character and his relationship with Æthelflæd leads to a big moral dilemma for Uthred at the episode’s end.
On the Saxon side, Alfred has to raise funds for the ransom, prepare for war and puts his faith in God. However, even Aelswith, Alfred’s wife who has been hostile towards Uthred, begs the King to bring back the Pagan because she knows the warrior is the only man capable of rescuing their daughter. One of the best scenes in the episode is when Alfred hosts a meeting with the lords of Wessex and Mercia and Uthred’s old allies vouch for him. It gives the series a great sense of continuity and shows the balance of power in Alfred’s court. Odda, one Alfred’s most trusted advisors suggests the unthinkable to prevent war and paying a ransom: as a Christian Alfred finds the idea abhorrent.
As well as the big political maneuvers and character relationships, Bernard Cornwell has always paid attention to small historical details in his novels. The TV series also manages this when they show the Danes playing a hockey-like game in their castle, showing paintings of great battles in Alfred’s palace, and when Alfred discusses calling up troops he uses period terms like “fief.” These little touches help give The Last Kingdom an edge over many competitors in the historical fiction genre.
The second season of The Last Kingdom was based on two novels from Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories series, The Lords of the North and Sword Song. The second half of the season has been much better with its pacing (the second half’s story takes place over a shorter period of time), more consistent characterization and plenty of historical detail. Season 2, Episode 7 will please history enthusiasts and gives the Danish side a fair hearing. Hopefully the finale will deliver for fans of the show.