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The second episode of the second season of The Last Kingdom is a downgrade from the previous episode and most of the previous season, relying too much on thin characterization and repeated plot points to allow its story to continue.
After freeing Guthred (Thure Lindhardt) from the Danes and helping him to become king of Cumberland, Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) has been made the head of the King’s Bodyguard and one of his most important advisors. However, Abbot Eadred (David Schofield) also has the ear of the naive, newly crowned monarch and maneuvers to get rid of Uhtred as a rival.
The episode starts strongly enough, Uthred is training up Guthred’s army, fighting a particularly large man and showing that fighting is not just a question of strength – lessons that prove important later. While Guthred is shown to be a novice regarding military matters, he was thrust from being a slave to a ruler after all, he did also show some political nuance, he is aware he needs to marry a Saxon woman and convert to Christianity to ensure the loyalty of the population and knows that his sister, Gisela (Peri Baumeister) would be valuable to secure any alliance – made more complex because of Uhtred and Gisela’s attraction to each other.
However, Guthred’s intelligence decreases as the episode progresses. It is one thing for Guthred to be pressured into making a quick decision when he isn’t ready (regarding a surprise raid against the Danes), but it’s quite another when he is shown to want to recruit Danes into his army (twice) – the people that had held him hostage and the people the Saxons have been at war with.
Bernard Cornwell has written some entertaining novels and created some memorable villains over his career. Sergeant Hakeswill played by Pete Postlethwaite in the Sharpe series was particularly memorable – having the same characteristics as Norman Bates. But Cornwell can also write some one-dimensional villains and Eadred falls into that bracket: he simply wants to get rid of Uhtred because he has a dislike for the lord and Cornwell may as well have had him twirling his mustache (if he had one). There were some attempts to develop the idea that Uthred could become a rival to Guthred, and they would be an obvious point of contention: Uthred’s affinity for the Norse religions instead of Christianity. The characterization isn’t as refined as in rival shows like Game of Thrones or even to other characters in Cornwell’s work.
Another inconsistency is in the portrayal of Hild the nun (Eva Birthistle), who wants to become a warrior, bearing in mind in previous episodes she has killed others – including her rapist. Yet in this episode, she beheads a Danish soldier that Uthred killed and her reaction is one of disgust, with her vomiting afterward. If this was the first time she had done any sort of violent action then that reaction would be understandable, but she has already stabbed men in the past, so she is used to seeing the red stuff.
The more interesting part of the episode was the political maneuvers between Eadred and Uthred as they fight for the ear of Guthred, and because Uthred has some enemies in Northern England, Eadred has a number of options to take down his rival. Uthred’s evil uncle Ælfric (Joseph Millson) makes a return and gives the series that extra personal edge for Uthred.
The episode also ends on a terrific cliffhanger where Uthred is betrayed (something that happens to him regularly) and sold into slavery – promising revenge against the people who did this. This sets up the return of Uthred’s adopted brother and sister who are tasked with the mission to rescue our hero. Hopefully, it would lead to more action in the upcoming episodes.
This episode of The Last Kingdom is a step down from what has preceded it – suffering too much from thin character development – especially the newly established ones and Uthred coming off as too perfect: one of the strengths of the series previously was that Uthred made mistakes or at least his plans went array. There are still some political betrayals to sink our teeth into and it should be great to see characters like the Young Ragnar and Brida get more screen-time in the future.