Angela Hicks and Calder Hudson were both Creative Writing MSc students at the University of Edinburgh for the 2015-16 year. They began watching BBC’s historical drama series, The Last Kingdom, in early 2017; after completing its first season, the two sat down to assess its strengths and weaknesses.
This discussion contains spoilers for Season One of The Last Kingdom.
Workshop: The Last Kingdom, Season One by Angela Hicks & Calder Hudson
C: Before we begin there is something we should make clear. The Last Kingdom is based off of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series, and shares its name with the first book in that saga. Neither of us have read that series, which is quite out of the ordinary for us; I think we’re used to considering these sorts of shows chiefly as adaptations–from history, from literature, and sometimes from both–but that isn’t true in this case. Not having read Cornwell’s source material, we cannot comment on how accurate or inaccurate an adaptation this series is. If you are reading this and are familiar with the books, you can enjoy any dramatic irony we may incur.
A: Yes; we’ve chosen to look at this TV series not as a good or bad reflection of the books, but as a TV series. We’ll also try to avoid making too many comparisons between The Last Kingdom and Vikings, the last show we workshopped.
C: Although admittedly there are obvious parallels between them regarding setting and what they’re attempting to portray and achieve.
A: Right. But with respect to this review, we’re not going to–at least, we’re going to try not to–continually use this as more space in which to criticize Vikings. With that said: whereas our last workshop mainly picked out the things wrong with that show, this workshop will largely focus on positives–the “hey, these are the ways it can actually work” moments.
C: A good starting point is the minor characters. One of the things that makes TLK continually entertaining is just how the minor characters are fleshed out. Across the board, with respect to both acting and writing, I’m still fascinated by how well they’ve done characterization in this show. The characters fluctuate between good and bad decisions, they develop, they…
A: I think, not to interrupt, but: “minor characters” covers a whole array.
C: That’s true.
A: For those less familiar with the show, there’s one major character, Uhtred, and then there’s a whole bevvy of second-tier characters, for lack of a better term: Alfred, Brida, Leofric, Beocca–characters who are consistently important and involved with Uhtred’s journey. Then there’s the third-tier characters who are named and get dialogue and agency; Guthrum is one, Prince Æthelwald’s another. And all of these characters, regardless of tiering, are given weight in the narrative.
C: Even truly minor characters–unnamed sergeants and huntsmen–are given a lot of personality and attention.
A: Yeah, I cared too much about everyone. I am very much traumatized by all the death. But looking at this from a workshopping perspective, it’s great that both the writing and also the filming of the show–frames with just minor characters in them, lingering shots, and so on–give so much attention to all the characters. It makes watching it a much more engaging experience.
C: True. Too often a lot of shows do a handful of main characters and then have underdeveloped background characters as set-dressing, and it’s just less interesting. There are so many shows–not just Vikings–which aim for a aesthetics and atmospheres like TLK’s, but lack this crucial feature. I think this is my biggest takeaway from TLK, and I’d argue is TLK’s greatest asset: this show treats all of its characters like human beings, not like set-pieces. Probably the most obvious example is Hild.
A: To summarize her arrival about two-thirds into the season, there’s a scene where an unnamed nun is being sexually assaulted in the wake of a battle. The sexual assault is stopped by a group of established characters as they leave the battleground.
C: Scenes depicting sexual violence have become a staple for many shows in the fantasy and historical fiction watershed. Game of Thrones has developed a terrible habit of including sexual violence as a plot device at the drop of a hat; often shows use it to point out how heroic the victims’ rescuers are–so when that occurred in TLK, we weren’t particularly surprised. But then–and I can’t stress how unusual this felt–rather than having that unnamed nun disappear into the background, she accompanies the main characters as they leave, and continues to be a character in later episodes as well. Hild remains relevant; she possess her own agency; she takes part in conversations and significant moments for the rest of the season. She’s given a fully-fledged personality.
A: And she has a pre-existing story which is brought in. That’s also worth emphasizing: often it can feel like characters who appear midway through a show have had no life prior to the main character finding them, but that’s not the case with Hild, as we learn through conversations she has in later episodes. Everyone feels so real.
C: Hild was not included solely to make Uhtred appear heroic or to provide a fight scene. The way the show handles her character is representative of the way it portrays the entire cast. It’s refreshing to watch a show which avoids so many typical tropes.
A: If we were to just describe certain characters from TLK, they would sound like tropes–but they take those traits and make them into a fully realized person. Brida’s a good example–she could easily have been a love interest who becomes the scorned woman, but instead she gets to be a proper character with emotional range and an understandable set of motivations behind her decision making. And you understand how she’s fitting into this society as a woman without it being horribly trope-y or contrived.
C: Characters of all sorts–Brida, Leofric, and Ælswith, among others–shift from episode to episode; they make choices that feel true to their characterization and own motives, rather than always acting helpfully or detrimentally towards the protagonist.
A: You once described it as “the same personality from different perspectives.”
A: That’s easiest to see in pious characters like Alfred and Beocca; at times we’re very happy that their codes of conduct are beneficial for Uthred’s fortunes, and at other times we are frustrated by their rigidity and implacability. This depth and complexity of characters is impressive.
C: Definitely. This show takes the time to show that depth. I don’t feel that TLK’s world–as in, the actual environment in which these characters exist–is necessarily more developed than other shows of its ilk. From a set and tech perspective, a lot of the shows we’ve mentioned have really impressive budgets and do a good job of conjuring up the appearance of medieval/pre-medieval life. In appearance, TLK isn’t better than them–but its writing is in a totally different league. The characters feel realer against the time-specific backdrop. And when–given that we just watched the season finale, we were bound to talk about this–when characters die, it never feels contrived, regardless of the circumstances. Deaths contribute to the story as a whole while still feeling abrupt and realistic and upsetting. It doesn’t feel like characters are being killed off for shock value–a growing stigma with shows of this type. When people die in TLK, the show focuses on the right things, chiefly how other characters react. It’s not intended purely to catch the audience off-guard. In the finale a character died in a major battle seen as a result of, you know, being in a battle, which makes the battle actually feel dangerous. The battle has weight.
A: That death also happens quite close to the start of the battle and the battle continues. When the character dies the world keeps moving without them, which adds to the atmosphere of danger and realism.
C: Also, there’s no overwhelming feeling of plot armor in TLK. Compare that to Vikings where the main characters were invincible tanks who murdered everybody in every single battle and didn’t look the least bit ruffled afterward–those battles weren’t stressful or worrying because there was no feeling of consequence. There was no weight to the human bodies being tossed around and eventually we stopped caring. There needs to be emotional weight and meaning behind the fighting–another thing TLK got right. Viewers care more about fights if you give them reasons to be interested–I know that sounds basic, but it really is overlooked in some cases.
A: TLK’s battles always feel justified and they all feel distinct. Not only are they staged differently but they conjure up different concerns and feelings for viewers–sometimes Uhtred seems to be on the wrong side, sometimes he’s in single combat… And, even with our knowledge of history, they didn’t feel like foregone conclusions. They were stressful to watch!
C: Speaking of our historical knowledge, we should address the historical accuracy stuff–
A: Yes. The thing we’d both heard before watching this show was, “Oh my god, the Anglo-Saxons use square shields–the fools! The fools!” which, well, [laughs] I think we disagree on this point a little–I feel that minor historical accuracies are fine…
C: Fair enough. [laughs] I didn’t realize I was a zealot about accuracy until this moment, but fair enough.
A: …As long as those inaccuracies are justified. To use the shields as an example: having one side in battles use square shields while the other side uses round shields makes the different armies easier to identify. And if that’s the least accurate part of the show, than the show is doing a lot right.
C: That’s true. TLK has worked hard to keep the majority of its inaccuracies tied to the show’s aesthetic rather than its writing. Better to have a realistic script and a few contrived looking sets and costumes than a hyper-realistic set and awful writing.
A: Broadly–and I think this is probably true for all aspects of writing–if it serves a purpose and is the best way of achieving that purpose, then it’s okay.
C: I agree–and clarity is particularly important given how much content is crammed into TLK; a ton of things happen in this show. There is so much content. Ignoring all the politics between Wessex and the Vikings for the moment, Uhtred himself is all over the place on a real rollercoaster of a narrative. The sheer amount that happens is both a strength and weakness.
A: This season aired first on the BBC, meaning a sixty minute show is more or less sixty minutes, not forty-five. Those extra fifteen minutes gives them time to pack more in. The number of narratives and developments depicted over the eight episodes is certainly impressive, particularly when a character can appear one episode, undergo an entire character arc in the following episode, and die in the next. That can be…a bit much, at times.
C: There’s one episode in the middle of the season which is predominantly set in Cornwall; it introduces so many new characters and plotlines–a number of which are respectively killed or resolved later in the same episode–that it feels almost like a film in of itself. While I think we both love that level of immersion, it does at times feel a bit too much.
A: Not to mention the array of Anglo-Saxon names can be tough to remember, spell, and pronounce.
C: Because there are so many characters, how much time you spend on each one is a difficult distribution to get right. Some names are said once or twice–and yes, those names are hard to pick up–and if you don’t get the name then and there, you’ll be referring to that character as “second priest guy” or “sister two” or “horse man” for three or four episodes before you hear their name again. That’s not the end of the world but it evidences that there’s a lot to juggle, for the writers and the viewers alike.
A: I think the fact that we watched this show one or two episodes at a time is probably good; this isn’t a show I’d like to binge watch. So much happens in a single episode, if you watched more than two of these in a row, I think you’d come away with a headache.
C: Though again, the fact that this show gives you a lot to process and ruminate on could be seen as a strength. Part of the show’s appeal is how many interconnected plots are going on and how much is happening.
A: There’s a fine line. One doesn’t want to have too few characters doing too much or vice versa. TLK mainly walks that line well, but it does dip over at times.
C: With that said, it’s so exciting to have a show which trusts its audience enough to give them this much depth, content, and characterization. Sometimes it can be a bit much, but given that this is so rarely a problem for shows, I’d be loath to suggest they change that. Far better that they keep giving us slightly too much than too little.
A: That’s true, although one area that I might potentially “de-complicate”, is Uhtred’s character arc. This could be an area where not having read the books is a big problem; my suspicion is, in the books, arcs happen over a longer and more drawn out timeline, so there’s more time to see different stages of Uhtred’s life. By truncating the time, his motivations shift a lot–sometimes he’s set on getting back his ancestral home, sometimes he’s focused on revenge; he doesn’t actually get very far with planning how to achieve either.
C: Uhtred’s foster-sister Thyra appears to be, quite literally, abandoned for most of the season. We only realized in the season finale that Uhtred thought she was dead; until then we’d believed he knew she was alive and had effectively given her up as lost. That obviously changes the feel of that entire arc, given that Uhtred and his foster sibling are constantly ruminating on how to revenge themselves on their father’s killers.
A: That whole arc is awkward in many ways because every time it comes up, we wonder why the siblings are taking so long. Uhtred spends much of the season in Wessex, which is admittedly a distance from where he grew up, but not so far that it would be unreasonable for him to return there with soldiers. He is, after all, able to get men to follow him out of Wessex into Cornwall for the promise of silver, so why he never goes north is odd. His foster brother Ragnar makes this stranger still, given that he frequently travels between Ireland and Wessex, largely to see Uhtred about said revenge. Every time this theme comes up it is a bit annoying given that some of the reasoning behind it remains unspecified for so long. I can see that the show was aiming for “dramatic irony”–the audience knowing about Thyra while Uhtred doesn’t–but it really backfires here. It might have been better, if we were changing something, to either make it clearer that he believes her dead, or alternatively have the audience also think she’s dead until that dramatic reveal in the final episode.
C: TLK takes time to develop all its elements, but given that it’s setting itself up as a saga, the backstory isn’t always the prescient part of the narrative. The north becomes largely irrelevant after the second episode, as do all the antagonists associated with that region.
A: As a side note, that is very saga-ish; in the opening of Njal’s Saga the length of someone’s hair is described, then is never mentioned again until it becomes super-relevant about eighty chapters later during her husband’s death scene, when her hair could have been used to restring his bow. And talking about Thyra, we should discuss the tropes surrounding women in shows like TLK.
C: Tropes which, yeah, definitely do still haunt this genre.
A: With both Brida and Mildrith, Uhtred’s wife, we’re given two interesting female characters with distinct personalities disconnected from their looks. It’s easier to see with Brida at first glance. Both Vikings and Game of Thrones–again using the easiest examples–present these “sexy warrior women” who don’t actually feel like real people. TLK manages better, though it’s not precisely clear how they’ve avoided that stereotype. Because admittedly she’s very pretty, and she does have a relationship with the main character–
C: And she’s a warrior.
A: And she’s a warrior. But, she has a lot of depth and we see many different aspects of her life as her own story develops. She’s presented as a scorned woman in some moments but she is also a cool-ass warrior, and it never feels annoyingly contrived.
C: It doesn’t feel as though TLK is trying to prove anything. The show isn’t trying to win points by presenting characters like Brida; it feels like they set out to create real and interesting characters, both men and women. That’s admirable, particularly given this genre is bogged down by so much fetishizing and incoherency when it comes to women.
A: The non-combative are also well portrayed. Mildrith is a capable woman who doesn’t kill people; it’s equally rare to have a strong woman who isn’t wielding political power or an axe but who still manages to be–oh, and we haven’t mentioned this at all thus far: this show is really funny.
A: The intention is never to be farcical; lines are just likeably witty much of the time.
C: Another achievement for the writing team.
A: Yeah. And the humor is spread around–there are characters who are written to have better senses of humor, but they’re not just comic relief. To return to Mildrith, she is someone who has principles, sticks to them, develops, and avoids the trope of “pious wife”; she holds her own, she’s determined, and she’s also often quite funny. You don’t feel cheated by the decisions she makes towards the end of the season, when she chooses her own path.
C: Like many characters, Mildrith is shown taking time to reflect on what’s happening to her, and she then acts on those stimuli. Which is what, you know, humans do–and they don’t only do that when they’re in the presence of the main character.
A: Shout out to both the writers and the actors for very strong performances. Even characters we haven’t mentioned yet, like Iseult, prove to be far more interesting than the tropes we initially suspected they might be. So full credit for all the women on this show, pretty much without exception.
C: TLK manages far more effective and more diverse representation of women than many similar shows–
A: While being the least boastful, as you said.
C: If it isn’t already clear, we should mention that we like this show a lot. [laughs] For my own part I’d strongly and unequivocally recommend TLK; what we’ve seen thus far has been very good. One more point: one of the first things you encounter when watching this show is its opening credits, which, I mean, maybe this is just something we’re particularly attentive toward, but…the opening credits.
A: I love them.
A: [laughs] They’re very pretty! I’d equate them with the Game of Thrones credits in that they’re very elegant and also serve an immediate purpose. TLK’s opening credits are done to look like woodcuts of different characters and places, accompanied by simple but dynamic music; the Viking invasions are represented by the map of England being burned away. We both came to this show with a good amount of knowledge–we both knew, for instance, that the last kingdom would be Wessex–but for those who don’t come to the show with that knowledge, this is a good way of showing what’s happening. And as I said it’s very pretty. It’s a great representation of the show in that it’s clearly made with love and care and effort, all while remaining informative.
C: Yeah. That’s a very effective summation.
C: I’m sorry to do this.
C: It’ll be the last time. To hell with it. Okay: we watched a season and a half of Vikings before giving up on it, so we’re pretty familiar with its opening sequence. I have seen that opening sequence with burning boats on the open sea–
A: With the main characters drowning–
C: With the main characters drowning! By the end of our time watching that show I was looking forward to that scene becoming a reality. I suppose they went with that opening because they thought it was cool, but it represents absolutely nothing of the show other than unfulfilled promises. Meanwhile you have TLK over here with nonstop highlights right out of the gate. It’s pretty, it’s cohesive, it’s expansive, it gives a damn, it’s…
C: Sorry, I got worked up there, but it’s good. Go watch The Last Kingdom; it’s–it’s good.
A: I’d also add that TLK’s opening helps remind viewers of the backstory and the stakes it initially presents, even when the show is focused on other narrative threads in the short term. It establishes the setting eloquently and is emblematic of the series as a whole.
C: The Last Kingdom’s plot can occasionally move quickly and there are some minor historical inaccuracies, but the reason these aspects are frustrating is because of how likable the show is, and how immersive it can be. Yes the story moves a mile a minute, but it does that to consistently deliver depth and development at a level I haven’t seen in any similar series.
A: Those minor things that we would change–and there are very few of them–are outweighed by its many assets, which include exemplary women characters, its respect for its audience’s intelligence, and its historical detail. There’s so much right with The Last Kingdom that it feels better to focus on those strengths.