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Friday, 5 November 2021

OPINION: Why we should stop searching for more Game of Thrones and focus on 'The Last Kingdom'

As broadcasters and streamers scramble to fill the void left by Game of Thrones, we look at how that show has been under our noses since 2015!

First aired Thursday 22nd October 2015 on BBC Two

Contributed by Milo

Game of Thrones may have ended with a whimper rather than a bang, but its legacy on streaming services has been a never-ending constant. Multiple services are throwing an endless amount of money at anything the slightest bit fantasy or sci-fi in a bid to capture that magic. AppleTV+’s See has moments of brilliance but ultimately feels far too dragged out especially in its second season to make an impact, and Foundation arrived on a dour note that failed to make you care despite its expansive worldbuilding. Amazon’s The Expanse comes close to replicating that expansive feel in space and ticks all the right boxes, and the jury’s out on its forthcoming expensive Wheel of Time and Lord of the Rings adaptions, that feel so desperately Game of Thrones-influenced in a bid to recapture the hype that made it so popular. Then there’s HBO themselves, who have decided the answer to what should be the next Game of Thrones is simply more Game of Thrones, throwing half a dozen spinoffs at the wall in a bid to see what sticks. His Dark Materials has been an exception but that has been more all-ages friendly, and very good – but the fact of the matter is, there was never any real need for these shows to try finding the “next Game of Thrones”.

 

In truth, the next Game of Thrones has been out for four seasons already, with a fifth on the way – and started out on the BBC before moving to Netflix. I’m of course talking about The Last Kingdom, the streamer’s best show – the adaption of Bernard Cornwell’s novels focusing on Uthred, a fictional protagonist thrust into the foundation of England, from a collective of different nation-states like Mercia, Wessex and Northumbria. This is a time before 1066 and the Norman Conquest, here, Alfred the Great takes charge – but he is focused on how he will be remembered. Instead of Normans, it is Vikings that are the main threat – if you’ve ever played Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla or indeed, watched Vikings, you will find yourself right at home in this world – which introduces us to Alexander Dreymon’s Uhtred of  Bebbanburg , an orphaned noble’s son, and a man who was born a Saxon but raised a Viking, playing a key part in the fate of England at a turbulent time when the nation is heavily divided, with the show chronicling his journey to become one of the key warriors of Wessex, the lone Anglo-Saxon kingdom fighting back against Viking invaders. King Alfred meanwhile spends most of his time watching from the throne, dictating how history will remember him, noticing the valuable asset that he has in Uthred creating a fascinating dynamic between the pair. After all, words are power – and there’s a reason why Alfred is recorded in history as “Alfred the Great” – the old adage, history is written by the victors, rings true here.

The series might not have been suited to the weekly release model of the BBC and the traditional BBC audience, but removed from that – the budget noticeably increases when the switch to Netflix happens, as does the episode count – we get one of the most awe-inspiring historical epics. To put it bluntly – it's Game of Thrones, but without the dragons. It thinks just as big – it’s about the origin of England, at a time when most of the residents of England were immigrants themselves for one reason or another – even the Saxons were immigrants – and Cornwell, a 2015 article for The Guardian, claimed that the show was made due to its “interesting echoes of today” – nationhood and immigration are both core themes of the show, with the protagonist Uthred constantly assessing where his loyalties lie – are they to the Danes? Are they to England? Or are they to himself? He’s often found fighting with and against both parties over the course of the series – which throws in an array of supporting characters, some real, others not, into the mix to create a melting pot of epic proportions.

Cornwell’s rich prose fully realises the denseness and immaculately researched era that the series itself is set in, giving the series easy building blocks. It feels immersive, the world feels real and lived in, and the battles themselves are ruthlessly bloody and clear cut, even more chaotic than that of Game of Thrones – it’s hard to tell sometimes who’s who, but in this case, it’s intentional. A lot of thought, in particular, is put into the tactics of the conflict – and the Shield Wall in particular. If you want your shows to be full of grit and realism, The Last Kingdom is that show, few and far characters are saved by plot armour and fewer still stay beyond their welcome – The Last Kingdom chops and changes its main cast mercilessly, so it’s best not to get too attached, it’s safe to say that this series pulls off its big shock moments really well and I haven’t been more attached to characters’ fates in a while.

 The show is not another clone of Vikings, in fact – the Vikings that we see on screen are largely kept to the side. The Last Kingdom makes a good companion piece because you get to see the story told from the other side of the conflict, without the need for real characters making the jump across. It does a good job at making a clean break from the show – and forming its own voice. It’s important to remember after all, that Cornwell’s novels came first – even if the world is all the better for having both series.

 

It can be a bit daunting to get into at first and you may have to give it a season at max to win you over – but for the right audience, you’ll be pulled in a lot quicker. The ambitious scope and scale is unmatched – in addition to Alfred, you get an array of supporting cast from both Vikings and non-Vikings alike. The cast is played by a mix of vibrant, clearly defined characters – on the Saxon side, Alfred’s nephew, Aethelwold (Harry McEntire), who holds a jealous grudge against Alfred for not being king, and his wife, Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth), who transforms into one of the best characters of the show, scheming behind the scenes, whilst on the Viking side, you get Skorpa, a brutal warrior – and Ubba, a strong commander played by Rune Temte.

It can be a bit overwhelming at first but the biggest achievement of The Last Kingdom is that it reigns in on the scale and keeps things small, focusing almost entirely on Uthred – we meet these characters as Uthred meets them, and we find out about their motives mostly as Uthred does – and Uthred being brought under Alfred’s wing as a rare opportunity to learn the Viking way of combat is a fascinating prospect. Surrounding Uthred too are a whole host of regulars that craft their own path – Brida’s journey is just as compelling, if not more so – Emily Cox is terrific and delivers a performance that often feels overlooked come awards season – her arc and transformation into one of the main antagonists of the show is something that few series have pulled off so flawlessly – it’s everything that the transformation of Daenerys into the Mad Queen of Game of Thrones’ infamous last season could have been, smart and well written without being afraid to pull any punches.

Cornwell has a real-world connection to an Uthred who the show is loosely based around. His flipping of the big historical novels from a big story and a little story to “put the little story in the foreground” works wonders here, with his own family tree going back to the 6th century and the Lords of Bebbanburg, in Northumberland, where there was indeed an Uthred – giving a basis of the story its name – but much of what happens to him as described in the series is fiction, even though it is suitably compelling to watch – it being rooted in reality is another reason to seek out this show.

 In an age where Game of Thrones and Vikings exist, The Last Kingdom has managed to craft its own voice and it feels uniquely distinctive in a crowded field. Its focus on heart and soul is far more than just a coming-of-age story told through the eyes of Uthred – but instead, we’re watching him being reborn over and over again – first as Osbert, then as Uthred, going through multiple transformations and being tested every time. Few characters have quite gone through as much in their own respective shows – the Uthred of Series 4 is in a very different place to Series 1, and its ability to subvert the traditional tropes of the genre works perfectly in its favour, and Dreymon too, grows as an actor with him.

If you’re not hooked by the beautiful opening credits that are instantly unskippable, The Last Kingdom will eventually win you over. With Season 5, sadly its last, on the way – now is the perfect time to start on this journey that will have you hooked before long – there are few richer, more compelling shows out there than this. 

The Last Kingdom is available now on Netflix

1 comment:

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