Aka the miniseries based on Bernard Cornwell's novel of the same name, which is the first of to date nine (or so) novels set during and after the reign of Alfred the Great, centred around Cornwell's fictional hero Uthred. I'd read some of Cornwell's novels before
, including one of the Uthred novels (though the one I read was set way later, after Alfred's death, featuring an aged Uthred and called The Empty Throne
), and while I'm not exactly a fan, he's entertaining, he knows his stuff (his stuff being battlefields of all ages and homosocial bondings), and I was looking forward to the televised version which only recently finished broadcasting. (Somehow I still
haven't watched any of the Sharpe movies, also based on a a series of novels by Cornwell, despite them starring Sean Bean.) Thanks to Netflix putting it up, I marathoned the eight episodes in recent days.
Caveat before review: as I said, I haven't read the actual novel it is based on, only one of the later ones, so my review can't judge how good or bad an adaption of the source material it is, only in terms of how it comes across as a (mini)series and as a historical series. Which is: mostly well. I mean, it does go for the "joyless Christians, fun pagans" cliché virtually all current historical tv and movies go for, but otoh there are enough sympathetic Christian characters around for it not to annoy. Also, no howlers like, say, the ones in Vikings
(set just a generation earlier) where other than King Ekbert, no one in the Saxon kingdoms seems to have had any idea that the Romans ever existed. Oh, and in The Last Kingdom
the term "Vikings" is used as to mean "raiders", not the people themselves, who are referred to as "Danes", which as far as I recall is correct.
Our hero Uthred is born Saxon, gets taken by the Danes during a a raid as a child, grows up a Dane and as an adult for various plot reasons ends up with the Saxons again, which allows the series to show both people as human beings, with if anything the initial emotional advantage given to the Danes. It also means the show gets to do the "in between cultures" trope which I enjoy, though more so if a character feels genuinely torn. (Whereas Uthred doesn't, really; he clearly sees the Danish way of life as the right and the Saxon/Christian way as the wrong one, it's just that plot reasons mean choosing to stay with the Danes never is quite an option for him.)
Female characters: here the change of medium, based on the Cornwell novels I've read, are to its advantage. For example, given that the Uthred novels are narrated in first person, I bet that he comes across as more in the right in the breaking of his first two important relationships with women than he does in the show, where both Brida (Uthred's childhood friend and first lover, who while originally Saxon unlike him chooses to stay with the Danes and rejects the Saxons entirely) and Mildrith (Uthred's first wife, a Saxon) come across as more so. They're also very different yet both sympathetic ladies. I especially appreciated this in the case of Mildrith, who I was afraid would be vilified or ridiculed by the narrative, or presented as passionless or hypocritical (she's a faithful Christian, after all), and none of this was the case. The third woman Uthred gets involved with in the course of the narrative, Iseult, is perhaps the one closest to a cliché (Celt - she's Welsh - with mystical powers, and if you think the name hints ever so subtly she won't get a happy ending, you think correctly), but Iseult also gets one of the few interactions between two female characters who aren't related to Uthred the show offers. And that introduces the character I recalled from the much later novel, Hild the badass nun, who is great. Also, points for the show for giving the one female character written otherwise almost relentlessly unsympathetically, Alfred's Queen Ealswyth, two scenes showing her humanity, one of them with Hild.
But really, anything based on a Bernard Cornwell novel won't live or die with its female characters. See above, re: what Bernard Cornwell's stuff is. The majority of the narrative is devoted to the hostile, friendly and in between relationships Uthred has with other men. Which covers not just the expected types (gruff mentor, jealous rival, honest brother), but also the more rare ones; as one reviewer puts it, there's a character who you think is going to be the Joffrey, but instead he's the Pete Campbell, and also comic relief. And of course at the heart of it is the tense relationship between Uthred and Alfred (still the King's younger brother when introduced but quickly becoming King of Wessex himself and hence the key to Uthred getting his paternal lands back...or so Uthred thinks at first, until he realises Alfred is far better at using him than he is at using Alfred), who refuses to fall solely into one type or the other (sometimes he's covering Magnificent Bastard grounds, sometimes Leader with a Vision, sometimes Unfair King), and is the show's second lead of sorts. I dimly recall reading an interview with Cornwell in which he said that when he first decided to write about the era he realised he couldn't make Alfred himself the pov character because the religiosity was too off putting for him. This turns out to be to the benefit of Alfred the character, because I bet if he had
been the pov character he'd have been far less interesting, off-putting to postmodern readers/viewers qualities evened out and what not. Instead, he's richly ambiguous, and if the show should continue, I'll miss him come season 5 or thereabouts when he (and the narratively fruitful tension between Uthred and himself) is gone. Incidentally, he's played by David Dawson, and as a watcher of Vikings
this made me concluded with amusement he does look like Athelstan's kid should.