The Last Kingdom Series Premiere Review: Game of Danes

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The latest would-be heir to the (game of) throne, “The Last Kingdom” is an adaption of Bernard Cornwell’s best-selling historical novels, collectively known as “The Saxon Stories.” Cornwell, perhaps best-known for the series of novels revolving around Richard Sharpe, is a sucker for ongoing storylines, thus making him perfect fodder for television, with the Sharpe novels already having been made into a series prior to this one, featuring Sean Bean. (Other series ripe for the picking include “The Warlord Chronicles,” “The Grail Quest Novels” and “The Starbuck Chronicles.”)

The latest to make the sojourn to the small screen, “The Last Kingdom” is an eight-part miniseries based on the first novel of the same name in the ongoing “Saxon Stories” saga, which is currently on its ninth book, “Warriors of the Storm,” which was just released earlier this month. Therefore, as with “Game of Thrones,” there is plenty more source material to draw from, should the first season be a success.

Obviously, it’s too soon to say whether it’s a ratings success, but in terms of watchability, it’s certainly not boring. As this was made for BBC America, it’s not quite in a league with the much-beloved “GOT,” in terms of what they can get away with, but what the show lacks in copious amounts of sex and nudity, it more than makes up for in fairly graphic violence. Of course, as BBC viewers already know, the network isn’t above pushing some boundaries, as fans of, say, “Orphan Black” will attest, even if they have to stop short of HBO levels of such.

To that end, the premiere features one major character getting stabbed through the throat and the blade emerges out towards the viewer, as if the show were meant to be in 3D; and another walks intentionally into a raging fire and still continues to do battle with his enemies while he’s completely consumed in flames! Furthermore, a pre-pubescent girl is threatened with rape- shades of Sansa Stark from “GOT”- technically twice, as she comes face to face with her would-be rapist a second time at the end of the show, albeit this time as a young woman after the first ultimately results in said tormentor losing an eye, which, needless to say, he isn’t too happy about.

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So, while the show may not quite be as graphic all around as something you’d see on the likes of HBO or Starz or what have you, it’s not exactly “Sesame Street” either. I think that those looking for a fix in between “GOT” downtime and the likes of, say, “Vikings,” will find much to love here, and something to tide them over until those shows return. On the plus side, unlike a lot of these shows, there’s not nearly as many characters to keep up with, though one can be forgiven for thinking otherwise, at least early on in the show.

At first, we meet a whole host of characters, to the point that one can be forgiven for wondering if they need to have read the books to be able to keep up with it all. But, as with “GOT,” the vast majority of them are cut down by the end of the episode, leaving only a few core characters to contend with, which is actually a relief. Not that I don’t appreciate the sweeping epic scale of “GOT,” but given that this show is only on for eight weeks, I’m actually relived that it won’t be as much of a commitment, all things considered. I think it’s a wise move to ease viewers in, and then perhaps build on that as the weeks continue.

The main focus here is on Uhtred, played by Tom Taylor as a boy, then by Alexander Dreymon (“American Horror Story: Coven”) after a time jump. Uthred is a king’s son whose father is lost in battle- he’s the one who gets the sword in the neck- when the Danes invade his kingdom. Uhtred is captured by the Danes, along with various others, including Brita (Emily Cox), who later becomes his love interest as a young man. There, in the Danes stronghold, he is raised by Ragnar (Tobias Santelmann, “Hercules”), a Danish warlord who treats him like a son and who he grows to love.

Then, as a young man, tragedy strikes yet again, when his surrogate family and his entire village is wiped out, with Ragnar the one going up in flames as aforementioned. Needless to say, after watching both his father and surrogate father killed in front of him, Uhtred is not a happy camper. He sneaks up on the man sent to find him and kills him, offering up his head to his uncle, Alferic (Joseph Millson, “Casino Royale”), who, it turns out, has helped orchestrate the event, in league with some other Danes, in an attempt to wipe out the one person in the way of his becoming the rightful heir to the throne in light of his brother’s death. And so it ends, and so it begins.

It’s a fairly interesting set-up for a series, following a man who has been on both sides of the warring factions and at one point, claimed both as his own, and yet finds himself without a side in the end. Obviously, he will have to continue to evade his uncle’s continuing attempts to take him out, but, in order to survive, he will also have to make a name for himself and inspire people to follow him, if he is to ultimately defeat his foe. No man is an island, as they say.

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It’s too soon to say if “The Last Kingdom” is truly a keeper, but the premiere, at least, is certainly a grabber. It was chock-full of intrigue, action, surprising developments, and some great scene-stealing turns from a host of colorful characters, which also include Rutger Hauer (“Blade Runner”) as the blind-but-wise Ravn, who sees more than it would seem and Ian Hart (“Boardwalk Empire,” “The Bridge”) as a clergyman with a fondness for Uhtred, but who works with his uncle, making him a sort of double agent in a sense.

In the end, it’s no “Game of Thrones,” admittedly, at least so far, but then, it doesn’t really have to be. I liked that it stripped things down in one fell swoop, effectively making it that much easier to follow, and thus, less of a commitment, should the show end up being short-lived. Sure, in time, we might become more attached to characters, thus leaving us wanting more, but the good thing is that, being based on a single book, it will no doubt leave the door open for potential continuation while still being relatively self-contained. I can live with that, at least for eight weeks.

What did you think of “The Last Kingdom”? Did you find it worthy of a short-term commitment as well? Or will you just hang in there and wait until the return of “Game of Thrones”? Or “Vikings,” for that matter? Did you enjoy the action, or did you think the show was trying too hard to be edgy? How about the various plot twists? Will you keep watching over the weeks to come? Sound off down below in the comments section, and I’ll be back for a recap later on in the series!