Season three of The Last Kingdom packed a real sense of finality. It felt very much like the closing chapter of a trilogy, finishing the stories of several characters including King Alfred himself, whose complicated relationship with Uhtred of Bebbanburg had been a huge part of this series from the beginning. As a result, season four was poised to be a make or break moment for The Last Kingdom but fortunately the show sticks the landing - with one small wobble.
In a manner quite fitting for its protagonist, The Last Kingdom marches fearlessly into this daunting new era with a fast-paced first act. At long last, Uhtred decides to return to Bebbanburg, the land that is his birthright, after hearing it has been weakened by persistent attacks from the Scots. But when things don't go exactly to plan, he finds himself drawn back into the bloody conflict between Saxons and Danes, as the fate of England hangs in the balance.
There's an abundance of swinging swords and severed heads in this opening salvo, which ends with a brutal and ambitious battle in the fourth episode. Although less than 10 minutes in length, the sequence is undeniably impressive in its scope and fight choreography, with gripping tension and meaningful consequences felt throughout the rest of the season. But in the aftermath of this climactic skirmish, the series feels a little less sure of itself as it plots where to go next.
The Last Kingdom has always functioned with multiple antagonists per season, but the transition between them has previously been a lot smoother than what we see here. Instead, there's a slight delay in establishing the next big threat as focus shifts to political squabbling, which starts to drag as certain characters clash repeatedly on the same issue. Fortunately, the series can ride out this rough patch on the strength of its characters, before pulling together for a strong finale.
Alexander Dreymon remains endlessly watchable as Uhtred of Bebbanburg, while his charming band of rogues also deserve praise as the show's unsung heroes. There's a camaraderie between Finan (Mark Rowley), Sihtric (Arnas Fedaravičius) and Osferth (Ewan Mitchell) that feels completely genuine and is utilised perfectly in welcome moments of comic relief. Their ragtag gang is so likeable that you feel like holding your breath whenever they're put in peril, especially given The Last Kingdom's reputation for killing off characters.
Over in Wessex, season four gives certain characters the chance to step out of Alfred's shadow. The newly crowned King Edward (Timothy Innes) faces the challenge of living up to his father's legacy, but his fragile ego frequently leads to petulant outbursts at those who care for him most. Following up on David Dawson's stellar performance as Alfred is no small task but Innes largely succeeds, albeit as a very different kind of ruler. Edward doesn't walk the line between hero and villain quite as gracefully as his father did, often landing rather firmly on the latter side.
Meanwhile, Lady Aelswith struggles to come to terms with losing her influence in the palace, forcing her to confront the questionable decisions she once made. Eliza Butterworth gives another strong performance in the role, showing a more sympathetic side that really resonates.
Without a doubt, the character that feels most radically changed in the time jump between seasons three and four is Brida (Emily Cox). While she has always had a lust for battle and a distaste for Saxons, she is noticeably more cruel and bloodthirsty than before, perhaps due to her continued relationship with the vicious warrior, Cnut. It's a natural progression for the character, but it's sad to see Brida move away from being an antihero with attitude in favour of becoming an outright villain.
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The Last Kingdom introduces a number of new cast members in season four, but Uhtred's children were by far and away the most important to get right. Now in their teenage years, Young Uhtred (Finn Elliot) and Stiorra (Ruby Hartley) are fine additions to the growing lore of the series, challenging their father in distinct ways with their polar opposite paths in life. Meanwhile, Stefanie Martini and Jamie Blackley play scheming siblings attempting to claw their way back to noble life by exploiting Aethelred's ego. Initially, this subplot feels a tad out of place, but both of them find their footing as they become more central to the unfolding story.
If season three felt like a possible ending for The Last Kingdom, season four ushers in a new era for the series that readies it for many more stories. As a result, the pace sometimes feels less urgent as new characters are introduced and put in place, but rest assured that there are plenty more shocking moments to keep you hooked throughout. Destiny is all!
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