In the time of coronavirus, The Last Kingdom is beset with 'the sickness'.
I tried to research what illness was ravaging England in the 10th century, but I did not get very far. This may be a good explanation; localised outbreaks likely occurred throughout history, and it was clever for The Last Kingdom to ground one episode with an invisible enemy, whilst many of its major characters, including Uhtred and Aethelflaed, were on the road. Of course, no one could have anticipated that we would be watching series four whilst many of us were under lockdown. But, here we are, and to be honest, I am struggling with writing this whilst under pandemic stress.
Uhtred traveled on the road to Ceaster with Finan, Sihtric, Osferth, Young Uhtred, Stiorra, Aelswynn, and Aethelstan. It was there that Eadith found them with Aethelflaed's message. Aethelflaed wanted them to meet in the ruins of St. Milbury's Priory, which Uhtred's band had already passed. Unwilling to leave Aethelflaed waiting, Uhtred turned his group around.
They were still quite a distance away from the ruins when they encountered a closed road, with bodies grotesquely posted. The 'sickness' was upon them. Finan was especially frightened; he has seen first hand the effects of the 'sickness'. Unwilling to leave Aethelflaed waiting, Uhtred ordered his men to leave their horses and proceed on foot, staying away from the roads where they believed the sickness was.
A certain degree of impulsiveness has always been part of Uhtred's charm, but here his decision to make not just his men but the children travel a long distance on foot was likely the result of him unable to think clearly until he was certain Aethelflaed was safe. It was hard enough to travel with horses and a cart; this time, the children had to hike through hills, keep up with hardened warriors. Though Aelfwynn and Aethelstan were sometimes carried, making them travel this great distance whilst there was sickness around was not one of Uhtred's finer moments.
It was for naught, anyway. Aethelflaed initially waited at the ruins with Aldhelm, though she knew the sickness was driving people away, but eventually she decided that Uhtred would have continued on to Ceaster (as he should have; he could have sent one of his men to meet with Aethelflaed). She and Uhtred just missed each other. Uhtred, too, waited in the ruins, before he accepted that Aethelflaed had gone ahead.
By this time, Aelfwynn was already visibly ill. Uhtred was persuaded to allow the party some rest, but at the cost of having Eardwulf and his men so close by. Eardwulf eventually caught up with them. There was a particularly creepy scene with Uhtred, his men, and the children trying to flee, only to come upon a river filled with the bodies of men who likely died of the sickness. Trapped, it seemed there was no choice but to die fighting, perhaps give the children a chance to run and hide in the woods.
It was then that Eadith stepped up and revealed her knowledge that Eardwulf killed Aethelred. Not only that, Eadith also revealed that Eardwulf killed Edward's messenger and delayed for days Aethelred's forces from returning to Mercia. As proof, she told the Mercian soldiers already looking at Eardwulf suspiciously that Aethelred's ring was in the pouch Eardwulf had around his neck. Her story proven true, the Mercian soldiers abandoned Eardwulf. He, too, rode off, and Eadith figured that was the last time she would see her brother.
In a village, Uhtred laid out his plan. Sihtric and Young Uhtred were to look for Aethelflaed. Uhtred himself would go to Edward. Once more, the Dane-Slayer would fight for peace, but this time, he had prevent to the Saxons from slaughtering each other. But Aelswynn, the child in the middle of the Mercian bargain, was dying.
In Aeglesburg, Edward ordered that Uhtred's lands in Coccham be seized for what the king perceived as the warrior's abduction of children of his own blood. That Aelswynn was on the run with Uhtred ruined Edward's plan to quietly wed her to Eardwulf and ensure that Mercia remained an ally of Wessex. Edward wanted the situation kept quiet from the Mercian lords whilst he sent his own men to find Uhtred.
Turmoil, however, had already come to Aegelesburg. Mercians were coming in droves to the city to escape the sickness. Edward was forced to agree to shut the gates to the people, forcing them to camp outside the walls. When Aelswith arrived with her guard, having successfully escaped from Winchester, Edward demanded that his mother be allowed entry. Ludeca disagreed; the rule could not be bent just because the person at the gate was the Wessex king's kin. Edward, his army within shouting distance, announced that he was overruling the Mercian Earldormen and ordered the gates be opened for his mother. Ludeca and Burgred, who had been at odds with each other, agreed that Edward meant to conquer Mercia.
Meanwhile, Brida, for so long a fierce warrior and a rare powerful female leader, was now a slave in Welsh court. Back in the second episode of the fourth series, I wrote how I wanted to remember that Brida approved of Cnut's 'inventive' cruelty toward the Mercians; that was because of this episode. I found the choice by the writers to include Brida's approval of cruelty to be interesting, because I thought that it was a clue to viewers of where the character was headed. The tragedies and heartbreaks of Brida's life have turned her into, and I do not use this word lightly, an extremist. A Christian was not a person to her, but an enemy to be extinguished. To be fair, Brida was hardly the only character in The Last Kingdom with this worldview. It was a period of slaughter and slavery, a time that raised hard men and women. Yet the fact that Brida was singled out and shown as cruel was likely because, through four seasons, we watched Brida grow up. She and Uhtred had been on opposite sides of the struggle, but I as a viewer have never looked at her as an adversary to Uhtred. That has changed, and I believe that was deliberate on the writers' side. Brida was down now, but this was not going to last. After all, Danes have landed in Wales. Brida was a famous enough warrior that they would likely have heard of her.
▪︎ Edward felt guilty for causing his sister to be on the road whilst sickness plagued the land. He was also furious that Eardwulf disobeyed him and went looking for Aelfwynn himself. Ludeca pointed out that anyone of them (Mercian lords) could have warned him that Eardwulf was devoted only to himself and would risk the sickness for treasure. Edward warned Aethelhelm to advise him better in the future.
▪︎ Edward insisted to Aelswith that he did not order her arrested, though he fiercely defended his wife when his mother tried to insinuate the order came from her. Aelswith then said that it was Aethelhelm who gave the order.
▪︎ Aelswith got Father Pyrlig to tell her that Edward had Aethelflaed confined to her quarters, then sent men after Aelswynn.
▪︎ Father Pyglig has been secretly letting villagers inside Aegelesburg. ▪︎ I keep imagining Gisela as a teenager in Stiorra. She complained about being nanny to the kids, but she did it anyway.
▪︎ There was a lovely scene between Young Uhtred and Stiorra whilst they rested on the road. They were separated by their faith, but their love for each other was palpable, even as Stiorra pointed out that Young Uhtred was not built for the life of a warrior their father Uhtred lived.
▪︎ Eadith was comfortable around Uhtred and his men, and helped take care of the children.
▪︎ Finan had some cute scenes with young Aethelstan. Just as Stiorra keeps giving me young Gisela vibes, Aethelstan makes me think of how Alfred may have been as a kid.
▪︎ Aldhelm accepted that if they were caught, Aethelflaed could be spared but he would most likely be killed. Aldhelm was really come a long way from the time he was Aethelred's closest advisor.
▪︎ It was King Hywel's brother and not the king himself who was especially cruel to Brida.
▪︎ King Hywel announced that the silver they earned from fighting against the Danes was going to be used to build a wall between them and the Saxons. From the Welsh point of view, the enemy they were concerned about was the Saxons, not the Danes.
▪︎ King Hywel was going on a pilgrimage, leaving his brother in charge.
Director: Andy Hay
Writer: Martha Hillier
Original Release Date: 26 April 2020