Uhtred and Edward strike a bargain, and Eysteinn Sigurðarson is immediately compelling as Sigtryggr.
I have only read the first of The Saxon Stories books, I watched no series four previews nor did I read any promotional material, so the first time I saw Eysteinn Sigurðarson as Sigtryggr was the first time I watched this episode on Netflix. The impact was immediate. He sauntered in, ordering slaughter for most and slavery for some, which was par for course of any Danish incursion, yet somehow, he was different. There was a calmness in the way he wielded authority, a quiet acceptance that his cousin Cnut was a cunning SOB who betrayed Ragnar, an echo of sadness and anger that the settlement he led in Irland was destroyed, the women and children murdered, whilst Cnut did not come to their aid. When Sigtryggr arrived at King Hywel's court, he said he was searching for Brida, though it was likely that he and his men only ended up there after fleeing Irland and heard of the massive defeat Cnut's forces suffered. His assessment of Wales was dispassionate. I complained of leadership downgrades amongst the Danes back in series three; Sigtryggr was most definitely an upgrade. Here, finally, was another warlord who looked like he excelled at leadership chess.
The arrival of Sigtryggr happened at a time when things were finally starting to settle down at Mercia. When Uhtred arrived with Finan, Stiorra, and Aethelstan at Aegelesburg, the town was teetering to an armed conflict between the Mercian Earldormen intent to keep their independence and Edward, who wanted Mercia to remain under the Wessex fold. After Uhtred revealed to the Witan that Eardwulf, the King's choice of new lord of Mercia, killed Aethelred, Edward had him arrested, for refusing to reveal Aelswynn's whereabouts. Aethelhelm got the reluctant Cenric to beat up Uhtred whilst he was tied down.
Of course Uhtred did not break; Edward could have told Aethelhelm that, had the king known what his advisor intended to do. Uhtred's torture was the second time Edward declared he did not order something Aethelhelm did; the first was his mother's confinement. To Edward's credit, he did not wait for a third strike. He sent Aethelhelm back to Winchester.
Edward's conversation with the bloodied Uhtred revealed his thoughts as the king and son of Alfred. I know there has been some fan frustration about Edward -- I wrote about some I myself felt -- but the writing choices for Edward has been solid. If the king did the right thing all the time, or if he supported Uhtred through everything, he would become a rather boring character. The conflict that existed between Uhtred and Edward was necessary and believable. Edward thought through his choices, imperfect though they may be. He struggled under the weight of his father's legacy, though he has so far not buckled from it.
His quiet musings with Uhtred and his subsequent decisions revealed a man who was not afraid of making hard choices, if he thought they would further his own goals of a united England. Taking Burgred's son for religious instructions in Winchester was a move straight out of Alfred's playbook. Edward also mused that he may be wrong in using his niece Aelfwynn to unite Wessex and Mercia, that perhaps it was best for him to do the hard work himself. The solution he came up with after witnessing how the people of Mercia respected and obeyed Uhtred was simple; make Uhtred the Lord and Protector of Mercia. The Earldormen would not like it, but the people of Mercia would back him. He would remain as Lord until a suitable Earldorman came of age, or until Aethelflaed has chosen a husband for Aelfwynn. Edward even dangled the promise of Bebbanburg to Uhtred; he would provide Uhtred the troops he needed to retake his family fortress.
Bebbanburg has always been Uhtred's goal, though his defeat early in the season and Father Beocca's death had dampened his ardour. What convinced Uhtred to accept ruling Mercia was the thought that as its lord, he would be in a better position to protect Aethelflaed. The Last Kingdom has taken pains to show us that Uhtred was in deeply in love with Aethelflaed. Aethelflaed, however, did not look pleased when she heard from Aelswith that the man she has relied on many times would now be in charge of the land she has devoted herself to since her marriage.
Meanwhile, Aelswith continued her steady character development. As with Edward, I liked how Aelswith's character was written, too. There were flashes of the old Aelswith here, as when she witnessed how the Mercian people respected Uhtred and told Edward Uhtred would enjoin the people to rise against him. It was a completely baseless accusation that was an echo of how Aelswith was at the height of her power and her stubborn narrow-mindedness. Her diminished position at court, however, and her conflict with her son, his wife, and his father in law, made her start to reconsider much. Aelswith even expressed her gratitude for Uhtred, when she learnt that he took Aethelstan with him from Aethelflaed's estate.
Aelswith brought young Aethelstan to Edward, who looked moved and slightly panicked. Aelswith admitted that she was wrong for wrenching Edward away from his first wife and children. Perhaps her remorse was true, perhaps she truly thought that it was God who brought Edward the love of Ecgwynn. Perhaps Aelswith was simply moved by her dislike of Aelflaed. Whatever her prevailing motivations may be, Aelswith wanted Edward to be reconciled with his son.
Edward, however, was smart enough to know that Aethelstan's very existence was a threat to the stability of the kingdom he was trying to build. Aethelstan, being the first born and male, muddled the succession. The boy's life would certainly be in danger. His anonymity brought him a certain degree of safety, but that would not last if Edward were seen to acknowledge him. Ecgwynn has for the most part been a peripheral character, but at one point, Edward was ready to defy his parents for his love of her. There were tears on Edward's eyes in the presence of his growing son, but in the end the king won. He turned away and told his mother to take Aethelstan back to where he was concealed.
▪︎ Eadith bought wormwood in a desperate effort to save Aelfwynn's life. When Osferth pointed out that it was poison, Eadith drank some of it before she gave some to Aelfwynn. Aelfwynn's condition worsened, temporarily, and they rushed her to Aegelesburg. It was there that she eventually recovered.
▪︎ It was Sihtric and Young Uhtred who found Aelthelflaed and Aldhelm. When they returned to the hut where Aelfwynn had been staying, the old woman told Aldhelm that she had already died.
▪︎ Sigtryggr had the head of one of the Welsh nobles cut off and sent to King Hywel, who was on pilgrimage.
▪︎ Brida told Sigtryggr that the greatest riches were in Wessex. Brida has long despised Christians, but now there was the added incentive of taking her revenge on Uhtred.
Director: David Moore
Writer: Jamie Crichton
Original Release Date: 26 April 2020