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‘The Last Kingdom’ Enters Valhalla

Netflix’s ‘The Last Kingdom: Seven Kings Must Die’ delivers a fitting, feature-film finish to an underappreciated show

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Spoiler warning

Alexander Dreymon has been playing Uhtred of Bebbanburg—a.k.a. Uhtred Ragnarsson, a.k.a. Uhtred, son of Uhtred—for approximately 65 years. Only on screen, of course: In real life, Dreymon, the star of Netflix’s The Last Kingdom, just turned 40. In the first of the five seasons of the series that aired between 2015 and 2022, Dreymon was a good deal older than the then-teenaged Uhtred, whose story started in the mid-ninth century CE. In The Last Kingdom: Seven Kings Must Die, a new feature-length film that concludes Uhtred’s saga, Dreymon is decades younger than the half-Dane, half-Saxon hero he portrays. The movie, which came out on Netflix on Friday, features an older and wiser warrior who’s still swinging swords, riding horses, and anchoring shield walls well into the 10th century, at age 81.

“We don’t talk about that,” Dreymon jokes.

“We don’t talk about that” is also, seemingly, the longstanding stance of much of the TV recap-industrial complex when it comes to The Last Kingdom. Yet per Nielsen, the series ranked as the 14th-most-watched original streaming series last year, putting it well ahead of Amazon’s billion-dollar bet on big-name IP, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, and roughly on par with other, more buzzed-about shows such as The Boys, The Great British Baking Show, and The Umbrella Academy. That’s not too shabby for a fifth season, especially one without much of a marketing blitz.

“I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t wish that we had had some posters up on Sunset Boulevard at some point, or had been more in award conversations,” Dreymon admits. But “in the scheme of things,” he continues, “I’m extremely grateful about how it’s gone, and the fact that we did not have an advertising push really at any point and we still were as successful as we are now is just wonderful.”

Dreymon is quick to credit the Netflix algorithm (as well as the show’s fans) for The Last Kingdom’s many minutes watched. Netflix—which coproduced Season 2 with BBC Two before acquiring the series and assuming sole production duties starting with Season 3—certainly helped put the show in front of its subscribers’ eyeballs. But The Last Kingdom kept them trained on the screen. Yes, the series’ succession struggles, uneasy alliances, sex, and brutal battles have sparked comparisons to Game of Thrones. (The franchises share some common cast members, too, not to mention the whole seven kings/seven kingdoms thing.) And Odin knows it’s not the only Viking content produced in recent years (see The Northman, Norsemen, Vikings, and Vikings: Valhalla). But although Dreymon acknowledges a “large overlap” between The Last Kingdom’s audience and those of the series it somewhat resembles, the show’s humor, historical detail, charismatic cast, and striking scenery and action have always made it much more than an imitator or a pale substitute for something else.

It’s easier to pinpoint the series’ strengths than it is to explain the mysterious, youth-preserving power of Uhtred’s medieval diet, exercise, and skin-care routine. The Last Kingdom, which depicts the historical unification of England through the tale of Dreymon’s fictitious leader, lover, and fighter, draws on compelling and copious source material: Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories. Nine of Cornwell’s Saxon Stories novels had been published when the TV version first premiered, with a 10th on the way. Thus, the adaptation was conceived as a five-season series that would tackle two books per season. The fifth season resolved the saga in satisfying fashion: Uhtred, the rightful ruler of the Northern England stronghold of Bebbanburg, achieved a series-long objective by reclaiming control of his ancestral home, which was seized by his treacherous uncle and cousin after Uhtred was kidnapped and raised by the Vikings who killed his father. The Season 5 finale earned the highest IMDb user rating of any episode in the series. The Last Kingdom could have ended there.

However, the prolific Cornwell—who also authors the even-more-voluminous, previously adapted Sharpe series of novels about Napoleonic Wars veteran Richard Sharpe—had pumped out three more books while the show was airing. This was, in a way, the opposite of the problem encountered by Thrones. Instead of outstripping the books it was based on, The Last Kingdom couldn’t keep up. Hence what Dreymon calls a “bonus”: an almost-two-hour special based largely on the 13th and final installment of The Saxon Stories, 2020’s War Lord (which Cornwell—who’s descended from a real Uhtred who lived years after the octogenarian Uhtred of Seven Kings Must Diededicated to Dreymon).

Seven Kings Must Die ties up the overarching narrative that intersected with (and sometimes set back) Uhtred’s already completed personal quest: the effort to unify England under Alfred the Great and his direct descendants and successors, Edward the Elder and Aethelstan. Thanks to the show’s liberal attitude toward time, Uhtred somehow serves both Alfred—who was played by an actor the same age as Dreymon—and Aethelstan, Alfred’s grandson, without appearing to age in the interim any more than Dreymon did in real life. Although the math of Uhtred’s timeline might make longtime viewers grin, The Last Kingdom benefits in more than one way from following Outlander’s example and defying Father Time in regard to its good-looking leads.

The sweeping passage of time expands the series’ scope to encompass more than a half-century’s worth of invasions and victories, without subjecting Dreymon to many hours in the makeup chair or relying on jarring recasting. It also enables Uhtred to experience history repeating itself and to learn lessons from his multigenerational allegiance to Alfred’s line, all while continuing to take part in the combat that became a calling card of the series. “It’s just one of the main selling points of the show, and it’s what’s so fun to watch about it,” Dreymon says. “And I think it would not have worked if Uhtred had been a much older man.”

That’s not to say that the not-so-superannuated Uhtred of Seven Kings Must Die hasn’t mellowed somewhat with age. “The younger Uhtred was so impulsive, and there’s definitely a part of that still left in the older version of him, but I think there’s much more reflection now,” Dreymon says. “And I think whereas at the beginning it was a very selfish endeavor, he is now starting to focus more on the people in his life and what’s important to them.”

Uhtred has loved and lost more than once over the course of the series, and the Season 5 demise of his royal ride-or-die, Alfred’s daughter Aethelflaed—“So many Flaeds. So many Aeths,” Dreymon moans—leaves little room for romance in the movie. But there’s ample time for platonic love, as Uhtred patiently mentors a wayward Aethelstan—perhaps, Dreymon suggests, seeking to make up for Uhtred’s own failings as a father—and bonds with longtime companions, particularly Irish sidekick Finan, his bosom bro since Season 2. “At the beginning of the story, Uhtred was definitely a bit of a ninth-century James Bond/fuckboy,” Dreymon says. “And I think it’s great that his focus is not so much about that anymore.”

Instead, it’s on saving Aethelstan from his worst impulses (and the poisonous influence of his adviser/lover, Ingilmundr) and helping Alfred’s grandson make his grandfather’s dream of England a reality. “I always felt like Uhtred and King Alfred had a bit of a bromance/love/hate relationship going on,” Dreymon says. Although Alfred often relied on Uhtred, he and his inner circle often mistrusted him, too—as did Edward, and as does Aethelstan. No matter how many times Uhtred aids them, he can’t fully win over their trust as a half-Dane, especially a pagan one who refuses to convert to Christianity. “It’s his predicament, and he has to keep fighting against it,” Dreymon says. “And of course it’s frustrating, and it’s frustrating that it happens again with the sons of the people that did it in the first place.”

Dreymon, who shares Uhtred’s peripatetic background and resulting sense of being untethered to any one place—the actor was born in Germany and raised in France, Switzerland, and the U.S.—doesn’t think he’d have Uhtred’s tolerance for repeatedly proving himself to doubters. “I would’ve bailed a while ago,” he says. “I would’ve focused on the people in my life that are trustworthy and loving and loyal. I probably would’ve settled down with Finan a long time ago, and we would’ve raised Sihtric together.” (I would watch that show.)

Uhtred, however, is bound by his oath, his honor, and his need to be acknowledged, which Dreymon traces to daddy issues. Just as Uhtred wanted to take back Bebbanburg partly to prove to his long-dead father—played by Matthew Macfadyen, while we’re on the subject of succession—that he was a worthy heir, he wants to watch over Aethelstan to show the long-dead Alfred that Uhtred deserved his trust. And even though his ceaseless limbo between two worlds prevents him from feeling patriotic, he does see the upside of fighting for one side. “It goes hand in hand with his quest for a home and his quest for identity,” Dreymon says, adding, “He understands the vision that Alfred had. Not necessarily of England, but really what it stands for… a place where people from both origins can live together in peace. And I think that’s something that is very clearly worth fighting for, in his eyes and in mine.”

The Last Kingdom is nothing if not consistent—its seasonal-average episode ratings have hovered between 8.5 and 8.9—and in my estimation, Seven Kings Must Die matches or exceeds the series’ usual standard. (Amusingly, given the frequent comps to Thrones—which Dreymon says he considers a compliment—The Last Kingdom’s 8.7 average episode rating matches that of Thrones, which ranks both series among the highest-rated long-running TV dramas.) The film was intended to tell a stand-alone story that could be watched without the five-season, 46-episode prelude. For the most part, it succeeds as a solo project, though those who board The Last Kingdom train just before its last stop will lack the historical context, proper-name knowledge, and emotional attachments that will make the movie more rewarding for existing Uhtred diehards and Aethelstan stans.

Although the title smacks of a Scott Pilgrim/Kill Bill/No More Heroes–style vendetta, there isn’t really a royal hit list in Seven Kings Must Die. There is, of course, a climactic battle. The Last Kingdom has excelled at staging show-stopping fights since Season 1, and the movie’s Battle of Brunanburh belongs on the list of violent highlights. Though other shows and movies may inflate their budgets with larger-scale clashes and flashier special effects—the ninth and 10th centuries were fairly light on both bodies and explosions—few can rival the controlled ferocity and tactical clarity of The Last Kingdom’s combat. Even in the thick of battle, the choreography is riveting and transparent: Each hack, slash, and stab is served with a purpose, as armies form walls, wheel around, and give ground in order to establish some advantage that the audience can see before it dawns on Uhtred’s enemies.

Speaking of violence: Dreymon doesn’t want to weigh in on whether Uhtred’s vision of Valhalla toward the end of the movie indicates that he’s dying from wounds suffered at Brunanburh. “Whether he goes there now or whether he goes there later—because, as you say, he is technically 81 years old—might not [make much difference],” Dreymon says. The important thing, the actor argues, is that “He knows where he’s going to go. And I think that’s a beautiful ending to the story and a beautiful, heartwarming present for this character to have at the end of where we leave him in the story, because he knows that he’s going to be in a place where he’ll be cozy, if that’s the right word for a feast hall.”

It’s definitely not the right word for how it felt to film some of the scenes in the series. Asked where he’s going to go after playing Uhtred for so long, Dreymon starts to say, “It would be nice to shoot something that is less of a physical …” Then he stops himself. “Actually, as I’m saying this, it’s so not true. It’s bullshit what I’m telling you. I love the physical challenge. I loved every moment of shooting outside, of being on the horse, even if it was cold and wet.” And it often was, which made Dreymon appreciate the hot showers and warm beds—the cozy accommodations—that the real-life fighters of Uhtred’s day didn’t have. “I am amazed that humanity has made it this far,” Dreymon says.

Dreymon does want to branch out to different types of roles. He’s recently taken on two in his personal life: Last year he got engaged to Allison Williams, with whom he has a son (not named Uhtred). On screen, he’d like to try a comedy; an action movie that isn’t a period piece; a contemporary, character-driven drama. Like Cornwell, he and we can close the book on The Last Kingdom. In the era of rampant prequels, sequels, and spinoffs, it’s rarely safe to declare a tale completely told; even Cornwell is about to publish a few extra, stray Saxon stories. But it would be tough for any opportunistic streamer to extend Uhtred’s adventures in either direction when we’ve already followed him from close to the cradle to close to the grave. (Plus, although Dreymon’s character, like his father and grandfather before him, has a son named Uhtred, the Uhtreds may end with Uhtred IV, for a tragic reason.)

Like Uhtred and Alfred, The Last Kingdom accomplished the lofty goal it set for itself long ago. And with Seven Kings Must Die, the saga expires with a sword in its hand, as any Viking warrior would want to.