“The Last Kingdom: Season 2” (Netflix)
It’s Brit Week in the Singer media world, and, after this, I’ll have reviewed three British productions about three very British moments in history. Having already examined the WWII/Blitz-era RomCom, “Their Finest”, and James Gray’s British exploration bio-epic, “The Lost City of Z”, I shift gears from film to television and look at “The Last Kingdom”, a Netflix/BBC co-production based on the Ninth Century origin-story of England, whose second season was released on Netflix just a couple days ago.
So, I was watching the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame show on HBO the other night, and Train lead singer, and person responsible for inducting Journey, Patrick Monohan, stated the following in reference to his love of that band: “There are no guilty pleasures! You either like something or you don’t” – which, of course, in context, was both an apology for being an avid Journey fan and a declaration of anger toward all those who call Train a guilty pleasure. But…it got me thinking. DO I either like something or don’t, or can something be a guilty pleasure? And is calling something a guilty pleasure just a way to avoid admitting I actually like whatever it may be?
This is a near perfect way to discuss “The Last Kingdom” (a show based on Bernard Cornwell’s series of books about Ninth-century Saxon England), whose first season is really, REALLY not good. Its production values are so comical as to be bested by the videos in “Sing Street”, the dialogue is truly ridiculous and stilted, and the accents…THE ACCENTS,..a true Tower of dialect-Babel! And yet, I couldn’t keep my eyes off it! I can only surmise it was due to the fascinating STORY…asking, as it did, some very intriguing questions. What DID it mean to be raided by the Danes? What was it like to be both Saxon and Dane when the social dividing lines were so well drawn? Who was Alfred the Great? And was he…great? And how do all of the religious changes and chaos of those times relate to modern culture? So, for me, anyway, the “pleasure” came from historical perspective. The “guilty” was knowing I was watching a high school production. Either way, I was shocked to read that Netflix had jumped on board and helped to create a second season.
And, lo and behold, Netflix found an actual show in there! While the production values are still lame as lame can be (their costume-makers should be sent back to community theater; and the throngs of thousands of soldiers actually count up to about thirty – it’s called a GREEN SCREEN! Use it for cryin’ out loud!), they have added something the first season was devoid of…dramatic tension! This comes down mostly to sculpting its eight episodes in to two four-episode stories, much in the way most British procedurals are presented. As a result, the show becomes MUCH more character driven…there is time to get to know these characters, instead of having each of their lines be the most important thing you’ve ever heard, which, obviously, disconnects them from any real emotion.
And these second season tales are worth telling, and the scripts tell them well…for the most part. And, gratefully, the stories MOVE, as opposed to sitting there waiting for something around them to happen (which, in the first season, never really occurred). The dialogue, especially when it involves humor, is still REALLY creaky, and, sadly there are more than a couple terrific characters who, inexplicably, disappear from storylines, only to never be heard from again…or worse…show up with no explanation as to where they went in the first place. But, due to the pace and crafting of each episode, I found myself both invested and looking forward to the following episodes. And, more than a little bummed when the final episode came to its conclusion.
Most of the actors from the first season, who made it to the second, have benefited greatly from the opening up of their characters’ dimensionality. Really, the only sufficient acting in the first season belonged to the wonderfully gifted David Dawson and Ian Hart (and Matthew MacFayden – which should go without saying). They, alone, seemed to understand how to play historical archetype with the understanding that their characters didn’t know they would become historical archetypes. In season two, the majority of actors have finally joined them and simply have conversations – live their experiences, instead of telling us how important they are. This is especially so of Alexander Dreymon, the show’s hero. His Uhtred has relaxed and BECOME a hero. Perhaps being given a second season allowed him to get a little confidence and relax, because his performance is SO much better. He still has the world’s strangest accent (then again, he’s a German actor, playing a Saxon, raised by Danes…so maybe I’m wrong), and he continues to push far too hard at moments, but you can now, at least, SEE what the author was going for. Other standouts this second go’round include the evil conquering brothers, Bjorn Bengtsson and Christian Hillborg, who are ferocious but human. There is also the sword-fighting Christian priestess, played by Eva Birthistle. I honestly do not remember her from the first season, but she is fantastic in the first part of season 2 – which makes her notable and unexplained disappearance in the second part quite frustrating. Finally, we’ve been given the addition of Alfred’s daughter, Princess Aetheflaed, who carries with her stakes and strength due to the excellent work of Millie Bradley.
I can’t tell you this is a great show. It isn’t. But, if you miss “Game of Thrones”, and need tales of another time and another world to distract you from the horrors splayed out on HuffPo each day, you could do a lot worse than “The Last Kingdom” (assuming you can grin and bear the first season to get there). Half guilty pleasure, and half likeable..I’ll take it over listening to Train or Journey any day.
The trailers from both seasons are attached…and even they portray the jump in quality from Season 1 to Season 2…
Written on 5/10/2017