With “Vikings” lustily pillaging its way through History, “The Last Kingdom” — a BBC America drama that covers very similar terrain — initially seems a trifle superfluous. Soon enough, though, this eight-part series (half of which was screened) proves its mettle as a worthy, somewhat complementary variation on that show, with plenty of first-rate casting in supporting roles, not that anyone should grow too attached to them. Produced by the team behind “Downton Abbey” and adapted from a book series, the project is spare and unsentimental, capturing the barbarism of the time through a protagonist straddling two disparate worlds.
So much happens in the extended premiere, frankly, that one risks spoiling some of the fun by talking too specifically about the plot. It begins in ninth-century Northumbria, where a Saxon stronghold is about to be invaded and overrun by Danish warriors, with the Saxon noble’s 11-year-old son, Uhtred, taken in by the conquering Viking warlord Earl Ragnar (Peter Gantzler). Gradually treated as Ragnar’s son, Uhtred is tutored in the Danes’ cruel, unyielding ways by the aged, crafty Ravn (Rutger Hauer).
Years pass, and Uhtred is now a young man (played by Alexander Dreymon), having adopted the Danes’ customs, and fallen for Brida (Emily Cox), who, like him, was born a Saxon before being raised by the Vikings. Yet when internecine conflict orphans Uhtred all over again, he finds himself trying to navigate a path between the Danes and the English, who hold the key to potentially reclaiming his birthright, now in the hands of his treacherous uncle (Joseph Millson).
As in “Vikings,” “Last Kingdom” (written by Stephen Butchard, with the first two episodes directed by Nick Murphy) portrays the Danes as a brutal but oddly endearing bunch. Sure, they promiscuously kill and plunder, but they seem to be having a grand time doing it, and perceive the Saxons as mismatched wimps, unable to adjust to their ruthless tactics.
The Anglo-Saxon King Alfred (David Dawson), meanwhile, is a gifted strategist. Although he doesn’t trust Uhtred, he recognizes Uhtred’s value in potentially leveling that playing field, thus helping fulfill his own goal of uniting England and spreading Christianity. Then again, all of the episodes are characterized by tactical ploys and shifting alliances, in a manner that proves a tad confusing at first, but proves increasingly absorbing as the episodes mount.
In some respects, this is really the show that FX’s “The Bastard Executioner” should be — awash in blood, gore and sex, yes, but with stronger characters and a more compelling plot. There is also some rather grisly and certainly blasphemous humor, including Uhtred’s rather colorful explanation of the difference between Heaven, as the English see it, and Valhalla.
Mixing history and fiction, “The Last Kingdom” is ultimately a portrait of a collision between cultures, in a period characterized neither by sentimentality nor mercy. And while it’s something of a symbol of the current times that these kinds of shows are now plentiful enough — due in part to the blessings of international financing — to feel as if they’re bumping into each other, after an hour or two, the series has taken on a life of its own, offering a reminder that there’s always room, at least on a niche basis, for another good one.