“The Last Kingdom” Season 4 came to Netflix, bringing fans back to the continuing adventures of the intrepid Uhtred Ragnarson.
Series executive producer Nigel Marchant spoke with Variety ahead of the premiere, breaking down Uhtred’s attempt to retake Bebbanburg, the continuation of King Alfred’s dream of a united England, and the deaths of some major characters.
This is the first season without David Dawson as King Alfred, but Alfred’s presence still seems to hang very heavily over the show.
It was a terrible loss. David was very fantastic and we loved working with him. I think he brought such gravitas to the show. I think it mirrors real history in that sense. It was always Alfred’s dream to bring these separate kingdoms together to form England. In history, it was three generations before they got there. His grandson eventually became the first king of England, so I think they are always haunted by his quest to unite the kingdoms and his belief that Christianity and the Church was the way forward for the nation. Even without him, the show is still about the pursuit of that goal. What we go through this season is Uhtred’s realization that he is fundamental within that.
Speaking of Uhtred, we finally see him go back to Bebbanburg, only to get beaten by his cousin Wihtgar. I think this is the first time we really see Uhtred fail.
Yes, we always see Uhtred come out on top, but as with anyone’s life, there are failures. I think his failure at the beginning of this series drives him through the rest of it. He’s asking himself, “Who am I? What is my part to play in the history of these lands?”
And he loses Beocca! His death was so sad, but at least he died nobly, sacrificing himself.
It was really hard to lose Ian Hart, who is such a fantastic actor, but we’ve always tried to show that the battles have real consequences. That is then folded in with Uhtred’s impetuousness in feeling that this is the right moment to retake Bebbanburg, without fully realizing the repercussions. So he loses his father figure, the person that has always been there for him, has guided him, has fought with him, has been his moral compass in many ways.
This is also the first season where we get to see Uhtred as a father, both to his son, young Uhtred, and his daughter, Stiorra.
I think we really like when we see the three dimensional characters and their failings. We’ve often seen Uhtred fail in his impetuousness at times and make the wrong decisions. Anyone whose brought up children knows how difficult a task it is to balance that education and love and doing the right thing for them. That’s what I think we see with Uhtred, having been estranged from his children and not really knowing them. How does he rekindle that relationship with them? Especially with young Uhtred, who has gone to the Church. How does he balance his annoyance with that with the love of his child? And they’re not really children anymore! They’ve got their own minds and their own instincts. He’s learning that he might have to let go of them.
I also really want to give a shoutout to Mark Rowley as Finan this season. He’s always been great but you see him really step up as the emotional support after Uhtred fails to retake Bebbanburg.
Within the books there is this great friendship between them. We don’t really find out that much backstory about Finan as we go through them, but he’s always there, always that right hand man. I think that’s what we’ve tried to push more and more as the TV series has gone on. Mark is a great actor and brings great comedy to the show, but to see a little bit more of him and see how those relationships worked and explore that masculinity between them. They can’t always talk to each other, certainly back then, but there is a connection. They are there to support each other through the good and the bad. I think, as a fan of the show myself, I love that relationship. I love the gang that they form together and the support that they get from each other.
Aethelflaed and Edward both come into their own as leaders of their kingdoms this season. How would you compare them?
Edward has such a burden of his father hanging over him. Alfred the Great is still our only king to be called The Great and he has this monumental presence, so how do you step into that person’s shoes and feel that your making decisions for yourself and feel like you’re not being manipulated by the politics of court around you? I think throughout the series we see Edward making a lot of mistakes and learning from them, then changing his notion of what it is to be a king. Sometimes you have to take risks and make the hard decisions. That’s the position you are in as a ruler. So we really wanted to explore that and what that means to suddenly be in that position of duty and being in control of other people’s lives. That goes right up to the last episode where he has to make those decisions with his head and not his heart.
He gets a bit blindsided, which you see when Aethelflaed tries to become the Lady of Mercia. He doesn’t see the benefit at first of her ruling. He doesn’t realize what a pair they would be ruling these two separate kingdoms.
What I love about Aethelflaed is she’s really not known for being this powerful warrior queen, which she was! It’s a moment in history that’s been forgotten slightly. I think the joy of the show is we’ve always had really strong women in there and this is the moment where we can reflect that in the real history of the time.
And with everything going on in the world, how fitting is it that this season featured a storyline about The Sickness, which is basically a pandemic?
[Laughs] Art imitating life!
We also see Aethelred die this season after he is injured in battle against the Danes. He’s never been sympathetic, but he tries to set some things right before he dies. Do you think his redemption was genuine?
I’d like to think it was genuine redemption. That’s how I read it. I think in those moments when you reflect back on everything you’ve done in your life, I think he learned from his mistakes and regretted them. I think there is certainly a moment between him and Aethelflaed when he acknowledges how cruel he had been. Ambition had taken over.
And with Aethelred dead, Edward chooses Uhtred to be the new Lord Protector of Mercia. But Uhtred steps aside to let Aethelflaed take the throne, even though it means the end of their relationship. Why would he do that?
I think Uhtred does know his weaknesses at times, and I think part of the journey is realizing the mistakes that he makes. Although he is a fabulous leader, he doesn’t want to lead a country. He’s not a politician and that’s not what he wants to do. He’s always wanted to get back to Bebbanburg and whatever else happens in the country, he doesn’t care. That is is legacy. That is what he wants to leave for his children, his ancestral home and his reputation, not to be stuck in the politics of court. He’s a fighter, a warrior. He loves the bloodlust, the thrill of the fight. I think Aethelflaed helps him realize and acknowledge that. And I think he also realizes that she is the right person to rule. She puts Mercia before anything else.
And of course, I can’t let you go without talking about Brida. She really goes through a lot this season.
Poor Brida. She gets betrayed by everyone! Again, we talk about women and convention of the time. She couldn’t be seen as a leader herself. She has to have these men that she allies with, and time and time again they betray her for their own purposes. I think she sees that within Uhtred because he turns on his childhood friend. She has always adored the Dane way of living and he goes against that. She can never forgive that. I think at the end of the season we see her absolutely destroyed by this final betrayal and the weakness of men, whereas she is so single-minded.