After the disappointing, anti-climactic ending to Game of Thrones, I looked at The Last Kingdom with a leery eye when its title popped up in my Netflix feed. But my reluctance, as it turns out, was unfounded. For those who are unfamiliar with the show, it follows the journey of Uhtred of Bebbanberg from childhood through adulthood, as he becomes entangled in the rivalry between the Saxons and the Vikings — who were known as “Danes” during the time period.
While there are slight differences between The Last Kingdom, which has a historical slant, and Game of Thrones, which takes on a more fantastical route, they are of the same vein. Concretely, they are both based off of two lauded book series that have established all the casts and the world building before-hand. Intimidatingly long, the books are densely packed with all the material that lend themselves to impressive TV adaptations: characters strewn across locations, storylines that intersect or collide, rich detail and epic adventures.
Moreover, both shows are set in a medieval-type, archaic world, with all the telltale viciousness and intrigue. In both, swords, axes and arrows are brutally handled as much as the deliberate venom of elocution is used. Blood is spilled either by a piercing of the flesh or by the maneuverings of politics. To top it off, there are influences of magic and mysticism in both, and though their presence is much more overpowering in Game of Thrones, The Last Kingdom will certainly leave you doubting pure coincidence.
Thematically, they feature the characteristics that mark a truly sophisticated TV show, with morally ambiguous characters whose cruelty may startle you and whose vulnerability will stun you. Their choices, guiding us through winding paths, are tempered with betrayal, heartache and fury. There is a pervading rawness in both, strangely enlightening in discussions of destiny and birthright yet grimly outlined by secrecy and revenge.
Taking into account these similarities, the scales still weigh in favor of The Last Kingdom, as there are elements in it that Game of Thrones is sorely lacking.
1. Believable character arcs
Change is arguable the most important aspect of character growth, because we are constantly influenced by the challenges we face. There is, in reality, no such thing as true stasis. The shifts may be incremental or sudden, of great magnitude or subtle, but there must be evidence to demonstrate them.
In The Last Kingdom, Uhtred’s life is pure pandemonium, riddled with battles and losses as well as gains, and he always emerges out of each one slightly reformed. Over the seasons, his dynamic character unfolds with gradual precision, paralleling the ambitious time span that follows him over decades of his life. His impulsivity gives way to thoughtfulness; his arrogance turns into self-awareness. But, still, the TV show emphasizes who he is at his core, restraining from any radical transformation.
On the other hand, Daenerys absolutely blindsided us Game of Thrones fans in its final season. It seemed as though the real Daenerys was replaced by an evil, mercurial twin, lacking all the heartfelt purpose and the admirable strength she displayed prior. Granted, Daenerys had always been a formidable queen. But the shot of her astride her dragon, face twitching with unbridled fury, as she decided to ignore the bells of surrender and set fire to the people she vowed to protect, was insanity. Where was the Daenerys who freed hundreds upon hundreds of slaves? Who walked bravely into a crowd of those she liberated, smiling as they lifted her up? Truly, her end was tragic.
2. A robust portrayal of all characters
While we all appreciate a diverse and extensive cast of characters, that also runs the risk of the focus being spread-thin across all of them. It’s a challenge to design a tightly plotted, coherent TV show with just the right amount of scenes given to side characters without being redundant.
Fortunately, The Last Kingdom does it well. From his trusted group of companions, to his children, to his line of lovers, and to even his nemeses, each character is nuanced — no one is set aside or treated as simply an ornament to Uhtred’s story. Everyone has their own history, goals and personalities. As a result, the scenes between them all are a welcome respite from the darker parts of the show, adding intimate touches of humor and love that warms the heart.
Game of Thrones began with a strong group of characters with a lot of potential, but the depiction of them dipped throughout the seasons. By the end, most of them were watered down versions of who they used to be. Most notably, Tyrion, Varys and Greyjoy were snubbed in season eight. Each of them had played substantial roles in the machinations and events of the show, yet were ultimately relegated to the background and, for Varys and Greyjoy, sent to die. As an honorable mention, Bran Stark suffered from a reverse case — a bland portrayal of him at first, and then an even blander portrayal of him as he became “the raven,” only to conclude with … him as the reigning king? Definitely never predicted that.
3. Complex relationships that stay complex
Complexity adds color and vibrancy to a TV show. Where there’s complexity, there’s uncertainty, and where there’s uncertainty, there’s the anticipation that compels viewers to continue watching the show. There’s the frustration as we struggle to pin down the shape of a character’s interactions with others, to rationalize behavior that doesn’t fit into our schemas of them.
"It will not be written that Alfred did stand on Uhtred's shoulders. Many times."
A most poignant and touching meeting between King Alfred and Uhtred. #TheLastKingdom #Season3 #Netflix pic.twitter.com/Wxoo40EVGf
— The Last Kingdom (@TheLastKingdom) January 10, 2019
In The Last Kingdom, Uhtred and King Alfred’s relationship serve as a paragon of a complex relationship. In fact, much of the TV show revolves around the two of them and their cautious dance around each other. They wield their weapons, Alfred equipped with his keen intelligence and Uhtred armed with his fighting prowess, and eye each other with suspicion. Divided by their warring backgrounds and motivations, they can not truly trust each other and often conflict, yet when given the opportunity to murder the other, they can never exploit it. They are unwilling to confront the truth that they need each other, and, even more so, that they have admiration for each other. The show encapsulates the teeter between friendship and enmity between them in a way that makes them fascinating to watch.
By the finale in Game of Thrones, the intricate web of ambition and love that connected each of the characters was simplified. There was no lingering question as to who was the villain, and who was the hero. Lines were strictly drawn: Daenerys was the rampaging fire queen, and Cersei was the simpering queen felled by a collapsing castle. Jaime was the idiot who left Brienne, the woman who truly saw and understood him, for Cersei. Tyrion was the second idiot, and Jon the third. The Starks prevailed, as always. Truly, the only realistic part of the ending was Sansa becoming Queen of the North.
Now that I’ve established a few of the multitude of reasons that make The Last Kingdom far superior to Game of Thrones, I could move on to comparing The Last Kingdom with Vikings … but I won’t. The winner in that competition is so obvious, it doesn’t even warrant an explanation (Hint: it’s The Last Kingdom).
Featured Image Courtesy of Huw Fullerton