SPOILER WARNING: The following post discusses The Last Kingdom plot points through Series/Season 3.
There is something special about a well-crafted protagonist. They carry the weight of an entire story on their shoulders, breathing life into the world they represent, tugging at the heart strings of the audience. They are the epitome of wish fulfillment, whether it’s a desire to be them or be with them.
Then, there was Uhtred of Bebbanburg. I hated Uhtred so strongly in episode one that I refused to watch episode two for over a year. Recently, I had a chance to chat with Mark Rowley (Finan) about this aversion. He laughed, and asked me, Why? I believe my exact words were, “He was annoying, and immature, and I thought the only thing he had going for him were his looks.” Mark laughed again and said he would relay the message to Alex and tell him to tone down the “ladies’ man” thing in the future.
Oh, shit. Oh, no. Oh gods, please don’t tell him I said that!
I didn’t say that out loud, of course. I just laughed nervously and moved on. I said what I said, dammit. I stand by it.
But what if I’m mistaken? What if Uhtred wasn’t actually as annoying as I thought? I pondered that for a couple days.
Nope, still hate Young Uhtred. In fact, his face annoyed me all through series 1 and 2, and it wasn’t until the end of series 3 that I accepted Uhtred as a protagonist worthy of anything but an eye roll. I can imagine what that conversation might be like:
Me: Young Uhtred’s face was annoying.
Alexander Dreymon: What? But, I’m a very handsome man. I have a beautiful face!
Me: Yes your face is beautiful, but Uhtred’s face was annoying.
Alex: But my face is Uhtred’s face.
At first, I chalked it up to a sort of Stockholm syndrome. I marathoned episode two through the end of series 4 within a week. After staring at someone’s face for so long, it stops being annoying, right? Wrong. I mean, young Uhtred is handsome, and yet, young Uhtred still annoys me. It was an older, more mature Uhtred that I started to love.
Surely I’m not the only one who didn’t like Uhtred at first. Statistically speaking, I can’t be alone in this. But my aversion was so strong, I was willing to drop the entire series, and it took three years’ worth of material to awaken a feeling of respect and admiration. This is worth exploring further.
Uhtred hits all the right protagonist characteristics: he’s internally driven even when reacting to outside stimuli, has a strong compass both morally and in action, playful and passionate, gentle but strong. He has flaws, too, with an impulsive nature being both his greatest strength and perhaps his greatest weakness. It’s easy to see why characters are drawn to him and follow him. He goes through trials, has loads of character development throughout the first two series, and is an all-around badass. And with all of that working in his favor, Young Uhtred is still annoying to me.
What characters did I actually like in series one?
“KILL HIM!” Yep, most underrated character in the whole show. Every character is larger than life, but Guthrum was special to me.
I also had a soft spot for Hild and Beocca. In series two, we got Finan and I finally had a warrior to root for! I like other characters, of course, but I’m focusing on first impressions right now. And the truth is, I found Hild, Beocca, and Finan to be superior in personality and likability even despite Uhtred’s clear character development.
At first, Skade was also annoying. Her character was dramatized, well-played, but a complete throwaway character. She was far from the “grandest” antagonist in the show – she was never meant to be a Kjartan or Sigefrid. And while she may not be the grandest antagonist in the story, she is the greatest antagonist in Uhtred’s story. Ultimately, she’s the reason I grew to love, admire, and respect Uhtred as both a man and a leader.
It’s funny to think that being an orphan, surviving slavery and gaining true humility, growing as a person, and constantly proving himself as a warrior were not enough to win me over. What Skade offered was a different type of development for Uhtred.
First, Uhtred’s murder of Skade was special. I believe Uhtred enjoys battle. He enjoys the glory of the fight (he was adopted by a Dane for a reason, after all), and I think on some level he enjoys the game of Saxon politics (it’s in his blood) and he especially enjoys winning at both. But his battle with Skade was deeply personal. It was more than just revenge. His uncle and Kjartan took his family from him. Skade did more than that – she took the love of his life, and she played him like a fiddle. His uncle and Kjartan stripped him of the life he was given. Skade stripped him of the life he built. There was no glory in her death. There was no victory in revenge. He simply did what he had to do, and he did so quietly. There were no theatrics. He was not performing for anyone. He was simply getting the job done, perhaps for the first time in his life.
Secondly, he was alone in his fight with Skade. In truth, Uhtred has always had someone to rely on. Beocca was his rock since he was a child, always defending him and standing by his side. After his father’s death, he was adopted and cared for by a second father. Finan gave him the strength to persevere. He was saved in his time of need. He collected warriors and men willing to die for him, men who often died for him. He collected lovers to support him even when it meant their death. He was backed by one king or another. At all times, he had someone by side. But in dealing with Skade, Uhtred had to stand alone. Letting anyone in on his scheme would have meant failure. His ability to plan and execute that plan, even while his own men doubted him, is the mark a true leader. He was always an independent character, but there was a shift in him around this time. The warrior who emerged from that experience was sharper, more grounded. Capable of more. Uhtred never questioned himself and never wavered from the path.
Thirdly, Skade reinforced Uhtred’s identity by forcing him to make a choice. During series one, Young Uhtred turned his back on the Danes because they abandoned him, as he often reminds Brida. The Saxons rejected him as well, so Uhtred exists in this strange, in-between state. What’s especially great about this quality is the universality of it. I don’t know anyone who fits perfectly into one box or one community. As part of the human experience, we all feel like the outsider at some point. It makes Uhtred relatable from the beginning. While Brida was eager to find another Dane to serve, Uhtred knew he didn’t belong there and he didn’t belong in Wessex. He had a mission to reclaim Bebbanburg, but in the meantime, he was fearless in embracing the “outsider” branding that was given to him so gleefully by Alfred. In fact, being the outsider was the easiest path for him to follow because circumstances (see: “destiny”) pushed him in that direction.
When Skade came along, she had a vision for him: reclaim the Dane glory you deserve. Uhtred could have given in and accepted that mantle, and in turn, the power that came with it. He could have raised an army of Danes and used them to reclaim Bebbanburg. He could have kept Skade around long enough to use her for his own means and just killed her when he was done. It may have been due to a desire for revenge and independence, but Uhtred chose to turn his back on that life and forge his own path. This time, it was not because the Danes rejected him – in fact, they would have embraced him with Skade by his side. Uhtred chose to be his own man even when it meant choosing the more difficult path this time.
Lastly, and I think this one sums it all up, is that Skade taught him discipline and patience. Young Uhtred was wild and impulsive. Dealing with Skade properly meant waiting until the moment was right and striking efficiently and without hesitation. Uhtred did not act on impulse – he thought about this death. No, he really thought about this death. He thought about it constantly, and this particular death required a level of forethought, patience, and discipline that was never really required of Young Uhtred.
Yet, it was more than just the circumstances that transformed Uhtred into a leader for me, it was the action itself. To put it frankly, Skade’s death scene is a masterpiece. It is unassuming and unremarkable, and that’s precisely what makes it so profoundly remarkable. Uhtred got the job done. Emerging from the water, it was clear that Uhtred was not the young, impulsive boy he was before. He was also not a warrior. He was a man. Just a man.
As Osferth comforts Uhtred following Skade’s death, we get a rare glimpse at the duality of leadership. There is performative leadership, the type built on the shoulders of strong men, leadership woven into grand speeches before bloody battles, the leadership Alfred writes about in his many pages. But what transpires between Osferth and Uhtred is the weight of true leadership – of doing what must be done even when the feat feels dirty. It is enduring leadership, the type that emerges from the core and informs every action we take. We do not stop being leaders when people stop watching. Rather, Uhtred becomes the embodiment of leadership in a way that Young Uhtred simply emulated. In a moment, and before I had time to realize it, I watched potential become truth. It was such a seamless and natural growth for the character, I was almost unaware of it.
At the end of the episode, Uhtred sees Alfred’s pages. He is unbothered by them and the fact that he is excluded from Alfred’s recount of history because he now knows the weight of true leadership. He has settled into his strength, and no amount of affirmation, or denial, would change who he is. Although Skade’s death and Uhtred’s reaction to the pages seem unrelated, I think they are intricately intertwined. They reveal a level of understanding and internal growth that marks the end of series 3 as the moment I found a deep respect for a character I once considered a throwaway protagonist.
This transformation – both in Uhtred and myself – is indicative of masterful storytelling, professional dedication, and a profound understanding of the human experience on the part of all those involved with bringing this story to life. In fact, it’s probably the dislike I have for Young Uhtred that makes my love of him now so satisfying. It’s like ordering a pie and finding it has endless filling.