In a few key respects, HBO and Netflix are not alike. One way this is reflected is in how the two entertainment giants have gone about their respective tentpole medieval action dramas.
HBO’s Game of Thrones and Netflix’s The Last Kingdom are not the same, though there are some similarities which can form the basis of a comparison. Both are based on successful epic novels: Game of Thrones comes from the five George R. R. Martin knights-and-dragons books of the same name, while The Last Kingdom is based on Bernard Cornwell’s “The Saxon Stories” series.
Both TV series are very well done and hew to the books relatively closely by Hollywood standards (The Last Kingdom actually started on the BBC before Netflix took it over in 2018). Both series attracted hordes of hugely loyal fans. And the ends of both series gave those fans heartache.
But for different reasons.
The ending of Game of Thrones — as were the last two seasons, to be more accurate — was universally panned by the fans as thrown together and rushed to an unsatisfactory conclusion, largely for reasons of insufficient source material and a production schedule which probably didn’t fit with the movement of the story. The series ran through Martin’s five GOT books in the first five seasons plus, and then came unmoored. It was driven by the need to come to an ending at a specific time, but beyond showing the defeat of the White Walkers and delivering a breathtaking finale there was no natural flow to the finish. Everybody noticed, and nobody was happy with how things ended.
Given the size and scope of GOT’s production, the need for at least one more season to develop a more satisfying finish to the series was clearly outweighed by HBO’s other considerations.
The Last Kingdom is quietly one of the most conservative shows on TV.
But The Last Kingdom, which tells an equally compelling story in a much more understated fashion, hasn’t been so encumbered. And the fifth and final season of the Netflix epic, which dropped last week for the binge-watching pleasure of its fans, delivers in ways GOT simply couldn’t do.
The Last Kingdom has an advantage over GOT in that it isn’t a fantasy story. It’s based on historical novels surrounding the life of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Saxon nobleman in 9th-century England whose family held the coastal fortress at what is now Bamburgh in Northumbria until Viking raiders, the Danes, conquered the fortress and killed Uhtred’s father (also named Uhtred). Fans of the show have gotten a kick out of the lead-in to every episode in which there is a voice-over by Alexander Dreymon, who plays the lead character, opening with “I am Uhtred, son of Uhtred.”
The series traces Uhtred’s life and travels — he’s adopted by his Danish conquerors, emerges as a great warrior, allies himself with Alfred, the king of Wessex who dreams of uniting England under one rule, survives bad decisions his maddening-yet-strangely-entertaining anger issues drive him to, suffers and recovers and finally chases the opportunity to reclaim control of Bebbanburg for his family line over the course of those five seasons.
It’s a terrific ride. And The Last Kingdom is quietly one of the most conservative shows on TV — it unapologetically celebrates masculinity, keeps the girls-beating-up-guys action scenes to a minimum, treats political power and those who pursue it with suspicion, and clearly favors the freedom of individual characters to choose their own lives. The bad guys in The Last Kingdom aren’t the brutish warriors but the schemers and plotters behind the scenes, something that modern Westerners can identify with in multiple circumstances.
And Dreymon is magnificent as Uhtred. So are the battle scenes he’s ubiquitous in. Unlike Game of Thrones, which depicts massive military conflicts peppered with attacks by giant CGI dragons and marching undead, The Last Kingdom is filled with small skirmishes among bands of dozens, or at most a few hundred, bloodthirsty warriors. That’s what 9th-century warfare was like, and the show doesn’t get out over its skis with CGI or special effects. The fighting is therefore more personal, and in some ways more exciting to watch.
In one other way is The Last Kingdom a more satisfying finish than GOT. Namely, that although the series has reached its finale the story isn’t over. A movie continuing Uhtred’s story for just a little longer, Seven Kings Must Die, is currently in production.
Meaning that fans will get to see Uhtred, son of Uhtred one more time before rewatching the series — as some of us are quite likely to do.