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Television review

‘Last Kingdom’: England is coming

Kata Vermes

“The Last Kingdom,” BBC America’s enjoyable new epic drama, will be compared to HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” And it is true, the series, set in the ninth century, is filled with the kind of brutal power struggles, medieval-meets-hard-rock-star stylings, giant stone castles, and fabulous British accents that help make “GoT” so GreaT.

The title sequence of “The Last Kingdom,” with its sweeping shots along maps that are on fire, virtually gets down on its knees and begs you to think about how winter is coming and maybe Snow too. If “Game of Thrones” wasn’t mentioned in the elevator pitch at BBC America, I’ll eat my chain mail.

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But “The Last Kingdom,” which features no supernatural White Walkers or fire-breathing dragons, is just as reminiscent, if not more so, of the underrated History drama “Vikings.” It provides an alternate point of view from “Vikings,” as it shows a similar historical period largely from the English side, as the Danes repeatedly invade the English kingdoms, which King Alfred (mesmerizingly played by David Dawson) has not yet united. The show, which premieres Saturday at 10 p.m., is based on “The Saxon Stories” novels by Bernard Cornwell.

The series opens with some extended setup, and I don’t want to get mired in the details here. Briefly, Lord Uhtred is trying to hold North-umbria against the invading Danes, who are led by Earl Ragnar. Mid-invasion, the Danes grab Uhtred’s son, also named Uhtred, and Earl Ragnar raises young Uhtred as one of his family in Denmark. By the end of the premiere, Uhtred has grown into a beefcake hero (played by Alexander Dreymon) who is of Saxon birth but who identifies as a Dane and thinks of Earl Ragnar as his father. But when Earl Ragnar is killed, the Danes blame Uhtred, leaving him and his girlfriend, the feral warrior Brida (Emily Cox), with no real home.

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Uhtred returns to Wessex and pledges fealty to Alfred, but in his heart of hearts he’s deeply conflicted, a man without a country, or a man with two countries. Dreymon does nicely with the situation, letting Uhtred’s confused loyalty remain somewhat freeform and therefore intriguing. He veers between his birthright and his Danish upbringing. His romantic life also takes a few turns in the first few episodes (as does his hairstyle; manbun alert). Things with Brida change, but the playful chemistry Dreymon and Cox have developed so well remains, adding poignancy to their star-crossed circumstances as the story unfolds.

Dawson, as Alfred, is extraordinary. Introduced in episode two, he’s riveting in all his scenes, with his icy demeanor and a spark of brilliance in his eyes. He listens and observes everything closely, employing his acumen in the face of Viking savagery. He envisions a united England under one God, and calmly plots to make it so. There is plenty of spectacle in “The Last Kingdom,” but none quite as spellbinding as Alfred’s quiet intelligence.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.