“The Last Kingdom”–“Game of Thrones” meets “Vikings”

Based on The Saxon Stories novels by Bernard Cornwell, The Last Kingdom first premiered on BBC Two from 2015 to 2017, and on Netflix in 2018.  Four seasons (with a fifth in production) cover four of the twelve Cornwell books in the series, loosely based upon the history of tribal and internecine warfare between various factions of Saxons and Danes (=Vikings).

In the year 866 we see the protagonist–a Saxon aristocratic boy named Osbert –taken after his father and older brother are slain by Danes. Only his ruthless uncle survives and robs him of his birthright. Renamed Uhtred and, along with a little Saxon girl, Brida,  the two children are taken as slaves and raised by the powerful but loving Earl Ragnar in Danish Northumbria. Time passes and The Last Kingdom follows the now determined warrior Uhtred (newcomer Alexander Dreymon) to reclaim Bebbanburg  and seek revenge on his uncle.   

The central historical story — the birth of England–focuses on King Alfred of Wessex dreaming of a unification of the Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex. Invasions by the Danish prevent nationhood. And competing greed and power struggles from among the Saxon tribes don’t help with nation building either.

The separate kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia have all fallen to the Danes, leaving the great kingdom of Wessex standing alone and defiant under the command of King Alfred. In the midst of  this turbulent backdrop lives Uhtred. Born as a Saxon and raised as a Dane, The Last Kingdom  explores the conflicting and confusing dual identity with which Uhtred continually has to struggle.   His loyalties are tested, as he weighs injustice and jealousies thrown his way. Is he Saxon or Dane? Is he Christian (=Catholic) or “pagan” (=Viking)?

Unlike Game of Thrones  we see kings who are poor and struggling to satisfy their families, their armies,  and their ambitions.  No one is wealthy, and all are coveting other kingdoms for greater glory and gold.

Season 1 covers the years 866–878, season 2 from 878 to 886, season 3 from 893 to 900, and season 4 takes place from 901 to 912.  And with each season new villains and allies are introduced, resulting in an inability to summarize all the plots, intrigue, and betrayals here.  Overlaid on the narrative of epic battles is the religious fervor of the Saxons to destroy the “heathens”, not only for their territory but for their souls.

The pacing is extraordinary, perhaps due to a crisp story line in Cornwell’s books.  Every episode is beautifully structured. The cliffhanging ending in each episode makes the viewer want to watch the next episode immediately.  The Last Kingdom is designed for binge-viewing just as a good plot-driven novel tempts the reader to turn the next page.

In the final analysis, The Last Kingdom may be a more  enticing drama than Game of Thrones, since the backstory of each character reveals more of his or her motives and intentions.  The villain-hero crises and the unexpected results are as thrilling as  Game of Thrones without the magic, the dragons, and other fantasy elements.

Availability:  Netflix streaming

Note:  The final season, season 5, is in production with a movie planned to dramatize the remaining Saxon Stories.

“Protégé”–Who’s the Student? Who’s the Teacher?

The Protege (2021) is a  throwback to the 90s action thrillers with one exception: a badass, beautiful assassin in the Nikita genre.  (Maggie Q, who has played Nikita in a television series.)

Anna Dutton (Maggie Q) is rescued as a little girl from the savagery of the Vietnam War by the legendary assassin Moody (Samuel Jackson). Raised by him as her surrogate father, she is now an antiquity book store owner in London.   Anna–in her secret life– is  a  fierce, highly skilled  assassin who can find people who are hard to find–just as she can locate rare books.  Her personal life gets turned upside down, however, when Moody gets assassinated and she seeks revenge.

One day a prospective customer, Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), comes into her store to by a rare book as a gift.  This is only a pretext.  Soon Anna becomes professionally and romantically entangled with Rembrandt, who is her match as a highly experienced assassin.  Their  cat-and-mouse dance turns deadly as their experience as seasoned murderers raises the stakes and instinctual drive for survival.

If you like revenge thrillers with a dynamic female protagonist,  you will enjoy The Protege’s stunning action scenes, an excellent cast, and an incredibly fast-paced drama with some surprising twists. Some scenes involve intense violence, bloody knife fights and martial arts elements similar to the  latest James Bond movie (“No Time to Die”) but so much better.

 It is entertaining to see Michael Keaton as an action figure after his Batman role.  Maggie Q is the real star here, however.  She  would make an excellent female replacement for James Bond and certainly is a super-hero to watch going forward!

Availability: Netflix DVD

“Dopesick” (2021)–Lies Upon Lies

Based on journalist Beth Macy’s book Dopesick, this Hulu eight-episode miniseries focuses on the early epicenter of the US’s struggle with the opioid addiction. Purdue Pharma, the Sackler mega-company that manufactured the deadly painkiller OxyContin, is the catalyst for an epic tragedy involving the duplicitous collusion with drug distributors, doctors, university researchers, and government agencies (Department of Justice, DEA, and FDA).

Dopesick involves a series of characters impacted by OxyContin:. Finnix (Michael Keaton) a family physician in a small coal-mining town in Virginia,. Relying  on  Purdue’s claim that  addiction to OxyContin is rare, Finnix prescribes it to coal miners suffering severe pain.  Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson),   a determined DEA investigator, digs for the facts behind a rapid rise in crime in the state of Virginia.  Betsy (Kaitly Dever) is a teenage girl who suffers a serious back injury and receives OxyContin from Finnix.  Billy Cutler (Will Poulter) is a highly ambitious pharmaceutical sales rep for Purdue Pharma.  Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard) is a US attorney in Virginia who begins investigating Purdue, joining with DEA’s Bridget Meyer. Each character’s story is from a different perspective  connected to OxyContin.

 Finnix begins to decrease Betsy’s  OxyContin prescription. Bridget zeroes in on mortality rates related to OxyContin. Rick Mountcastle investigates the world of “pain societies” and pharmaceutical sales “competitions”.   Richard Sackler makes increasingly dangerous business strategies for larger doses of OxyContin while his family is simultaneously repulsed and attracted to  his highly profitable schemes.

“Dopesick” refers to the excruciating withdrawal from OxyContin  Convincing evidence is laid out to prove how the multibillion-dollar Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, the private company’s owners,  are the true drug cartel behind America’s opioid crisis.  The Sacklers’  avoid culpability and accountability for years by paying relatively low million-dollar fines while retaining billions as they continued to increase distribution of the drug.  The drug lords here, like Walter White in “Breaking Bad”, are quite aware of the horrific consequences of their business.  As  a compelling study of corporate greed and unimaginable family dysfunction, Dopesick exposes the systemic manipulation of people for profit. 

With a marketing plan that promises pain relief without addiction, improving people’s lives without suffering, Purdue becomes obscenely rich while the Sackler family devolves into fear and deceit.  Here Dopesick trespasses on territory reserved for the fictional series “Succession” and  “Squid Game”.

Dopesick covers almost 25 years of the drug company’s history:  from the first release of OxyContin in 1996 to states’ failed attempts to sue Purdue beginning in 2004, to the relabeling of the drug as addictive in 2006 (“black boxing”) and to the litigation starting in 2007. The Sackler family’s antipathy for each other, the sales force cut-throat competition to win excessive bonuses and ultra-luxurious vacations, and the no-holds barred tactics to increase profits, even if it means death to its customers is raw, emotionally frightening and brutal. 

Dopesick is at its best when it mirrors investigative journalism, more educational than entertaining. Still, it is powerful storytelling in showing the complicity of big pharma, FDA, DEA, the Department of Justice  and politicians and academics..  Unique in its portrayal of addiction, Dopesick  depicts  withdrawals in  visceral detail where most other shows only touch the periphery.   While Dopesick can be viewed as another story of a company making obscene profits without scruples, the heroes and whisteblowers are reassuring–as in the movies Post and Spotlight.

Michael Keaton gives a career-best performance as Finnix.  The stellar supporting cast immerses us into  a small town ethos as well as the heinous corruption involving not only overtly craven bureaucrats but those who keep their jobs by keeping quiet.  The role of Rudy Giuliani as Purdue’s attorney in the early days of litigation is revealing of the fraudulent and unprecedented sales of this “magic pain pill” that remained impervious to any criminal charges.

The timeline and flashbacks may be confusing, and some jumping back and forth could have been avoided to make connecting the dots in Big Pharma’s duplicitous marketing power, egomaniacal and self-serving philanthropy, and impact on communities even more powerful. Celebrating donations to art museum collections while the desperately addicted die is memorable drama underscoring that Big Pharma is not our friend, no matter the advertising and public relations.

Dopesick is poignant in keeping its eye on emotional truth, on a sobering picture of monstrous greed.  Ripping back the curtain on one company among many, Dopesick  discloses how easily we can be taken advantage of.   Hulu’s Dopesick offers a reassuring moral clarity. The U.S. justice system has not reached similar clarity for Purdue Pharma, the Sacklers and other Big Pharma companies that earned billions selling prescription opioids as more and more Americans died. The battles are far from over.

A “can’t-miss” mini-series.

Availability:  Hulu streaming

Note:  Compare Dopesick with Crime of the Century, HBOMax documentary about the opiod crisis from director Alex Gibney.

Note:  500,000 Americans have died from opioid-related overdoses since 2000.   The ongoing crisis has continued to worsen under this pandemic.

Note:  Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain said (on September 7, 2021) he felt like the family at the center of this opioid crisis should have paid more. “But this is how corporate accountability works right now — and it appears the Sacklers navigated the system, brilliantly.”  https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/business/article/This-is-an-outrage-CT-not-backing-down-16439823.php

“Chestnut Man”–A Nut Case

Chestnut Man, based on Søren Sveistrup’s 2018 novel, belongs to the many excellent Nordic Noir crime thrillers we can currently stream. The iconic formula is all there: violent and gruesome serial murders, a workaholic  female detective, an initially ineffectual male partner, and a dark and ominous landscape. This is  a story concerned with mangled corpses, haunting blood pools, and a weaponization of a childhood arts and crafts project.

In the opening scene in 1987, a local sheriff walks into a barn in response to a call that some of the farmer’s cows have escaped.  He finds three people brutally murdered, and a fourth seriously injured. In the basement a little girl is hiding under a bed. Chestnut figures, toothpicks sticking out for hands and feet, are nearby.   

Flash forward more than thirty years. A young woman is found brutally murdered in Copenhagen with one of her hands cut off. Detective Naia Thulin (Danica Curcic)  is called in to take charge of the case.  As a single mother, she feels guilty leaving her young daughter Le in the care of her stepfather, as warm and caring as he is.

Naia is reluctant but forced to partner with detective Mark Hess (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard).  The two soon discover clues joining the 1987 quadruple murders with other cold cases and the current onslaught of seemingly unconnected murdered young women.  Each detective walks through a vicious and bloody crime scene.  Each successive act of violence increases the number of extremities amputated with each murder victim. The pile keeps on growing.  And possible suspects and red herrings accumulate as well.  A tiny chestnut stick-figure lies next to each victim, and becomes the calling card and key clue to tracing and identifying the murderer.

Chestnut Man is  intense, and at times quite scary.  This Nordic noir thriller is incredibly well-paced as well as tightly structured, leaving a trail of dots to connect in an unexpected and satisfying ending, One of the devices that gives Chestnut Man an extra creep chill factor  is the chestnut dolls themselves.   After all, they symbolize a child’s entertainment. 

Keep looking for the sequel to  this meticulously woven police procedural where the unpredictable reaches new heights.   

Availability:  Netflix streaming

Note:  The author of Chestnut Man also wrote The Killing and was a screenwriter for The Snowman as well.