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Thor and Christ

30 October 2015


“I WANT to kill someone.” It would seem that his earlier (re)-baptism by total immersion had not had the regenerative effects desired by, say, St Paul, but Uhtred, the rightful king of Northumbria, is not going to let his religion get in the way of godly vengeance.

The Last Kingdom, BBC2’s new historic drama series (Thursdays), has at its heart a theological struggle: will the pagan Norsemen overcome and extirpate the Christian Saxons? It’s refreshing, in a way, to see our faith worn proudly as a badge of identity: it’s how the settled tribes identify themselves over against the heathen raiders. But there is some subtlety on display: it is not entirely forgotten that the Saxons had been, not many generations earlier, brutal invaders, and learned their Christianity from the vanquished Britons; and the Vikings insist that their true aim is to found peaceful communities — just as soon as they’ve stolen all the treasure they can, and slaughtered anyone who resists them.

In fact, there’s a fair amount of syncretism going on. Uhtred wears the hammer of Thor around his neck, besides carrying the talismanic stone of Christian Northumbria. Moral values are widely distributed: both groups live family lives, brimming with friendship and fun, in the gaps between rapine and pillage. The series is widely touted as BBC’s answer to Game of Thrones (which, as it requires a second TV subscription to watch, I’ve never seen), and, like that series (I gather), contains frequent depictions of ghastly violence.

At least this aspect of ninth-century reality is not airbrushed out. I hear that another popular element of GoT is regular glimpses of pulchritudinous female nudity. Unless my attention was called away at the critical moment, it seems that the BBC has felt it unnecessary to replicate this draw.

Channel 4 has launched a new series of Fargo (Monday evenings), the blackest comedy crime drama, set in the freezing monotony of 1970s Minnesota. This is fiercely intelligent, even intellectual, TV, requiring the viewer to pick up cultural, political, and media hints and allusions to appreciate the full richness of its shocking humour.

It works by a constant undercutting of our expectations. Just as we assume a character to behave or situation to work in a particular direction, the carpet is pulled from beneath our feet as the exact opposite happens. The crime is explicit and distressing. But, instead of the complex calculation that most dramas tell us lies behind murder, this shows us that it is far more about things getting monumentally out of hand. It’s beautifully acted, directed, composed. As a moral vision, it is unremittingly bleak, but extraordinarily funny.

Chewing Gum (E4, Tuesdays) is a farcical depiction of everyday life on a housing estate, characterising many of its Afro-Caribbean residents as feckless criminals — except those in the grip of fervent Pentecostalism. This might all leave a nasty taste in the mouth, were it not for the show’s writer and star, Michaela Coel. Her enthusiasm, energy, and naïvety transform the subject-matter of the plots — drugs, theft, sex toys — into something like innocence. She is like a force of almost prelapsarian nature, bouncing back from every bruising encounter with harsh reality.

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