Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands S01E02 “Episode 2” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on ITV 1, Sundays
Writer: James Dormer
Director: Jon East
Essential Plot Points:
- The Thanes are coming to vote on who’ll be the Jarl (the overall überThane). Rheda’s position is looking shaky as a lot of the male Thanes fancy their chance of either killing her or bedding her.
- Just before they are about to arrive a skinshifter (a mudborn who can disguise itself as human) kills one the Thane’s emissaries.
- To hide the fact she has a shapeshifting killer running free in her realm, Rheada and her entourage head out to delay the Thanes before they reach Herot, leaving Beowulf to find the skinshifter.
- Which he does after interviewing nearly every red herring in town. In the end it’s Koll, the deputy Reeve who’s been living in Herot in disguise for years.
- But Beowulf doesn’t kill him – he believes Koll is acting under someone else’s orders and he wants to know who (our money is on Rheda’s brother – he doesn’t seem to have any other dramatic function so far.)
- Slean rides out to meet another Thane, Scorann, who turns out to have been ambushed. Scorann has escaped but he may as well not have bothered. Because as soon as he teams up with Slean they turn into Dumb & Dumber and get captured pretty quickly.
After last week’s underwhelming but watchable enough Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands premiere, we pondered whether it could build on its potential. Because, yes, it was pretty bog-standard TV fantasy with the been-there-seen-that quality hampered by a supporting cast who seemed to have been given no direction at all about how they should be playing their roles. But, there were little glimmers of promise. Could these little sparks be fanned into the flames of something a bit more fiery?
Judging by episode two, there’s little evidence of any fanning going on, despite a great big funeral pyre at the start. This is more of the same. Except, perhaps, the relationship between Breca and Beowulf is funnier. Actually, at the moment, the scenes in which they take the piss out of each other are among the highlights. Which doesn’t actually say much for the rest of the show.
Other than that, it’s bearable fluff if you’ve got nothing better to do or watch. It’s not likely to trouble anyone’s “Blu-rays for my birthday” lists yet outside of Kieran Bew’s immediate family but there’s some decent action, a few monsters, a dash of humour and a plot that makes some kind of sense. The sets are good, the cinematography is impressive, the lead character is charismatic and the cloaks are colourful and flow nicely when the characters walk… okay, we’re stretching now.
The main problem is simply how generic and unspecial it all feels. As a friends said when the episode finished, it’s like Robin Of Sherwood without the sense of ancient magic that gave that series such a distinctive, enticing flavour. Beowulf ties to be earthy but just ends up a little drab.
The central story this time is a whodunnit which gives the episode a decent structure and forward impetus but Beowulf’s linear investigation from suspect to suspect is plodding. The politics with the Thanes is entry-level Machiavellian statesmanship. The mystery about who’s engineering events from behind the curtains to make Rheda look bad is mildly interesting but hardly the stuff of great arc plots. The Slean storyline – ride into forest, get captured – is painfully thin.
And yet somehow, Kieran Bew and Gísli Örn Garðarsson keep things entertaining. There are moments when the show can surprise you – and we’re not just talking about when the latest bizarre haircut comes into view (Rate’s is a shocker – it looks like a giant caterpillar has died on his head). We’re thinking more about Varr shoving his hand into the fire or the scene in which Elvina starts disrobing in front of Beowulf to prove she doesn’t have a wound. Which, since she doesn’t actually enquire about where the wound is supposed to be, impliues she was getting naked on the off-chance of a, erm, cuddle. Sadly for her, Beowulf mumbles his apologies and leaves, but it’s still a wonderfully unexpected moment in a show that so far doesn’t have enough of them.
- We mentioned the sets last week but we didn’t say how good the costumes are too – so incredibly detailed. This seems to be where most of the budget has gone.
- The gentle ribbing that goes on between Beowulf and Breca is fun and Kieran Bew has a wide range of wearying and mildly contemptuous expressions. Does the show realise the bromance potential it has?
- While the fight scenes are still cut too fast, the chase after the skinshifter was still pretty exciting and showed off the impressive exterior set build. You have to suspect that’s why it was included.
- Rate’s reaction to the mudborn was brilliantly unexpected – holler at it to scare it off.
- Beowulf defeating the skinshifter by repeatedly punching it in the face – subtlety be damned!
- The smelters’ troll is the kind of fantasy image – with monsters co-opted to do human work – that has a powerful impact and helps with the world-building much more than reams of exposition. The CG effects are near-flawless as well which can’t be said of some of the other effects this episode.
- The skinshifter metamorphosis was pretty poor – but instead of the fast-cutting we get elsewhere the director decided to really linger on these shots.
- There’s some really heavy-handed exposition with characters going, “I shall tell you something you clearly already know because it’ll be really handy if the audience knows it too.” The brief exchange between Scorann and Slean about Hrothgar is the worst offender, though Rheda giving Slean a spot-exam on Thanes is pretty bad too.
- The whole Slean-Scorann subplot is pretty dull and could have been cut entirely with little damage. In fact, it would have made the cliffhanger more exciting if Slean’s horse had arrived back to Herot riderless if we hadn’t known what had happened to Slean.
- The acting is all over the place, as if not everyone has been’s told the tone of show. Some are giving it full-on Lord Of The Rings pomposity (Joanne Whalley, Elliot Cowan, Edward Hogg), while Kieran Bew and Gísli Örn Garðarsson are doing Sharpe, and most of the support characters sound like they think they’re in northern soap opera.
And The Random:
- The Varni – or Varni (Procopius) or Varini (Tacitus) or Varinnae (Pliny the Elder)or Wærne/Werne (Widsith) or Warnii (Lex Thuringorum), or (in English) Warni and Warini – were one of the lesser-know Germanic tribes of the Dark Ages. Not that many of the Varni in this show look Germanic in origin.
- Who knew that PVC gimp suits were available in Beowulf’s time? It leaves little to the imagination what Breca and Lila get up to when they’re alone.
- So everyone in Herot has matching sheets? Oh hang on, the Huskarla all wear read cloaks. Maybe this is the military laundry?
- Talking of the Huskarla, they are based on housecarls (on húskarlar in Old Norse) who were household troops in personal service to their Lord – bodyguards in other words (though in later Anglo-Saxon England they also took on administrative duties). The original Old Norse term, húskarl, literally means “house man”.
- Scorann is played by Davide Harewood, best known as David Estes in Homeland and currently to be seen as a regular character – Hank Henshaw – in Supergirl.