Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands S01E05 “Episode 5” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on ITV 1, Sundays
Writers: Guy Burt, Jon Cooksey
Director: Stephen Woolfenden
Essential Plot Points:
- A sandwyrm eats the dowry that Beowulf was taking to Mere. Team Beowulf only just escapes being eaten as well.
- Improvising, they tell the Thane of Mere, Gorrik, that they’ll let him have the dowry when they see his daughter; the one who’ll be marrying Slean as part of the deal Gorrick backing Rheda as Jarl.
- Meanwhile Mere people are being struck down with an sickness (mal de Mere, anybody? Oh, never mind…)
- Gorrik’s elder daughter, Mara, is secretly bonking the Reeve of the Mere, Rowan, and doesn’t want to get married to some idiot in Herot. Then she falls ill too.
- Elvina tries to help the sick. She believes a gland from a sandwyrm is the cure. Beowulf vows to kill a sandwyrm and get the gland.
- Rowan learns that Beowulf has lost the dowry. He tells Gorrik, then uses this as leverage to make Gorrik promise Mara to him instead of Slean.
- Rowan helps Beowulf to kill the sandwyrm, than takes the gland and runs off, telling Beowulf not to return to Mere because Gorrik knows the truth about the Dowry.
- But – would you believe it? – they’ve killed the exact sandwyrm that swallowed the dowry and it’s still undigested in its gut.
- Beowulf takes the dowry to Gorrik, but it’s too late. Mara has died. Luckily Gorrik has another daughter, Kela, and she’s well up for marrying some bloke in a foreign land if it means she never has to eat seafood again.
- Somewhere along the way Gorrik also tells Beowulf that the Warig are preparing for war, egged on by a prophet known as Red Tongue (‘cos he drink human blood).
- Back in Herot, the miners are becoming militant, but Slean puts his little-known blacksmithing skills to use to make sure they get paid and sign an exclusive contract to provide ore to Herot only and not the Varni.
- Pleased with having made his mum proud, Slean also turns down an invitation from Evil Uncle Abrecan (are we sure there’s not a panto villain with that name?) to side with him.
You say sand worm. We say sandwyrm. Let’s call the whole thing (a Dune rip-)off. Beowulf and some guy dressed in Lawrence of Arabia cosplay even start thumping the sand to attract the thing, just like the mechanical thumpers do Frank Herbert’s famous sci-fi novel. But let’s be generous; let’s call it homage.
Besides, it’s churlish to complain when the sandwyrms help to “spice” up the episode (that’s a gag only those familiar with Dune will get). The sequence with Beowulf, Breca and dodgy-Lawrence on a sandwyrm-hunting trip is a wonderfully silly piece of fantasy telly, and one that owes more to Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad epics that David Lynch’s sci-fi movie.
And at least Beowulf wakes up for the challenge. Otherwise, he spends most of the episode doing a good impression of a sleepwalker. His usual cheeky charisma is almost completely absent; he gets his ass whupped by an OAP in a silly mask; he looks positively pissed off that he has to battle a giant worm; his lies about the dowry are half-arsed; and the prospect that that he could return to Herot without a wife for Slean seems to bother him as much as grey in his beard. Even when he does battle the wyrm, it’s wet old Rowan who delivers the fatal blow to the creature. What kind of a herioc fantasy show lets the wet bad guy get the glory?
The show’s writers really need to concentrate on beefing up Beowulf as a character because he should be more fun to watch than he’s been these last two weeks. Kieran Bew has proven he can be a Viking version of Richard Sharpe when he’s given the material but he’s flailing to make an impression when he’s given nothing to work with.
Overall the Mere plotline is a serviceable enough fluff and nonsense; there are few surprises and the star-crossed lovers are annoying wet but David Bradley is good value as the crusty old thane and Holly Earl makes for a spirited Kela. Initially we did wonder if Slean was going to ask if she’s even been through puberty yet, but amazingly Earl, despite her looks, is 25! No wonder Gorrik says she has an old head on that body. The sandwyrm supper is good fun, Breca has a few funny lines and giant killer worms make good monsters.
Back at Herot Slean has had a personality transplant and actually comes across as a fully-rounded and likeable character. With the miners doing what miners will be doing for centuries afterwards – being militant and making life a pain for politicians (Arthur Scargill would have been proud of the “We’re being robbed” speech) it’s up to Slean to save the day. With Lila proving that her main contribution to the running the smithy was in the accounts department, Slean rolls up his sleeves and lets his Tintin quiff go all droopy with sweat as he produces the metal goods the miners are demanding as payment. It’s all highly unlikely; while other kids would collect scabs or torture goats for a hobby, he’d spend his downtime learning how to forge toasting tongs, or something. Apparently this allowed him to switch off from the demands of duty; more probably he was planning to make a sword to stick in his dad.
Rheda meanwhile, is no Margaret Thatcher and capitulates to the miners’ demands. Slean fears that her liberal politics are making her look weak but for the moment she appears to be showing great man management skills. Emphasis on man. Is that enough to secure her position? Even loyal Varr suggests that giving Slean too many reasons to be pleased with himself could lead to him demanding his mother stand aside. And if he proves worthy enough to make that claim, does she have the right to stand in his way? This is a subtler level of politics that new for this show. It’s almost a shame that Evil Uncle Abrecan will soon be back to make things more black and white again.
- The sandwyms were good value.
- The subtle, foreboding introduction of the Red Tongue sub-plot promises exciting things to come.
- Slean is actually a halfway likeable character. His work down the smithy does more to humanise him than anything else so far this season.
- We loved Varr declining to shake Greff’s hand after the miner spat on it to seal the deal. We want to see more of Varr. He’s clearly just Varys from Game Of Thrones after a crash diet and hair transplant but he improves every scene he’s in.
- Breca’s relief that it wasn’t the sandwyrm he ate that cause Mara’s illness was very amusing. In fact, Breac turns out to be a bit of a wimp in the face of illness – he holds a cloth over his mouth later when he goes into the hospital tent. Okay, that may have been because of the smell and not because he’s afraid he’ll catch the lurgy but either way: WIMP! And a nice little character touch.
- There’s another one of those “monster in the distance that nobody comments on” shots that are becoming part of the show’s DNA.
- Rowan is far too wet and wimpy to be the Reeve for someone like Gorrik. His first scene, canoodling with Mara in the dunes, looks faintly ridiculous and how come his Lawrence of Arabia costume is so clean?
- Mara’s pretty vapid too. It’s impossible to give a toss about their relationship.
- Beowulf is an utter plank all episode.
- Though Breca has a few funny moments, there’s still none of the fun casual banter he and Beowulf shared in the first couple of episode.
- Not enough of the sandwyrms!
- The “sandwyrm gland cure” is mighty handy. And it’s pretty obvious all along that they’ll kill the same sandwyrm that ate the dowry and recover it.
- Oh let’s be honest, there are no real surprises in the Mere plot. As soon as Kela starts going on about the importance of the siding with Herot you know she’s going to be the one marrying Slean.
And The Random:
- Okay, so a sandwyrm is like a baby Sarclacc, right? You can see the resemblance and it does live in the sand.
- Greff says he likes it when the smelter talks dirty to him, but it’s she who gives him a dirty look as he walks away. Tongue back in your mouth, woman. You’re supposed to be a grieving widow.
- It may have been mere coincidence, but during the sandyrm supper the music became very reminiscent of certain parts of the Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom soundtrack (the tribal drums of the subterranean Thugs), which, of course, had very similar “exotic” meal scene (“Monkey brains!”).
- Just in case you didn’t recognise him, Gorrik is played by David Bradley who has become a genre megastar late in life with such roles as Filch in the Harry Potter films, William Hartnell (the first Doctor) in An Adventure In Space And Time and Abraham Setrakian in The Strain, amongst many, many others. Sam Hoare, who plays Rowan, also appeared in An Adventure In Space And Time very briefly as classic Doctor Who director Douglas Camfield and was more recently seen in BBC One’s Dickensian as Matthew Pocket. Holly Earl who plays Kela also has a Doctor Who connection – she was Lily in the 2011 Doctor Who Christmas special, “The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe”.
Review by Dave Golder