Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands S01E09 “Episode 9” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on ITV 1, Sundays
Writer: James Dormer
Director: Cilla Ware
Essential Plot Points:
- The Warig prophet – a skinshifter called Red Tongue, aka Razzak – visits Herot undercover in human form to confirm the place is weak and ready to be attacked (sadly Abrecan doesn’t turn up with Cod’s Army to say, “Oi, wait in queue, mate!”)
- Elvina takes one of her regular trips to feed the mudborn she’s befriended and Beowulf follows her.
- Beowulf is horrified when he realises what she’s up to because – shocker – he’s a racist! Or speciesist! Or whatever. Warigs killed his parents and now, for him, all mudborns are pretty much the same: subhuman beasts that deserve to die.
- Razzak’s Warigs capture Elvina, Beowulf and Elvina’s pet mudborn. But Elvina, by a ruse, frees the mudborn.
- Razzak reveals himself to be a skinshifter.
- Razzak offers Beowulf to the tribe of Warigs whose burial site he defiled a few episodes back; they can have him as a sacrifice in return for their help in attacking Herot.
- Elvina helps Beowulf to escape but only by revealing herself to be a skinshifter too!
- Beowulf isn’t very grateful. He banishes her from Herot.
- He’s in a banishing mood at the moment, isn’t he? Last week’s banishee, Breca, returns to Herot with news of Bregan’s impending invasion.
- Meanwhile, Rheda does politicking with Lagrathorn and it’s actually interesting to watch. The result: he agrees to come to Herot’s aid in time of military need if Rheda agrees not to impose her Shieldlands-wide laws on Banning.
- Slean moves into the same quarters as Kela, but not the same bed. It’s still quite sweet.
- Herot’s female blacksmiths make the Huskarla look like fools and convince their commander that civilians can be trained to fight.
How bizarre: suddenly Beowulf becomes current affairs. With the news about Britain’s referendum on whether to stay in the European Economic Union or not a hot topic at the moment, Return To The Shieldlands offers it own spin. Rheda becomes an Olde English Angela Merkel struggling to bind the Thanes into a united block while Lagrathorn rails against her common laws and negotiates a special deal for the Banning; not quite in, not quite out. Then Rheda archly warns that she can change the rules when it suits her. Let’s hope Michael Gove isn’t watching. He’d have a heart attack.
This was a welcome step forward for the show: the politicking, the dialogue and the characters all seemed a great deal richer this week. There were lots of little character moments and bits of dialogue that weren’t just in service to the plot – they were actually fun and made the relationships feel more full bodied. Take Lagrathorn, for example. He comes in blustering like normal, but Rheda just takes the piss out of him. And instead of just blustering more, he calms down and they have a proper exchange of views. Then Lagrathorn identifies he captured Warig, and actually makes an intelligent observation (albeit with his usual lack of tact): “What are you doing here you ugly runt? And why aren’t you scared?” Then he brokers the deal about the laws. Suddenly he’s not just shouty man who’s a pain in Rheda’s side; you can see why he might actually be a leader (who, like David Cameron, you wish was someone else’s leader).
Slean, who’s been the show’s MVP for the past couple of weeks, is more in the background this episode but he still has a couple of good scenes and his edgy relationship with the ambitious Keela remains one of the most compelling plotlines. You kinda want Kela and Slean to become a power couple while at the same time sacred of what they might achieve. And do to each other.
Lila’s also an immense amount of fun in just a couple of scenes where she makes men look like idiots. The scene in which she belittle the Huskarla commander is great fun (as opposed to the one where she belittles Beowulf’s architectural skills which is just baffling) though you have to wonder how such a wimp ever got into a position of power.
The episode’s other great moment the WTF?! reveal that Elvina is a shapeshifter. Be honest, you – like us – were expecting Grendel (if that’s indeed who Elvina’s pet mudborn turns out to be) to swoop in and save Beowulf from the burning cross. But no, Elvina reveals her true self and rescues the big lunk. This is a seriously cool, game-changing development.
Sadly it does not reflect well on the show’s star. We’ve moaned before about the show’s handling of Beowulf but that’s usually because he’s underused. And, yes, once again he’s a punch bag, beaten up by a Warig. But that’s not the main problem here. Instead he turns out to be a raving racist. Or speciesist. Or whatever the term is. He hates mudborns. He’s blind the nuances of good mudborn or bad mudborn. And so when the woman who saves his proves to be a mudborn, he doesn’t rethink his opinions – he just banishes her.
Now, to be fair, there is a flashback that tries to contextualise this. Also, to be fair, it’s a rubbish flashback that doesn’t contextualise this. It’s so pointless, they may as well have had Beowulf saying, “Some of my best friends are mudborns but…”
There’s nothing wrong with flawed heroes. Or heroes with issues. Or heroes with a dark side. The problem here is that we know so little of Beowulf’s past or personality, and we’ve seen weeks of him being a bit crap at fighting, that all we know are the flaws not the hero. He’s a blinkered racist who hasn’t proven much good at anything else apart from nicking his step-brother’s woman.
Come on, Beowulf writers. This episode proves you can up your game in other areas. Please address the Beowulf problem!
- Kela’s celtic-tinged singing as she washes by the river adds a pleasing touch of folk tale mysticism to the show.
- “Where’ve you been?” “Washing. You should try it sometime.”
“Put me down or I will cause you pain.” Both of these lovely, sweet playful little exchanges help make Elvina and Beowulf’s relationship far more believable than previously.
- “I could ask Varr to find some entertainment for you.” “Uh, no. His idea of entertainment is a lecture on the economics of the iron trade.” “He gave me the same one.” Slean and Kela also seem like a more natural couple this week.
- The camaraderie between the troll and the captured Warig – achieved with no (comprehensible) dialogue – works really well. The show is actually in danger of making the audience feel more sympathy for its non-human cast.
- We finally get to meet Red Tongue and he’s not some pompous prophet but some dodgy geezer. Nice twist.
- Rheda as Angela Merkel, Lagrathorn as a ranting David Cameron. Especially the moment when Lagrathorn get what he wants – freedom from the laws for the Banning – only for Rheda to retort, “I can always have another one made.”
- “Agrathorn. Breath. You’re going red.” Even Rheda’s allowed to be funny this week.
- “So you’re going to tell Rheda that her little brother has betrayed her? Good luck with that.”
“The more I know you the more I understand why your wife beats you with that copper pot.” Breca has recovered some of his laconic with from the the first couple of episodes.
- Kela offering to help Slean wash the dead soldier’s body. In fact, the whole of idea of a leader having to wash the bodies of their fallen to remind them of the price they’ve paid is an intriguing one. Wonder where the writers lifted it from?
- The way Lila deals with the Huskarla commander is very amusing, even if the commander is so wet you wonder how he got the job.
- Razzak: “He wants to know if you have anything to say.” Beowulf: “Only that if he breaths on me any longer he wan’t have any use for that spear.” Warig hits Beowulf savagely. Razzak: “He understands.” Beowulf: “Yeah I got that.” Beowulf as the Olde English Richard Sharpe we wish he was more often.
- Kela’s sad face when it looks like Slean is moving in then makes it clear he’s just sleeping on the sofa.
- Beowulf gets beaten up again. This time by a Warig.
- Beowulf’s flashback is so pathetic you have zero sympathy for his being so rampantly anti-mudborn.
- Breca normally gets away with his PVC gimp suit because he has other layers on top of it but here’s he simply looks like he’s wandering around in kinky underwear.
- If Breca thinks his news about Bregan is so important why insist of only telling Rheda?
- Razzak convinces the burial ground Warigs to go from, “No we won’t help you!” to, “Yay, let’s march on Herot!” with suspicious ease.
- Also, this is the second time in three weeks that an evil leader has secretly killed a close but expendable follower for political gain; Abrecan bumped off Vlade and here Razzak kills a Warig commander. The two incidents feel a little too similar.
- Why the hell do the Warigs consider Razzak a prophet? All he does is kill them, shout at them and order them about. Even when he’s giving a motivational speech he does so in his human form which surely sends out all the wrong messages.
And The Random:
- Did you spot the foreshadowing in the first Beowulf/Elvina scene? “There’s no taming you, is there?… Then I’ll take you as you are,” says Beowulf. “You don’t know who I am,” says Elvina.” “I will,” replies Beowulf. Thus proving how full of shit he is.
- We’re not exactly sure where Lila was going with the line, “I’m not an expert on fortification, but I imagine you’ll need gates as well as a wall.” Surely Beowulf’s plans don’t really involve a defensive wall with no way in or out?
- Kela tells Slean, “I promise you you’ll be safe,” when trying to convince him to share the same bedchamber as her, which suggests that (as we half-jokingly pointed out last week) Slean really is concerned about that whole, “I killed my sister,” stuff.
- Anybody else think, “Oooh, Time Bandits!” as this point. No? Just us then.
Review by Dave Golder