Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands S01E04 “Episode 4” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on ITV 1, Sundays
Writer: Michael A Walker
Director: Julian Holmes
Essential Plot Points:
- Rheda wins the vote to become the new Jarl but only by agreeing to the terms set by the Thane of the Mere; to provide them with weapons and to forge a marriage between Slean and the Thane of Mere’s daughter.
- Thanks to a condition set by the recently-deceased Scorann, Beowulf is made the new Reeve of Herot.
- Abrecan is not happy. Slean is not happy. Nobody except Rheda seems particularly happy. Not even Beowulf, despite his sudden promotion. Maybe the pay’s crap.
- Slean frames Rate as the traitor responsible for the deaths of Scorann and Bayen, and for trying to make sure Rheda never became Jarl. (He does his to have leverage over the real traitor – his Uncle Abrecan.)
- Rate is really not happy.
- Rheda sends Beowulf to Mere with the weapons they bargained for and to fetch the Thane’s daughter, Slean’s bride to be.
- Beowulf travels with Elvina (at Rheda’s command to get her separated from Slean), the Mere emissary and Breca, who has nothing better to do.
- Vishka, the adventure seeking blacksmith, secretly follows them. Or not so secretly because she’s rubbish at things like stalking and hiding.
- Turns out she rubbish at Indiana Jones impressions as well. When she stumbles on a Warig burial ground she nicks an amulet and instantly gets an arrow in the arm.
- Her screams bring Beowulf to the rescue (her new step dad, Breca, seems massively unbothered at the idea of her death).
- Team Beowulf take Vishka to a nearby farm house to tend her wound.
- The farmer is not happy.
- The farmer is really not happy when he learns that a small army of Warigs is after Vishka. You kinda feel his pain. Well, not all his pain. Not the bit where a Warig sticks a knife in his gut. Presumably, if he weren’t dead he’d be extremely unhappy about this.
- There’s an overnight siege. Kinda. The Warigs make sporadic attacks, beat some drums a lot and then mysteriously withdraw. “They’re pulling back! Why?” asks Elvina. We never do get answer. Just more drums.
- Come morning, Beowulf rides with Vishka into the Warig burial ground and burns one of the important wooden memorial to the ground. The Warigs are so aghast they just stand there looking at the fire while all the heroes escape.
- Beowulf and Elvina snog.
- Team Beowulf reaches the Mere homeland, the Island Of Dune, where unseen by them a sandwyrm tracks them under the sand.
Before the show was launched, Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands was often described in pre-publicity as a kind of Dark Ages western. Until now the parallels have been pretty strained: Beowulf is a bit like Shane or Eastwood’s Man With No Name (though maybe Man With No Backstory is closer to the truth); the smelters are a bit like ’49ers. It’s got horses…
But with episode four, once the politics is out of the way, this is pure a Western, with homesteaders in peril from the show’s answer to Red Indians. We’re shocked the Warigs didn’t form a circle around the farmhouse and stick feathers in their hair, to be honest
And there are moments when it works: some good action scenes, a fair bit of tension and death. The Warigs looks great. There’s some impressive camerawork and striking imagery.
Unfortunately there’s an awful lot of dull padding and barely nuanced meaningful glances in-between. The Warigs’ actions seem purely driven by the demands of pacing rather than any kind of logic, making them a frustratingly random threat. They’re also eventually defeated with mystifying ease in a resolution that redefines the concept of an anticlimax. Beowulf and Elvina’s relationship goes from amusingly teasing to full-on in one extremely unexciting development. And Breca still hasn’t rediscovered his sense of humour that went AWOL last week. If anything, he’s even more of loathsome dullard. His “pep talk” to Vashka isn’t so much hard love as tactless self-preservation.
Worse of all, Beowulf and co are totally in the wrong here. They turn up and utterly ruin the homesteaders’ lives and don’t seem to give a toss. Beowulf actually seems irritated with Malek for trying to protect his family. If the writers wanted to show Beowulf bring a git, they should have had him fed Vashta to the Warigs, like the Mere guy said. That would have made him seem like hero who can make tough moral decisions. Instead he merely comes across as mean-spirited.
Back at Herlot we have the kind of simplistic politics that make the BBC’s Merlin look like Game Of Thrones. For three episodes the vote for the Jarl has been built up as a major set piece, and here’s it over within minutes with a the handy intervention of a character we’ve never met before (and thank God he’s a good aim or the vote could have gone very differently). Then there was that whole deal with Scorran whispering something to Rate last week… revealed here as a job offer for Beowulf. Blimey, was that really worth the status of a BIG SECRET!?
This show desperately needs to rediscover the little fun moments that helped lift the first couple of episodes. Instead it seems to ploughing an ever more grim and gritty furrow and not doing it with much style. Plus, nobody’s sent the hair, make-up, sets and costume departments the memo about grim and gritty. It’s a bit like watching a Sam Peckinpah direct a pantomime.
- The Warigs are impressively scuzzy and scary. And now we know why they wear sunglasses – they’re pupil-less eyes are clearly designed for the dark
- The action scenes are well shot.
- There’s some luminous cinematography and some impressive tracking and crane shots that really show off the production design.
- The siege is dull and the motivations behind the Warigs’ actions are incomprehensible. Maybe that’s the point – they’re mysterious monsters, so who knows how they think? – but it doesn’t make for particularly gripping drama.
- The climax is utterly random and totally anticlimactic. It makes the Warigs looks like idiots for doing nothing and our heroes like idiots for being scared of them for so long.
- And why did the Warigs retreat in the middle of the night?
- The dialogue is lifeless and flat and there are far too many meaningful glances.
- The voting scene underwhelms.
- Vishka, who was shaping up to be an interesting character, turns out to be a stroppy teenager.
And The Random:
- Beowulf mentions tying up the horses in the corral. While this suits the “western” vibe of the episode the word corral wasn’t actually coined until the late 16th century.
- Congratulations to Rheda on her Scarlet Witch cosplay.
- Very good thinking – put the convalescent in the draughtiest room in the Dark Ages. What would be the point in heating that place? The Warigs could have shot their arrows through those gaps!
- Week four an Beowulf finally succumbs to the “silly male haircuts” disease with what looks like a plat with daises woven into it. Only Breca remains untouched by this affliction. He’ll have an afro topiaried into the shape of a pineapple next week, just you see.
Review by Dave Golder