This review contains spoilers.
This episode of Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands desperately wants to be The Lord Of The Rings. All episodes of Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands desperately want to be The Lord Of The Rings, of course, but in this one it is particularly obvious. In the brief pre-credits sequence, it has to be said, the ambition is really quite effective. The scene is short, sharp and to the point, and the looming shot of the militarily significant bridge that’s designed to remind us of the Argonath is suitably impressive.
Things start to fall apart a bit as we get to the episode proper, though. A sequence depicting Abrecan being armed for the fight, which looks almost exactly like the sequence depicting Theoden being armed before the battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, is rather less effective. The parallel isn’t an inherently bad idea; after all, the Rohirrim in The Lord Of The Rings were inspired partly by Beowulf, a poem Tolkien did a lot of academic work on and which he admired very much (most of the terminology and proper names relating to the Rohirrim in The Lord Of The Rings, like ‘Theoden’, ‘Prince’, and ‘Eorl’, ‘warrior’, come from Old English and are used in Beowulf).
The problem is that Abrecan is a bad guy. The sequence isn’t shot in a particularly threatening way and the scene from The Two Towers that it refers to relates to a hero who is about to go into battle, so it doesn’t really produce chills in the audience. However, we cannot really sympathise with Abrecan either, or feel for him as he goes to fight, because he is simply not a sympathetic character. It’s possible that the writers’ intention was that there would be no straightforward ‘bad guys’ in this series – that, like Game Of Thrones, the other fantasy giant it is constantly trying to emulate, even the less morally admirable characters would elicit some sympathy from the audience despite their misdeeds. It’s quite likely that this is what they were trying to achieve in the episode in which we watched Abrecan struggle to maintain his position and help his people get the monster-salmon they needed.
However, one small set-back and a bit of help with some fish is not enough to make a character who betrays his sister, nephew, friends and girlfriend for the sake of his own power into a sympathetic character. Abrecan is neither evil enough nor competent enough to be truly menacing or impressively wicked, but he is not admirable enough to be sympathetic, so any scenes focusing on him or his plans tend to fall rather flat, this one included.
The other theme of this episode is sacrifice – of oneself or of others. It is sacrifice of one’s life in the case of some of Slean’s warriors, or just one’s sanity in Rheda’s case, who tells a dying Hrothgar in a flashback that she will be Thane until Slean is ready.
The problem with the exploration of sacrifice here is that most of the sacrifices made in the episode turn out to be completely pointless. Slean, for example, wants to die with honour, as a hero, but in the end he allows his men to sacrifice themselves in the hope that he can one day be Thane. This gains them one day and Rheda refuses to forgive him anyway, telling him that he will never lead and he is not her son (Kela gives her the side-eye as she says this, presumably working out which poison will be the most effective). Varr of the Varni, meanwhile, fights his own brother to the death in a disappointingly brief and comparatively bloodless fight, which gains them nothing, and then he has to stay and look after his dead brother’s family. Maybe he was just fed up of Herot and everyone’s issues (he does say he has nobody to go back for – poor Rheda. Not that they were a couple, but he was her closest ally. “Tell Rheda I failed her” isn’t much of a goodbye).
There is something to be said for the gut-punch of a pointless sacrifice, when well deployed (the ending of Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, for example). But as we watch one failure after another and nothing is really achieved, the main effect here is simply to make this episode feel as pointless as Varr and the warriors’ sacrifices.
Also, Beowulf was there. One of the wolflings is after him, but all he did in this episode was ferry messages and look confused.
Read Juliette’s review of the previous episode, here.