This review contains spoilers.
In its final episode, Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands finally starts to deliver on the promise of its concept. This isn’t a perfect episode, but it’s far more effective than most of the preceding eleven, as the plot finally starts to kick into gear and the action is driven by understandable character choices.
First and most importantly, this episode finally made a solid connection with the poem by which the series is supposedly inspired, beyond re-using a name or two.
When it turns out the ‘mud-born’ Elvina has been caring for is Grendel and she is his mother, the revelation forces anyone with any knowledge of the poem to re-evaluate the whole series, and especially Elvina’s relationships, in the light of this revelation. Does this mean that Slean is Grendel’s father? (Without wishing to spoil it, there are echoes of the 2007 Robert Zemeckis movie there). Or is Grendel unable to shape shift because his father is ‘mud-born’?
One of the other important ways in which this episode is an improvement on several previous ones is that the supposed protagonist, Beowulf, actually has a part to play in the story and undergoes interesting character developments. In addition to the game-changing complication in his relationship with Elvina – which suggests that their future is heading in a very different direction to what we might hitherto have imagined – the revelation that Rheda blamed something Slean did on Beowulf and got him banished is something the series might have benefitted from revealing much earlier. Once again, we are forced to re-consider what we know about these characters and their relationship to each other.
Even with this improvement, however, Slean is still the more interesting of the two, and although he had less screen-time, he makes an impression here. The moment when Kela more or less offers to murder Slean’s mother and new step-father for him (possibly) and he responds by kissing her works well. It also fits into a more general theme running throughout this episode, of people working their way through complex family relationships. We are reminded that Beowulf and Slean are actually half-brothers, but only Beowulf knows it, which adds an air of tragedy to Slean’s otherwise rather sweet declaration that they are brothers ‘in everything but blood’. And tragedy is, of course, even more prominent in the long-awaited downfall of Abrecan. It seems it did not occur to him that in declaring war on his sister, he was asking people she grew up with to fight her, and he finds out his mistake the hard way before Rheda, proving that she is, in fact, rather tougher than him, finishes him off herself.
The death of Abrecan represents another step forward for the series, as it finally kills off not one, but two regular characters. Unfortunately one of the major down sides is that the other is Breca. Apparently we never will find out if there was more to his story – the ‘two sides to every story’ he referred to early on – and the series has also lost its most reliable comic relief. He will be missed.
The other major improvement is in the action, as this episode is devoted wholly to an extended battle sequence with a rather tense wedding happening in the middle of it. Because of the series’ early timeslot, the action is necessarily a bit bloodless, but the progression of the enemy forces towards the hall of Herot over the hour is effectively done.
The opposing armies are conveniently colour-coded, with Herot in Roman/Spartan/later-British red, their enemies in blue and grey. Aside from implying that our guys are tougher (red was supposedly worn by Spartan soldiers because it wouldn’t show up the blood, and they would keep fighting when injured without anyone being able to tell they were hurt), it’s interesting to think of Herot as more heavily influenced by the presumably-departed Romans (possibly the ‘Empire’ mentioned a while back?) while the Wolflings and, to a lesser extent, Bregan are less so. It’s an interesting analogy considering Rheda’s fondness for written laws and Abrecan’s dislike of them, implying that she favours a more urban approach to rule than he does. This doesn’t carry over into their fighting styles, though, which are pretty much generic TV slashing all round (sometimes but not always with the correct use of two hands for broadswords) with Herot’s defenders making no attempt whatsoever to create a shield wall (which would still be more or less possible even with round Anglo-Saxon shields, as long as they had an arm-grip rather than a handle, which these seem to). Most of them seem to lose their shields fairly quickly anyway, presumably to allow the choreographers more leeway in the fight sequences.
The events and revelations of this episode have the potential seriously to reinvigorate this series. The introduction of giants at the final cliff-hanger may be a little too much – even without Abrecan, Herot has enough enemies without them (and our confidence in the ability of a TV budget to deliver convincing giants is not high). Generally speaking, though, this episode provided a good blend of satisfying pay-off to some areas of the plot, and a genuinely intriguing set-up, both through Rheda’s marriage and Elvina’s revelation, for further developments. The real problem is that it may be too little, too late – whether enough people are still invested in this show to warrant the second season the writers have obviously been planning for remains to be seen.
Read Juliette’s review of the previous episode, here.