This review contains spoilers.
Since it’s still so early in the series, it’s no surprise that this episode continued to build on the show’s mythology, still in the process of being established. This second episode did a pretty good job of combining that necessary exposition with various twists and turns of the plot, producing a fairly strong hour which grounds us much more firmly in the world of the Shieldlands.
We learned a lot more about the non-human inhabitants of this world in this hour. Anyone non-human appears to be classed as a ‘mud-born’, an interesting epithet in itself. The title would seem to suggest these creatures some out of the earth in some way rather than being born from a female as a result of biological reproduction, a type of creature that appeared a few times in Classical mythology (fighters growing up from stones in the ground in the story of Jason and the Argonauts, for example).
However, in the story of Beowulf, the fact that Grendel has a mother who cares for him and (spoiler alert) is desperate to avenge his death is a key plot point. Perhaps the name ‘mud-born’, probably a derogatory term (only Elvina refers to the skin-shifter as ‘he’ rather than ‘it’ once his identity has been revealed), is not mean to be taken literally. Or perhaps that element of the story will be shifted onto another character, since Beowulf incurred the anger of a bereaved mother in this episode…
The skin-shifters, a particular variety of mud-born, seem to be something of a combination of a vampire and a werewolf, with a set of attributes all of their own. Their ability to appear as humans sets us up for plenty of secret skin-shifter revelations in future weeks, and the fact that they cannot be burned offers a rather clever test. Voluntarily burning yourself to prove your identity is not only painful, it’s also really rather dangerous in a world without sterile medical environments, modern burn treatments, or anti-septics (and as Varr stuck his hand in the fire to prove he was human, I found myself wondering how far skin-shifters’ powers go and whether they could create an illusion of a burn where there was none anyway). This means that when Elvina chooses to dis-robe to demonstrate she is not wounded – which proves only that she isn’t the skin-shifter who killed Bayen, not that she is not a skin-sifter at all – it’s an open question whether she does so because she fancies Beowulf and wants him to see her naked, because she’s a doctor and understands the risks associated with third degree burns, because she’s trying to cover up because she really is a skin-shifter or (most likely) all of the above.
Our understanding of the political situation in the Shieldlands is also expanding with the arrival of various local leaders for what I’m mildly disappointed to see called a ‘Gathering’ rather than a ‘moot’. Rheda, a lone woman among male leaders, is desperate to demonstrate her strength, which as we see here, may lead her into some overly hasty decisions. The inclusion of her brother Abrecan among the leaders is a nice touch, since it provides one leader she can talk with who is not going to try to get her to marry him (even if this show were going down the Game Of Thrones route, which so far it isn’t, an incestuous political marriage would be no good). So far they seem close – whether or not he turns against her in the future, we’ll have to wait and see.
The show’s attitude towards sex and violence so far is quite interesting. The music and opening credits sequence seem to be desperately trying to be Game Of Thrones (which is a bad idea, because it just makes me want to watch Game Of Thrones). However, nudity is partial and shot from behind, while blood is kept to a minimum and violence tends to happen just off or just below the camera. The earlier airing of 7pm for episode two may explain these choices, a time slot that feels a little surprising given the largely grim-dark tone of the show. It might feel a bit less incongruous if Beowulf lightened up a bit, or returned to a later time slot and showed just a little bit more of the violence that is an inherent part of the story (and if we’re going to have any level of nudity, a bit more parity between male and female nudity would be good, rather than keeping everyone fully clothed at all times except the pretty girl).
The series’ weak point so far is its rather bland characterisation, though as we see something of Rheda’s impulsive side here, together with hints that there may be more to know about Breca’s backstory, that may yet improve. When Slean’s friend greets him by cheerfully telling Hrothgar’s son how happy he is that Hrothgar is dead, both he and Slean – who takes this in stride – become more interesting. This is particularly fortunate since the cliff-hanger requires us to care about what happens to Slean, who up to this point had been a one-note whinger it was hard to remember, let alone care about, but who it is now possible to feel mildly invested in. I am intrigued to see how this situation plays out, which makes me want to watch the next episode – good job, show.
Read Juliette’s review of the previous episode, here.