This review contains spoilers.
I mentioned, when reviewing the previous episode, that Beowulf’s main flaw was rather bland, somewhat two-dimensional characterisation. That is still something of a problem, but this episode went some way towards addressing it.
Three episodes in, Rheda is starting to emerge as one of the series’ stronger (in the sense of being well written, well acted and reasonably compelling) characters. While her situation is scarcely one that most of us face on regular basis, it is nevertheless relatable and her dilemma easy to understand, difficult to solve. In order to survive and hold on to her power in a world of hyper-masculine warriors, she much conform to their ideas of what constitutes being ‘strong’, which mostly involves extreme violence. This is at odds with her obvious desire not to execute people for their choice of spouse. Her solution is to stick absolutely to the law, which almost works out for her – she does at least earn a little more respect from the other Thanes.
Rheda’s characterisation and, especially, Joanne Whalley’s performance offer a well-balanced blend of toughness and vulnerability. On the one hand, she demonstrates a capacity, if not a liking, for ruthlessness when she tricks a little girl into giving up her mother. On the other hand, her obvious distress in the wake of being assaulted is not only a reminder of physical vulnerability, but a nicely realistic moment – this is a real woman, not a superhuman character who can simply shrug these things off.
Rheda is saved in that instance by Varr, an intriguing character on whom the camera lingers so often, and at such random moments, that there must be more to him than we yet know. His relationship with Rheda is fascinating, as he seems to making quite a few judgment calls himself, and helping her out in a quiet, behind-the-scenes way. It’s not clear whether he is meant to be gay, or possibly even a eunuch, but his clearly effeminate manner seems to suggest that he is, in some way, not the same kind of masculine threat to Rheda that most of the other characters could be, though he could be a different kind of threat if he chose to make a grab for power. (I really want to get through a review of this without mentioning Game Of Thrones, but when the show gives me a mysterious possible-eunuch who is a counsellor to the monarch and seems to be the power behind the throne and who is called Varr, it doesn’t half make that difficult).
Of course, Rheda’s story is a bit undercut by the escape of the mother and child she had so ruthlessly condemned, helped by Elvina. Elvina acts partly as an audience surrogate here, arguing for mercy against a pretty harsh sentence. However, bearing in mind her choice not to take the burning test last week, she may have other reasons for being sympathetic to skin-shifters. Her character is still, so far, a little one-note, but that question mark that remains over her makes her fairly memorable, if nothing else.
There is no longer a question mark over Abrecan – he is, in fact, working to bring down his sister, but doing so behind the scenes because betraying one’s sister doesn’t look good politically. So far, so straightforward. The fact that Slean now knows and is not telling his mother is mildly more interesting – does he want to join Abrecan, or does he just want a hold over him? The former seems more likely, though he looked like he might have a touch of conscience when Beowulf said he came to rescue him.
Beowulf himself, unfortunately, is still one of the less complex characters in the show, and indeed, he barely registered in this episode (if you took him out of the story, assuming you put a random soldier who’s good with a sword in his place, nothing would change). It’s also rather a shame that one of the most fun and likeable characters has been killed off after only two episodes. We’ll have to hope that his brother proves equally interesting.
The show still looks fantastic with a gorgeous set of costumes and, thanks to the fantasy setting, we don’t need to worry ourselves about historical accuracy, though some of the hairstyles are truly silly (and where are they getting all that hair gel?). The location shooting is beautiful, the sets impressive, and Whalley’s strong performance is holding it together, acting-wise. The world-building continues at a sensible pace, showing us some different groups of ‘mud-born’, giving them a bit of legendary background (apparently the earth was once ruled by giant kings), and revealing that there are some far-off lands ruled by an Emperor somewhere out there. If it continues to deepen and develop these characters, it may yet become something well worth watching.
Read Juliette’s review of the previous episode, here.