This review contains spoilers.
The plot kicked up a gear in this week’s Beowulf: Return To The Shieldlands, though it pulled back from being truly surprising by leaving Abrecan still alive at the end of it. When it looked for a moment like he had been killed, it was a genuine surprise with some interesting potential, particularly for Slean’s character. As it is, Abrecan is looking wounded but resilient and it sounds like he will probably pull through – though this is by no means certain. Nevertheless, Slean appears finally to have decided his loyalties, and a host of different enemies, human and otherwise, appear to be descending on Herot, promising a bit more forward momentum in the story, which has so far been primarily concerned with place-setting.
That slow-drip development can, in some respects, be a strength of the show. One of the things this series has done really well is to feed in its fantasy world-building, layer by layer, in each episode. We see more of that in this episode, as the attack by a troll on one of the miners gives us the opportunity to learn more about how trolls operate here (they are fine in daylight, by the looks of things, but dependent on salt gleaned either from rocks or from human blood). This can include some nice original touches, like the fact that in this world, apparently, miners usually sleep in trees to protect themselves from monster attacks, which is a rather fun little detail.
It’s also nice to get a more substantial look at the trolls, who, it could be argued, come a little bit closer to the monsters in the Beowulf poem than the other ‘mud-born’ we’ve seen so far. The poem is structured around fights with three monsters in particular: Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon. All are feeling, thinking, intelligent creatures, unlike the animalistic sand worms we saw on the show last week. However, unlike the skin-shifters, who can appear human, or the Warigs, who are more or less humanoid, the trolls are physically less human-looking. This fits the rather brief descriptions of Grendel and his mother from the poem. Grendel is a “grimma gaest”, an evil spirit, or a “grim demon” in Seamus Heaney’s translation, and he has talons, implying a non-humanoid form. Whether or not Grendel and his mother will make an appearance as named characters in the series remains to be seen, but these thinking, feeling, but non-humanoid trolls bring something more of the spirit of the poem into the series.
In other places, the slow drip-feed of detail is a little more frustrating. We see Elvina feeding a ‘mud-born’ in this episode, and it’s been hinted for some time that she has much more of a connection with them than she is letting on. However, at this point that particular plot thread is starting to move from ‘intriguing’ to ‘dragging’ – we are going to need some more substantial revelations to sustain interest in it. Elsewhere, we see only a few minutes of last week’s new character Kela, telling rather than showing her motivations in a rather obvious way (she actually tells Vishka outright “This is about power”, though to be fair, Vishka’s not very bright, so she probably needed to). Rather than learning much more about her, we are introduced to yet another new character, Abrecan’s wife, who seems likeable enough, and is nifty with a sword even in a rather impractical and cold-looking dress, a development nicely set up earlier in Varr and Rheda’s conversation about the need for everyone to be trained with a weapon when war is coming.
This instalment moved the show’s plot along nicely while introducing us to more of Beowulf’s world. As the episode ended, we are promised an investigation into the traitor from Bregan, which we might hope could lead to some revelations for the main cast, as well as an attack from human raiders plus their monster dog which they inexplicably left behind while attacking Bregan, promising some hefty action. It’s a solid cliff-hanger which keeps the arc plot moving efficiently.
Read Juliette’s review of the previous episode, here.