This review contains spoilers.
1.6 Battle On The Beach
This episode deals with the core narrative of Homer’s Iliad, while also introducing another element of the later parts of the myth cycle in the form of the Amazon tribe of female warriors.
Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, is predictably slim, blond and scantily-clad, though the Amazons in general are a diverse enough bunch. A warrior queen really ought to look more muscular and less waif-like – more Lucy Lawless in Xena: Warrior Princess and less Keira Knightley in King Arthur. Still, looks aside, Nina Milner does a good job of conveying an outer coldness that’s covering up anger and pain and her response to “good evening” (that it’s not a good evening yet because Greek blood has not been spilled) gives her a bit of humour as well as emphasising her slightly one-track mind.
The writing in general is sharper in this episode and the dialogue has a bit more character. Agamemnon telling Odysseus and Briseis “You – come in; you – f*ck off” is pretty funny and fits his brusque, hard character as we’ve come to know it. Hector’s request for Aeneas’ “most absolutely alive soldiers” is pretty funny too. Achilles has gained a dry humour as well, his calm against Patroclus’ increasing panic and frustration effective.
In the Iliad, Achilles tells Patroclus to take his armour following chapter after long chapter of fighting in which many Greeks have been killed. Here, the fast pace means that tension has not had the same time to build, but the presence of the Trojans right there and then on the beach gives the situation an immediacy that helps. The confrontation between them is much more painful and bitter, thus increasing Achilles’ guilt later on.
I especially liked the conversation about love between Achilles and Patroclus and the way Achilles’ mythological back-story was brought up as part of that conversation. In a version of the story with active and visible gods, it is no surprise that Achilles is, indeed, invincible except for his heel, by which his mother gripped him when she dipped him in the river Styx, leaving him vulnerable in that one spot. The dialogue, in its desperate effort to avoid clunky exposition, perhaps doesn’t fully explain this for anyone who doesn’t know the story, but as long as the viewer has a basic awareness of the back-story, it works – and it has the added effect of reminding us why Hector going out alone to fight him is more or less a suicide mission, though Hector’s observation that Achilles bleeds like everyone else does introduce a note of doubt into his invulnerability.
Patroclus and Hector fight almost alone on the beach with everyone standing around and watching, somewhat replicating one of the oddities of Homeric battle descriptions, which focus on duels between individuals rather than the massed battle ranks that would later become the Greek norm. This gives Achilles the opportunity to confront Hector directly in the immediate aftermath, but does rather raise the question of why he doesn’t grab a sword and finish Hector off there and then. Once again, the ‘wrath of Achilles’ that is the main point of the Iliad seems to have been dropped in favour of stunned shock. Later, his anger is there, but cold and hard rather than presented as a raging fury. All in all, this is a very impassive Achilles, a strange choice for a character known for anger and blinding rage.
(Disappointingly, Achilles also burns Patroclus’ body right away instead of hanging on to the corpse in his tent and cuddling it at night until Patroclus’ ghost has to turn up and beg him to let it go, but modern audiences might have been put off by that. Other Cool Scenes From the Iliad That Didn’t Make It Into The Show include the heart-breaking moment when Hector’s young son Astyanax is terrified of his father in his big battle helmet – here, Astyanax is a new-born so he cries all the time anyway and is too young to recognise anyone).
In other sub-plots, Aphrodite tells Paris, Hecuba and Hector that the prophecy has been completed by Paris’ fall and he can return to the city, a trope familiar from shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Quite why no one’s more upset about Paris running out on a duel that was supposed to end the war is more of a mystery, but presumably they’re just glad he’s alive. The Trojans have some fabulous horse-hair helmets they wear to fight, adding to the constant reminders of horses and how important they are (or were, before the Greeks let them loose) to the city.
The climactic duel between Achilles and Hector is bloody and brutal, if a bit slow in places. Achilles hooking Hector up to his chariot before he’s even quite dead is a nice extra-cruel twist. The story does still suffer a little from the fast pace – if the show were to take its time more, an episode could have ended with the death of Patroclus, allowing that to settle before rushing to the duel between Achilles and Hector. But with the show-runners determined to run through the entire saga of the fall of Troy in eight episodes and only two remaining, inevitably, we had to reach the dramatic climax of the Iliad this week. Next episode, once they’ve finished off the last book of that poem, we’ll be heading for the final fall of the city.
And we still don’t know anything more about Aeneas than his name.
Read Juliette’s review of the previous episode, Hunted, here.