by DICK CHENEY
Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands
creators James Dormer, Tim Haines & Katie Newman
Would you possibly be interested in hearing about a show that is exactly like Game of Thrones except actually good? Life is filled with imitations better than the real thing. Bernie Sanders is like Jimmy Carter except with an IQ soaring north of 100; Marco Rubio reminds me of a Mirror Universe Scarface and Angelina Jolie is a more incestuous and sexually adventurous Jane Fonda.
In a bizarre move, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands thefts Game of Thrones’ theme song wholesale. It is very, very important that you are reminded that this is GoT except Lynne will not have to spend half the episode pausing the DVR and asking me if Ser Jorah Mormont is illiterate. “No,” I scream, “that is the sea captain that Stannis Baratheon uses as his consigliere. Now get me some fucking canteloupe!”
Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands makes Game of Thrones seem completely low rent in comparison. For some reason HBO has never been keen on spending money on their signature series. The special effects budget is limited to about 30 seconds of CGI per episode and the sets are starting to look like the same castle. The direwolves have basically been written out of the plot entirely, and the dragons have had about twenty minutes of total screen time in the entire run.
In contrast, the special effects in Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands are eyepopping and the art design of the so-called mudborn puts the lame fantasy tropes of GRRM’s series to shame. Esquire network is bringing this British series from broadcaster ITV to America, and thank God for that.
Superior production is not the only advantage Beowulf has over its predecessor. It helps Beowulf tremendously that it does not fall into the trap of making a swords and sorcery setting a whitewashing. There are people of all shapes, sizes and colors in Beowulf’s hometown.
The entire cast is fantastic. Beowulf was a really boring poem, so James Dormer constructs a rather loose adaptation. Most interesting is the relationship between Beowulf (Kieran Bew) and his half-brother Slean (Edward Speelers). Bew’s wig is kinda distracting (if that is real hair, I shudder) but he makes a terrific Beowulf, the sort of man who is alternately naive and adept at the same time.
Beowulf returns to the Shieldlands after learning of his father Hrothgar’s death. We know nothing of his mother yet, but his father’s wife resented having Beowulf at court so he was sent away from home when he was merely a boy. Within the first moments of his return, Beowulf is framed for a murder and sentenced to execution.
Beowulf’s best friend Breca (Gísli Örn Garðarsson) is the only person who cares enough to help him. After flirting with her smith daughter Vishka (Ellora Torchia), Breca marries a lovely woman named Lila (Lolita Chakrabarti) in a drunken evening of debauchery. It is an astoundingly simple subplot, but like much of what happens on Beowulf, it feels original and sensitive. Every single action has a consequence on Beowulf, and unlike Game of Thrones, that result need not always be death.
Beowulf is a decently fun hero, but the show would feel insubstantial without the presence of the ethereally talented Joanne Whalley, who plays Rheda, the wife of Hrothgar (William Hurt). Hurt only gets scenes in flashbacks, but we do not really miss him since it is a lot more fun to see Whalley stumble and get up from adversity as a female yarl ruling a council of male-focused tribes. Eliot Cowan is stupendous as her main political adversary, as both seem to be attempting to one up each other simply by the breadth of their costumes.
James Dormer’s writing for all these wildly diverse characters is just as it should be. In a large cast it is supremely important that actors do not sound and talk alike, a distinction David Benioff seems to have forgotten while he was trying to coax GRRM to finish the next volume before Peter Dinklage drinks himself to death. Dormer excels at giving his actors physical, nonverbal moments: we watch them move and sway, sit in repose or at making or working. This is as much an aspect of who they are as what they say and do.
This is the best version of Beowulf ever done, but it is not really just Beowulf. Dormer draws from the influences of classical Greeks and Romans as much as from the epic poem. In truth, dragons are the last thing we want to see in this story, since the magnificently humanoid creatures of Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands offer mysteries beyond those available to a woman who birthed them out of a mysterious egg after Jason Momoa ended her period.
Revenge, hatred and violence is what drives most of Martin’s characters, but Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands proves there are far more compelling motivations. It is sedutively simple for us to know the mind of a man who kills his father on the toilet, but why Beowulf should love his father and yet be twisted by the lack of public acknowledgement as his son makes for a deeper story. Dormer is reminding us that characters have a drive, but human beings can be many things at once.
NB: A lot of you have been asking me my predictions for Iowa. A Donald Trump-Bernie Sanders contest will ensure that old white men are the dominant ruling species for all time. I’m starting to miss President Obama already.
Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.
“You’re So Good To Me” – M. Ward (mp3)
“Temptation” – M. Ward (mp3)