Beowulf, or this is why we can’t have nice things

So, along with what is apparently very few other people, I’ve been watching Beowulf. Now, this is quite remarkable for me, because I don’t watch TV series very often, especially not ones my wife doesn’t partake in. I’ve always preferred things I can dip in and out of, and the last time I signed on for a continuing story was BBC’s spy story “The Game”, which was only 6 episodes – but I’ve been making time for Beowulf, and enjoying it quite a bit.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that it had been cancelled after one series, to be fair, but I am still surprised it has created so very little buzz in the on-line fantasy community, especially considering how much I hear about other TV shows I don’t (often can’t) watch.

  Now, the show is far from perfect – it’s not as polished as some of the bigger-budget (American) shows, it’s not got any notable star-power (though TV shows often don’t), and it’s a mostly-original story loosely inspired by a thousand-year-old legend, rather than a book series with an established fan-base. For all that, however, I think it’s done some interesting things…but (as usual) apparently I’m the only one.

It’s not Game of Thrones

If you watch the credits, it’s clear they’re trying to remind you of Game of Thrones – and why wouldn’t they? That series has been a cultural phenomenon, and helped spawn a whole new wave of fantasy (and sci-fi) shows, so you can’t blame ITV and/or the production company for pitching it that way.

However, the show really isn’t Game of Thrones. It’s nowhere near as Epic, set in a much smaller, less-populated land, with some hints of the original Anglo-Saxon origins but a lot more original fantasy elements. There’s not as much sex, not as much violence, and certainly no sign of the mortal peril that threatens GoT major characters.

I, for one, am glad it’s not GoT for the simple reason that it isn’t populated by assholes and back-stabbers. Sure, there’s some political scheming, but for the most part, they abide by decisions, give people fair hearings, and act for the good of their people. There was no villain to hate – and maybe that’s a problem – and I was really starting to care about all the different characters.

It’s not Beowulf

I love me some Beowulf, let me tell you. I think I’ve seen everything but the Christopher Lambert one, and I enjoyed them all. It’s a great story of the legendary badass returning to a corrupt kingdom to sort out a problem that it has, usually, brought upon itself. I love the ridiculous 13th Warrior (and the book, Eaters of the Dead), I enjoyed the earnest and haunting Beowulf  & Grendel, and the CGI Beowulf was glorious fun, too. So, yes, the title piqued my curiosity here.

There are hints of the Beowulf story here, including the man-vs-nature theme, but it’s far removed from the classic tale. Beowulf himself is less legendary badass than somewhat gormless drifter, and possibly the least interesting character. Grendel, or what I took to be Grendel, is rarely seen, and is not the central antagonist. Heorot, while imposing, is a centre of industrial and economic might. Horthgar is dead and it’s his widow who is really central to the whole thing – her ambition, her determination, her strength and her intelligence.

  Rheda’s early victory – when she was set up in opposition to Beowulf to start with – was the first sign that something different, and more interesting, was going on here, and when I began to get hooked. The fact that her pouty, bratty son (Eragon!) soon grows a couple extra dimensions as well, and I started to question everything I had assumed. Maybe it’s because I don’t watch this stuff much, but the surprises kept coming – mostly pleasant.

If not, what is it?

I think part of the show’s problem was this identity crisis, though – if not GoT, but also not an off-the-shelf Beowulf retelling, what is it? I don’t know, and I don’t think it knew either. The whole series has been a jumbled gathering of threats to the “shieldlands”, which we don’t know anything about to start with, but seem to be a whole bunch of tribes in loose alliance, living at odds with native “mudborn” including trolls, skin-shifters and what are basically orcs.

Most of the conflict is between the various human factions, as Rheda, Hrothgar’s widow, engages in political manoeuvring to succeed him as Jarl. A whole slew of characters get arcs within or across episodes, and this diffuse focus does dilutes the thrust of the show, yet this is just the sort of depth we like to see. The mudborn threat is rising all the time, but the show goes down too many side-streets along the way.

  Beowulf should be the bridge between the two, but while he’s certainly thick enough to lay a roadway down upon, he’s not the hero we need to hold this together. He causes almost as much trouble as he solves, and – while nobody likes a too-perfect hero – he’s a little too fallible at times to make me believe he’s this great warrior. He’s got his moments, and he’s got room to grow (alas, no more time), but there’s an element of charisma missing – which may have a bit to do with the actor, I’m afraid.

It’s an ensemble piece

So, if this isn’t the story of our great hero, why did I get such a kick out of watching? In short, because of the rest of the characters – a diverse group, each with their story to follow. I’ve already mentioned Reda, played by the awesome Joanne Whalley, a strong woman bringing a man’s world into a more modern age, and her son, the bypassed prince who stops short of throwing his toys out of the pram and finds the strength to follow his own path – but they are hardly alone.

There’s the compassionate, principled healer who has some dark secrets; the apprentice blacksmith who wants to be a warrior; the blacksmith raising a child alone and standing up for workers’ rights; the assassin turned patriot out of love. These are all women, by the way – as is the intriguingly devious and unscrupulous princess who should have appeared much sooner.

  And that’s one of the things that struck me, right from the first pictures and posters: unlike most fantasy media out there, this is not white-washed, but coloured-in. The producers have not used the pseudo-Scandanavian, pseudo-historical setting to exclude actors of colour, or limit the role of women. I think that’s great. It creates a much more interesting, compelling world representative of the country it’s made in.

With all the (rightful) complaining about the shows and movies that fail to get this right, I think it’s a shame this one looks like it will sink quietly under the waves. Sure, it’s not perfect, it’s never going to be a phenomenon, but it was more than it seemed, and I would have been very interested to keep watching to see where it went.

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