Kurt Sutter’s latest venture looks like some of the best shows on TV, but it doesn’t feel anything like them. With its ample bloodshed and hints of the supernatural, the series reads like a clear attempt on the part of FX to capitalize on the success of Game of Thrones as well as Sutter’s long-running hit Sons of Anarchy; with its themes of a minority’s doomed rebellion against their English oppressors, there are even shades of Outlander in its DNA. But The Bastard Executioner is all genre, no subversion. Do you like Game of Thrones’ high production value, but find its moral complexity distracting? Do you watch Outlander and think that what’s really missing is a heaping dose of the male gaze? Congratulations, you’re in The Bastard Executioner‘s target demo.
Though it’s stretched out over a wholly unnecessary two hours of pilot, The Bastard Executioner‘s setup is fairly simple. Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a former soldier suffering from what we in the 21st century would call PTSD-induced hallucinations and what the 14th century faithful called visions, has retired in order to live a simple life as an overtaxed Welsh peasant. As soon as Brattle’s shown having an idyllic moment with his supportive, very pregnant wife, we know said life is about to be violently disrupted.
It is, once a group of villagers decide to take some of their insanely high taxes back from their English ruler, Baron Ventris (Brian F. O’Byrne), to fend off starvation. Egged on by his manipulative, Machiavellian adviser Milus Corbett (Stephen Moyer, playing a character who’s The Worst right out the gate instead of gradually becoming so over seven painful seasons), retaliates by burning the village to the ground. In case viewers don’t get that Ventris is a bad guy, he slits a child’s throat. In case viewers don’t get that Milus is a bad guy, he sets up his own brother’s execution…oh, and turns out to be a full-blown Depraved Bisexual. Nothing says groundbreaking like a scheming villain making threatening sexual advances on the more conventionally masculine hero!
By pilot’s end, Wilkin has lost his wife and unborn child, participated in a massive battle to avenge his family and/or show off the series’ tremendous budget, and evaded capture by taking the identity of Gawain Maddox, a traveling executioner and “punisher” caught up in the fray. Maddox’s family, having survived Gawain’s abuse for years, is all too happy to accept Wilkin as his replacement. And Milus, who recognizes Wilkin from sending him off to die during his years in the English army, is all too happy to keep Wilkin around as his blackmailed eyes and ears. Since Wilkin and his Welsh compatriots (including Matthew Rhys!) managed to kill off Ventris during the aforementioned battle, there’s a power vacuum Milus could use help navigating.
That’s the political intrigue part of the show’s Game of Thrones influence. The supernatural element is more low-key, as it was in early Thrones as well, though also more intriguing. Wilkin originally quit the army because an angel came to him on the battlefield and told him to; turns out that same angel also talks to Annora (Sons of Anarchy alumna Katey Sagal), a pagan healer with mysterious motivations and a disfigured companion known as the Dark Mute (Sutter himself, after several hours in the makeup trailer). Wilkin has continued to see things even after quitting the army, usually either his dead wife —” I was brought to my end at the right time for the right reason,” she tells him, playing the doormat even in the afterlife — or dragons/snakes rendered in corny CGI that was obviously unfinished by the time screeners went out.
The nature of Wilkin’s visions, and Annora’s involvement in them, may be the more compelling of The Bastard Executioner‘s long-term arcs, but it’s also the arc that borrows from Thrones’ originality rather than its penchant for violence and drab medieval clothing. From her mysterious abilities to her gratuitous nude scene to her strange accent, Annora’s a dead ringer for Melisandre—and consequently, the more three-dimensional of all two of the show’s female protagonists. (Ventris’ widow, played by Flora Spencer-Longhurst, occupies the role of both compassionate noblewoman and potential love interest.)
Sutter, who wrote or co-wrote all ten of the first season’s episodes, is clearly going for broke here with the full backing of both FX and Imagine Entertainment—mega-producer Brian Grazer, who cofounded the company with Ron Howard, serves as co-EP of The Bastard Executioner. But with flat characters who telegraph their decency (“I serve God and family, not cause or crown!”) or lack thereof (“I will shred you, body and mind!”) in flashing red lights and formulaic plots, The Bastard Executioner is content to settle for premium cable’s easiest, and laziest, advantage: the ability to show sex, violence, and in one memorable instance, defecation.
A crude, gory spectacle does not a great series make, and The Bastard Executioner displays all the surface marks of an ambitious period piece or genre epic without any of the core traits. Viewers aren’t just drawn to Outlander for its depiction of a real-life rebellion or Game of Thrones for the expensive set-pieces, and whileThe Bastard Executioner may prove as popular as Sutter’s last series, it won’t be for the same reasons as its contemporaries.
The Bastard Executioner premieres tomorrow night on FX.