Fans of Kurt Sutter’s long-running (and recently concluded) series Sons of Anarchy won’t be surprised to hear that his new FX series, The Bastard Executioner, is unrelentingly brutal. And for some, that will be a draw. For others, who see glimmers of a story hidden beneath the mounds of corpses and rivers of blood, it’s mostly frustrating.
The Bastard Executioner is an ambitious series not only for Sutter but for FX, going the Game of Thrones route of full medieval immersion (and though it lacks dragons, it does contain a certain fantasy element that includes visions and prophecy). Set in 14th century Wales, the series revolves around tensions between English barons and their Welsh fiefdoms, whose peasant rebellions they thrive on crushing. One such event spurs on Wilkin Brattle (newcomer Lee Jones), who is thrown back into the fray on a long-term revenge quest, even though he had hoped to lay down his sword for a quieter life.
Some of the Sons of Anarchy parallels are already clear. Like Jax Teller, Wil has a desire to live his life for his family rather than the chaos of the realm, but keeps getting pulled back into the violent life he swore off. He sees visions but doesn’t know how to interpret them, and begins leaning heavily on a mother-figure healer, Annora (Katey Sagal), who is enigmatic because she has long hair and a vaguely Slavic accent. She is protected by “The Dark Mute,” a man burned beyond recognition (Sutter, in typical obfuscating makeup), and the two help guide Wil as he schemes for revenge, and also begins questioning his mysterious parentage.
The Bastard Executioner also explores life from the evil and corrupt Baron’s (Brian F. O’Byrne) house as well, including the introduction of his manipulative right-hand-man Milus Corbett (a devious Stephen Moyer) and the Baroness “Lady Love” (Flora Spencer-Longhurst), a standout who is smart and kind.
Part of Wil’s plan (aided by Annora) is to exact his revenge from the inside out, infiltrating the Baron’s castle by posing as his executioner. That struggle is genuinely interesting, as Wil is forced to commit brutal acts against his own people in the name of the Baron whom he loathes, in service of his greater scheme. Lady Love, too, is one of the series’ most interesting figures because of her own struggles against her husband and his evil ways. She — herself Welsh — wants to help her people in a time when only the sword seems to have a voice.
All of this is woven together with a host of other characters and subplots that are muddied among the battle, making the first three hours of the series both overwhelming and excruciatingly slow. Exposition is constant, because it needs to be to explain the show’s many moving parts, with violence used as a punctuation (and a wake-up).
Because of that, whatever seeds of intrigue The Bastard Executioner plants in its first few episodes are nearly washed away by its actual execution. Scenes fade to black and white before breaks, making the series feel like a video game — which, given its hyperactive shaky cam effects and grotesque violence, is not a stretch. But it doesn’t find the right balance between visual beauty and gore the way Vikings always has, and its political plots lack the draw or momentum that Game of Thrones has so deftly built.
There are, strewn about, some tenuous connections to the Catholic Church and the throne of England which all point to The Bastard Executioner’s more lofty aspirations, but it’s ultimately mired in its own muck. There’s a potential for the story to eventually win the battle, but it feels as unlikely as Welsh independence. For fans of Sutter’s tortured heroes and love of ultra-violence, there may be something in Bastard Executioner that resonates. For the rest, it may not be worth fighting for.
Rating: ★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated
The Bastard Executioner premieres with 2 back-to-back episodes Tuesday, September 15th on FX at 10 p.m. Patrick Cooper will be recapping the series weekly, and those will post after each new episodes airs.