Kurt Sutter’s previous outings (The Shield and Sons of Anarchy) both held merciless sensibilities, so it only makes sense that his new series gets pure medieval on our asses. SOA was the biggest hit in FX history, which pretty much gave Sutter a pass to do whatever the hell he wanted as a follow-up. Enter into the ring The Bastard Executioner: a collision of Sutter’s love for murky morality and violence with an early 14th century backdrop of Welsh rebels clashing with their English overlords. Sounds ripe for the Sutter treatment.
With his new series, my hope was that Sutter and frequent SOA director Paris Barclay would get back to the lean and mean storytelling of the early SOA seasons. Judging from the bog of exposition presented in the two-part pilot, we may be in for a tedious road (paved with blood).
Lee Jones stars as Wilkin Brattle, a former English soldier who fought under King Edward I in the war against the Welsh. After being betrayed by his own side, Brattle puts down the sword and takens up life as a farmer in a small village in Wales. Life with his pregnant wife Petra (Elen Rhys) would be serene if Brattle didn’t keep getting sucked into the local rebellion in Ventrishire against the burdensome Baron Ventris (Brian F. O’Byrne) and his right-hand man Chamberlain Milus Corbett (Stephen Moyer in total mustache twirling mode).
So just when they thought he was out, they pull Brattle back in (in the most gnarly way possible, of course). It was clear Petra and her unborn needed to die in order to set Brattle on his path of vengeance, but man, that was seriously rough to watch.
Following his bittersweet revenge, Brattle poses as the executioner at service to Milius, taking the place of a miserable, wife-beating mope whose death was the most cathartic of the episode. Slavic witchy woman Annora of the Alders, played by Sutter’s wife and former SOA star Katey Sagal, assists Brattle in this ruse. She believes it’s his destiny – whether he wants it to be or not. As queen bee Gemma on SOA, Sagal was a force of seductive nature. Even when Gemma was at her most deplorable, Sagal was wholly compelling to watch. As talented as she is, Sagal can’t save Annora from coming off like a parody of a gypsy from an old monster movie.
This imposter premise isn’t set up until the final 10 minutes or so. Beforehand we’re treated to bouts of trippy dream sequences, seriously impressive production design, lush photography, and violent brutality. Much like The Shield and SOA, the violence here feels organic to the world. But unlike those other shows, Bastard Executioner does not have absorbing enough characters so far to give the violence weight. Aside from the ladies, that is. More on that below. The blood and guts felt like the whole story at times rather than a part of it.
It’s far too early to tell if Sutter will pull back and focus on his storytelling strengths to keep the plot lean and mean – he’s wicked good at that if he could show some restraint! There are a lot of possible directions Brattle’s dual life could lead him down and it’s looking like there’s going to be a tug of war with Annora over his destiny. Now that several players have been introduced and the premise is laid out, here’s hoping Sutter can streamline a cohesive, engaging story out of it all.
Rating: ★★★ Good
Bring Out Yer Dead:
- So far, all of the women inside Castle Ventris are great. Baroness “Love” (Flora Spencer-Longhur) is intelligent and kind. Her handmaiden Isabel (Sarah White) is charming and seems to share an affectionate bond with Love. The most intriguing so far is Jessamy Maddox (Sarah Sweeney), the wife of the dead executioner (punisher, whatever). She’s cunning to play along with Brattle’s ruse. It’s safe to bet she’ll be important down the line.
- Like SOA near the end, Bastard Executioner feels a little too self-serious. Aside from some zoophilia jokes about trapper Ash y Goedwig (Darren Evans), some further comedic relief would’ve been nice to break up the expository tediousness and blood baths.
- It’s revealed that Annora and her “Dark Mute” (Sutter himself) were behind the slaying of Petra and her unborn son. Anyone else feel like this mirrors the Gemma/Jax/Tara plot?
- The images of the gritty night and battle scenes were balanced nicely with some genuinely stunning shots of Wales under the bright sun.
- Lee jones is certainly an imposing figure. I only fear he’s not charismatic enough to carry the series.