The Bastard Executioner – “Pilot” – Season 1, Ep. 1 (FX)
Since the days back when The Shield pilot first detonated and announced the network as a surprising new player in cable drama, FX has considered its darkest original programming with a uniform and almost absurd level of solemnity. Just listen to its TV-ratings voiceover guy, that low, gravelly gatekeeper who dutifully appears at the end of each commercial break to absolve the network from liability for all the iniquitous content to which it’s about to expose the many children watching at home. The disembodied voice, lately heard on urban vampire apocalypse saga The Strain and already honed to a near-parodic level of dripping sinister-ness during seven years of hyping Sons of Anarchy, also has a second charge, which is to simultaneously shoo overly sensitive souls back to their knitting and canasta games while tacitly warning more adventurous prospective viewers to hold onto their hats, or, in the case of the overwrought, undercooked Bastard Executioner, their heads…because things are about to get real up in here. “The following show is rated TV-MA,” intoned the announcer, in a voice designed to resemble Darth Vader recovering from a two-day tequila bender. “It contains adult language, situations, violence, and nudity.” “No sh*t,” I heard myself reflexively answer, affecting the same mocking tone I did for the last three fun but increasingly ridiculous seasons of SoA. Then we spoke in unison, as if pledging allegiance: “It is intended for mature audiences only. Viewer discretion is advised.” The flashy opening ID FX uses a variation of for all its shows slammed into place, and I allowed myself a slight smile. Welcome back, Kurt Sutter. I do believe I’ve missed you.
Those hypothetical children I referenced above will want to harness and heartily reinforce their attention spans in order to survive The Bastard Executioner’s early moments. Heaven knows I had to. Creator/showrunner Sutter, having cut his teeth as the thematic cleanup hitter responsible for some of the most sordid (and unforgettable) moments of The Shield before plunging headlong into the myriad betrayals and moral complexities of a hard living, gun-running SoCal biker gang in SoA, initially seems well out of his comfort zone with TBE, though he warms up noticeably as the story runs longer and, admirably, refuses to ever hold the viewer’s hand as he acclimates. The show has the unenviable task of not only introducing a wholly alien world (fourteenth century feudal Wales) but convincing viewers likely laboring under preconceived notions that any narrative lulls are worth enduring and this landscape is worth exploring. That means copious amounts of blood in various states of flight up front, and an overly familiar protagonist presented almost as narrative shorthand. Sullen newcomer Lee Jones plays Wilkin Brattle, an English knight left for dead in the aftermath of a particularly brutal, pitched battle with Scottish forces. Broken by war emotionally, he resettles as a peaceful barley farmer in the Welsh countryside and there finds storybook love with a fair-haired lass (Elen Rhys) who completes him. Wilkin’s village is chafing against the yoke of punitive taxation imposed, under the imprimatur of King Edward II, by the imperious Baron Ventris (a humorless, suitably hissable Brian O’Byrne, introduced having impersonal, perfunctory sex with the pleasant, sympathetic Baroness Lowry, ably played by Flora Spencer-Longhurst). No sooner has Sutter established Wilkin’s relative domestic bliss and paid lip service to his hard-won pacifistic philosophy than he is pressed/ cajoled into joining a group of homegrown highwaymen intent on raiding one of the baron’s patrols and redistributing any stolen wealth they acquire to the local peasantry.
Do you already have an idea more or less where this is going? Students of British history, or at least of the movie Braveheart, are likely to. Would it surprise you, for instance, to learn that the baron does not take this news of a brazen armed robbery by the common rabble well? Would you imagine he seeks to make a gruesome example out of the women, children, and elders of Wilkin’s village, or will his attendants counsel restraint instead? Will he listen? What would you expect are the chances that Wilkin’s wife and unborn child wind up dramatically murdered as part of the baron’s retaliation? Since said chances are, in fact, 100%, would you then think that the wronged husband might be private and reflective in his grief, or would he openly seek to scour the baron and his murderous lackeys from the face of the earth? Because it is operating from narrative conceits so weathered and time tested they’re not only predictable but practically predestined, The Bastard Executioner makes us all feel like quick studies, but the juice in Sutter’s show was never meant to come from some surprise subversion of established genre tropes but rather how effectively he would be able to integrate and explore his preferred theme – a hardened but thoughtful man of action rebukes violence but is stirred by circumstances beyond his control to act against his conscience – within a medieval context. It works in spurts. On Sons of Anarchy, soulful protagonist turned arch antihero Jax Teller decorated his journal pages with well-intentioned handwringing over his club’s brutal methods of communicating with the outside world even as his inner demons spurred him onward as a contributing factor with designs on the crown. Jones’ Wilkin begins as an unconvincing cipher, who, once aggrieved, takes to vengeance like a man rediscovering his natural taste for it. We are thankfully spared a brogue-heavy version of Jax’s cloying journal narration, but the fact that we can’t hear Wilkin’s thoughts also effectively masks whatever nobility his greater motivations might contain, because it’s certainly rarely visible in his face. For better or worse, Lee Jones is no Charlie Hunnam, not even an embryonic version. You never had worry about finding Jax in a crowd. By contrast, Wilkin is sometimes only even perceptible because of his land-locked location in the center of the frame.
The show is immediately thick with battle – if memory serves, blood is spilled before the first word is spoken – and theoretically credible, still only partially discernible Welsh accents, but struggles in its initial rush of introduction and exposition to reveal any single character worth the audience’s investment. The story does even out the longer it goes – momentum is slowly, credibly built and past choices begin to make sense – but length itself soon becomes a problem. In terms of in house creative forces, Sutter is FX’s Diamond Club member. His fleshy, flashy style and wide open, risk-taking dramatic sensibilities remain near impossible to duplicate, despite a glut of hungry pretenders and the undeniable allure of trying. The wild, sustained latter-day success of Sons of Anarchy, which routinely ran well over its allotted hour whenever and in whatever direction his muse so dictated, established for Sutter carte blanche for self-indulgence and near-unlimited credit at the rope store. How better to explain the parameters of TBE’s two-hour pilot episode, with its palette of lean, raw, generally undistinguished faces and world building modus operandi that split an uneasy difference between slow, detailed immersion and the Cliff’s Notes version of “generic medieval war opera”. Sutter’s wife Katey Sagal, so often a galvanizing and polarizing central force on SoA, here appears, second billed, as a mysterious gray-haired witch, presumably because no new Sutter property may proceed without her presence. Sagal gamely throws herself into what seems like an obscure, disconnected role but is unfortunately unable to quite disappear. Surrounded by a virtually anonymous cast, she is afflicted with the curse of conspicuousness, as is True Blood alumnus Stephen Moyer, who, as the baron’s probing, perpetually shifty-eyed attache/chief of staff, would be the show’s most interesting character by default even if he was not written and performed so strongly. Of course, back when he was chest deep in the whole “sexy vampire” thing, Moyer was just another sequin on a pair of bedazzled hot pants, a pouty face adrift in a sea of fanged debauchery. On TBE, my eye involuntarily sought him out most every time, drawn to his comparative magnetism, whatever his current prominence on screen.
It’s already clear that Sutter finds this rugged setting and time period, its mores and its desperate people, pretty fascinating. At times, it almost seems possible to feel that passion filtering through the screen, and, since applied emotion is Sutter’s stock in trade, in those fleeting moments The Bastard Executioner transcends its trickier and muddier elements. I have no idea how closely the show hews to the facts and tenor of the times it purports to present, but, despite looking like literally every chivalric “sword and damsel” movie ever made, that presentation is skillful and above average. Short of turning the Middle Ages into a sepia-toned, slow motion stealth sequel to 300, there is only so much visually Sutter can do, and he is ably abetted by ace former Shield director Paris Barclay. Of course, TBE could be the very model of historical accuracy and it still wouldn’t make the titular gambit – wherein Wilkin, owing to a slight physical resemblance, unwittingly assumes the identity of an out of work “punisher” killed in battle and is taken into the very court he was trying to infiltrate as the new personal executioner to Baron Ventris – any less painfully contrived. Wilkin’s new job title and bloodthirsty boss will presumably provide him abundant fodder for the ongoing war between his better and lesser angels. Though surrounded by enemies, Wilkin also has a possibly trustworthy man on the inside and a potential ally in the soft-hearted baroness, who in effect assumes Sophie Marceau’s aristocratic confidant role from Braveheart. It’s a potent scenario – worthy of a two or three-part miniseries – though arrived at ponderously, via a clunky, brutish vessel the size of a full-length feature film. Will Wilkin wreak his wrath (say that five times fast) but lose his soul in the process? Will he be found out and killed? Will he walk away post-epiphany? With Sutter writing, most anything is on the table, though admittedly not before episode nine or the finale. Whatever the outcome, you may rest assured the emotional politics will be both deep and murky.
This brings us, despite all its promise and professionalism, to the underlying problem with not just The Bastard Executioner but much of Sutter’s work: excess. The phantom FX narrator warned us all going in, of course, though not nearly about everything. I raked Sutter over the coals pretty comprehensively once during the backstretch of SoA‘s final season. I find those complaints still largely valid, though little enough cause to prematurely abandon a show that threatens to transcend them and round into shape any minute now, possibly as soon as episode two. It’s an interesting world. It’ll be some time before I have sincere interest in blowing it up, and, frankly, I don’t see enough story to get us there. Kurt Sutter remains a singular talent, observant and provocative, and I’m inherently at least a little interested in most everything he writes. I meant it when I said I was glad to have him back. In truth, the pilot’s 90-minute runtime was likely necessary just to make its preposterous titular prophecy come true. Whatever his misgivings, when the time comes, Wilkin swings like a combination of Conan the Cimmerian and Albert Pujols in his prime. Once The Bastard Executioner starts playing in traditional hour-long blocks (I’ll believe that when I see it), I have a decent amount of faith it’ll start delivering in earnest on its obvious but thus far latent potential.
It certainly is a catchy title though. To be fair, There Will Be Blood was already taken.