‘The Bastard Executioner’ Tries to Keep Up with the Throneses

All photos courtesy of FX

If you want a show to be a smash hit from the get-go, with no chance of failure, you stack the deck. You get an award-winning showrunner like Kurt Sutter, fresh off a multi-year run with Sons of Anarchy. You hire respected television actors like Stephen Moyer (True Blood), Katey Sagal (Sons of Anarchy), Matthew Rhys (The Americans), and Timothy Murphy (True Detective) to lend a veneer of professionalism. Next you come up with an catchy elevator pitch: It’s like Game of Thrones and Braveheart had a baby! As icing on the cake, you ring up British pop star Ed Sheeran, wherever he is, to add a little pop-cultural cachet as Sir Cormac, described by FX’s press materials as “an ambitious and deadly protg of a high-ranking church elder.”

The Bastard Executioner takes place in 14th-century Wales, as the Welsh are struggling against their English overlords for independence. The English have responded with “uncompromising brutality,” as a title card tells us, which is prestige-TV-speak for “they murdered a fuckton of people.” We meet our hero Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a deserted soldier who gets roped into executing people by a despotic baron and his adviser. Throw in some black magic here, some Brattle-as-Jesus stuff there, and presto, you’ve got another barbarous, Eurocentric, postGame of Thrones action drama like Vikings and Spartacus from networks that have figured out that in 2015, violent nerd shit with a pair of tits thrown in is what gets fans to watch.

Of courseGame of Thrones, as its fans will tell you, has more to it than violence and sex. It’s managed to tell a compelling story involving multiple nations and dozens of characters, without losing the point. Wisely, The Bastard Executioner doesn’t try to bite off more than it can chew; from the start, it’s about citizens, not nations. There isn’t a range of morally questionable personalitiesonly a few guilty people suffering through situations they have little power to affect. It’s a very Catholic show, set in a time and place when the whole population believed they were headed for fire and brimstone should they violate the Bible. The show’s obvious villain, the baron’s adviser, is also the most biblically immoralaside from plotting his rise to power, he’s shown freely fornicating with men and women, committing fratricide, and instigating extrajudicial murder.

As moral actors go, Brattle is no Jesus (let alone Ned Stark). He’s perfectly willing to commit villainous acts in order to achieve his ultimate purpose. Here, he’s attempting to root out all the English villains who murder and torture the noble Welsh, even if it requires murdering and torturing anyone who gets in his way. An early moral dilemma is easily resolved in the second episode when Brattle is instructed to rip a fingernail out of a teenage girl in order to get her to squeal on the rebel forces… and immediately does it. He gets this look on his face that lets you know he feels bad about it afterward, but still: He pulls out her fucking fingernail. I watched with mouth agape at how easy it was for the hero of the show to straight-up torture someone. It doesn’t end there: By the end of the episode, Brattle has not only ripped out this poor girl’s fingernail but chopped off her nose.

It wouldn’t matter that The Bastard Executioner‘s titular hero doesn’t act so heroic if the show told a compelling story with interesting charactersif it’s a good yarn, plenty of viewers are ready to abandon their ideological complaints. But Brattle, glum face and all, just seems like another conflicted male antihero, modeled after Walter White, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and many of the other guys who have come to define the so-called golden age of television.

Sutter told Rolling Stone that he was extremely concerned with capturing the authenticity of an era when everyone talked like a traveler from The Canterbury Tales, but the Arthurian cadences that must have screamed “Emmy!” on paper sound stiff when earnestly spoken by the cast. (Sample dialogue: “Ventris is sly and cruel. It’s only time and chance before you feel his blade!”) They talk all fancy on Game of Thrones, too, but those writers are better at balancing the drama with a mordant, rapier wit to balance out all the guts and gore. The Bastard Executioner doesn’t make a real attempt at levity; the bulk of the first three episodes’ jokes concern whether or not a half-wit might be sleeping with his pet sheep.

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The show does take pains to look and feel like an accurate depiction of the very grim Middle Ages. Most characters’ teeth are brown, their faces dirty. There are no flashy, choreographed action scenesinstead, what we’re shown are burly, agrarian lumps trying to poke in the pointy ends of their swords. The baron shits in a hole, and bends over so his servant boy can wipe his ass with a rag. For some reason, the camera lingers on the brown, butt-stained cloth after it’s been thrown away, as if to say: Sucks, right?

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As an aside, I’m shocked at what they can get away with on basic cable these days. We see the skin flayed off a man’s back, a dead baby pulled out of his dead mother’s womb, and an MFF threesome featuring bare breasts airbrushed of their nipples and sexual motions as raunchy as anything on HBO. The first time we meet the show’s most important female character, she’s on her knees, getting railroaded from behind by her evil husband. FX also broadcasts explicit shows like The Americans and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but this is a step above: It feels like an overt attempt at repositioning the network as a junior HBO or Showtime. If none of it is particularly fun, it’s at least eye-catching in a grotesque way.

Which is what makes it disappointing that for all the production values, they couldn’t come up with a reason to make us care. Squint your eyes and you imagine how, without the gore and sex, The Bastard Executioner might have embraced chintzy, cheesy, high fantasy melodrama like a Xena, Hercules, or Legend of the Seeker. Instead, they’ve been enlisted to make a Hollywood-style hit that helps people justify paying for cable every month. There’s plenty of time for the show to redeem itselfthe rest of the season, and beyond that, whatever clever new directions might be found after some soul-searching. (AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire was once mocked for its obvious ambitions as high drama, but following some creative rejiggering, the show has won acclaim in its second season.) At the very least, it’ll make another network executive pause before saying in a meeting, “Why don’t we try to make the next Game of Thrones?”

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The Bastard Executioner airs Tuesday nights at 10 PM on FX.

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Posted by: Nints1995

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