Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Given how frequently Kurt Sutter’s last FX series, biker-gang drama Sons of Anarchy, showcased a near-medieval penchant for savage bloodletting, perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising to see that the creator has flourished in the grimy, grisly 14th-century setting of The Bastard Executioner. Replete with torture chambers, sadistic lords, noble warriors, beheadings galore and miles of entrails, the Middle Ages feel like Sutter’s kind of sandbox.
The Bastard Executioner also feels immediately like the kind of story you’d expect Sutter to tell – a brutishly violent, narratively brusque tale of vengeance, populated by chiseled men of honor, cowardly snakes in the grass, oddball necromancers and a hideously scarred individual known only as the Dark Mute (and played by the showrunner himself, natch).
At its grungy core is retired knight Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), who has long since set down his sword and shield in favor of a peaceful farmer’s life in a small village with his beautiful wife (Elen Rhys). Brattle is satisfied with his quiet existence, though he remains aware of the looming threat posed by the heir of King Longshanks and an assortment of British barons, who rule over Welsh fiefdoms with cruel impunity and contempt for their inhabitants’ lives. When a raid undertaken by Brattle and other villagers against the king’s tax collector reaps devastating consequences, however, Brattle finds his entire world upended. Setting out with the sole purpose of taking revenge, he soon finds himself, under strange and unexpected circumstances, in an ideal position to infiltrate the castle fortress of his sworn enemies in the guise of a journeyman executioner.
All that setup consumes the two-hour pilot, which is chock-full of rapid character introductions, disorienting flashbacks, awkward mysticism and (of course) stomach-turning violence. Body parts are scattered throughout the series with almost gleeful abandon, entire exchanges of dialogue are lost beneath clanging swords and various characters come up with creative threats of bodily harm that would make Jax Teller squirm. Sutter clearly believes in dropping audiences in the middle of the action, and so The Bastard Executioner doesn’t offer much by way of lifelines. It’s committed to its visual nastiness maybe even more than its overarching plot – and the pilot suffers for it, clunking from scene to scene with all the grace of a knight in chainmail armor.
The third episode, in which Brattle settles more into his new role as executioner and a local sorceress (played by Sons alum Katey Sagal) showcases more of her otherworldly abilities, is a significant improvement. The storytelling is sharper, the acting stronger and the pacing more even. And in some of its weirdest scenes, most of which involve said sorceress, the episode gives us a glimpse of a Bastard Executioner that’s more original and far more interesting than the thuggish Game of Thrones derivative that the pilot could lead some to label it as.
The actors help, too. Jones emotes the right kind of grizzled charisma to pull off the title role, and he’s supported ably by performers like True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer, as a scheming chamberlain who’s aware of Brattle’s real identity; Flora Spencer-Longhurst, playing an airy baroness with secrets of her own; and Sam Spruell, bringing depth to the stock part of Brattle’s right-hand man.
However, Sutter’s dark sensibilities and bloody aesthetic are what will really decide whether this show sinks or swims. The period setting alone would make The Bastard Executioner a big swing for FX, which has been so grounded in modernity that the Cold War-era Americans up until this year marked its further foray back through history. But the network clearly has faith in Sutter’s vision, which seems set to rival Spartacus and Sons in terms of soul-crushing violence and near-operatic gore, and believes that the same fanbase the showrunner gathered on his last series will follow him all the way back to the 14th century.
And many of those fans may take to the bloodthirsty brooding of The Bastard Executioner‘s dark medieval England, provided they can endure the initially sluggish pace. At first glance, the series is an exercise in grim violence, but it’s also initially rudderless, lacking a compelling-enough hook to prevent the show’s violence from coming across as its main point, instead of just a day-to-day reality of its universe. Sutter’s Sons excelled in weaving a grandiose dramatic tragedy around its deadly, death-courting antiheroes, but his Bastard has some work and world-building to do before it can claim to command audiences’ attention with the same ferocity.
Though The Bastard Executioner is about as subtle and graceful as a knight in chainmail armor, its first three episodes offer some dark and gruesome thrills, as well as hints of a more compelling narrative to come.