TV Review: The Bastard Executioner - "Pilot"
Plot: Life changes forever for 14th-century warrior Wilkin Brattle when a messenger implores him to set aside his sword and lead the life of a journeyman executioner. In a time of rebellion and political upheaval, hemust walk the line between protecting his identity and serving a mysterious destiny, guided by mystical healer named Annora. In addition to being under Annora's control, he is manipulated by Milus Corbett, a devious Chamberlain with political aspirations. Wilkin must traverse political and emotional pitfalls on his way to understanding his greater purpose -- all while being driven by an increasing romantic connection with Baroness Lady Love Ventris.
Review: Having just spent the last seven seasons following the Hamlet-esque epic biker series Sons of Anarchy, I was somewhat expecting creator Kurt Sutter's follow-up to go in a very different direction. Aside from his feature film screenwriting debut SOUTHPAW a month ago, Sutter has been working on his new FX series The Bastard Executioner. With the two hour pilot episode debuting tonight, fans of the showrunner's ultraviolent outlaw tales should find their gory appetites fulfilled albeit in a very different setting with very different accents. Make no mistake, The Bastard Executioner is a Kurt Sutter creation through and through, only not one of his better ones.
Set in 1300s England during the reign of Edward Longshanks, The Bastard Executioner echoes movies like BRAVEHEART while telling a long form tale with the grit and grime of Game of Thrones. Sutter's series shares more in common with that HBO series from a visceral standpoint even if it does end up being not much more than a medieval Sons of Anarchy. I enjoyed Sons of Anarchy but found that it went from a complex character study to a show that overstayed it's welcome by two years. In the latter half of the series, the biker saga turned into a bastion of shock value, mild nudity, and excessive violence. The Bastard Executioner crams in an exceptional amount of bloodshed in the two hour pilot including the death of children that may unsettle even the most jaded viewers.
The problem that keeps The Basard Executioner from being a really good show is lead actor Lee Jones. Unlike Sons of Anarchy star Charlie Hunnam, the Australian actor is just not a strong enough actor for this series. In fact, where Sons of Anarchy thrived on an ensemble cast to carry the weight of the show's pulpy narrative, The Bastard Executioner puts the weight of the drama on Jones. We do have a nice villain in Milus Corbett, played by True Blood's Stephen Moyer, and guest appearances by The Americans' Matthew Rhys and singer Ed Sheeran, but they are just not given enough to do. Sutter's wife Katey Sagal returns in a role that echoes her Sons of Anarchy character. The only difference is this time she is playing a witch instead of a bitch.
Jones' character, Wilkin Brattle, is a former soldier who had a vision that told him to lay down his sword. After years of being a peaceful farmer, Brattle is forced to once again pick up a weapon and becomes an executioner. I will leave the events that set this in motion for those looking to watch the episode, but I can safely say that FX is once again pushing the limits for what can be shown on basic cable. If the title had not already been taken, Sutter could have more appropriately called this show There Will Be Blood. The Welsh setting for the series does give it a unique feel that sets it apart from other medieval settings we would be familiar with in North America, but that is all that sets it apart at this point.
FX was willing to give Sons of Anarchy breathing room to develop and I am sure they will do the same for this series. The production values are phenomenal and could easily go toe to toe with any premium cable series. The supporting cast is talented and unknown enough to not take you out of the story but I almost expect Ron Perlman to show up as a batshit crazy baron. I like what Kurt Sutter had in mind when he came up with this concept but there is something missing from The Bastard Executioner once you get past the shock value of the grand guignol laid over the historical drama.
To be blunt, The Bastard Executioner is kind of boring. In between the well shot action and violence, kudos to veteran television director Paris Barclay, the rest of the show slows to almost a crawl. The dialogue sounds clearly like what you would have heard on Sons of Anarchy but with thous, thys, and arts thrown in for good measure. After two hours, you will either be fully bought into what this show has to offer or you will be like me and wonder if there is enough to fill eight more hours of programming this season. There is enough visual flair and action for me to see where this is going, but things need to pick up soon or The Bastard Executioner runs the risk of being one and done.