FX President John Landgraf made news yesterday by declaring he wasn’t afraid of the encroaching Netflix behemoth because FX’s shows were simply “better.” You’ve got to admire his confidence in his network’s brand. And for years FX has really earned it. Unfortunately, those comments came just hours before his newest show, The Bastard Executioner, did its damndest to turn Landgraf into a fool.
There’s still a good show hiding in The Bastard Executioner somewhere. I maintain that the Knight’s Tale angle of a lowly warrior taking another man’s identity in a medieval setting is a good idea. And the fact that that medieval setting is in Wales is rife with opportunity. The British Isles have been done to death in historical fiction but Wales has been left out so thoroughly and entirely that it may as well be an entirely new continent like Westeros. But through three hours it’s just so…boring.
Three hours is certainly not a fair amount of time to judge what will end up as 10 hours or so. Still…that’s three hours that could have hypothetically been enjoyable.
Wil is still entrenched with the English ruling class posing as executioner Gaiwan Maddox. And the country is now reeling from the assassination of Baron Ventris. Barroness Aberffraw (Love) is looking for diplomatic solutions to the Welsh problem and Milus Corbett is mostly looking at stick figure depictions of the Baron missing him.
Just writing the names down seems like I’m writing about a better show. Names are such a small detail but can’t be overlooked in the construction of a good narrative. Would Sutter’s other blockbuster Sons of Anarchy have been as beloved if the main character’s name hadn’t been both so appropriate and cool like Jax Teller and Clay Morrow? The main character on Executioner is called both Wilkin Brattle and Gaiwan Maddox –- either one cool enough to be a Welsh badass and both being an embarrassment of riches. And that’s not even to bring in Milus Corbett, Annora of the Alders or simply “The Wolf.”
It’s easy then to imagine on the page this all seeming much cooler than it really is. I know when I close my eyes and imagine a show about the English ruling class being brought down by a lowly Welsh swordsman who experiences ominous visions, I see something great. Then I open them and I’m watching two attractive actors in a dimly lit chapel talking about taxes and I’m let down.
Really, that’s the best way to describe “Effigy/Delw.” Aside from a young Welsh girl attempting to steal the Baron’s effigy and then getting her nose cut off for her troubles, the episode is just a series of loosely connected scenes in which characters sit in one of three sets and speak in a low version of the King’s English. Oh, and there is some of Annora playing with snakes thrown in for good measure.*
Even the battle scenes remain perfunctory three episodes in. After the Baronness unsuccessfully interacts with the Welsh villagers to broker a deal to give their daughter back in exchange for a chat with “The Wolf,” some Welsh rebels ambush their party. Throats are slashed, blood is spilt, yada, yada, yada. There seems to be no other purpose for the bloodbath other than to add bloodshed to an episode that had to that point lacked it. You could have edited in a fight scene from last week and it would have made as much sense.
Speaking of making sense, The Bastard Executioner doesn’t. When it comes to medieval stories, particularly ones that involve grandiose religious visions, a certain amount of disbelief must be suspended. I’m not even talking about dragons or anything -– I’m merely talking about allowing for the characters to be irrational so a larger point can be made. Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s best plays because Hamlet reacts so atypically from any other protagonist. The situation calls for revenge and Hamlet is a hero with a sword so surely he will swiftly enact that revenge. Nope, he stalls because he just somehow needs more evidence than the ghost of his father visiting him in the night to explicitly tell him his brother murdered him. And boom, you’ve got a centuries-old enduring classic about indecisiveness.**
So Wilkin’s plan not making perfect sense should be fine. Having said that, Wilkin’s plan makes absolutely no fucking sense. He’s living amongst the enemy so he can what…kill like two or three foot soldiers who burned his village? Dude, you got the baron. Mission already way, way, way accomplished. Go back to the forests with your homies and work the rebellion from there. Or just retire like the angel in your visions commanded you to. If it means, you have to cut an innocent girl’s nose off every week, is it really worth it?
In the end, I suspect Wilkin’s downfall will be his poor revenge plotting or at least poor dream interpretation. Hamlet this show ain’t. Hell, it’s not even Sons of Anarchy so far.
*Let’s talk about Annora and her boyfriend, the Dark Mute, for a second. This episode begins with a flashback to Wil’s childhood where he’s combat training with some monks. As he swings his wooden stick around, the camera cuts to creator Kurt Sutter in medieval garb watching Wil, seemingly paternally. As we all know, Sutter plays The Dark Mute. Was this scene implying that The Dark Mute is Wil’s father or at least related to him somehow?
**Or something. I’m more a Julius Caesar fan.