FX’s first episode of The Bastard Executioner is like a case study in the elements needed to create a mediocre television pilot. You take a showrunner who, while talented, likes to — let’s say — get high on his own supply. Then you give that showrunner a network that is way too far in his debt for creating an unambiguous super hit for them (Sons of Anarchy). Finally, you look at the most recent breakaway success in your medium and decide to copy everything from it except for what made it good in the first place. So The Bastard Executioner looks at Game of Thrones and just sees “violence and boobies in a medieval/swords and shields setting” instead of “really well-written meditation on power and suffering.”
With all those elements in place, it’s not surprising that the first hour of The Bastard Executioner is thoroughly mediocre. It’s not even a disaster; it’s just…there. Something that many critics surely wouldn’t think showrunner Kurt Sutter is capable of. The first hour of the two-hour Bastard Executioner pilot features countless swords and axes burying themselves in every exposed fleshy part imaginable. Followed of course by a trippy religious vision from our hero, King Edward’s knight Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), in which a blonde angel walks naked through a field of dying bodies. At that moment, Wilkin decides to throw down his sword forever and be a man of peace.
Sounds metal; is boring.
Also in the first hour is just moment after moment of fantasy cliché with a slightly higher body count. Wilkin teases his pregnant wife about her big belly and then they run around their little village playing grab-ass because absent any real knowledge of what Welsh happy couples were like in the 1400s, just resort to tired writing. Sutter’s wife Katey Sagal turns up as the witch Annora, who says silly, witchy things. And of course, there is the half-wit who can say things other than “Hodor” but regrettably is also in a committed relationship with a sheep. Then there’s this evil Baron (Bryan F. O’Byrne) and his buddy Milus Corbett (played by True Blood’s Stephen Moyer), who seems comically obsessed with taxing the little guy. Stephen Moyer is probably the most accomplished, well-known actor on the show and spends almost a full minute onscreen just walking into rooms and saying “My Lord.”
And that’s about it for the dull first hour. Thankfully, there’s a second.
I didn’t make it past a season or two of Sons of Anarchy. Not that I hated it -– it was certainly a work with a strong creative vision. I just didn’t love it and other stuff got in the way. So I don’t have the relationship that a lot of critics and viewers have with Sutter, in which they seemed to feel personally betrayed by the man for indulging his ego far too much in the increasingly bloated episodes of Sons of Anarchy’s later seasons.
I can’t speak for how bloated latter Sons of Anarchy episodes may have been but if they were anything like the pilot episode of The Bastard Executioner, Sons fans have my sympathy and support. It’s frustrating because the second half of the premiere episode is so damn watchable.
The turning point involves, like almost every aspect of the pilot, extreme violence. Wilkin and the handful of able men in his village have gone off to rob the Baron’s taxman who is victimizing their families. The Baron receives word of this and, apparently at light speed, takes off to the village. There he brutally murders every woman and child in sight –- starting with slitting the throat of a little boy and ending with the stabbing of Wilkin’s wife. The latter is particularly gruesome. The poor lady seems to have received a reprieve from a moral-ish knight, before having her pregnant stomach cut open and a cross smeared in blood on her head by an unseen assailant… later revealed to be Annora’s lover, the scarred and disfigured Dark Mute played by — who else — Sutter.
It’s gratuitous. And it will likely launch plenty of regrettable Thrones comparisons in the days to come. “You thought them stabbing a pregnant lady’s stomach in Game of Thrones was bad, dude? You get to basically see inside the womb to the dead baby in this!” So yeah, it’s distasteful and is yet again brutalizing an innocent woman on television for the benefit of the male hero’s journey… but at least it actually gets the damn journey started. Which is exactly what this episode needed and quickly.
When Wilkin picks up the sword again it’s actually pretty cool and satisfying. The seemingly omniscient Baron gets word that the “outlaw brigade” is marching on the city so he goes out to meet them and steps into an ambush. Wilkin has enlisted the help of the Welsh resistance and their grizzled leader Gruffud y Blaidd to outnumber the Baron’s men.*
*Gruffud or “The Wolf” is played by Welsh actor Matthew Rhys of FX’s best drama The Americans. And it’s clear that he can barely contain his glee to be playing a Welsh badass. He’s downright infectious.
Wilkin’s boys win the battle in which every sword appears to have limb-severing power equivalent to that of a lightsaber and after a brief mano a mano bout, the Baron receives a knife through the top of his head and out of his mouth. In the melee, Wilkin receives a side wound and passes out. Annora, the witch who has caught up to his caravan, tends to his wounds while he’s out but also carves a cross into his cheek so that he resembles the freelancing executioner who was with the Baron’s men but died in the fight. Annora, it turns out, has been affected by the same visions Wilkin has. She believes what the angel on the battlefield said: “Your savior needs to live the life of a different man.”
This leads to the final and most interesting element of The Bastard Executioner. Wilkin comes to believe that it is his divine journey to advance to the now deceased Baron’s city and assume the identity of the lost executioner. The angel’s words weren’t figurative, they were literal.
That Wilkin feels he is on a divine mission helps because otherwise the plan would be absolute suicide and really have no discernible gains at all. He brings the Baron’s body to the city and obviously the one remaining knight who retreated from the battle recognizes him. But the dead executioner’s wife claims that he is her husband… probably because her real husband was a huge dick and this guy can’t possibly be worse. So Wilkin fulfills the role that the title of the show promises and executes Milus’s defecting brother as his first job.
The Bastard Executioner’s pilot ends in a much more interesting place than its beginning would suggest. If nothing else, Kurt Sutter deserves credit for rightly assuming A Knight’s Tale was due for a grittier television homage. Unfortunately, Sutter also deserves an intervention for thinking he can ever be let near a two-hour episode of television ever again.