The title’s a bit of a mouthful but it’s very much worth getting your teeth into this Netflix show, based on Sally Green’s Half Bad trilogy of books. This is nominally a YA series, but it really leans into the ‘A’ of that – it’s a coming of age story, just but one that involves sex and drugs and a massive body count with the gore dialled up to the max.
It’s also about witches, but not the nice kind. The Bastard Son follows Nathan (Jay Lycurgo), a 16-year-old whose father, Marcus Edge (David Gyasi), is the most hated and feared ‘Blood witch’ in the whole of the Fairborne witch community. Nathan’s mother was Fairborne, and when Nathan turns 17 he will discover what his power is (Fairborne have just one each) but also whether or not he is a blood witch. All very high fantasy on paper, but The Bastard Son’s great achievement is that the show doesn’t feel like fantasy at all. Or rather it feels like a kind of fantasy that is so grounded in reality that it’s instantly relatable.
While it’s a tale of warring witch factions, The Bastard Son is also a love story. At the start of the series, despite his community’s utter distrust of Nathan, he’s not the victim that he is in Green’s books. Lycurgo is a lanky streak of charisma, a cheeky, snarky, funny kid whose constant bullying from his big sister Jessica (Isobel Jesper Jones) is brushed off with sarcasm. At school he hangs out with the nerdy kids who don’t know he is a witch, until he meets new girl Annalise (Nadia Parkes), a Fairborne witch whose father is the head of the Fairborne council. Annalise is also funny and silly and doesn’t care who Nathan’s dad is, and the chemistry between the two is palpable.
The show plays with perceptions of good and evil as the Fairborne decide to train Nathan to defeat his father. This involves taking him away for his friends and family, including Annalise who doesn’t know where he is, locking him in a cage and beating him to a pulp on a daily basis. Are the blood witches really the baddies and can Nathan escape his fate?
In Green’s excellent novel Nathan is tortured, but here showrunner Joe Barton, whose extraordinary sci-fi The Lazarus Project landed earlier this year, has opted to go a bit easier on him. It’s a wise choice that stops the show from getting bogged down in the utter horrors of his life. Instead the horrors are all around him. Shapeshifter Marcus attacks and slaughters a whole convoy of Fairborne. Cruel and ruthless Jessica gets great pleasure from torturing those she perceives as enemies. And Annalise – well let’s say Annalise’s special witchy power is a particularly gruesome and spectacular one.
So the stakes are high and lots of people get killed. But The Bastard Son stands above most of its peers by also being an incredibly joyful ride. Yes, Nathan and Annalise have been put through hell, and sure, he’ll die if he doesn’t get blood from a family member before his 17th birthday and they’re all dead bar one, and okay, she’s actually accidentally murdered someone, but it’s not all bad.
When the two travel to Paris on a mission to find blood witch Mercury, who might be able to solve Nathan’s problem, the action ramps up. Encountering sexy alchemist Gabriel (Emilien Vekemans), a blood witch who has promised to help Nathan, the three form a close bond. For a show about warring witches The Bastard Son is actually pretty sexy. The locations are cool, the cast is attractive, the soundtrack is banging and there’s a sexual tension between all three main leads, allowing for a bit more fluidity and ambiguity about who is into who.
As well as our heroes, the supporting cast is excellent too. Motherland and Utopia’s Paul Ready as Annalise’s dad Soul is a cowardly wolf in sheep’s clothing, soaked in softly-spoken betrayal. Jesper Jones’ Jessica makes a terrific villain – like Nathan she also won’t accept her role as an outcast or a victim, though she delights in her role as Soul’s enforcer. On the other side is Celia (Karen Connell) , the Amazon-like Fairborne charged with training Nathan who becomes increasingly sympathetic as the show progresses. It’s not subtle about its message: You’re not your family. Don’t just accept what other people tell you is right and wrong. And try to enjoy yourself because you just don’t know if the next day might be your last – but it is consistent.
The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself is a clever adaptation that takes the bones of the much loved book and adds its own flavour, while further marking Barton out as one of the best TV writers around. Bring on season two.
The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself is available to stream now on Netflix.