Review: ‘The Bastard Executioner’ Is a Double-Edged Bore
There’s no discussion of The Bastard Executioner that doesn’t inevitably invoke Kurt Sutter’s best-known FX work, Sons of Anarchy. After all, SAMCRO’s final ride only premiered last September, recent enough that I had time to ask Sutter about it at Comic-Con 2014, and it’s especially impressive that FX and Sutter managed to cobble together The Bastard Executioner the following fall without missing a beat. Sadly, and with as much emphasis on the obvious pun as humanly possible, that expedience proves something of a double-edged sword.
Sons in particular arrived at an interesting prelude to our current “Peak TV” age, one of the last potentially great FX series that emerged in the nascence of Twitter and TV recap culture, and a time when few thought to raise eyebrows with each subsequent generation of white male antihero. In its earliest years, Sons reinvented Hamlet in the modern context of a seldom-explored biker culture, at one time impressing the same critics who’d years-later abandon the the series over increasingly meandering brutality, and overbloated* storytelling.
*I haven't checked in a few months, but I presume the Sons of Anarchy series finale has finished airing by now?
That same bloat burdens the sword that The Bastard Executioner has difficulty wielding; keeping Kurt Sutter’s controversial style in play with FX and the Anarchy crowd, but still cleaving sharp enough characterizations for such a large-scale story to stay on point. Unique personalities, outlaw culture and juvenile camaraderie kept Sons of Anarchy afloat as a riff on Shakespeare, where The Bastard Executioner riffs more on the solemnity of Braveheart, or any familiar folklore of a farmer burdened by the soul of a warrior, ripped from his peaceful existence and forced to live in tragedy. Developing and producing TBX so shortly after Sons feels like it robbed Kurt Sutter of time enough to specify his vision, leaving the series such a cold, lumbering bore.
An aimless, rushed mishmash of hero’s journeys past.
Lee Jones ably brings to life the tortured Wilkin Brattle, though a wave of exposition and world-building overwhelms initial attempts to imbue the audience with anything specific about the character, the people of his village, or the surviving brothers that form a motley SAMCRO-esque brotherhood bent on revenge against the Kingdom of Ventrishire. Of the first three hours sent out to critics (including the two-hour premiere), a few characterizations stand out; naturally Katey Sagal’s Annora (and her dark mute protector, Sutter himself) adds an interesting (if questionably-accented) wrinkle to Brattle’s hero journey, while True Blood alum Stephen Moyer clearly relishes in scheming adviser Milus Corbett.
Flora Spencer-Longhurst too stands out as the widowed Baroness Lady Love Ventris (her actual name), a Welsh noble with more reason and intelligence than most in her court, along with memorable turns from Sons vet Timothy V. Murphy as a priest with a dark secret, The Americans star Matthew Rhys as a Welsh rebel leader, or Darren Evans* as a rebel with too much attachment to his sheep. Still, considering all the exposition in play, including title crawl, biblical visions and complicated (read: confusing) identity swaps arriving in the premiere's final act and undefined dark magic, tonight’s two-hour premiere may confuse more than captivate.
*Whether already exhausted, or foolishly hopeful for more female characters, I absolutely mistook this character for a woman until late in the premiere. Something may have eked past in the dialogue, but for now, I'll blame the ghost of Calamity Jane.
And therein lies the real question. Without proper development, period pieces often grow more challengingly irrelevant the deeper one slogs into history, and where Game of Thrones spices up the medieval genre with magic, movie-caliber scale and deep characterizations, Bastard spends its first two hours throwing audiences into an unfamiliar realms without a line. Even the battle sequences, cinematography and rich Welsh country feel surprisingly flat*, lacking the visual panache of more focused sword-and-shield dramas like History’s Vikings, or beyond. Set pieces impress on their own, and we can appreciated the odd visual flourish of color draining before each act break, but of what value are said sequences without any real interest in the material to start with?
*As usual, FX still sends out DVD screeners of early episodes, though something seemed a bit off in the presentation, independent of any unfinished effects. In particular, some of the more rich production design and detail most certainly would have popped on film, but are left unremarkable by the digital presentation. Even the finished digital effects feel strangely out of place, without any real uniform aesthetic to the series.
In the end, that’s what The Bastard Executioner will likely leave fans dwelling on; an aimless, rushed mishmash of hero’s journeys past, and none of the distinct personality that tempered Sons’ reliance on brutality and sex. Don’t you worry, there’s plenty of hacked limbs, viscera and bare butts to excite that particular crowd, but little of substance to latch onto this early. The third outing, at least, notably improves with more time to explore the established status quo, as well as focus on some of the more interesting ancillary characters, but The Bastard Executioner still feels like an inescapable slog in its early going.
AND ANOTHER THING ...
- Stephen Moyer makes his debut watching his superior on the ... well, throne. Symbolism, man! He was mad!
- Attention to period detail and all, but even important leading characters have their teeth notably darkened and dirtied to the point of distraction.
- It'll likely end up edited out of the final broadcast, so I'll keep vague for now, but good grief if the FX screeners didn't notably fail to censor a few of the naughtier bits.
- At one point, attractive twins are sent to Castle Ventrishire as a gift from the unseen King. Three guesses what they end up doing by the end of the hour.
- Visions of dead characters and supernatural frick-a-frack can be powerful tools, but only when used sparingly. Wilkin suffers them more along the lines of J.D. from Scrubs. Not a compliment.
The Bastard Executioner will unsheathe its two-hour premiere on Tuesday, September 15 on FX.