This week’s episode of The Bastard Executioner talks a big game. With a running time of 91 (seriously) minutes, writers Kurt Sutter and John Barcheski have plenty of time to stuff their script full of historical, mystical, philosophical, and religious rhetoric. “Thorns/Drain” has the structure and pacing of a meditative episode of television, one that looks to take the character work built through the first few episodes and begin to push into more consequential, meaningful territory by putting the characters through tests of loyalty, devotion, and moral insecurity. The problem is, The Bastard Executioner hasn’t earned any such leeway when it comes to musing on the morality and conflicted nature of its characters. Through the first five episodes the show has struggled to offer more than a shrug in terms of developing character motivation and personality, and such indifference extends to the thematic work as well, where themes of religion, patriotism, and inherent violence have been used as mere decoration rather than a solid base for more complex ideas.

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While most historical fiction is sprawling, especially in terms of the number of characters, families, and allegiances, The Bastard Executioner boasts a relatively narrow scope. That should be to the show’s benefit; after all, it can be difficult to connect on an emotional level with a show that must divide its attention between numerous characters and storylines. The Bastard Executioner has taken the benefits of the smaller scope though and completely fumbled them, the narrow focus only illuminating how paper-thin everything is, from the performances to the writing. Such thinness is perhaps never more evident than with “Thorns/Drain.” On paper it’s a relatively simple episode, where true intentions are revealed while other deals are made behind closed doors (or in underground canals). It takes an inciting incident (Wilkin and Toran killing a knight) and muses on what it means in terms of not only the secret identities of Wilkin and Toran, but also in terms of Wilkin’s morality and soul. In execution though, the potential consequences of the inciting incident are never really given time to feel substantial, meaning the numerous conversations peppered throughout the episode that speak to conflicts in faith and loyalty end up devoid of tension.

“Thorns/Drain,” despite having all the pieces to craft a compelling episode where Wilkin must fight to keep his identity safe while also planning for the consequences if anyone outside the Chamberlain finds out who he is, would rather revel in tedious, meaningless discussions of divinity and purpose while tossing in a sight gag involving a dwarf, a rat, and the Chamberlain’s sexuality. It’s absolutely baffling that the show can be so ignorant of its own DNA, so completely forget to create dramatic tension. There are secrets being revealed left, right and center, and variables being tossed into Wilkin’s once simple quest for vengeance. In “Thorns/Drain” he must deal with the lying, traumatized wife of Maddox, his friend Toran’s penchant for extreme violence and torture, the threats and power of Milus Corbett, and his blossoming intimacy with the Baroness. All of those things should equal, at the very least, an engaging story, but “Thorns/Drain” completely misses the mark. Rather than tease out the complications of Wilkin’s quest for revenge, especially his seeming apathy towards actually continuing the quest, the script attempts to muse on faith and morality. Sutter and company are no philosophers though, and the result is 90…err, 91 minutes of dorm room philosophizing.

Part of the problem with “Thorns/Drain,” and with the show in general, is that when it’s not making stupid jokes about Milus’ sexuality it’s taking itself far too seriously. Sutter and company seem to assume the appeal of historical fiction is the period detail and gratuitous sex and violence. While that may be partly true, the larger appeal of historical fiction, and this is true of so much art in general, is the way it speaks to universal feelings despite the historical setting. Wilkin’s conflicted loyalty and murky sense of self and purpose is certainly relatable, and yet The Bastard Executioner fails to make him more than just a mouthpiece for on-the-nose dialogue about how he’s a man who “doesn’t feel like himself” or like he’s “living another man’s life.” All of this is said with a straight face, as if the dialogue is inventive and weighty rather than trite and contrived. Some of the blame falls to Lee Jones, who’s still a black hole of charisma, but he’s not being given much to work with when it comes to the writing.

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It’s a shame that such uninspired writing and lethargic plotlines infect so much of The Bastard Executioner, because “Thorns/Drain” shows that there’s at least the building blocks of something interesting here. The only highlight of the episode is seeing the Baroness interact with The Wolf–welcome back, Matthew Rhys!–the rebel leader who also turns out to be the Baroness’ half brother. Their scenes together are made up of the kind of political and personal intrigue that makes Game Of Thrones more than just a show about warring families and dragons. Their two conversations are nuanced and imbued with familial and emotional history. It’s clear the two share a connection and a deep understanding of one another, and credit is due to both Matthew Rhys and Flora Spencer-Longhurst for bringing that out of the script. It’s the type of confident, nuanced interaction that The Bastard Executioner needs to move away from scene after scene of empty rhetoric. When the episode ends with Wilkin and the Baroness having a chat, essentially summing up the undercooked themes and plotlines of “Throns/Drain,” such a need becomes all the more pressing.

Stray observations

  • That was quite the horrific torture scene, which is exactly what Kurt Sutter wants us all to think.
  • The Dark Mute opens his cool underground/cave closet and it’s filled with swords and armor! We know this is important, I guess, because the middling guitar score crescendoes like crazy.
  • Now that the Baroness is funding the Wolf’s crusade for Welsh independence, can we maybe get back to that storyline because it seems, you know, central to everything in this time period?
  • This weekend I wrote about BBC America’s The Last Kingdom and how it meaningfully employs violence while also expertly digging into ideas of religion, loyalty, and family. In other words, everything The Bastard Executioner can’t seem to do.

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