On paper, it makes a lot of sense that Sons Of Anarchy showrunner and creator Kurt Sutter would be attracted to a 14th century historical drama built around an executioner. The controversial showrunner has a propensity for violence and wordy scripts, two things perfectly suited to not only the contemporary historical drama genre, but also to FX, the network Sutter calls home. In the age where seemingly every network needs to get in on the gritty historical drama game, it’s smart of FX to give Sutter free reign over this material. For anyone familiar with Sons Of Anarchy, Sutter’s fingerprints are all over the two-part, two hour pilot, both for better and for worse. As is often the case with his shows, tonight’s extended premiere is overstuffed and in need of focus, but also, by episode’s end, propels itself towards a premise that easily builds intrigue for the rest of the season.

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As the opening title cards lay out, The Bastard Executioner focuses on 14th century Wales, where the ruling English are attempting to control the Welsh push for independence. At the top of the chain is King Edward II, whose armies and barons tax, oppress, and slaughter anyone who acts against the ruling power. These preliminary details are a solid way to set the stage for the series, to provide some context for the ensuing battles, but they’re hardly necessary to the story being told in the first episode. In fact, it’s just the first instance of the pilot heavily relying on exposition, a tactic that is perhaps necessary to set up a story with many characters, settings, and complex relations, but doesn’t really make for compelling television.

Much of the first hour struggles with establishing a hook, instead doling out one abstract, contrived conversation after another. This is a good looking show in terms of scenery, costumes, and effects, and longtime Sutter collaborator Paris Barclay is a steady hand behind the camera, but the script presents a ton of problems in the early going. Much of the dialogue is cliché, the beats predictable. Early in the episode, Baroness Lowry “Love” Ventris, who’s just been reprimanded by her overbearing husband for potentially being barren, is asked by her handmaid if she would like a bath to be drawn. “I need more than a bath,” she says as she stares out the window at the shire below. “So much more.” It’s a exchange that’s indicative of much of the pilot, where stilted dialogue results in forced character treatment. The pilot is in such a hurry to establish all of its characters that it settles on bluntly stating their motivations and relations rather than letting them grow with more nuance.

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It’s clear that nuance isn’t going to be the show’s strong suit, and that works both for and against The Bastard Executioner. Too many characters in the premiere, from the unforgiving brutality and nastiness of Baron Ventris (Brian F. O’Byrne), to the whimsical and untrustworthy nature of Annora (Katey Sagal), are reduced to mere caricature, hardly given room to develop even a shred of depth despite the two-hour runtime. That doesn’t mean there’s not room for these characters to grow (obviously), but the pilot is stubbornly reductive to the point that it’s hard to connect to the story.

Thankfully, the second hour significantly picks up the pace, and with much of the exposition and table setting out of the way The Bastard Executioner can focus on getting the narrative moving. That involves establishing Wilkin Brattle as the hero, a man who was once a soldier in King Edwards’ army but has since gone into hiding after Baron Ventris staged a siege and attempted to have him killed. That siege makes up a handful of “fever dream” sequences where Wilkin flashes back to his near-death experience, encountering an angel who tells him that it’s time for him to lead a different kind of life. He vows to lay down his sword, but the increasing stronghold of the English on the common people, including Wilkin and his pregnant wife Petra, through taxation and abuse is too much to handle. He leads a group of hooded bandits to attack the English emissaries, which backfires as Baron Ventris learns of where they came from and burns their village to the ground, with Petra being stabbed, her baby and insides pulled out and displayed for Wilkin and the rest of the bandits to see upon their return to the shire.

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Petra’s death is pure exploitation, a typical case of mutilating and displaying the female body in order to give the male lead a sense of purpose, but at least there’s a sense of mystery surrounding it that drives the rest of the episode and sets up plenty of complex conflicts in the future. Originally it’s unclear who kills Petra, an unknown assailant finding her in the woods and slaughtering her. By the end of the episode though, it’s insinuated that Annora’s henchman, referred to by Wilkin as the “silent, hooded one,” is the killer. It’s a bit contrived considering how much Petra trusted Annora, but it adds some complexity and intrigue to a storyline that otherwise spends most of the episode feeling predictable. Plus, it contributes to the overall theme of trust and identity that grows naturally out of the conflict between the Welsh and English, which has potential to be the show’s strongest point of emotional and thematic complexity.

It’s really not until after this slaughter that The Bastard Executioner finds its footing. When Wilkin and a band of Welsh rebels come together to attack Baron Ventrils and his small army, slaughtering them all with ease, it’s a smart twist on the traditional narrative. Baron Ventrils is set up as the over-the-top villain, so to see him disposed of so quickly suggests that The Bastard Executioner may not heed to the predictable structure that plagues its first hour. That intrigue and momentum is cemented by the episode’s end, as Wilkin and his sidekick infiltrate Castle Ventrils under the guise of Wilkin being a traveling executioner. Much like Lucas Hood in Banshee, he takes on the identity of Maddux, a man with a crossed burned onto his face, in order to briefly escape his old identity. He expects to deliver the bodies, tell the remaining rulers that the bandits have been dealt with, and then disappear. Ventrils’ right hand man Milus throws him a curveball though, hiring him on as the executioner, ready to deploy him for duty in rounding up, controlling, and killing any rebels. It’s a great premise; it’s just a shame that it comes at the end of two hours of exposition.

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Ultimately, The Bastard Executioner is off to a shaky start. The pilot is a mess of varying tones, at once delightfully campy and violent while also unbearably self-serious. The historical drama tropes are all familiar and predictable, lacking any true personality or vision. With that said, the last half hour of “Pilot, Part 1 & 2” signals a way forward for the show, the narrative shifting gears and moving away from the more traditional storytelling that comes before it. It’s enough to warrant intrigue for another episode, but only if The Bastard Executioner quickly breaks free of the shackles, from contrived dialogue to barely existent thematic work, that restrain most of the premiere.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to weekly reviews of The Bastard Executioner! Naturally, strongly worded opinions and jokes are encouraged in the comments.
  • Since there’s no discernible split between “Pilot, Part 1” and “Pilot, Part 2,” and yet are listed as two separate episodes in the season, the two grades above represent the grade for the pilot as a whole.
  • Katey Sagal was basically born to play a mysterious witch.
  • What does everyone think of the pre-commercial switch to black and white? I kind of dig it, especially if the show embraces its more campy genre tropes.
  • “A plan hatched by a witch. What’s the worry?”
  • Pretty high budget for the blood and gore here, resulting in some seriously disgusting deaths. The knife through Ventrils’ head and out through his mouth is probably the best of the bunch. Spear through the throat is a close second.
  • The go-to comparions for this type of show is of course Game Of Thrones, but judging by this episode, The Bastard Executioner has a lot more in common with Vikings and Spartacus.
  • The turning point of this otherwise laborious episode? When Wilkin finds his slaughtered wife and digs up his old sword from his days with King Edwards’ army. The show completely shifts gears at that point and finds a much needed sense of urgency.
  • If you’re coming to this show for the battle scenes, the confrontation between Ventrils and Wilkin and the rebels is a pretty good sign that you’re in the right place.

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