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It’s hard to place, but there’s something missing from The Bastard Executioner. Not something to make it great, but something that would make it watchable. All the pieces are there, and on paper they seem compelling. There’s the hidden identity of Wilkin and the fact that Chamberlain Milus Corbett knows who he is. There’s the themes of piety and loyalty, embodied not only by Wilkin’s split allegiances, but also by the corrupt morality of almost every theological person on the show. There’s the Baroness trying to do right by her people during a time of oppression, and there’s an undercurrent of the supernatural represented by Annora and the Dark Mute. This all sounds compelling enough, but something’s off about the execution, leaving The Bastard Executioner rather shapeless.

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“A Hunger/Newyn” is the first time the show really starts to, ever so slightly, build towards a cohesive, overarching narrative, but it’s also an episode that exposes the flaws in the, no pun intended, execution. Tonight’s episode is essentially split into two main, interconnected threads; one that sees Baroness Love hoping to meet with King Edward II to discuss Ventrishire’s future, and the exploits of Milus back at home. If the first three episodes were largely composed of narrative tablesetting, “A Hunger/Newyn” is the plot finally starting to reveal itself. The problem is that The Bastard Executioner is moving at a glacial pace. Despite the fact that two months have passed since the massacre by Ventris’ men–thank you, exposition-heavy dialogue for that bit of information–there’s been no sign of a major arc. Sure, there’s Wilkin’s quest for revenge, but that’s hardly enough to ground a sprawling historical drama with a plethora of characters and themes.

What The Bastard Executioner continues to do though is pile more and more characters and information into every episode, leaving each one feeling overstuffed. It’s hard to connect to just about any storyline when there’s a requirement to keep up with vaguely formed theological intentions, political allies, and ever-shifting allegiances. It’s not that the show is confusing, but rather unfocused and convoluted. Like Annora’s tree, there are stories branching out all through “A Hunger/Newyn,” but they’re leading nowhere; or at least the show isn’t doing enough to show the longer, more complex story being told.

So much of tonight’s episode dives into the theme of blurred morality, especially as it relates to religious conviction. Faith and religious doctrine is central to just about every character on the show, and The Bastard Executioner clearly wants to muddy the water in terms of character motivation. For instance, tonight’s prolonged torture sequence, featuring, and I can’t believe I’m typing this, Ed Sheeran ordering a man’s eyes to be gouged out, is structured to get across a few ideas and plot points. It shows that Annora is in some way connected to the religious man be tortured, and her dwindling tree sketch proves she’s had many messengers die before him. Outside of that plot point though, it’s mostly brutality for the sake of brutality. It doesn’t teach us anything about the characters, other than the fact that 14th century Archdeacons operating under tyrannical rule may be prone to violence, and the statement being made, that the fervently religious are as dangerous and influential as any warrior within the kingdom, isn’t exactly innovative or exciting.

It’s a shame the broader narrative beats don’t really work, and that much of the scenes don’t hold together across a single episode, because some of the more personal and political thematic work is promising. For all the masculinity on display in “A Hunger/Newyn,” it’s the deft touch and sharp tongue of Baroness Love that provides the most compelling portion of the episode. She’s perhaps the lone character on the show who isn’t flat and uninteresting. Her plight, to both look out for her Welsh people while playing a larger political game with King Edward II and his weaselly advisor Piers Gaveston in the name of Ventrishire, is the emotional and thematic cornerstone of the series so far. She’s the lone character who’s motivations exceed simplistic and formulaic names like “revenge,” and Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s performance, both vulnerable and hardened, consistently manages to rise above the mess of storylines in “A Hunger/Newyn.” The Baroness travels to Windsor to meet with the King, but is made to wait until the middle of the night to discuss the future of Ventrishire. Even then, she’s dismissed by the rowdy, young King and told that her land will be divided up and put in the hands of Gaveston. Putting the Baroness up against such conniving foes is perhaps why her cause is so relatable, her character one of the few who feels grounded in some semblance of reality. She acts, talks, and feels like a real person, her stakes in the larger game meaningful and compelling, whereas the rest of The Bastard Executioner continues to slip when trying to find its footing.

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The larger story is more interesting by the episode’s end. Milus and Baron Pryce forge a tentative alliance that would see a port built in Ventrishire, allowing the shire to thrive and become a hub for imports and exports, while Wilkin chokes a man to death because he knew he wasn’t Maddox the Executioner. If The Bastard Executioner has proven anything through its first four episodes though, it’s that promising narrative twists almost always fail to pan out or get explored in a meaningful way.

Stray observations

  • This was the first time my screener came with the opening title credits–was it the same for all of you?–and it’s unbelievably terrible. Who would have thought having Ed Sheeran sing trite lyrics written by Kurt Sutter wouldn’t be the best fit for your supposedly gritty, complex historical drama?
  • Is acting a thing Ed Sheeran does and I just didn’t know about it? I’m not really up to date on all things Sheeran.
  • I do like that we’re slowly learning more about what’s left of the Maddox family. They’ve clearly been traumatized by the deceased Gawain, and it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out as the season goes on.
  • Wilkin and Milus are good in their scenes together. Their shared secrets make for some of the more intriguing interactions on the show.
  • Get that food, Baroness. You deserve it.
  • So, the assumption has to be that the Baroness is lying about being pregnant in order to buy some time and come up with a plan to keep Ventrishire away from Gaveston, right?

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