Lee Jones

Near the end of my review of the two-part premiere of The Bastard Executioner, I noted that I was cautiously optimistic that the show, despite getting off to a sluggish start, had the potential to grow in the next episode. The premiere spent a lot of time setting the table for Wilkin and his band of rebels, not really arriving at any sort of narrative hook until the very end of the episode, when Wilkin takes his place among the English as their executioner. There’s intriguing tension built into that hook, where former English supporter/warrior and current rebel Wilkin works within the castle while balancing two identities and allegiances. Unfortunately, “Effigy/Delw” wastes the slight momentum built by the end of the pilot.

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Through three episodes, the biggest problem with The Bastard Executioner­–and it’s hard to choose just one­–is the pacing. Both the pilot and “Effigy/Delw” defy the logic of pacing, somehow managing to be both too swift and laborious at the same time. It’s baffling how such a thing can happen, especially considering that the premise and setting of the show is primed for not only violence and catharsis, but also more thematically rich and meditative moments. “Effigy/Delw” is a mess though. While it’s moving the many pieces forward in terms of plot, having Wilkin deal with the existential crisis of harming his first “client” while also working to get information about the men who burned his village to the ground, The Bastard Executioner has little narrative momentum.

It doesn’t feel as if anything of consequence is happening, but rather that events are taking place because the plot dictates it. Thus, when it’s confirmed that Wilkin and Chamberlain Milos know each other from before Wilkin was a rebel–“confirmed” as in finally spoken out loud–it doesn’t play as a moment of revelation filled with possible consequences that could shed light on other relationships, but rather just another twist, another obstacle put in the way of the protagonist before swiftly moving on to other inconsequential stories.

That interaction is representative of much of the problems that plague “Effigy/Delw,” and The Bastard Executioner more generally. Specifically though, the show can’t seem to reconcile needing to be an expansive historical drama, complete with detailed political and religious context, while also telling the kinds of personal stories that drive episodic and serialized television. To be fair, “Effigy/Delw” does at least manage to deepen the story of Wales and the English rule, using Baroness Aberffraw, who’s Welsh, as a stand-in for the exploration of the themes of identity and allegiance.

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Baroness Aberffraw

The Baroness spends much of the episode curtailing the more brutish whims of Milus, asking to speak with a young girl, a captured rebel, before she is tortured, and hoping to seek out a meeting with rebel leader “The Wolf” in order to discuss his grievances. Her goal is to create a peaceful order, far removed from that of her deceased husband Baron Ventrils, whose vandalized effigy drives the storylines this week. Her character is perhaps the most sympathetic thus far, and it’s nice to have such a beacon on an otherwise dreary show, but it’s not enough to really flesh out all the themes and mythology that The Bastard Executioner wants to dabble in.

Essentially, “Effigy/Delw” spreads itself far too thin. While the focus on a single plot thread–the capturing and sentencing of the young rebel–certainly helps to rein in some of the pilot’s more scattered ideas, there’s still no depth to the proceedings, no reason to care beyond a mild curiosity as to how Wilkin will balance his dual identities. With the narrative spread so thin and failing to build towards anything substantial or captivating, the characterizations are left to flail in the wind. Every show goes through some growing pains when first coming out of the gate, but it’s not very promising that after three episodes The Bastard Executioner has failed to make any of its characters stand out.

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Consider the way in which shows that have similar frameworks and aesthetics worked to make sure their historical dramas (real or imagined) stood out amongst the crowd. Game Of Thrones, despite its huge cast, managed to flesh out its characters rather quickly through clear alliances and focused storytelling. Vikings found success by making sure the charismatic Ragnar Lothbrok, and the not exactly hard on the eyes Travis Fimmel, was the center of attention. The same can’t be said for how “Effigy/Delw” handles its characters. There’s little to understand about Wilkin other than that he was once an English soldier and that he’s out for revenge after his family was killed. Milus is a caricature at best, his evil side-eye and seemingly masochistic threesome sex laughable in the way it paints him in broad strokes as a villain. Then there’s the supporting characters, some of whom are supposed to be close to Wilkin and yet there’s no exploration as to how these men have come together and what they’re fighting for. We know it’s about Welsh independence and revenge, but that’s told rather than shown.

Chamberlain Milus

Telling rather than showing is perhaps the best way to define “Effigy/Delw.” It’s an episode that moves the story along, but never digs in deep. There’s Wilkin confronting his ethics, growing closer to the Baroness, and fighting to keep his identity safe while also exposing those who murdered his family, but it doesn’t add up to anything. There’s nothing holding all the disparate pieces together at this point, and that doesn’t bode well for The Bastard Executioner moving forward.

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Stray observations

  • So, the wife of the executioner is pretty traumatized and seems to think Wilkin is actually her husband.
  • The Bastard Executioner really wants Ash to be the Floki of this show, but there’s nowhere near the same presence or charisma in the performance.
  • Annora has quite the collection of hanging snakes. And that’s not a euphemism or anything.
  • It seems strange that the show doesn’t better use its scenery and setting. Even if there are other problems, historical dramas almost always look gorgeous. This show doesn’t seem to care about that at all.
  • The Baroness decides that the rebel’s nose shall be cut off since the effigy of Ventrils only lost its nose. It’s an interesting, if easy way to resolve the moral conflict at the heart of the episode.
  • The Wolf needs to make an appearance again because Matthew Rhys is amazing and the show could use more of him.
  • At some point the show is going to have to dig into Annora and the Dark Mute more substantially. Right now they’re just doing mystical, spooky stuff in a narrative vacuum.

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