[This is a review of The Bastard Executioner season 1, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
After a promising episode in which Stephen Moyer’s duplicitous chancellor took center stage and gave the episode some much-needed energy and sense of purpose, The Bastard Executioner nearly falls back into a familiar routine of characters reacting to events and forces beyond their control. It is a phenomenon already familiar to the series, and one that, seemingly snares Moyer as well.
For five weeks now, the show has offered up episodes that run considerably longer than the average television hour, and yet the series as a whole has little to show for it in terms of actual narrative progression. When it is just the fifth episode of the first season, and already the “previously on” recap is longer than most network sitcoms, it’s time to reconsider the various threads going on your series. So far, this series favors exposition over action – an issue made worse by much of the dialogue being overly flowery when it needn’t be. That means episodes are comprised of people discussing things that have already happened, things that could happen, or things they hope will happen – with very few of them doing anything to actually make those things happen.
This is particularly apparent in the main plot of the series. Wilkin Brattle’s quest for revenge brought him to Ventrishire, but it only seems to motivate him to talk about wanting vengeance rather than doing anything about it. The character has been stuck in a holding pattern since the premiere, and with each passing week it becomes harder and harder to remain invested in a plot that even the actor appears to struggle finding the emotional core of.
You see, that is the thing about revenge plots: they’re naturally propulsive and filled with a sense of urgency. It’s why they work as a subgenre unto themselves. Even when the revenge in question takes years for the main character to mete out, the story typically doesn’t follow the protagonist through the minutia of his or her daily life leading up to that point. The character’s motivation allows the story to move through its plot in order to reach the necessary goal. This being a television series, it is understandable that Brattle not achieve his objective right away, but there has to be some sense that objective is still significant to him.
There are hints of this in Brattle doing a “dirty deed” for Milus in order to help his friends, but it’s also present in the heavy-handed visions Brattle has about his dead wife. These hallucinations could be effective if it felt as though they were tapping into the character’s deep grief and turmoil, but due either to how they are presented or how Lee Jone’s performance feels especially flat, these moments don’t quite work. What’s more, the series seems increasingly interested in positioning the visions as a way of explaining Brattle’s predicament as a matter of some larger unfulfilled destiny – which further removes the element of choice or motivation from the protagonist, making him just another character along for the ride. This makes him a reactive character rather than one who creates the story through his actions.
That is what made Moyer’s Corbett such and intriguing alternative to Brattle during last week’s deception-filled episode. Corbett was a doer; he actively made decisions related to his goals and took action to achieve them. Granted, what his actual goal beyond the accumulation of more power is, or what that power means to him remains unclear, but in this instance, the notion of power is no less remarkable a concept to build a plot around than, say, vengeance.
Which is why the arrival of Piers Gaveston to Ventrishire is something of a mixed blessing. For one thing, the brown-toothed advisor to the king introduces a much-needed sense of conflict, one that is also immediate to the needs of the episode. This has the effect of making ‘Piss Profit/Proffidwyr Troeth’ the more propulsive episode of the season so far, one that has the ability to address and resolve certain aspects of its own plot, while still hinting at a larger thread and threat to come.
Gaveston’s insistence the Baroness is lying about her being with child is a natural continuation of her deception from last week, and it finally puts the character in a position where she has something at stake beyond maintaining her hold on Ventrishire. Lady Love’s need to successfully deceive everyone about her pregnancy is one thing, and it works for this episode, but it also sets up a very real need for her and Brattle’s relationship to advance more quickly. It’s ungainly for sure, but considering how the series has meandered these past few weeks, its more important for progression of any kind to happen, than for it to be pretty.
But where The Bastard Executioner gives, it also takes away – but that’s not necessarily a negative. Gaveston’s arrival effectively hamstrings Corbett, placing him in the same situation as nearly everyone else – beholden to a power he cannot control and subject to the manipulations of those he believes himself in control of. This is no more evident than when Gaveston awaits the findings of the “doctor,” while Corbett and the Baroness are seated next to one another at a table. Sure, there’s the scene when Corbett and Gaveston are alone, and the king’s man is very forward in terms of making his intentions clear, but it’s the confirmation of Love’s pregnancy that literally brings the two to the same table, and more effectively demonstrates the commonality that exists between them, in the moment.
At this point, the weak spot in the series is Wilkin Brattle, who has been saddled with an increasingly marginalized arc. What’s surprising about the sidelining of Brattle’s vengeance is how unnecessary the plot seems at this point, and how unaffected the series would be if it was dropped in favor of more interesting threads, like his burgeoning relationship with the Baroness and the potential for conflict it presents with regard to Prichard and Jessamy. The series would do well to give Brattle motivation beyond his barely-there thirst for vengeance, and it may have found just the thing in the bond he shares with the Baroness.
The Bastard Executioner continues next Tuesday with ‘Thorns/Drain’ @10pm on FX.
Photos: Ollie Upton/FX