[This is a review of The Bastard Executioner season 1, episode 6. There will be SPOILERS.]
For the first few weeks of The Bastard Executioner, the writing has been a mostly bland affair, which, when combined with a languorous pace and incredibly long episodes (this week’s clocked in at an interminable 91 minutes), has made this freshman series’ initial outing a rough one indeed. There have been bright spots, to be sure, but even the relatively more successful elements, like Milus Corbett’s Frank Underwood-like scheming and Stephen Moyer’s seemingly boundless energy in even the most listless of scenes, only serve to underline just how flavorless the series’ primary storyline and most of its characters are.
And while the series’ protagonist lacks the allure one would expect from someone wrapped up in a complicated plot of revenge, wherein his devoutness, morality, and sense of self are constantly questioned, it has shown unexpected nuance and emotionality when dealing with members of the supporting cast. In the case of ‘Thorns/Drain,’ that is largely due to the reemergence of Matthew Rhys as the rebel Welsh leader known as The Wolf – who, as is revealed in one of the episode’s better scenes, is actually the half-brother of the Baroness Lady Love.
Matthew Rhys and Flora Spencer-Longhurst have two major scenes with one another, and in both, the actors are able to convey a sense of their characters’ deep history, one that is made relatable due to the underlying emotions implied in its familial context. This is what The Bastard Executioner continually strives toward in all of its storylines, and yet it so rarely achieves it in any of them. The bond between half-siblings is made evident not only in their words, but in the manner of speaking and, especially, in what the Baroness does for her rebellious half-brother.
The revelation of The Wolf and Lady Love being family and the Baroness partially financing the Welsh rebellion certainly make things more interesting (or complicated, as is the preferred method of this series), but these disclosures work because they force the dialogue between the two characters to move with a greater, more clearly defined sense of purpose. As is seen throughout so much of ‘Thorns/Drain,’ most characters are again prone to discussing matters of morality and, increasingly, their faith. It eats up an incredible amount of time, and it is also mostly shallow rhetoric that fails to properly connect the actions of the characters with their feelings about them.
This is never more evident than in Wilkin Brattle’s newest crisis of conscience when he and Toran are forced to kill a knight, in order to keep their identities and their affiliation with the rebellion a secret. Brattle’s actions and his supposed inner turmoil are meant to inform on the character and generate a sense of weight to his (re)actions, but there’s not enough connective tissue between action and consequence for it to matter. Brattle mutters how it feels as though he’s living the life of another man, but such obvious dialogue does nothing to deepen his character. These moments don’t actually demonstrate the moral uncertainty of a man; they simply create a veneer of complexity.
Confusing complex with complicated is a common problem in series with expansive casts and lots of hazy ideas and grand sweeping themes that swirl around an elusive plot like clouds of smoke. ‘Thorns/Drain’ is a perfect example of this issue, as everything outside of Lady Love and The Wolf is seemingly more concerned with creating impediments to Brattle’s plot for revenge, than to deal with it directly – a matter that is worsened by Brattle’s apparent disinterest in meting out said vengeance much of the time. The result, then, is that for every action Brattle is forced into by circumstance, his story is subsequently made more complicated by the decisions of someone else – in this case Milus Corbett and his increasingly unstable (and fake) wife, Jessamy.
All of this is why Brattle is such a thin character: he is only allowed to react to situations and be controlled by outside forces; he rarely takes action of his own accord and his decisions almost never dictate the course of the story. And in between it all, the actor playing him is saddled with soupy monologues that have the opposite effect of imbuing the character with some much-needed vigor.
After hinting at a more energized pace the past two weeks, this episode suggests a significant narrative backslide, one that places The Bastard Executioner in the unenviable position of having to recover even more lost ground. There are simply too many threads running simultaneously with too few of them bringing any actual weight to the storyline. The audience can be given whiffs of mysticism and the supernatural, along with all the historical fiction and gory torture scenes, but without them being connected in a way that makes sense and hints at a larger, cohesive whole, they become disparate elements competing against one another for relevance.
By the third episode, it was clear this story was in need of some housecleaning, that it might be more successful if it worked to narrow the scope of its narrative down to the most essential elements. As of the sixth episode, the show seems more interested in summarizing its nebulous themes than exploring which threads are actually vital to the storyline. And that’s unfortunate, because there are hints of something compelling going on between Lady Love and The Wolf, just as Corbett’s insatiable appetite for power has conjured up some interest. Both plots also include some of the series’ best character work. Let’s hope, as the season moves forward, the focus can shift toward these components, as they appear to be the most promising.
The Bastard Executioner continues next Tuesday with ‘Behold the Lamb/Gweled yr Oen’ @10pm on FX. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Ollie Upton/FX