[This is a review of The Bastard Executioner finale. There will be SPOILERS.]
Throughout its run, The Bastard Executioner distinguished itself as a series with lofty ideas and a great many themes, and no real plan on how to turn those ideas or those themes into a gripping story. It was at times a series in love with its own depiction of brutal, graphic violence, and at others entirely devoted to the idea of selling itself as a love story with hints of a Dan Brown-esque religious conspiracy. In the end, what should have been layers of interest added to a dark, bloody structure became the fragmented pieces of a presentation that never quite gathered into a cohesive whole.
Even when an episode managed to become more organized within the confines of its lengthy runtime, as ‘Blood and Quiescence/Crau a Chwg’ did, there was still the lingering question of “so what?” As the episode unfolded and focused on Wilkin, the Baroness, and even Corbett banding together to rescue Luca and Father Ruskin from Robinus and Ed Sheeran, the purpose of the thinly sketched characters’ episodic quest, in relation to the overarching plot – the existence of which is still debatable – remained elusive. This is an episode that would have been fine at any other point in the season, but it lacked any semblance of being a season finale. As such, there is no sense of climax or finality to the season (or the series, as the case is now). The Bastard Executioner ended things as it began them, pursuing whatever idea suited its fancy at the time, regardless of how that idea fit into the larger whole.
One of the main points of contention throughout the season was the way in which aspects of the plot were forgotten entirely. For a series that began as a quest for revenge, there was little revenge to be had. Instead, Wilkin’s story was muddled by a hasty romance with the Baroness, and a complicated and often needlessly cruel subplot involving his pretend wife’s past experiences with abuse, pushing her deeper and deeper into paranoia and insanity.
That left most of Wilkins’ merry men to wallow in the margins of the story, either to be murdered by Corbett or pointlessly revealed to be murderers themselves. Then there’s Danny Sapani, who was wasted for much of the season, only to end up stuck with a circuitous piece of exposition explaining the backstory of a character who had maybe five minutes of screen time over the course of the entire season. That’s not to say such digressions are unnecessary. The discussion between Sapani’s character and the Scribe could have been an interesting foray into the show’s exploration of faith, but it has no place in a finale, especially when the series has struggled to define its primary characters as much as The Bastard Executioner has.
So much of what transpires in ‘Blood and Quiescence/Crau a Chwg’ feels like a last-minute rewrite of the show’s core concepts and character depictions that the whole thing goes up in flames like Sutter’s Dark Mute character. Both Toran and Wilkin are given the opportunity to enact their revenge on the men they believe murdered their loved ones. And yet, in both cases, the men inexplicably accept the accused’s version of the events and simply decide to move on. It’s difficult to decide which moment is more exasperating: Toran winding up on the losing end of a “fair fight” or Wilkin slipping into another conveniently timed hallucination of his dead wife telling him not to kill the suddenly honorable Leon Tell. If the revenge plotline was simply the catalyst for a much larger story, that’s fine, but it doesn’t excuse the limp manner in which two men’s thirst for vengeance was written off, rather than believably resolved.
More troubling is how, in its final hour, The Bastard Executioner essentially sought to turn its season-long MVP – Stephen Moyer’s Milus Corbett – into something other than the villain he’d been from the get-go. Turning Tell and his fellow knight into men of honor was a surprising turn of events, but Corbett’s dealings with everyone from the Baroness – with whom he acts reasonable with and even jokes at times – to Wilkin to even Matthew Rhys’ The Wolf came as a complete reversal of his character. Again, this actually works in the show’s favor, but the series has done so little character work to justify Corbett’s transition from duplicitous antagonist to potentially sympathetic ally that it reads more like the flipping of a switch than it does thoughtful, logical character development. It’s all for naught anyway, after Corbett’s untoward flirtation with Isabel serves as a reminder of just how juvenile this series was when it comes to matters of sex and violence.
The show’s puerile nature was not the only element to remain consistent throughout its 10-episode run. The series was also unfailing in its delivery of languorous episodes that ran well past the usual hour mark, and yet were still dominated by characters attempting to explain the plot to one another. This, of course, came between shallow depictions of ultra violence that never quite conveyed as much meaning as the show seemingly intended. Then there’s Annora’s revelation she’s a descendant of Jesus — which is another element that might have been compelling, had it not been introduced in the finale.
As such, news of The Bastard Executioner‘s cancellation doesn’t come as much of a surprise. The focus on superficial elements in lieu of developing its characters or creating a cohesive narrative likely caused the series to shed its audience at such a rapid rate. It’s certainly a misstep for creator Kurt Sutter, but hopefully one that will lead to a more fully formed idea when his next series comes around.
Photos: Ollie Upton/FX