[This is a review of The Bastard Executioner season 1, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
One of the questions left over from the distended series premiere of The Bastard Executioner wasn't necessarily how Wilkin Brattle would adapt to his new life of waiting for vengeance and intermittently removing the heads (and other body parts) from people deemed worthy of punishment, but rather what the heck was up with Jessamy Maddox and her son Luca?
The pilot episode covered more backstory than necessary for an introductory piece of television, and in doing so glossed over certain intriguing elements, like why the family of the late Gawain Maddox, journeyman executioner to the stars, willingly engaged in an act of subterfuge that put their lives at great risk. Jessamy (Sarah Sweeney) sold Wikin's lie about being Gawain and the noble people of Ventrishire basically bought it because, presumably, their shire was overflowing with heads waiting to be separated from their bodies. These people needed an executioner, and they weren't going to let something as insignificant as accusations of identity theft stop them from having one.
The scene was overly telegraphed, but it did serve a specific purpose to the increasingly diffuse storyline, while also giving Brattle a much-needed opportunity to interact honestly with a character that existed outside his quest for vengeance. The trouble is, after introducing this potentially intriguing relationship, The Bastard Executioner basically set it aside.
As such, it's nice to see that in the series' third episode (the two-hour pilot counts as episodes 1 & 2), 'Effigy/Delw,' the show tries to address the circumstances of Brattle's seemingly unspoken arrangement with Jessamy and Luca – the eager little tike who knows a punisher's toolkit by heart – and to provide a glimpse into how their relationship will work. But "tries" is as far as things go, when the Wilkin-Jessamy union is given a paltry amount of screen time, during which Jessamy just repeats a single line over and over again.
The moment answers the most basic question about the way the two interact and whether or not Brattle's secret is truly safe with her. But that only makes the lack of any real interaction between the two all the more frustrating. There's something far more interesting about two people being thrust into a domestic situation that is mutually beneficial, but in radically different ways, than there is in wondering whether or not a secret can be kept.
For the most part, the rest of 'Effigy/Delw' unfolds similarly to Brattle's interplay with Jessamy. There are potentially interesting character dynamics at play, but most of them are put aside in favor of reestablishing the parameters of the narrative. As was often the case in latter episodes of Sons of Anarchy, characters are given to explaining the plot to one another – as is the case when Brattle and Corbett are alone or when Brattle and his fellow vengeance-seeker Toran Prichard (Sam Spruell) attempt to gather information on the men responsible for killing their families while drinking in a tavern.
Brattle's quest for vengeance is essentially the series' main plot, but here you can see the pitfalls of including such an explicit task when the series is more interested in circuitously exploring notions of violence, morality, and faith. Why must there be a quest for vengeance at all? Why not just explore the morally complex life of a journeyman executioner and avoid the headaches that come from introducing such a specific (and frankly, tired) storyline? This is only the third episode and you can already feel the oppressive weight of the various complications (the Brattle-Jessamy non-relationship being one of them) that have been introduced under the guise of narrative intricacy.
The series works best when dealing with the duties of its titular character in a straightforward manner. Here, the quandary of harming a young girl who is tangentially involved in the Welsh rebellion does more to color the various characters than the previous two hours of backstory. The heretofore-kindhearted Baroness (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) is given some depth when her attempts to leverage the girl's life against information about the insurgency come up empty. The seemingly empathetic Baroness then opts to have the young girl's nose cut off in lieu of an execution, a decision that, although gruesome, gives the audience a better idea of who Lady 'Love' really is and how her instincts must be reconciled against her position.
And right now details and discoveries like those concerning the Baroness matter greatly, because, after three hours, it is still difficult to say what specifically makes these characters interesting, what makes them distinct. It is also difficult to say why the viewer should be invested in the story. There is still plenty of time to establish a reason why, and hopefully the series won't add more storylines in an attempt to create one. Right now, The Bastard Executioner would benefit more from a simplification of its story and a pairing down of its threads, than from any expansion of them.
The Bastard Executioner continues next Tuesday with 'A Hunger / Newyn' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Ollie Upton/FX