[This is a review of The Bastard Executioner season 1, episode 4. There will be SPOILERS.]
Every so often in a television series, a character designed primarily to be a plot device manages to become one of the more compelling aspects of the show. Perhaps the character in question is charming, irascible, or they were built specifically to be the character everyone "loves to hate," one whose intended buzz-worthiness was either part of the plan, or a serendipitous byproduct of both the actor's performance and how the character manifested on the page. While no one on The Bastard Executioner has reached the point of being worthy of any real buzz (well, maybe Matthew Rhys' growling Welshman), there is one character who has risen above a story already mired in its own muddy plot, to become someone the audience can look to for some much-needed energy.
That character is Stephen Moyer's Milus Corbett, the underhanded chancellor of the late Baron Ventris. An advantageous schemer, the devious Corbett has been one of the few bright spots of the series in the early going. Perhaps thrilled to no longer be talking onscreen in a gawky Southern accent, Moyer has, in a relatively short period of time, made his character the person to watch on the series. The actor excels at breathing life into everything from simple moments of unscrupulous backstabbing to staid one-on-one conversations, in which characters already aware of the plot – because, you know, they're in it – waste valuable screen time (or in the case of this show, the unnecessary extra 10 minutes being granted every episode) explaining it to one another.
What's more, Moyer's performance and his character's ambitions give the series a chance to move away from the ponderous revenge story of Wilkin Brattle and his not-so-merry men, as well as the confounding quasi-supernatural hokum surrounding Katey Sagal's Annora of the Alders and her "seraphim" texts. It's not often a story within a story is actually the story begging to be told, but in this case, it would seem Corbett's machinations to increase the power of Ventrishire – thereby increasing his own power – by going behind the back of Lady Love Ventris, and appealing to the base sensibilities of Edwin Price (Richard Brake), really are the most interesting bits this series has yet uncovered.
With its medieval setting, sword-swinging violence, and characters wheeling and dealing inside a deep-seated power structure, you might think the most apt comparison for The Bastard Executioner would be HBO's Emmy-winning Game of Thrones, but that's only true so long as you don't look below the surface. Embedded deep within its DNA there is an inherent (and potentially entertaining) trashiness running neck and neck with its propensity for self-seriousness – all of which suggests The Bastard Executioner has more in common with House of Cards than anything else. And that makes a series ostensibly defined by the rather narrow parameters of a revenge story suddenly more interesting when viewed through the lens of a 14th-century version of Netflix's flagship series – with Moyer's Corbett in the role of Frank Underwood, while he was still majority whip.
This not only helps take the burden of creating something interesting off of the sober shoulders of Lee Jones and the stodgy, go-nowhere tale of retribution he's locked in; it gives the series an opportunity to stretch its legs and explore what other stories this gore-infused tale might actually be better suited to telling. And in the series' fourth episode, 'A Hunger/Newyn,' with its focus on power grabs both big and small, this tepid journey into the destiny of a violent man may actually be hiding a far more compelling tale about a sleazy guy who'll get in bed with anyone (literally and figuratively) so long as means more power for him.
'A Hunger/Newyn' essentially has three main threads and two supporting threads going on simultaneously, and writer Curtis Gwinn juggles them with mixed results. Sending Lady Ventris off to meet with King Edward II, so that Corbett could entertain Edwin Price and share with him the idea of expanding Ventrishire, was something of a cop out. If the goal was to make the audience feel as though the Baroness' daylong wait to see the king was unfolding in real time, then mission accomplished.
Flora Spencer-Longhurst can be engaging onscreen, but few performers manage to shine when they are given absolutely nothing to do. The Baroness' encounters with Piers Gaveston (Tom Forbes) and, eventually, King Edward II (Jack Greenless) are completely devoid of drama, and only serve to set up her fib about carrying an heir. This whole thread could have been cut (with the heir business being told in flashback or when the characters are explaining the plot to one another).
The rest of the hour fares better when Moyer is commanding the screen, as Corbett is the only character whose choices actually drive the plot forward. Brattle's situation continues to worsen, as his fake wife Jessamy slips deeper into delusion and his friends – Ash, Berber, and Calo – are captured and used as leverage against him. There's a spark of intrigue when Brattle spars with Leon Tell (Alec Newman), the man he believes responsible for the death of his wife, but that predictably goes nowhere.
Meanwhile, it's as difficult to tell what to make of the hunting of the "seraphim" and the collection of tattooed skins in Robinus' (Trevor Sellers) possession, as it is to determine whether or not Ed Sheeran's casting was more than just a stunt. The minor thread involving the seraphim and Annora, certainly fulfilled the gore quotient, but it would be great if the show would offer up some semblance of meaning in these digressions, so they don't come off as just that.
All of this adds up to a somewhat middling episode, which is too bad, because several moments with Moyer hint at a far more engaging plot than what has been presented so far. There is probably a fun show to be made out of Milus Corbett and what he will do to get what he wants. Let's hope The Bastard Executioner figures that out sooner rather than later.
The Bastard Executioner continues next Tuesday with ' Piss Profit/Proffidwyr Troeth' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Ollie Upton/FX