[This is a review of The Bastard Executioner season 1, episode 7. There will be SPOILERS.]
The Bastard Executioner is still a young show, but it has already developed some bad storytelling habits. Often, these habits are what keep the plot from moving forward and force most of what occurs into a predictable set of coincidences, actions, and reactions, all so that certain episodes can end with another classic form of execution and/or horrific bodily harm being done, so that the series can at least say it has earned its title.
Watching the show can sometimes feel like an exercise in waiting for complications to arise. And as each new complication rears its head, it's difficult not to imagine what might happen if the show took a different approach with almost every decision it makes. Do you remember the episode of Seinfeld where George does the opposite of what his instincts tell him to do, and his entire world changes for the better? There is a hint of that here, as each time a scene plays out, you are left with the distinct impression the show would be significantly more engaging if it did the exact opposite.
This is made most obvious during 'Behold the Lamb/Gweled yr Oen' when Lady Love and Corbett confront the fact that their respective schemes have so far yielded nothing positive. Corbett is by far the most interesting character on the show, but Lady Love is certainly not far behind. And the show finally seems to recognize this, as the result of putting the two in a scene together and allowing them to speak frankly about the reality of their situation and the future of Ventrishire is the first time the series has excelled at using dialogue to position characters within the framework of the larger narrative. Moreover, the interplay between Corbett and the Baroness cuts through so many layers of nonsense that the idea of the two them working in concert, rather than against one another, becomes yet another thing the series needs to figure out a way to make happen.
But again, as good as the scene is, with each character tacitly admitting (or at least not denying) their individual conspiracies regarding Baron Price and claiming to be with child, The Bastard Executioner cannot help but fall back on its bad habits. There is a legitimately good thing going on, but the show can't resist throwing in the "Baron was barren" line and mucking the whole thing up. This is one of the rare moments when the series was being neither glib nor too self serious, and it almost undoes the hard work put in by Stephen Moyer and Flora Spencer-Longhurst with a joke that would have been better suited for another occasion.
For the most part, 'Behold the Lamb/Gweled yr Oen' is a familiar series of sputtering starts and abrupt stops. Wilkin and Prichard join the knights in rounding up some rebels and find they look like the guilty party when one of the knights is killed. This leads to Corbett enacting retribution against the two, bludgeoning Calo in the middle of the night after the chamberlain's incredibly tedious and unnecessary story doesn't make the would-be rebel die of boredom. The death is intended to inform on Wilkin's ultimate decision, but the series so often utilizes this method of storytelling that when it comes time to make a choice that will shake things up, it inevitably goes too far, and then has to spend the episode's final few minutes backing away from its potential consequences.
This makes the biggest moment of the episode – and the series, really – something of a double-edged sword. Wilkin's confession to the Baroness profoundly alters the dynamic of the series in a potentially great way. Instead of having two characters continue to keep secrets from one another – as is the show's instinct to do – the two are free to invest in their burgeoning relationship, to build something rather than continually stop short due to circumstance. There is the chance for genuine conflict to arise from their feelings for one another, rather than the superficial strife of maintaining a drive-killing falsehood whose only benefit was prolonging a sense of tension that had all but vanished by episode 3.
Still, while the weight of an enormous lie being lifted from Wilkin's shoulders may have an overwhelmingly positive effect on the series going forward, the leap from maintaining the lie to revealing it felt too incredible. Wilkin's turning point – comprised mostly of a lengthy close-up in which he is either deeply contemplating his next move or experiencing intestinal distress – failed to come across as convincing, especially given what was a stake. Yes, the innocent man's deal with Baron Price and Corbett essentially provides Wilkin the foundation for his decision, but the jump from a man consumed with revenge to one choosing to die for his friends and adopted family just doesn't quite ring true.
The same goes for Lady Love's reaction and eventual acceptance of not only Wilkin's truth, but also the supposed necessity of putting an innocent man to death. It is all too big of a jump that feels contradictory to the characters as they have been presented up to this point. Like Wilkin going in for a kiss every time he and Lady Love talk, or his bedding Jessamy (presumably because he figures he'll be dead soon?), or worse, his bringing up a vision he once had, featuring the son believed to be born of his union with the Baroness, it is too far too fast. Yes, life was short in the 14th century, but going from truth bomb to semi-unwanted kissing to talk of children-filled vision quests felt entirely too hasty.
Yes, the jump was clumsy at best, but the ungainliness of it can mostly be forgiven for finally moving the plot forward and for pulling a key character dynamic out of the stagnant swamp it has been mired in since the pilot. The Bastard Executioner tends to see secrets, lies, and surreptitious scheming as the foundation of its storytelling (seriously, how many times do we need to see a character secretly listening in on the exposition-heavy conversation of others?). But if it would ignore the instinct to focus on those elements and instead have its characters engage one another openly as it did here, the series might find itself taking the reins of a more appealing and propulsive storyline.
The Bastard Executioner continues on Tuesday, November 3 with 'Broken Things / Pethau Toredig' @10pm on FX.
Photo: Ollie Upton/FX