[This is a review of The Bastard Executioner season 1, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
There is a moment during 'Broken Things/Pethau Toredig' that suggests The Bastard Executioner is no longer interested in its own premise outside the opportunity it presents to demonstrate certain acts of cruelty and to showcase a particular form of torture and execution. Last week, an innocent man was put to death via gruesome means, but the entire plot of the episode was set up to have Wilkin and Lady Love weigh the life of a man against their ability to continue forth with their own personal quests and burgeoning romantic feelings for one another. Although the execution was unsurprisingly flat, despite the cruel method it employed, there was at least some semblance of consequence for Love and Wilkin's decision. It was consequence that, at the time, would hopefully begin to color these otherwise colorless characters and offer a hint of the depth that had been missing in previous episodes.
Instead, 'Broken Things/Pethau Toredig' sees the show moving in the opposite direction, away from the idea of consequence or even mere contemplation of these acts of violence, and more towards violence as an expectation the show must meet on a weekly basis. The episode makes this choice obvious in distinct ways. For one, there is absolutely no mention of the innocent man who was torn apart last episode. Secondly, Wilkin and his merry band of sort-of prisoners bury their friend Calo with only Wilkin making a halfhearted apology before no one speaks of his death or the efficacy of their revenge quest again. And finally, Corbett has one of the twins tortured and executed in a disturbing and cruel way that not even he can muster up any real interest in.
The Bastard Executioner isn't even interested in examining its own cruelty; it is just cruelty for the sake of being cruel. And that, added to the general level of disinterest in capitalizing on the palpable sense of intrigue and character development exhibited just a few weeks ago, sees the show beginning to sink lower than ever.
So far, the series has skated by on the premise that its main character was at least wrestling with the moral compromises he was forced to make carrying out the duties of an executioner, while also plotting his revenge. But now, with the notion of vengeance shoved so far in the background, and Wilkin's romance with the Baroness so firmly entrenched as the narrative's new focus, any sense of consequence (moral or otherwise) is all but lost. Instead, there's an increased focus on Annora's seraphim mystery, the Dark Mute's almost preternatural killing ability, and now a kidnapped child.
This rejiggering of priorities might have served the series well, if the result was a correction of, say, its misguided pacing and other storytelling decisions that have muddied the narrative. Instead, all it really does is accentuate the needlessness of something like Corbett's assault on the twins before sentencing one of them to a horrible death. The entire sequence serves no real function other than pushing a certain type of violence as the show's sole storytelling vehicle; it doesn't even offer any new insight into the villainy of Corbett. It's not necessarily the violence itself that is a problem, or the idea that it doesn't belong here – this is, after all, a show about a violent time populated by violent people. The presence of violence in storytelling isn't really the issue. Rather, in 'Broken Things/Pethau Toredig' it is the sense there's no actual foundation upon which this shrine to violence was built, nothing driving it to a purpose greater than the series saying, "Look what we did here."
What's worse, the moment is to serve a plot point that doesn't even see the character in question appear on-screen. Of course we're talking about Piers, who was recently exiled, also off screen, because why include a potentially dramatic moment when you can simply mention it during five minutes of pure exposition?
Thankfully, there is a hint of intrigue in the three main players being mostly on the same page in their hunting of Piers, and the possibilities his capture can bring to Lady Love and the rest of Ventrishire. Again, Corbett is a far more interesting character when he is working in concert with the Baroness, though that is almost certainly not going to last. It is at least markedly more interesting than Jessamy walking in on Wilkin and Lady Love – for the second time – and then having a breakdown while the scars left by her real husband are exposed. There might have been something there, even the literally skin-deep examination of the damage wrought by violence is potentially compelling in comparison to everything else that's going on, but in true Bastard Executioner fashion, the story doesn't hang around the scene long enough to explore the weight of what is being hinted at. It literally puts a complication to sleep and moves on to the next thing.
And that might be the defining factor of the show: It is always more interested in what's coming than what is happening in any particular moment. The writing seems to revel in scenes where characters talk endlessly about plans and plots and hopes for an undecided future, but it falters when tasked with asking anyone to be fully in the here and now. The result, then, is: there's no real sense of the present being significant; it's always the future. The show's ideas take on an airy quality despite the heavy, self-serious way they are typically presented. The lack of weight in anything other than exposition makes it seem as though, after all its maneuvering and increasingly over-complicated plot threads, even The Bastard Executioner has lost interest in its own story.
The Bastard Executioner returns next Tuesday with 'The Bernadette Maneuver / Cynllwyn Bernadette' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Ollie Upton/FX