[This is a review of The Bastard Executioner season 1, episode 9. There will be SPOILERS.]
At this point in the series, the difficulty with which a viewer might pinpoint the actual story of The Bastard Executioner is concerning. Since the series premiere, the show has never truly committed itself to finding and developing a single, cohesive narrative. And now that the finale is just around the corner, the shortcomings of the season's storytelling are so apparent even a handful of last-minute twists do nothing but further muddy the already opaque waters of this overly complicated and structurally disjointed narrative.
It would be difficult to claim that Wilkin's plot for revenge was still the main focus of the story, given how that plot has dawdled in the background for weeks now, only popping up every time the show has to justify Wilkin and Toran doing everything that Corbett says with hardly an inkling of resistance. For his part, Toran stares longingly at the man he believes responsible for murdering his wife and child, and the camera lingers on the alleged murderer with the same perverse eye it does a dismembered woman in the episode's closing moments. But Toran and Wilkin's quest has been so badly mishandled by the narrative's incredibly short attention span and inclination to drift aimlessly from idea to idea that it would almost be better off just forgetting about the whole thing.
And that is essentially what happens during 'The Bernadette Maneuver/Cynllwyn Bernadette,' which actually finds greater success in making Wilkin and Corbett allies, than it ever did in them being in opposition with one another. There is a need for conflict in every narrative, but early on, The Bastard Executioner sought to make conflict out of nearly every character interaction, as well as the internal struggle of Wilkin Brattle. But as the season progressed, and the show has paid little attention to developing any of its characters beyond their relationship to the requisite episodic violence, the interpersonal and internal conflicts demonstrated a need to develop another kind of foothold. And either intentionally or unintentionally, relationships formed that suggested a possible narrative progression more fruitful than characters constantly reminding one another what the plot is.
So here, the episode presents Wilkin and Corbett with a clear goal, one that, unlike the overarching story of the series, has something at stake. The pursuit of Piers Gaveston is more than the pursuit to see as yet another character loses his head at the supposedly reluctant hands of Ventrishire's punisher; it concerns the future of Ventrishire as a whole, which, in turn, suggests the series' interest is really in maintaining and protecting Lady Love's control of her familial home. This gives Corbett and Wilkin a common objective outside playing games with one another and teasing revenge as actual motivation. And for the most part, 'The Bernadette Maneuver/Cynllwyn Bernadette' delivers in terms of offering a cohesive narrative that tells a complete story from start to finish.
That is not to say the episode isn't still diffuse to the point of distraction. While Corbett's men track down Gaveston in hopes of delivering him to the Earl of Warwick, there are two additional plot threads that suffer from being practically weightless. The Baroness is stuck dealing with Jessamy and her confusion/ploy regarding Wilkin assuming the identity of her late husband. It's easy to understand how and why Jessamy would want to keep Wilkin as her spouse, and it's also understandable that her confusion would stem from the trauma she suffered at the hands of the real Gawain. But The Bastard Executioner refuses to pick one or the other and the result is a muddled exchange with low stakes that apparently hinges on the safe return of Luca and the Priest. As such, the same can be said for the Priest's attempt to escape the clutches of the archdeacon and both men's indistinct involvement in the seraphim plot.
'The Bernadette Maneuver/Cynllwyn Bernadette' also suffers from a need to add last-minute twists to the narrative. This late in the game, finding out that Ash is a twisted serial killer and that Annora is apparently Wilkin's mother – which, c'mon – is like a chef realizing his main course is severely underseasoned mere moments before it is due to be served. Like everything else in the series, these twists could have added to the story and helped color these characters in a way that would make the audience interested in them. But instead, such additions that can't possibly carry the appropriate significance this late in the season and make it seem as though the writers are simply scrambling to add some much-needed zest to a bland tale.
The lack of greater context for the seraphim's "heretical scriptures" and Wilkin's relationship with Annora weakens the show's conflicts to the point their purpose to the overall narrative is called into question. Because the season has been unable to develop the characters and generate concrete ideas around them, there is no sense of actual consequence for any of the various plot threads. The series is built on a foundation of horrific violence, but it never successfully connected the main players to that violence beyond a superficial participation. The Bastard Executioner clearly loves its depiction of violence – as is seen when the camera lingers on Gaveston's decapitated head and blinking eye or even the hint of another woman being subjected to sexual violence – but when characters like Wilkin turn away from it or speak out against their role in such actions, those objections thing rings absolutely false.
Although 'The Bernadette Maneuver/Cynllwyn Bernadette' felt like the first complete episode in a long time, it did little to give the season the sense of cohesion and narrative significance it has been lacking. Last minute twists may give the audience reason to tune in to next week's finale, but they certainly don't offer viewers a reason to be invested in that episode's outcome.
The Bastard Executioner will conclude season 1 next Tuesday with 'Blood and Quiescence / Crau a Chwsg' @10pm on FX. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Ollie Upton/FX