[This is a review of The Bastard Executioner series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
The Bastard Executioner has so many plot devices and character beats reminiscent of Sons of Anarchy, this brutal swords-and-shields saga may as well reveal itself to be the oft-teased prequel to FX's long-running biker gang saga. The thought of a prequel doing a deep, centuries-long dive into history, in an effort to excavate some truth about violent men or exhume a long lost through-line integral to the alleged profundities of a single story, would be the sort of unexpected, risky surprise upon which a great dramas are made. Sadly, there's not much that's unexpected or risky here.
In the two-hour premiere, The Bastard Executioner demonstrates a disinterest in things like subverting expectations or showing restraint, and by doing so plays into many of the indulgent aspects that, over time, began to weigh down its creator's previous effort.
From the opening sequence on you know this is going to be a show about men, tortured men with dark pasts who dream in clunky visual metaphors. It is about tortured men for whom escape from a life of violence is all they desire, and yet they find violence inescapable – mostly because they won't stop committing acts of violence. It is about tortured men who kiss the bellies of their pregnant wives and speak gently to their unborn children; blissfully unaware displays of affection in programs such as this only presage the horrific violence to come.
The series takes place in 14th century Wales, and concerns the plight of Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a displaced knight who, after experiencing a vision on the battlefield, renounces his sword to become a farmer in a village so quaint you expect Merry and Pippin to dart through, carrying armloads of pilfered vegetables. Brattle's reserved and rustic existence is shattered when an act of rebellion against a cruel English lord's heavy taxation results in the slaughter of the women and children in his village, leaving the men with nothing to turn to but vengeance.
What the lengthy premiere leaves the viewer with – other than the question of what Matthew Rhys is doing in it – is: Was any of this introduction actually necessary? Considering how lethargic and unfocused much of it felt, the answer may be obvious. Pilots are definitely tricky beasts to tame; there's the need to establish a world, a tone, a plot, and a strong sense of character. But too often it seems, in the scramble to fit these elements within the sometimes-restrictive confines of a television hour (which isn't a problem in this case), new series often make the mistake of beginning a show long before the actual story has commenced.
As a result the pilot here feels bloated and overlong. Standard runtimes exist for reasons beyond scheduling purposes. For one thing, they dissuade writers from indulging in digression. Extra time, and carte blanche to use it, isn't always the gift it initially appears to be. In most cases anything "extra" becomes superfluous dead weight. And there is evidence to suggest that is the case here. Like the final season of Sons of Anarchy, what The Bastard Executioner needs most is a stern editor, someone to trim the proverbial fat and transform this otherwise languorous effort into the swift and nimble beast it wants to be.
Despite a tendency to meander around vague mystical elements and perfunctory mentions of faith and morality, the pilot does have one clear, relatively basic ambition: to have the audience become emotionally invested in Brattle's journey, by way of showing them his tortured psyche and the painful event that drives him to take up his sword against England. It's a game of emotional maneuvering, and to help with this, director Paris Barclay often fills the screen with close-ups of his actors' faces. The intent is to put the viewer as close to the character as possible, to encourage those watching to form an emotional attachment to those being watched. The technique is used extensively during a key seeing-the-men-off-to-battle moment, when over-taxed men kiss their wives goodbye and hug their children tight. Unfortunately, the characters – especially the women and children, whose only purpose is to die in service of a man's story arc – are on screen so briefly, and are so thinly sketched, the effect of the camera's proximity to all that medieval grit and crust is mostly one of distraction.
All of this might not be so problematic if Brattle were a more engaging character, and his presence and actions gave the audience a reason to be invested. But throughout the first two hours, Brattle has almost no direct effect on the narrative. He makes few decisions that dictate the course of the story; instead, the story pushes and pulls him in whatever direction necessary to serve the needs of the plot. It's disappointing for a leading character to be this inert. It's also more than a little familiar to see a protagonist manipulated into a violent situation he claims to want no part of and must suffer through until his "destiny" – determined primarily by outside forces – can be fulfilled.
For the most part, neither events nor characters enkindle the series' pilot episode in a way that makes any of it stand out. Katey Sagal's Slavic witch, Annora, is revealed early on to be pulling Brattle's strings, but the promise of her playing another character embroiled in various behind-the-scenes machinations locks a talented performer into a role frustratingly similar to the one she played for seven seasons. The lone bright spot is Stephen Moyer's underhanded and ambitious Milus Corbett, who, like the actor playing him, seems to be the only person having a good time.
Yes, it's the Middle Ages – not a time period historically thought of as being filled with mirth and merriment – but that doesn't mean a series in which the main character relieves others of their lives should itself feel so somber and free of life.
The Bastard Executioner continues next Tuesday with 'Effigy/Delw' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Ollie Upton/FX