Wilkin Brattle has trouble sleeping. A former warrior knight, Brattle (played by newcomer Lee Jones) barely survived a deadly battle. Thought dead, he was abandoned by Baron Erik Ventris (Brian F. O’Byrne) and Chamberlain Milus Corbett (Stephen Moyer), lest Brattle be taken back and celebrated as a “slain hero.” Wilkin retreats to a small farming village, where he may have nightmares, but he wakes to a lovely pregnant blonde, Petra (Elen Rhys), who speaks in flowery verse about their heir. Thus begins Kurt Sutter’s new FX drama, The Bastard Executioner.
In this moment, it’s hard not to think about Sons of Anarchy, the series that Bastard creator Kurt Sutter wrapped up last fall. The tormented male protagonist with long flowing hair who is trying to abandon a life of violence and the impending fatherhood that gives him new purpose seems familiar. The comparisons to SOA could be plentiful if we consider the conflicted protagonist, the violent battles, and the powerful women who inhabited Charming and also seem to inhabit the 14th-century Welsh villages of Bastard.
Of course, the familiarity we feel in Sutter’s storytelling is in a grand tradition of Shakespeare’s dramas and Joseph Campbell’s hero. The pilot episode, which spans two hours, is the Act I exposition: It sets up the characters and the action, and — albeit slowly at times — pulls us into caring about both (or at least tries to), and sets the path for the journey ahead.
The historical scene is set at the beginning of the pilot (and outlined on the series’ website, which also features helpful maps and character descriptions). It’s the early 14th century; wealthy English barons control Welsh fiefdoms, controlling them with high taxes and violence.
At first, Wilkin’s role is passive, which he wants. His nightmares are re-creations of his final battle, but they culminate with a blonde, biracial little-girl angel who reaches out to him: “You have a destiny to claim,” she says. “Your savior needs you to live the life of a different man.” He promises he will, and then wakes from the dream-within-a-dream to see a monstrous, dragonlike demon coming out of a dead soldier, Alien-style. He will hear this message again. We will soon recognize the dragon.
While he wakes to a fertile wife and a familial agrarian village, Baron Erik is in his castle in Ventrishire, angrily having sex with his wife, the Baroness Lady Love (Flora Spencer-Longhurst). The two can’t conceive, although he obviously blames her (referencing stuffing her “barren hole with swollen meat”). He’s cruel and cold, and she’s full of faith, if not heirs.
The Bastard Executioner starts with battles, blood, and sex, much like human history. Weave in religion — the dominant Catholicism is reflected in iconography and Father Ruskin (Timothy V. Murphy), who is Lady Love’s close adviser, and the traditional healing/“witchcraft” of Annora (Katey Sagal), who, with the Dark Mute (Kurt Sutter), guides Wilkin’s path — and the tensions and conflict that drive history will obviously drive The Bastard Executioner.
The men in Wilkin and Petra’s village (led by Petra’s father) set out to kill the armed guards who escort the collector in protest of the high taxes being levied by Baron Erik. Wilkin joins, reluctantly. The men kiss their wives, children, and babies, and go out into the woods to kill the guards and send the tax man back to Ventrishire with their message of protest. On his way, he recognizes Ash y Goedwig (Darren Evans), a little guy who loves his sheep, and ends up taking Baron Erik and Chamberlain Milus back to the village — where only women, children, and elderly men and women are sleeping.
A few minutes later, these villagers are dead and stacked in a pile, their homes burning all around them. A cross is erected at the top of the pile — where Petra is placed. Her death is, as one would expect, horrific; the POV shot places the viewer in the eyes of her killer as he/she approaches (both for grisly effect and mystery) and stabs her with a knife that is brandished with the dragonlike creature from Wilkin’s dream. The collector is also killed and left as a calling card from Ventrishire.
As is often the case in Shakespearean drama, women must die so men can learn and act. Wilkin digs out his sword and is ready to battle. “This is my fight,” he says, after mourning the carnage of his wife and child. “I’ve no plan but vengeance.” As morbid as it is, Wilkin comes alive in this scene — he has a purpose, and that purpose is to once again be a killer.
Meanwhile, another man is on a journey. Gawain Maddox is an executioner, a “punisher” by trade, and he’s taken his family with him to try to find work. He is, no surprise, abusive, and self-harms. He trains his son to take up his trade, as was customary, and he’s cruel to his wife, Jessamy. Baron Erik picks Gawain up on the road and uses him in battle with Wilkin — a “ghost” from his past — and the villagers, who have been joined by numerous rebel Welshmen. Baron Erik and most of his men — including Gawain — are defeated.
Annora — who has guided Wilkin and his men in their “new path” — mysteriously carves a cross into Wilkin’s cheek as he sleeps. He is shocked when she knows of his dream. “The angel spoke truth,” she says, as she convinces him that his story is just beginning. “Your savior needs you to live the life of a different man,” she says, repeating the angel’s words. However, that life of a “different man” isn’t a life of harvest and peace. It is the life of Gawain Maddox, the dead executioner (who had burned a cross in his cheek).
Wilkin — a Welshman with “nothing to lose,” whom Lady Love remarks are the most dangerous — takes his friend, Toran Prichard (Sam Spruell), whose wife and children were also killed in the village massacre. They travel to Ventrishire and convince everyone (including Jessamy, who plays along) that they are who they say they are: Gawain Maddox, a punisher from the south; and his partner, Marshall.
As Wilkin settles in his new role, Annora approaches the Dark Mute. She’s naked, with ancient script tattooed all over her body. She tells the Dark Mute, “We need to ready our faith,” as she strips him. The camera cuts to the handle of a knife, which bears the familiar dragon. It clearly belongs to either Annora or the Dark Mute.
Wilkin’s first charge as Gawain the Executioner? Behead the Chamberlain’s half brother, who swears that the Executioner is a liar. His first job is to kill an innocent man. His young “son,” his apprentice, sharpens the blade. After Wilkin sees a vision of Petra in the crowd, holding a baby, being led away by the girl angel, he goes back to the innocent victim and chops off his head in a scene that Sutter was meticulous about getting right (meaning graphic enough).
At the end of the first episode(s), Wilkin, as Gawain, has killed again. He is a different man. He’s shot from a low angle, and he looks powerful and brutal. As a Welshman with nothing to lose, his future will undoubtedly be bloody.
The Bastard Executioner succeeds in moments, especially in the stylistic battle scenes that let director Paris Barclay put a distinct mark on what can be a contrived genre: the medieval epic drama. Aerial shots that zoom into action, saturated color, jarring rapid cuts, driving rock music — these features of the battle scenes give Bastard a distinct feel. However, the scenes with pastoral dialogue and music (especially between Brattle and Petra), and color-drained shots of contemplative characters, take the viewer out of what needs to be a more vivid world. In these moments, Bastard feels like it’s flirting dangerously with being a mash-up of a morose Princess Bride and a lower-budget Game of Thrones.
However, the viewer gets the hopeful feeling that these moments are fleeting. The pilot covers a lot of bloody ground, and the sheer scope of Sutter’s vision demands a level of character development and world-building that lends itself to a pilot that likely will not be representative of the entire series. With Sons of Anarchy, Sutter masterfully blended the lowbrow and highbrow, and the simplicity of escapism and depth of literary fiction. As The Bastard Executioner unfolds, the opportunities for the same kind of modern yet traditional Shakespearean storytelling are as vast and expansive as the Welsh countryside. The acting is sharp, the setting is gorgeous, and the story possibilities are exciting. The story, after all, has just begun.
- It’s highly likely (judging by historical references and plot possibilities) that the Baron and Baroness’s barrenness was due to him, not her. When Wilkin and Lady Love sit in the church, he has visions of a baby in fire — it wouldn’t be a surprise if these two have an affair and a doomed child. Hopefully the “fertility = true womanhood” trope doesn’t become too heavy handed.
- Chamberlain Milus — who is having an affair with a male assistant — welcomes “Gaiwan” to Castle Ventris with a kind of lust. “Your skills will serve me,” he says to him, referring certainly to his “correctional” skills, but perhaps suggesting more.
- The religious themes should be interesting, and are being set up to be three-dimensional, in terms of not aligning Catholicism with good and Paganism with evil.
- The Girl Angel, Ghost Petra, Annora: Hopefully these women characters who drive Wilkin will be complex, and not one-dimensional goddess-versus-witch portrayals. So far, Lady Love is shaping up to be a dynamic, powerful character; she cares about the Welsh peasants, and she speaks confidently and challenges male leaders.
- There’s violence. There will continue to be violence, including violence against women. This means the show won’t be for every viewer, but it’s certainly in keeping with the history.