The Bastard Executioner Recap: Grand Master Slash

Lee Jones as Wilkin Brattle. Photo: Ollie Upton/FX
The Bastard Executioner
Episode Title
Editor’s Rating

In last week’s pilot episode of The Bastard Executioner, the “executioner” part of the title was made clear. Wilkin Brattle assumed the identity and role of Gawain Maddox, a “punisher,” in order to seek his own revenge against those in Ventrishire who were responsible for slaughtering his wife and unborn child.

The “bastard” descriptor will be unfolding throughout the entire season, if this episode is any indication. Episode three (“Effigy/Delw” — delw is Welsh for “visual likeness,” like effigy) reveals Wilkin’s memory of a nun leaving him at a monastery; he was fatherless, and she left him there. Annora confirms that this was his mother, and that she has died. We flash back, and see a young blond boy training for battle with quarterstaffs. He easily defeats the bigger and older men he’s training with, and he shoots a proud grin to a man on the sidelines. Oh look, it’s Kurt Sutter. These aren’t just any monks; they’re warrior monks.

Back in the present, Annora returns to their lair:

“And how’s the boy?” the Dark Mute asks.

“Lost, full of doubt,” she answers.

“As were we,” he says.

Less mute and hidden than he was before, the Dark Mute’s face is revealed; he’s extremely disfigured, likely burned. His past is with the Knights Templar, and in the early 14th century, members of the Knights Templar were being tortured and killed on the order of France’s King Philip IV. The last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay, was torched in Paris in 1314. If the website didn’t indicate that the Dark Mute had German origins, I’d be making all kinds of grand speculations here.

The Dark Mute and Annora are clearly surrogate parents for Wilkin. However, what we’ve seen so far (the knife used to kill Petra; the placement of Wilkin in enemy territory — the chamberlain knows who he is, after all; and the snakes Annora seems to plant, kill, and collect) suggests that this might be a dysfunctional family. The dead animals and murdered men with misplaced body parts might also be a clue.

Wilkin wants to avenge his wife’s death. He doesn’t want to wait — as his fellow men do, so they can have their vengeance — to hear the truth from the Reeve, who he believes killed Petra. He wants to kill him now. Wilkin’s preferred journey is solitary (though we see him warming to the Baroness Lady Love and Father Ruskin). However, the Dark Mute and Annora appear to have much larger plans for him.

Meanwhile, some young rebels from a Welsh fishing village take on a group from Ventrishire. A teenage girl who refused to stay behind was caught and taken to Ventrishire. Chamberlain Milus orders Wilkin to torture her. Lady Love wants to speak to her. The divide between her leadership and his “counsel” is stark. She was ready to lead her people before the baron was cold in the ground. She wears pinks and greens, because she’s finished with mourning and seeks a new start. Her leadership style is different. She uses logic to know where the girl is from, and seeks out her mother to talk about the Welsh/English relationship. Milus simply wants to kill the girl immediately.

She insists on going to visit the young woman’s family instead. The baroness is forceful yet empathetic with the young woman’s mother, promising her that her goal is to stop the bloodshed and oppression of her people — the Welsh people (after the mother spits at the baroness that she was the daughter of a beloved Welsh lord lying next to English warlords). Wilkin then suggests they question the brother, and he tells them where the rebels (led by the mysterious “Wolf”) leave weapons.

After the trip to the sea, and after Wilkin gives the baroness advice and protects her from attacking rebels, Milus confronts the baroness. He warns her that the king is deciding the fate of Ventrishire, and they cannot make it appear as if they are acting with “feminine frivolity or Welsh leanings.” He points out that her husband always took his advice, and she calmly says, “I am not my husband.”

The Bastard Executioner wastes no time creating a division between the “feminine” leadership of Baroness Lady Love and the “masculine” leadership of Chamberlain Milus. Wilkin is conflicted. His guiding forces are shaping up to be Annora the Healer (in conjunction with the Dark Mute); Father Ruskin, whose strong grip and fight skills suggest he’s not always been a man of the cloth; and Petra’s ghost. Petra, glowing in her flowing white gown, delivers platitudes that include gems such as, “When you stop looking for all that is wrong, Wilkin, you’ll see that all that was right is just in your grasp.” (Cue hard eye roll.) Thankfully, the other female characters are complex — and poised to be heroic — so I suppose I can wince and bear Petra’s angelic visits (like I wince and bear the black-and-white fade-outs and Annora’s accent).

At the beginning of the episode, we see a young boy chiseling a statue of the baron. An old man says to him, “Too much force — a gentler hand.” This, of course, is the baroness’s plan.

When she hands down her decision about the young prisoner, we think she had no choice but to put her to death, and that Wilkin is grappling with how he’s going to go through with it. Annora gives him a painkiller to give to the prisoner before he takes his knife to her. In the public square, we expect a beheading, as does the audience. However, Wilkin’s charge was to cut off her nose. The chamberlain is not pleased.

As the baroness retires in her chamber, she opens her Bible. Tucked inside is a stone nose, probably from the statue of the baron. Nose amputation has a long history of being used as a punishment — for adultery, for treason, for revenge. The effigies we see in this episode — from the statue to the small handmade doll that evokes emotion from Milus — serve as punishment in the present and a sign of what’s to come.

Random Body Parts

  • While Lady Love and Milus’s origin stories haven’t been fully revealed, we are starting to see clues that will certainly provide context to their current roles (her privileged upbringing that still allows her to empathize with Welsh peasants, and his box of carvings and children’s toys that bring him both to tears and to climax). He’s obviously threatened by female power, and she’s obviously ready to lead Ventrishire in a new direction.
  • Annora finds Berber the Moor (his name is a bit heavy-handed) in the midst of a Muslim prayer. He panics, but she assures him that his devotion is private. “Even if that devotion is seen as heresy?” he asks. “Only the fearful and ignorant try to judge right and wrong,” she answers. She objects to his criticism of her own faith — he assumes she’s pagan — and she quotes the Koran in protest. The tangling of religious allusions and mysticism is one of the most promising motifs in The Bastard Executioner
  • While the historical references and nods are great, we shouldn’t be looking to The Bastard Executioner as a course in English/Welsh history — though it should encourage us to do further research. This article at the Mary Sue points out some of the historical discrepancies. Sutter has never claimed to be teaching us literature or history with his shows; however, by digging into his stories we can certainly find inspiration to learn more.
  • From Rob Sheffield’s Rolling Stone review: “Lee Jones is the executioner Wilkin Brattle, glowering like Ned Stark in the first season of Thrones, except it's Ned Stark auditioning to play Eddie Vedder in Corduroy: The Pearl Jam Musical!” This simply beared repeating.