Kurt Sutter is better in theory than in practice — recently, anyway. Sons of Anarchy never entirely lost its intriguing mix of pulp machismo, daytime-soap plotting, and kitchen-sink dramaturgy, but with each passing season the sprawl and disorganization and repetitiveness became more irksome, and the show’s home network, FX, only seemed to encourage it by letting episodes run in 90-minute or two-hour time slots even if there was barely enough truly meaningful action to fill an hour.
The Bastard Executioner, an aggressively savage new series set against the backdrop of the Madog ap Llywelyn Welsh rebellion in 14th-century Wales, finds Sutter doubling-down on his storytelling strategy. The show kicks off with two back-to-back episodes that only get around to setting up the premise of the series (which you can easily discover by Googling “Bastard Executioner” and “plot,” or by reading the IMDb synopsis of Braveheart) in the final ten minutes of episode two. If you want me to save you some time, keep reading, but if you’d rather mosey up to it, best to bail out now.
The pilot begins with its most (and unfortunately only) really imaginative sequence, a dream wherein the show’s hero, Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), remembers his traumatic war experience as a knight in King Edward II’s charge and hallucinates a supernatural vision. When we get to know him in the present, we learn that he’s become a man of peace, a simple farmer enjoying his marriage to his beautiful and very pregnant wife, Petra (Elen Rhys). Their part of Wales is controlled by the brutal Baron Ventris (Brian F. O’Byrne), with help from brutal henchmen; they tax the hell out of the peasants, and it’s only a matter of time before they rise up.
Ventris retaliates the way bad guys tend to retaliate in stories like this one, with My Lai–style atrocities and the hideous murder of the good guys’ loved ones — and wouldn’t you know it, Wilkin has to set aside his pacifist beliefs and pick up a sword again. What ensues is essentially a TV-MA cousin of the story of Robin Hood, without much sense of humor, but with plenty of odd character acting cameos (including an appearance by Sutter as “the Dark Mute” and his wife and Sons leading lady, Katey Sagal, as a white-haired witch with a maybe-Romanian accent).
Paris Barclay, a brilliant TV director who worked on Sons of Anarchy and many other series (including NYPD Blue), visualizes the action, conversations, and plentiful landscape shots with flair: The images have a tactile richness but are never purely pretty. Unfortunately the script assumes an inherent level of interest in these characters that the dialogue and situations don’t do enough to earn. Simply put, there isn’t a single thing in The Bastard Executioner that you haven’t seen before, but the show acts as if it’s all not merely new to us but worthy of sustained contemplation.
At times the tone evokes the bloody Norse warrior fable Valhalla Rising, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Mads Mikkelsen, that was also Too Much in a lot of ways, but was so assured that its self-importance became grimly funny and ultimately engrossing. Executioner’s first three episodes never rise to that level of knowing delirium, so you’re stuck watching a series that recycles R-rated swords-and-sandals clichés while constantly insisting on its shocking realism. The first time we see the bad guy, he’s mounting his wife from behind, and the second time we see him, he’s sitting on a stool laying cable. Hobbes’s State of Nature was nasty, brutish, and short. Executioner might run several seasons, if Sons fans turn out in force. Maybe by 2019 the hero will have finally gotten revenge.