The Bastard Executioner Recap: Popes and Daggers

Lee Jones as Wilkin Brattle. Photo: Ollie Upton/FX
The Bastard Executioner
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In the early 1300s, Pope Clement V was hard at work helping destroy the Knights Templar. A “powerful religious military order of knighthood,” Templars were tried on a litany of charges, largely levied by King Philip IV.

This week in Ventrishire, the Archdeacon Robinus of Winsor has come knocking, searching for Seraphims. Lady Love appears smitten in his presence, hoping that he will celebrate Mass. Father Ruskin forces a smile. “Pope Clement requires active reporting of our growing flock,” Archdeacon Robinus says with a saccharine smile. He and Father Ruskin uncomfortably lock eyes.

“Thorn/Drain” reveals a great deal about our characters and the worlds they inhabit. Most of all, we learn that what may appear to be diametrically opposed forces — in politics and in religion — are much closer than we think.

Annora’s “Pagan” touch — the thorn-producing stigmata — at first offends Father Ruskin. “I do not deal with remedies,” he tells her, shunning her “Paganism.” He has just finished delivering a lesson on the miraculous healing of lepers in the Bible. Annora brings up Leviticus chapter 14 (the story about lepers being brought to priests), and a thorn bursts from her chest. Ruskin drops the handful of thorns she’s given him as a warning, but she’s made her point: The magic they deal in is not so different after all.

The Archdeacon himself is in a war (with Ed Sheeran’s Sir Cormac’s help) against the Seraphim; he hunts for witchcraft while he’s complicit in torture and skin-collecting. Father Ruskin, as he smiles tightly at the Archdeacon and his mention of the Pope, has a past that will soon be revealed. As the Dark Mute — in his den of supposed Paganism — opens his closet doors to reveal his Templar garb and gear, one can imagine that Ruskin’s past was also under that red cross; he just chose a different path after persecution (although he doesn’t bear the scars that the Dark Mute does). It’s clear that in “Thorns/Drain,” we are supposed to consider the similarities in these religious orders (much like Annora pointed Berber the Moor to the similarities between Islam and Christianity). Lines are drawn, and wars are waged based on those lines — yet they are easily crossed.

Like the religious groups that are marking their territory, so, too, does Ventrishire — as an English-ruled shire — clash with the Welsh rebels, who are led by the mysterious “Wolf,” who is said to orchestrate all of the rebel attacks on nobility. Lady Love’s past has been alluded to before (her sympathies and loyalties lie with the Welsh, and her desire for their independence rules her decision-making). We learn in “Thorns/Drain” that her connection to the rebels is more than sympathetic; the Wolf is her half-brother. 

The Wolf — Gruffud y Blaidd — “kidnaps” her as she and Isabel are picking berries and takes her to their great-grandfather’s fortress, or at least the ruins of it. Their exchange is poignant and offers reflections on revolution and the divide between peaceful and violent means of gaining independence. He says that the nature of rebellion is sacrificing lives through violence, and he points out that Longshanks was a violent oppressor who stripped Wales of its independence. She says that “change will not happen blade against blade — it needs to happen at a table with men and women” who will talk and work together toward peace. History tells us both will need to happen. Brother Wolf needs cash, though, since his soldiers go rogue and treat him as a legend, not a leader. He wants to organize them, pay them, and make them loyal leaders. He asks for Lady Love to gift him a family heirloom to sell to help “our beloved Wales.” (She obliges.)

According to Milus, the problem with his army — Ventrishire’s knights — is that they are mere hired hands and serve for money, not loyalty (thus they are not serving him fully, and could easily betray him). He gifts Wilkin and Toran with one of his knights to use as their sacrificial-revenge punching bag. Milus confirms that he knew “Wilkin the warrior” a long time ago, and has always known he’s not Gawain Maddox. Milus knows that Wilkin, Toran, and their friends want and need revenge. He offers them a knight as an offering, with the deal that they will be his soldiers and that their “wrath will not touch the Reeve or any of my men.” Toran sees to the intense torture of the knight and forces him to admit that Baron Erik and Sir Locke killed their families. Toran takes a corkscrew to the knight’s tooth sockets (Emmy for horrifying sound design), and Wilkin stabs him as their friends watch. There is no way that these budding Ventrishire soldiers are finished with their revenge.

In this episode, Wilkin kills a knight for finding out that he and Toran were transporting weaponry to the Wolf and the rebels. By the end of the episode, he’s on his way to being Milus’s knight and will likely be forced to kill another man for murdering Lady Pryce, which he and Toran accidentally did on Milus’s command. What a tangled web.

In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago says, “There are many events in the womb of time which will be delivered” (1.3.338). The political and religious divisions and ties — as bloodlines and mysticism blur lines — are setting up nicely in The Bastard Executioner, and the final acts of the season promise to deliver. However, there’s another more literal womb that needs a-filling, and time is running out. At the end of this episode — a very long hour and a half — Wilkin and Lady Love just happen to meet in the depths of the castle. They sit among sacks of grain (harvest!) and talk. And talk some more. He’s upset, fearing God won’t recognize him: “My heart seems so unfamiliar, as if it beats inside another man.” Lady Love holds his hand and reassures him (although she seems disappointed that he’s in a talking mood). She tells him that when she touched his wound in the church sanctuary, she saw a vision. “I saw the birth of a boy … I sensed you saw it as well.” If that vision is to be a reality, there needs to be a little less talking and a little more action.

Papal Bulls

  • Somebody’s getting some action in Ventrishire. Milus is self-soothing with the twins (and remember, they’re there as Piers’s half-sister and plants), a woman with dwarfism, and a cage full of rats.
  • “Griffy” — as Lady Love calls her brother — tells her that he feels like a rat begging for scraps when she hands over the jewels. She ironically encourages him, saying, “I need the big, strong wolf to eat the little rat.”
  • “Jesus was a rebel,” Griffy says as he slips into the night, looking exactly like the whitewashed Sunday-school painting of happy Jesus.
  • Poor Jessamy. Wilkin finally confronts her and tells her they need to escape after he’s killed the knight, since he would be a suspect (as Milus knows his true identity). She fights back, still clinging to the delusion that he is her husband. She was terribly abused by Gaiwan, so her reactions aren’t surprising. After he confronts her, she finds out that the Baroness is pregnant; she already had mounting suspicions about Wilkin and Lady Love. She tells Milus that knights were flirting with her and Wilkin threatened them. (She knows, then, that when a knight shows up dead, Wilkin will be the main suspect.) Her story won’t have a happy ending.
  • Wilkin promises Luca that he’ll never leave him. His loyalty to Luca isn’t only because he’s been thrust into his life as a father figure; Luca represents a life that can be saved from the cycle of abuse and the profession of torture that he’s been born into. Wilkin may be finding himself slipping away into a world of brutal violence, but he wants to save Luca from the same.