The Bastard Executioner
It’s good to know who you are. In the case of The Bastard Executioner, which is halfway through its first season, it’s getting there. The drama is both soapy and literary, fiction and mild history. If viewers are looking for the big-budget spectacle of Game of Thrones, they’re not going to get it here. If they are looking for the edgy outlaws of Sons of Anarchy, they’ll be disappointed.
But if viewers are content with a Shakespearean soap opera that’s coming into its own — this week boasts, as one reviewer noted, more “twisty schemes and repugnant motivations” than we’ve seen before. The spotty accents, sometimes-obvious dialogue, and the fade to black-and-white before commercials are still ear- and eyesores, but we are finding ourselves caring more and more about the characters and their motivations in “Piss Profit/Proffidwyr Troeth.”
While Wilkin’s true identity is always at risk for being revealed, his secret has more staying power than Lady Love’s. She can only feign pregnancy for so long before being found out that an heir is not on its way. In the opening scene, Isabel takes Lady Love’s bloodstained dress from her to launder. Any hope that her last round with the Baron had been fruitful is dashed. Isabel suggests that there is another way (via a metaphor involving fertile fields, more seeds, and better harvests). Yes, Lady Love. Sex might just be the answer.
However, the possibility of a late-harvest planting does not solve the crisis at hand: Piers shows up with the goal of formally declaring an heir. He brings with him a “piss prophet”/progeny detective, who will need Lady Love’s urine bright and early the next morning to make it official. Eating extra helpings to gain a few pounds and lighting candles and praying can’t help her now. Piers suspects she’s lying, and gives her the opportunity to recant, else he tells her the king will have “your breasts cleaved off, your barren womb severed, and your head taken by sword.” Unshaken, she replies that it will be convenient that he himself will be left with “my pieces and my land.” She tells him confidently that her first piss of the morning will land in his pot.
Annora chooses a good day to come into the castle gates (Wilkin points out that it’s risky, but she says that the Dark Mute urged her to do so). She shares her salves and oils and promises Wilkin she’ll give him more oils to help his brothers who have been locked in a hole for 12 days. Annora locks eyes with Jessamy and tells Wilkin, “This one has a crippled heart, with so many terrible memories … her angry ghosts push her close to madness.” Jessamy’s quiet presence in this episode suggests a calm before a storm.
Wilkin tells Annora that “no prayer keeps me away from the horror that plays out here,” yet his horror du jour has not yet taken stage. Milus tells Wilkin and Marshal (Toran) that Baron Pryce is having a religious relic — a Bible from a cave near the Nile — transported to Windsor as a gift to Edward II. Milus tells Wilkin and Marshal that he wants them to get the Bible and destroy it. Marshal protests, pointing out that they are tradesmen and shouldn’t have to risk blasphemy. Milus promises he’ll reduce the prisoners’ sentences to servitude if they destroy the Bible. Wilkin quickly agrees: “We will do your harsh deed.”
And they do, attacking Pryce’s men and lighting the carriage (that was holding the relic) on fire. “The dirty deed is finished,” Wilkin says, just as they hear a woman screaming from inside the carriage. They drag her charred body out, and after reading an inscription in her book of prayers, realize it is Lady Pryce. Milus set them up to hasten Lady Pryce’s expiration date in order to clear the way for a Baron Pryce/Lady Love setup.
Ventrishire’s future lies in Edward II’s careless hands; however, we know that there are three possible outcomes at this point: a Piers takeover, an arranged marriage, or an heir. The best possible outcome for the people of Ventrishire is option heir. Lady Love wants to lead Ventrishire, and she wants to do so in a way that is fair to the Welsh people who have been treated unfairly. Also, there’s the sweet revenge of post-Erik fertility and the hope that she will have some good sex. Cue: an intimate chat with Wilkin in the middle of a green, blooming garden (subtle symbolism). She inquires about the healer’s abilities, and he agrees to take her to Annora.
Wilkin takes Lady Love to the seashore late at night to meet Annora (the Dark Mute crouches in the distance). Wilkin slips into a trance and sees Petra walking out of the ocean, beckoning him to follow her (commit suicide). She falls down a hole, and a charred Lady Pryce crawls up, reaching to Wilkin. The morbidity of the scene — the saturated colors, the disturbing music — and Petra’s transformation into something other than an angelic morality compass is much more interesting than his previous visions.
Annora comforts Lady Love and makes plans for the morning (that involve a pregnant wolf’s pee, like any good fake-pregnancy plan). Piers throws a tantrum when the piss prophet checks his rusty nails, wine, and phallic goat bone, and declares, “I conclude that Lady Love Ventris is with child.”
Lady Love — as any warm-blooded lady would be wont to do — seeks out broody, Eddie Vedder look-alike Wilkin in the chapel. After the declaration of her pregnancy, she looks powerful and strong. The wolf pee bought her some time, but not much. It’s time to get busy. She gives Wilkin decrees of the prisoners’ freedom — her promise for exchange of the meeting with the healer — and the two share an embrace that will certainly launch some fanfiction in the depths of the internet this week. (Unfortunately, Jessamy sees this embrace, and she doesn’t like it.)
Since the heir has officially been declared, Piers lost this round, but he’s certainly not done playing his game. He teases and humiliates Milus; he seduces him, demands oral sex, and then slaps Milus away, saying, “You honestly think I would let dirt-poor lips touch the rod that only knows beautiful things?” and then mocks his relationship with his servant. Out of shame, humiliation, and a need to regain a sense of power and control, Milus brutally beats his servant/lover. These scenes are fascinating in their complex depictions of gay relationships, which were certainly not rare at any point in history. These scenes also humanize Milus in a way that we hadn’t seen before.
And those twins who were a gift of mourning from the King? They are Piers’s half sisters/lovers/spies. “My needs here will grow, depending on you,” he says as he kisses them both.
In “Piss Profit/Proffidwyr Troeth,” The Bastard Executioner embraces what it is: a soap-opera stage play with romance, revenge, violence, fake pregnancies, incest, and politics. It’s apparent that the relative newcomers to the screen (Lee Jones and Flora Spencer-Longhurst) were trained for the stage; this, then, is a natural fit for the soapy Shakespeare that’s unfolding in the shire.
“Shit. It’s piss.”
- First First Response: Medieval doctors loved their bodily fluids. They first used urine (in a number of experimental ways) to test if a woman was pregnant.
- Milus first orders the twins to seduce Piers. They do, but return to Milus and explain that he really wants him, even though they offered him their “most wetted slots.” Shakespeare himself would no doubt give that phrase a thumbs-up.
- After the “dirty deed” is done (not dirt-cheap), Wilkin storms into Milus’s lair, beating him. Milus gets up and laughs: “This is who we are, Wilkin Brattle. I did what was required, as did you. We all share the burden to protect the shire.” Their motivations and burdens have been separate, but Lady Love’s role (as Milus’s pawn and Wilkin’s love interest) will likely put them even more at odds. Here’s hoping that the preview for next week, which is heavy on the “damsel in distress” narrative, is not indicative of the future for the female characters.