In watching ‘The Bastard Executioner’, the FX network’s transparent attempt to get in on some ‘Game of Thrones’ action, I had just one nagging question that I needed answered: Is the title character an executioner who is a bastard, or does he execute bastards? Frustratingly, even after the two-hour premiere I’m not exactly sure, though I suspect it’s the former.
I suppose it wouldn’t be entirely fair to call the show a ‘Game of Thrones’ knockoff. It’s not high fantasy that takes place in a fictional alternate world. However, its medieval setting, fixations with sex and brutal violence, and frequent supernatural trappings are certainly designed to appeal to the same audience. The series comes from ‘Sons of Anarchy’ creator Kurt Sutter, not exactly the first person I’d think of for material like this. Surprisingly, it’s an original property, not based on any long-running series of novels as I expected from the promos.
The backdrop is 14th Century Wales. The poor and utterly beatific Welsh people suffer under the oppressive hand of their sneeringly evil British rulers, who love nothing more than to tax and torture and indiscriminately murder their subjects. (Seriously, this thing makes ‘Braveheart’ look like a study in nuance and ambiguity by comparison.) Our hero is Wilkin Brattle (relative newcomer Lee Jones), a former British soldier who was betrayed by his commander and left for dead on the battlefield. He survived, apparently via angelic intervention, and swore to live a life of peace and tranquility amongst the good people he used to subjugate. He now has a pretty Welsh wife pregnant with his child, and is known as the kindest and wisest man in his idyllic shire.
That’s all about to change, of course. Bwaaa haa haa…
Off in the nearest castle, the despicable Baron Ventris (Brian F. O’Byrne, late of ‘The Last Ship’) decrees that taxes and tariffs are to be raised a hundred-fold, nay a thousand-fold. This guy’s so vile he literally conducts his business while taking a dump on his throne and making a servant wipe his ass in front of everybody. (Real subtle there, Sutter.) His right-hand man is the conniving chamberlain Milus Corbett (Stephen Moyer from ‘True Blood’), who acts perhaps slightly less crass but is every bit as reprehensible.
But wait, where’s the executioner of the title? That would be a nutjob named Gawain Maddox, a journeyman who travels from village to village peddling his services as a torturer and, yes, executioner. Maddox is a real charmer. He abuses his wife and children, and is a Flagellant who practices mortification of his own flesh by cutting and burning and scarring himself to prove his religious devotion. He’s immediately recognizable by the cross he’s branded onto his cheek. This is the character the whole show is based around, you ask? Just wait…
When the goodly people of the shire get word that their taxes have been raised again, the menfolk band together and convince Wilkin to play Robin Hood with them, stealing from the tax man to disperse his ill-gotten gains to the poor who really need it. Although their raid is successful, it sends Baron Ventris into a fury. He and his army charge into the shire before the rebels get back, burn it to the ground and slaughter all the women, children and elderly. At first, it appears that Wilkin’s pregnant wife will get away, but she falls to an unseen attacker (visible only by a gloved hand clutching a dagger, like some giallo slasher) who murders and disembowels her. If the identity of the killer is meant to be a surprise, it’s easily guessable long before it’s revealed at episode’s end.
Wilkin and his band of merry men return home and find the gutted corpses of their loved ones waiting for them, including the innocent fetus who was to be Wilkin’s child. They are sad. They get angry. Wilkin vows revenge and digs up the old sword he’d buried beneath his hut when he initially swore off violence and killing. Aww yeah, shit’s gonna go down!
Wilkin’s men rally behind him, but the local witch/healer (Kurt Sutter’s wife Katey Sagal, committing to a ridiculous accent) cautions restraint. They ignore her.
The Baron comes across Maddox and conscripts him to join his army. He’ll need a good executioner when he captures the rebels. The Baron sends Maddox’s wife and kids ahead to the castle to wait for him.
Wilkin and his small group of rebels enlist the help of a much larger army of Welsh freedom fighters. They lay an ambush for the Baron. A huge, bloody battle commences. Lots of people die, including all of the Baron’s army. Even Maddox the executioner gets stabbed in the throat. (How can the title character get killed off so soon, we all wonder?) Chamberlain Corbett’s cowardly brother hightails it back to the castle when he realizes which way the tide is turning.
Eventually, the conflict comes down to Wilkin vs. the Baron, mano-a-mano. This fight is personal. In flashback, we learn that it was the Baron who betrayed Wilkin and tried to kill him five years earlier. Just as Wilkin thinks he has the upper hand, the Baron stabs him in the side. One of the other rebels jabs a big-ass knife through the Baron’s skull. That’s the end of him.
The witch patches up Wilkin – and while doing so, she also cuts his hair and brands a cross into his face, just like the deceased Maddox. Ahhh, now we see where this is going.
When he wakes up, Wilkin asks the witch why the hell she would do that to him. She blathers some nonsense about a legend and how he’s the Chosen One and has a destiny to fulfill, blah blah blah…
Wilkin hatches a plan. He (and his BFF) will haul the Baron’s body back to the castle. He’ll pretend to be Maddox the executioner, collect a reward, and be free of the Baron’s reign forever. This seems pretty foolproof, right?
Uh oh, Corbett the Younger recognizes Wilkin and calls him out as one of the rebels. Fortunately, Corbett the Elder hates his pussy of a brother and doesn’t believe him, especially not when Wilkin/Maddox accuses the young one of running away from battle. Either he’s a liar or he’s a deserter, and both crimes are punishable by death.
But wait! Maddox’s wife and kids are at the castle! They will prove that this man is not whom he claims to be!
Yeah, but, Maddox’ wife realizes that pretty much anybody would have to be better than her actual scumbag husband, so she plays along and confirms Wilkin’s story. The chamberlain has his brother arrested and drafts Wilkin/Maddox to carry out the execution the next day. Later, it’s suggested that Corbett knows full well who Wilkin really is and has plans for him.
Far off in a cave somewhere, the witch gets naked and boinks her hideously scarred, silent apprentice. Wait! What’s that on the rocks next to them? Is that the dagger that killed Wilkin’s wife? ZOMG, I never would have guessed the witch was responsible… Oh wait, yeah actually, I kind of did guess that about three-tenths of a second after it happened.
Morning comes. Corbett’s brother is put on the chopping block. Wilkin suddenly has a vision of his wife’s ghost beckoning to him. He walks into the crowd and the ghost disappears, leaving him staring at an English soldier wearing her favorite cross. So, does that mean this guy killed her? Now I’m confused. Anyway, this makes Wilkin angry, so he walks back to the block and gruesomely decapitates his first victim. End scene.
I don’t know how I feel about this one. Honestly, a lot of it is pretty terrible. Frankly, star Lee Jones isn’t a very good actor. Early in the episode, his character has an insanely cheesy and lame vision of a CGI demon tormenting him. Most of the writing in the episode is rather poor. The battle scenes, although bloody enough, kind of feel like watching a bunch of nerds in costume LARPing. They look fairly ridiculous. Also, the opening titles theme song is unbelievably douchey.
On the other hand, the twist of Wilkin becoming the executioner is a little interesting. Believe it or not, for as much as I’d grown tired of Stephen Moyer as Vampire Bill, he seems to be having fun playing the villain here (though a revelation that his character is gay feels deeply homophobic).
Less than halfway through the episode, I felt like I was being tortured in being made to watch the whole thing. By the end, however, I might give this one more episode. I’m probably being generous with that. I doubt that I’ll stick with the show long-term.
Oh, back to the original question. When Wilkin is asked about his father at one point, he replies that he doesn’t have one. I guess that makes him a bastard. (I totally missed this detail in my viewing and had to have it pointed out afterwards.) Given all the witch’s rambling about him being the Chosen One, I fear it also means that he’s the second coming of the Messiah or some idiotic bullshit like that. Maybe I don’t need to watch any more episodes after all.