When Kurt Sutter announced he was bringing his FX hit Sons of Anarchy to a close last year, speculation began immediately as to how the writer/producer would next apply his signature brand of storytelling.
Sutter was already on the job.
Having tackled cops with their own brand of morality in The Shield and outlaw bikers with the same in Sons, Sutter opted to indulge his love of history and a need to “work out all my Catholic s–t” and craft a story around another soul whose morals and mission are often at odds. This time, a medieval executioner.
Set in northern Wales in the 14th century, a time of fierce political and religious upheaval, The Bastard Executioner tells the story of Wilkin Brattle (impressive Aussie newcomer Lee Jones) a warrior turned man of peace whose life is forever changed when acts of mortifying violence and the guidance of a divine messenger lead him to assume the life of another man — the titular punisher.
Sutter says one of the joys of crafting the series — which films in Cardiff, Wales — is blending fictional shires and characters with very real historical happenings.
“I got to immerse myself in the history of the Plantagenets and that whole f—ed up lineage,” says Sutter. “And then, when we set it in Wales, suddenly it presented all these great, less documented external conflicts and external pressures as far as the rebellions that were going on. So the world itself definitely has its own mythology and history. …We get to sort of intersect our fictional world with real history and have them meet and play out.”
Sutter says that he and FX Networks CEO John Landgraf agreed that, in keeping with the network’s growing stable of edgy, high-quality original programming that is brainy good fun, the show had to be more than “just a head in a basket every week.” So Sutter populated Brattle’s world with an intriguing blend of political and mystical characters, all of whom have their own grip on the conflicted man.
“It’s always about character and relationship in that world, as it was with Sons,” Sutter explains. “The outlaw motorcycle culture became the backdrop to a show about a very conflicted hero and the relationships that surrounded him. So the period and the job functions and all that will ultimately become backdrop for what will be — I hope — an interesting character struggle and complex relationships.”
True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer is swashbucklingly (and deliciously) Machiavellian as Milus Corbett, the shire’s Chamberlin and longtime friend of Baron Erik Ventris (The Last Ship‘s Brian O’Byrne) and his fiercely intelligent noblewoman wife Baroness Lady Love (a luminous Flora Spencer-Longhurst). With a great appetite for pleasure, pain and political gain, Corbett recognizes the threat of Ventrishire’s new resident to his personal and professional aspirations (the two are pretty much the same).
“When Breaking Bad ended, Anna [Paquin, Moyer’s wife and former True Blood costar] and I were desperately looking for something to binge. It became Sons,” says Moyer of finding out he would be working with Sutter. “The stuff that’s coming out of Kurt is phenomenal. [Executioner‘s] world is beautiful. The sets are unbelievable. The quality of the writing is unbelievable. What he’s writing for me is so fantastically rich.
“Kurt doesn’t spoon feed; you have to take it in,” Moyer continues. “What’s fascinating is that when I first read [the pilot script], I had to go back and re-read it. I’m trying to work out what my tie is to Lee’s character. What my relationship is with Baron Ventris. How well I would have known Lady Love. Kurt’s into you coming up with your own [stuff] in terms of what you think. You build your own back story. He wants you to have color in there.”
Katey Sagal, Sutter’s wife and Sons of Anarchy‘s Gemma Teller Morrow, is unrecognizable — and utterly goosebumpy — as mysterious Annora of the Alders, a role Sutter crafted for her and gave Slavic lineage in honor of Sagal’s Russian grandmother.
“Kurt said ‘I have something for you!’ but I didn’t really clearly know what it was, except that she was a healer, the medicine woman,” says Sagal, who sports a waist-length. steely gray wig, Slavic accent and preternatural calm (in short, no traces of Gemma here) as Annora. “Seven years I played a very dark character, a woman who was defensive and always waiting for the next shoe to drop. The difference in [Annora] is that she knows that even if the next shoe drops, that’s all right and that there’s divinity to everything and there’s a path to everything.
“I’m still getting to know her,” Sagal continues. “I love that she comes from a faith-based place. She is a person that is sort of tuned into the all-rightness of things, that things are divine — even though we don’t necessarily see them on that level as human beings, that things are somehow divinely guided.”
Sagal says she’s also excited for viewers to experience the evolution of Spencer-Longhurst’s Baroness Ventris, a woman bent on keeping rule of the shire while fostering peace and tolerance there and throughout the region. “It’s a great part for a woman,” Sagal smiles.
As the title character, Jones — an experienced stage actor — says he feels incredibly supported by Sutter, co-executive producers Paris Barclay and Brian Grazer, and his cast mates in playing a man of great vulnerability even as his trove of tools exact fearsome punishments, just and otherwise.
“[The punishment scenes] are actually pretty technical,” says Jones, who expertly wields weapon made of wood and aluminum as Brattle. “Leading up to it, the emotionality of it is quite something to play, the conflict of all of it. But they’re very technical.”
The series’ impressive battle scenes are another matter.
“That’s when I learned that mess is good,” laughs Jones. “And mistakes look even better, I think, in fight scenes. I mean, I lost my dagger at one point and just started hitting everyone in the nuts.”
As for Brattle’s relationship with Sagal’s Annora — who seems to know Wilkin’s divine purpose, even if the punisher doesn’t — Jones says a unique bond formed between the two actors straightaway.
“I don’t know what it is, but we just lock into each other,” he says. “That’s what our characters are doing — they’re really looking through each other to figure out what’s going on and going from this sort of suspicion into what ultimately is becoming a trust. She’s a comfort in a way and Katey and I are able to lock into that and explore that in a very tender way.”
“He has such a sweet energy. I was so glad, because [Brattle] is vulnerable — Lee needs to be both vulnerable and massive,” adds Sagal. “I think he was cast perfectly.”
Moyer agrees, citing the thrust-and parry nature of the Chamberlin’s relationship with Brattle, one that’s very much based on both men’s secrets and motives and what they’re willing to do to protect them.
“There’s this mental, physical, and — I’m trying to think of another word — but this inextricable link between my character and Wilkin,” says Moyer. “The fact that I’ve placed him in this situation, everything that’s gone on in his life and the reason that he ends up having to stay. I haven’t even mentioned the spiritual aspect of it. He’s trying to be a good man and yet he has to do horrific stuff in order to try and escape. And by doing them, it’s taken him further and further away from the moralistic, ethical man that he wants to be. It’s getting darker and darker and darker — and my character is definitely cashing in on that!”
Game of Thrones fans missing HBO’s own lusty, bloody tale of long-ago power, punishment and otherworldly retribution and redemption will likely be giddy to find another series that so stunningly fills the bill. But Sutter points out a few things in particular that set Executioner‘s world apart — its historically accurate roots and the purpose and nature of its most violent scenes.
“My mandate, as it was on Sons, is the same for this, which is that the violence — as absurd as it could be sometimes on Sons — always came from an organic place and that it was never done in a vacuum,” Sutter explains. “Meaning that to every violent act, there are ramifications. I have the same mandate with this show, which is that anything that happens, be it battle sequences or an execution or a torture scene, it comes out of story and that we see the character’s conflict — or, as importantly, their non-conflict — in carrying forth that violence. And that it always has some ramification, whether it just be an emotional ramification on the character or somehow it impacts the narrative.”
So while some scenes involving women and children are particularly tough to watch, Sagal says their purpose is true to her husband’s story — and, more importantly — the times in which Brattle and Co. would have lived.
“There were executioners. There were torturers. Women were treated differently,” she says. “If you’re going to tell a story about medieval times, you’re going to have violence to not only women, you’re going to have violence to everyone. That was the way of the world.”
And what a world it is.
“Giles Masters, who is our production designer, is truly a master,” says Barclay. “Most of what you see, including the 50‑foot castle that is Castle Ventris, exists on our back lot. Most of the interiors you see we built on stages. We have four different stages in Wales that we do the show in. The dungeons, Lady Love’s bedroom, all those were built meticulously by extraordinary craftsmen.”
Moyer, who filmed 1997’s Prince Valiant in Wales, says it’s inspiring to return to the country in such a meaningful way.
“The geek in me was super excited to be shooting a scene where we’re walking down the corridor in one castle, in Caerphilly, which was built in 1156. And then we go to St. Donat’s, which is 1250,” Moyer says. “For the next scene, we open the door and we go into the courtyard of St. Donat’s and come out of the doorway and portcullis of our castle that we’ve built. … The extraordinary aspect of that is that our characters, the way that Kurt has written this, would have been in those castles. So there is a beautiful sort of tying up of historical detail that is amazing to be part of.”
The Bastard Executioner premieres Tuesday, Sept. 15 at 9/8CT on FX.