Kurt Sutter’s much-anticipated new FX drama The Bastard Executioner launches with a primer of sorts:
“Wales, the dawn of the 14th century. Roman Catholicism dominates the religious landscape. The Welsh, fighting fiercely for independence, have been crushed by Edward Longshanks, King Edward I of England. After Longshanks’death, his impulsive son, King Edward II, takes the thrown. Tension grows in the turbulent marshlands between Wales and England. Fearing rebellion, English barons rule their Welsh fiefdoms with uncompromising brutality. The oppressed peasants of these shires desperately cling to their faith that a loving God is watching over them.”
That much is fact — actual history that grounds the series and inspired Sutter to pen his uber-detailed saga of Wilkin Brattle, a former favored knight in the king’s army turned peace-loving farmer turned accidental punisher. In fact, the tale is so complex — with new characters and connections and troubles coming a mile a minute — that, unless you are a student of Welsh history, a second viewing of the series’ 90-minute pilot provides a heaping dose of clarity. And relief.
What we see after our history lesson is Brattle (game Aussie newcomer Lee Jones) in the throes of a fever dream concerning his final time on the battlefield. It’s his final time because he gets his guts fatally filleted, but somehow awakens to the vision of an ethereal young woman (yes, Game of Thrones fans, she is the very spit of the Khaleesi. Which is annoying.) who informs him he has a divine destiny to claim. But to do so, he must live the life of a different man. Good enough. Brattle arises, surveys the carnage around him and is scared into wakefulness by the sight of a cranky dragon-like creature arising from the chest of a fellow soldier. Well then.
The man who awakens is an amiable, adoring husband to Petra, his beautiful and equally loving blond wife who will soon deliver their child. It’s a boy — so says the village healer Annora of the Alders (Sutter’s wife, Katey Sagal, borrowing her own grandmother’s Slavic accent. Yes, it takes some getting used to — especially if you were a Gemma Teller Morrow fan. No, it’s not as hard as you may have been lead to believe).
Things aren’t so blissful at Castle Ventris in Ventrishire, a seaside county that is home to Baron Erik Ventris (Brian O’Bryne) and his put-upon, God-fearing and seemingly barren wife Lady Love (Flora Spencer-Longhurst). Not much he can do about it though — besides being a verbally abusive asshat — because the missus is of noble lineage and the very reason he rules the shire. It’s a problem. For both of them. She is a kind, thoughtful woman who longs for peace and tolerance throughout her shire and all of Wales, while he will stop at nothing to hold his standing in the region.
Then it’s time to meet Brattle’s most unusual neighbors — the afore-mentioned Annora, who sports graying hair past her waist, a serene look that Lady Love would envy and a constant companion in the shrouded “Dark Mute” (Sutter himself), who is pretty much as described; and impish Ash (Darren Evans), a wee little feller whose own companion is a sheep.
Ventris’ bestie — we’re talking pal enough to hang out and talk business while he is doing his own business on the not-noble throne — is his Chamberlin, Milus Corbett (Stephen Moyer). Milus believes wealth is the key to the kingdom — steeper tariffs, steeper taxes. Especially for neighboring shires who needs Ventrishire’s access to the sea.
Taxes are also on the mind of Wilkin and the other men in the village when a neighboring village sends word of a heavily guarded tax collector on the march, threatening what little the country folk have left to endure the winter. The gents decide to head him off at the pass and Ash begs to go, too. He knows the woods better than anyone, after all. Petra and Annora aren’t amused with the plan. This isn’t Wilkin’s destiny. “You’re the only stock I can’t live without,” begs his wife.
At Castle Pryce, journeyman punisher Gawain Maddox — who sports a cross-shaped scar on his cheek — is flaying a poor soul’s back as his small son watches. This is not a kind man on the job or off. His son is as much the subject of his rage as his victims.
Meanwhile, Wilkin and his men prepare to ride off to face the tax collectors, bidding their families farewell. It’s the last time they will ever see them. A fierce battle ensues in the woods, but the tax man manages to escapes, spotting Ash on his ride home. It will prove a costly meeting.
Come payday in Pryceshire, Maddox collects half his promised wage, protests and is told to find a new shire in which to “peddle his brutal gifts.” He chooses Ventrishire …
…where the taxman has returned, reporting the massacre in the woods and his encounter with a small watchman wearing gleaming beaver pelts. Ventris, Milus and Corbett’s nervous wreck half-brother Rand unfurl a map and search for river bergs where beaver might build dams. Wise and kind-hearted, Lady Love asks Ventris if fairness is part of the plan and Milus accuses her of being more concerned for outlaws than her own spouse.
Eyeing him cooly, Love praises his own intelligence and asks him to use it to make her husband understand his quest to grow the shire can’t be “bathed in the sweat and blood of its own people.”
“No commoner wants rebellion,” she tells him. “It only comes after hope and reason are burned to the ground.You will break them, Milus,” she says, leaning in. “And we both know that there is nothing more dangerous than a Welshman who has nothing to lose.”
Call it The Bastard Executioner thesis statement. Lady Love: 1. Milus … well … Milus has plenty to lose. And he doesn’t like losing
Around the campfire, Wilkin’s men — including Petra’s dad — ponder why he fights with an oak club instead of a blade, realizing they know little about his life before he came to the village. Wilkin and his loyal friend Toran Prichard (The Last Ship‘s Sam Spruell) discuss Toran’s desire to draw local rebels — whose mark bears a sword and daffodil — into their resistance. “I serve God and family, not cause and crown,” Wilkin seethes.
Meanwhile, his wife is awakening to the sound of hooves — those of Ventris, Milus and their soldiers who demand to know where the men of the village are. Petra is finally forced to tell the truth of their mission, accusing the Ventrishire lot of threatening only women and children. As the horrified tax man looks on, Ventris slits the throat of Toran’s son and instructs his Chamberlin: “Kill them all. Burn it to the ground.” And don’t kill the men when they are called back by the sight and smell of the blaze; Ventris wants them alive to see the carnage.
Running for her life, Petra is finally caught by the soldier sent in pursuit. He looks at her for a moment, relieves her of the sapphire studded cross around her neck and tells her to run and never come back. Resting beside the water, the terrorized woman is approached by someone she recognizes but we cannot see. “You,” she says. “What are you …” Her belly is pierced by a blade bearing four crimson stones, one the eye of a serpent. The murderer reaches a gloved finger into the dying woman’s blood and gently paints a cross on her forehead.
Come daylight, Maddox’s brutality continues on his family’s journey to Ventrishire.Two fates are converging, as Brattle and his men return to the village and find a gruesome mound of ruined bodies, Petra’s atop with her child pulled from her belly. Her father cradles the baby and each man searches for his murdered kin.
Toran spies the collector among the dead and realizes what has happene, reporting it to Wilkin, who rises, runs to the back of his home and digs furiously, unearthing his blade — each baring the crest of Edward I. Realizing who Wilkin is, the awe- and grief-stricken men mount their horses and vow to follow and avenge their families.
Meanwhile, in the moonlight, Maddox reveals a body covered in burns as he thrusts a knife into his fire. “This is my due,” he sobs. “My sorrow.” He presses the knife to his bare stomach. “Forgive me.” What is the deal with this guy?
En route to Ventrishire, Wilkin is shocked to encounter Annora and the Dark Mute on their path. Annora says they, too, are fleeing the darkness. “Did you witness the massacre,” asks Toran. “No,” the witch tells them. “But I will witness yours unless you alter your purpose.” Wilkin says there is nothing to alter, but Annora looks toward Toran. “Your cynic. He has ties to the way of victory.”
Hmmm. Looks like we may need those rebels after all.
At Castle Vetris, Lady Love is rubbing her husband’s neck who claims his tension is the aftereffect of the night’s “fierce efforts.” So he found his men, then, she asks. Well, no, but proof of the guilt. And he brought that proof home? “Difficult to carry bone and slag,” Ventris muses.
Before she can respond, Milus and his brother walk in with news. Watchmen spotted seven men on horseback heading toward the shire, one bearing a sword with the King’s crest. Milus advises that they meet the men mid-journey, so as not to give disgruntled residents of the shire able heroes on horseback. He dispatches Rand to join Ventris on the mission, but stays behind himself. Encountering Maddox along the way, they enlist him in their cause, sending his wife and children to Ventrishire to wait.
Wilkin and his ragtag men don’t look like much in the way of opponents — until dozens of armed men emerge from the tall grasses around them, all bearing the mark of the rebels. A ferocious battle ensues — no question Sutter knows how to stage combat — and a horrified Rand makes a break for it, as a laughing rebel child takes out the executioner.
It comes down to Brattle and the Baron as the surviving men watch. And, finally, watch Ventris, who lands a surprise strike of his knife to Wilkin’s torso, taken out …by Toran, who puts a knife through the man’s skull.
The ever-present Annora tends to an unconscious Wilkin’s wound, then — when his comrades’ backs are turned to further discuss the alliance between the surviving villagers and the rebels — gets to work. First she crops his hair with a blade. Then, as Ash comes upon the scene, she brands a cross into his cheek. The same cross that mars the cheek of the fallen Maddox.
When Rand returns to the Castle Ventris to report the battle and Ventris’ need for more troops to his brother, Milus immediately realizes his brother deserted the ranks.
Wilkin comes to, with Annora keeping vigil from the log to which she is chained among the dead, and discovers the wound to his face. “Why did you scar me?” he asks. “To save you,” she says. “Your only chance to live is to be supposed dead.” She turns to look at the slain Maddox. “He gives you that gift.” She tells him she’s something of an ambassador to his place in history. His story has just begun, she says. And also she knows about his scary dreams, because she sees and hears the same stuff.
And so it is. Brattle is now Maddox, a switch-up he will have to sell like there’s no tomorrow when he returns the dead Ventris (which would totally make a good band name …. We are! The Dead Ventris!) to Ventrishire. Lady Love asks pointed questions, but it’s the cowardly Rand who realizes what is going on here and pipes up in protest. Simple way to determine if the guy is an imposter says the parish priest — let’s ask the wife. Realizing any man is probably better than the one she had, she hands Wilkin a pass, welcoming him home with convincing adoration. Rand loses his mind.
Milus gives a brief eulogy to Ventris, then calls his brother out on his own lie. Spotting opportunity, Brattle/Maddox — we’ll call him Brattox — says he saw Rand tuck tale and run. Oh ho, says his bro. Deserter or false accuser — either one earns him a date with the punisher’s tool kit.
Lady Love finds Wilkin in the chapel, blood seeping through his shirt from from his stab wound. When she lays her hand the injury — Milus watching from the doorway — Wilkin flashes back to what appears to be the fireside birth of a baby. The pair stares at one another. Love tells him to finish his devotion while she fetches the doctor to him.
Milus stops her outside the chapel, telling her he thinks the executioner should stay on as a castle employee. The he tells the executioner that he will, indeed, execute. “No kin, no worries,” he shrugs of his brother’s death, hinting that he knows that Maddox’s wife and children are not his own.
The men come nose to nose. “Our buried truths bind us, and your skills will serve me,” Milus sneers. Careful what you wish for, pal.
In their cave, the Dark Mute is approached by his nude and tattooed partner. “Ludwig,” Annora tells her horrifically scarred spouse as the camera glides to … the knife with four crimson stones. “We need to ready our faith.” Dr. Slavic, Medicine Woman, is complicit in Petra’s death. This should get interesting!
And in Ventrishire, as children sing and Father Ruskin chants last rights, Wilkin steps up to the doomed Rand. Then he spies a ghostly Petra cradling a baby in the crowd (yes, Game of Thrones fans, it was an awful lot like Khaleesi seeing a ghostly Khal Drogo cradling their own dead baby). “Always,” Petra tells him before taking mini-Kahleesi’s hand and disappearing. He reaches for her gown to stop her and instead comes away with a cloth handed to him by a laughing soldier. One wearing Petra’s sapphire cross.
The executioner strides back to the condemned man and severs his bloodied noggin from his neck in one neat, bellowing slice.
As I said earlier, unless you prove much quicker on your intellectual toes than I did in this particular world — and even if you got it all the first time — a full 90 minutes of such intense storytelling is best served by a second viewing. Trust me — the“Ohhhhh! I get it!” moments come minute-by-minute and gear you up for next week’s episode fully prepped on who is who and what is going down.
I’ve yet to make up my mind if the different shires and glens themselves, each subtitled in the pilot, will factor in in (yes, I’m bringing it up again because it’s kind of impossible not to) Game of Thrones-ian fashion. All of their own mood and color and method and madness.
Some critics have complained that the series is too much about violence — never mind that that was the way of the world at the time — but Sutter swears Wilkin’s job title is not the focus of the tale.
“… it’s always about character and relationship and that the world — as it was with Sons and the outlaw motorcycle culture — becomes a backdrop to a show about a very conflicted hero and the relationships that surrounded him,” Sutter told reporters at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour. “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.”
So if you find that other dramas pale in comparison to the HBO tale of warriors and weaklings and supernatural helpers of dubious intent — and Sutter’s own Sons of Anarchy — The Bastard Executioner is bloody good way to spend a Tuesday night.
The Bastard Executioner airs Tuesday nights at 10/9CT on FX.