Hello and welcome to the first episode review of The Bastard Executioner, FX’s new medieval drama. And boy howdy, does this one sing. By that I mean it is Vi.O.Lent. It is created by Kurt Sutter, the mind behind the brilliant Sons of Anarchy. Does this show follow in SoA’s footsteps? Is it as violent, moody and powerful as the motorcycle gang television show? We’ll see!
Here are some thoughts.
1. The capitalizing on Games of Thrones is evident from the beginning
It seems pretty clear that a lot of the impetus for this show is that Games of Thrones is a super mega hit. This seems to be a very earnest effort to get on that GoT bandwagon and perhaps scoop up some of the dregs left in the blockbuster show’s wake. A medieval drama that is chock full of violence and nudity? How could that NOT be an attempt to ride GoT’s coattails? Even the opening credits features a weird torture throne. That may be missing the point of GoT’s appeal entirely, though. And we’ll see if this show can bridge the gap between spectacle television and solid storytelling.
2. Hey! I’m actually familiar with this history!
The rise of Edward II to the throne caused a great big kerfuffle in the kingdom. In an attempt to stave off rebellion from Scotland, the Barons under Edward’s rule struck down hard on their fiefdoms, imposing huge taxes and making life hell for the subjects. Edward himself is mentioned by one of the characters in passing. “He’s a bit fancy,” they say. This a reference to the generally agreed upon theory that Edward was gay and had a long relationship with Piers Gaveston, the Earl of Cornwall. How do I know this? Because I was in “Edward II,” a play about this very time period! I played Prince Edward. Later Edward III. So I know all this shit. It’s kind of fun.
3. The production values are high, but the writing is weak
Oscillating between stilted faux-Edwardian dialogue and weird anachronistic turns of phrase (I think I heard the word “schtupping”), the script is rife with cliche and familiar plots. But god damn, it looks good. It does call to mind the world of Westeros, but it is bereft of vibrant, interesting characters. There are clear good and bad people. There are no complicated relationships. The emphasis seems to be on the brutal, gag-inducing violence that peppers the almost incoherent plot. Perhaps it’s stumbling at the gate. Maybe it needs a few episodes to find it’s stride, discover itself. I sure hope so. I’d rather not watch medieval melodrama punctured with sickening violence for twelve straight weeks.
4. There are a LOT of characters
And I don’t know any of their names. It looks like there’s going to be an attempt to create a strong ensemble cast, with storylines and characters meeting and intersecting, much like, you guessed it, Game of Thrones. But this show does not have George R.R. Martin’s excellent writing and world building to fall back on. So instead of characters popping in and making their presences known, we got a bloody wash of faces that may or may not be important (or dead) by the next scene. If this is going to work, it’ll need to tighten the writing of these characters. And the actors need to step up their game. Of thrones. Sorry.
5. This is a show about taxes
In medieval England, Barons are taxing the crap out of their people in an attempt to quell any rebellion. But it isn’t working and people are rising up and there is a lot of violence. So ostensibly, we are watching a TV show about taxation. A really, really bloody one. But taxes are at the center of this drama. That is a bold move indeed. Will it pan out? We’ll see.
But probably not.
6. The violence is gratuitous
I am very surprised this was allowed to air on cable, even if it was at 10 pm. In the first episode, we see a woman gutted with a baby in her belly, a man casually skinned, and not one, but two people stabbed in the back of the head. What is the purpose of all this? It’s unclear. It could be an attempt to show the brutality of the time depicted. It could be to anesthetize us early to what will be thematically prevalent through the course of the show. But I’ll tell you what: it feels entirely unearned and unmotivated. The violence on this show is more brutal and less effective than the violence on Game of Thrones. When GoT uses appalling violence, it is sparingly. It is always surprising because if it happens, it is once during the episode if at all. This is nothing but an onslaught of terrifying gore here. And after awhile, it seems to serve no purpose but to see how deeply it can make the audience gag.
7. The religious overtones are unsettling
There seems to be an oblique acknowledgment that not only is the Christian cause just, but accurate. Early in the episode, our main character is visited by both an Angel and Demon. Later, a “witch” recounts his own interaction with the angel to him, seeming to solidify that at the very least something supernatural is afoot. But it mostly seems to point to a dogmatic order very much in line with the Christian faith. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It’s mostly very uncomfortable, I think. I’m not a fan of ecclesiastical shows in general. I hope it turns out I’m wrong.
8. This show fails the Bechdel Test in spades
There are maybe five women in the premiere. Of them, I think three are seen having sex. Two are murdered. One is a witch. One is conniving. None of them talk to each other. This is a world populated by men. The women are incidental and not particularly interesting. This is not their fault. No one on this show is interesting. This show itself is uninteresting and incoherent (if I had a gun to my head and someone told me to explain who is who in the story, I would be a dead man). It does not bode well that the women on this show are so marginalized. In GoT, while problematic in some areas, has fascinating dynamic female characters. This show does not. And it seems uninterested in creating them.
9. So Wilkin is the Bastard Executioner
Through a path of subterfuge that I don’t quite understand, Wilkin (Lee Jones, the lead) winds up being the executioner for a castle that he and his men bring one of their fallen foes to. And I guess that will be the rest of the series. Him execution-ing? My only question is why the bastard moniker? Is it because his folks aren’t married? Or because he’s a scoundrel? Of all the people on the show, he seems the least bastardly. I guess I’ll find out… or not. This show seems pretty uninterested in plot, too. Just blood! MORE BLOOD!!!!
10. The last image of the show is of a decapitation
As if this was supposed to shock us. If they really wanted that moment to land, they wouldn’t have bludgeoned us over the head with such mind numbing violence for the whole hour and a half. Jeez Louise.
Tags: FX, kurt sutter, Lee Jones, The bastard Executioner