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‘The Bastard Executioner’ Review: Blood Without The Guts

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There was a time during the 7 year run of Sons of Anarchy that I uttered the words “I will watch anything Kurt Sutter does.” Between his work on The Shield and the Shakespearian biker drama, Sutter has provided me with hundreds of hours of entertainment. The series finale of Sons of Anarchy is one of just a handful of television events that gave me a genuine case of the feels. Naturally, news that Sutter would be returning to television with The Bastard Executioner was quite exciting to me. Having watched the two-hour pilot episode, however, I fear I may have to break my promise.

Whereas Sons took the time to introduce you to Jax Teller and the rest of his gang, Bastard Executioner throws you immediately into the deep end. We’re introduced to Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a former soldier who left his life of war behind after a heavenly vision on the battlefield. He is now a barley farmer, has sworn off violence forever, and lives a quiet life with his loving, pregnant wife. You know where this is going. After all, this is 14th century Wales, so war is never too far away. Brattle’s struggle with maintaining pacifism is an intriguing, gripping premise. It lasts roughly 45 minutes.

Listen, I know pilot episodes can be tricky. You need to world-build while also introducing characters and plot and blah blah blah. I get that. It’s just that this feels so much more like a season finale than a pilot. The only problem is there’s no full season preceding it, so none of these characters really matter. At the very least, we could have used one or two episodes preceding this to set everything up better. When the big event happens (remember that pregnant wife?) that sends Brattle back on the warpath, it lacks any real meaning because you’ve literally only met these characters 15 minutes before. Certainly the sight of women and children being slaughtered (more on that in a bit) is uncomfortable, but it doesn’t really MEAN anything. Which means the reaction of the surviving characters carries little effect because you can’t feel their pain. This isn’t Jax holding Tara’s body, not by a long shot. These are the wives and children of our main characters, but they might as well be nameless extras for all the emotional weight their deaths carry.

The men responsible for this carnage are Baron Ventris (Brian F. O’Byrne) and his right-hand man Milus Corbett (Stephen Moyer). Brattle and the Baron have some history, going back to that fateful day five years ago when our hero swore off violence. Again, this is where more time in creating these characters would have greatly benefitted the show. Their big confrontation should be this big moment, but it just comes off as clunky. One thing that doesn’t do the scene any favors is the writing. When Brattle comes face to face with the Baron, all he mentions is the battle five years ago. There’s no mention of, you know, everyone’s dead families. No, it turns into him settling an old score which, again, we don’t know enough about to care. Plus a whole bunch of random dudes pop up out of nowhere, one of whom may or may not have been Thorin from the Hobbit movies. I’m serious, there are roughly 72 characters introduced in this pilot episode alone, and I have no idea who most of them are.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Kurt Sutter joint without his incredibly talented wife, Katey Segal, playing a role. I love Katey Segal. I adore her. From Married With Children to Futurama to Sons of Anarchy, there isn’t much that she’s done that I haven’t loved. Until this. She plays Annora of the Alders, a mystical witch who wanders around with her sidekick, The Dark Mute (Sutter, of course), spouting off about destiny and angels and whatnot. For some reason, this incredibly talented actress has chosen an accent that is supposed to be Welsh (I assume) but sounds more like a cross between Inigo Montoya and Ivan Drago. I’m serious. It’s SO bad. She and ol’ Mutey clearly have their own agenda, which will hopefully prove intriguing, but so far it’s just very unpleasant to listen to her talk.

So, the violence. Let’s talk about that for a second. It’s not exactly a surprise that a Kurt Sutter show taking place in Medieval age has tons of violence. Hell, Sons of Anarchy certainly never shied away from gruesome imagery. The difference here, however, is that at least on that show whenever something terribly violent happened it (usually) served a real purpose. There was a weight to it because you cared about the characters suffering from it. This isn’t the case here. In the scene I mentioned before, where women and children are stabbed and slashed to death, it’s not a disturbing sight because you’re watching beloved characters die tragically. It’s not even about the fact that it’s innocents dying. Again, it’s a show in the Medieval age, a time when things REALLY sucked for women and children. So I’m by no means morally outraged by the act, I’m more upset by the fact that I just didn’t give a s***. At this point, since we still really don’t know any of these characters, it’s just violence for the sake of violence. Same with the big battle scene and a few other gruesome moments. It’s nothing new or innovative, you aren’t going to see anything here that you haven’t already seen on Thrones or a show like Spartacus. It’s just that none of these characters mean enough for their deaths to have any sort of real effect on the viewer. Perhaps further down the line, as we get to know Brattle and his allies better, we’ll look back on this event differently, but for now? Meh.

Watching the pilot of The Bastard Executioner feels like staring at a modern expressionist painting. There’s a lot going on, it’s kind of a mess, and while you get the feeling there’s something great buried in there somewhere at the moment you just don’t really get it. Obviously Kurt Sutter knows how to tell a story very well, so perhaps given time things will go smoother. By the end of the pilot, in fact, with Stephen Moyer taking over as the obvious Big Bad and Brattle’s game plan sort of coming into focus there’s a faint glimmer of hope. Unfortunately at the moment it’s just a jumbled mess that isn’t so much compelling as it is unpleasant. Hopefully they can right the ship, I’m just not sure I want to stick around long enough to find out.