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“If not dead then, then dead now.”
Bloody fucking hell. That’s what happening both at the forefront of the viewer’s brain and directly on the screen during The Bastard Executioner, the rip-roaringly violent and rage-inducing new series from Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter. In that former show and The Shield before it, audiences got somewhat accustomed to seeing Sutter’s writing take characters to dismally dark places, but those worlds were guided by the loose laws and looser morals of the modern world. In this historical setting, the main law of the land is kill or be killed, and Sutter screams it from the treetops.
Set in 14th century Wales during a period of political rebellion, The Bastard Executioner revolves around the tortured existence of Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a former knight for King Edward I who miraculously survived a horrific battle and then vowed to lay down his sword forever. Of course, no good warrior can be held down for long, and though this saga begins with Brattle a happy-go-lucky husband to Petra (Elen Rhys) and father-to-be, his own treacherous deeds open up a ferocious new chapter in his life when he must pick his sword up anew and lead a group of men to vengeance.
Jones, an Australian theater actor basically unknown to American audiences, absolutely holds his own as a pillar of brute strength in the first episodes, and while he might not immediately stand up to Jax Teller or Clay Morrow (or Vic Mackey, if we can go there), it’s still a brilliant bit of outwardly random casting. He leads a rather large cast of characters, and with spoiler-free discretion, I think it’s safe to say that you won’t be getting to know all of them for the long haul. Tell me you’re surprised by huge death counts, Sutter fans.
Here are a handful of the many faces you’ll see. The consistently excellent Brían F. O'Byrne plays the iron-fished Baron Erik Ventris, the leader of Ventrishire that has the best dialogue of these first episodes. His second-in-command is Chamberlain Miles Corbett, Stephen Moyer’s advisor who has a finger in all the regions’ goings-on. Flora Spencer-Longhurst is the Baroness Lady Love Ventris, the Baron’s wife who strikes up an interesting relationship with Brattle as the story moves forward. Felix Scott plays the disgustingly abusive Gawain Maddox, a roaming executioner. Then we’ve got Katey Sagal’s mystical healer Annora of the Alders, Sam Spruell as Brattle’s best friend Toran Pritchard, and Kurt Sutter himself as an oddball called the Dark Mute. Danny Sapani, Timothy V. Murphy, Sarah Sweeney, Darren Evans and more are all here, with guest spots from Matthew Rhys and Ed Sheeran.
Whereas most TV pilots are (mostly dull) calling cards for the kinds of series that the shows will one day become, The Bastard Executioner’s double-length first episode is a calling massacre, much the same as the ones left by the show’s many characters. There are possibly some complaints to be found for those unwilling to view this as the opening to a huge, swelling story, as there are a lot of plot mechanics in motion without a lot of breathing room once the shit hits the sword-bladed fan, and the large supporting cast initially feels like stock characters. But I have the utmost faith that as Season 1 moves forward, Sutter’s ultimate design for this series will become more recognizable and rewarding, and all the characters will get their due diligence.
Game of Thrones and Vikings have proven that TV audiences are hungry for historical(ish) stories, sometimes with a fantastical bent. And given that Sons of Anarchy rode off with the highest ratings of its seven-year run, people are clearly ready for more of Kurt Sutter’s dramatic storytelling. Time will tell if The Bastard Executioner is the successful sum of those parts, but I’m optimistic that it will emerge from the battle as the victor, probably covered in all the blood.
If you think you can stomach some of the most graphic violence that cable television has to offer, then be sure and find The Bastard Executioner when it premieres on FX starting Tuesday, September 15. We’re already packing our piggy banks in anticipation for replica swords to be released.
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