Fans of Kurt Sutter’s brand of tortured machismo will no doubt warm up quickly to the tale of Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), the 14th-century Welsh rebel who eventually takes up the titular mantle in Sutter’s latest series, The Bastard Executioner. A Robin Hood-like bandit who received a Jesus-like resurrection on the battlefield years earlier, Brattle finds himself bent on killing a baron, Erik Ventris (Brian F. O’Byrne), following his brutal slaying of Brattle’s family and the evisceration of most of his fellow townspeople in a small Welsh village. Vengeance against the throne and Ventris’s colleagues is Brattle’s ultimate obsession, which puts him in an awkward position when he must disguise himself as the executioner for Castle Ventris. It’s a convoluted, preposterous setup, and like Sutter’s other works, The Bastard Executioner is embarrassingly self-serious in its fetishizing of the horrors of rebellion and the constant brooding expression of unending masculine grief.
The show is a particularly grim affair, abundant in slaughter and dismemberment—a spectacle delivered onto audiences without much in the way of visual panache or conviction beyond vaguely period-accurate costumes and production design. There’s a potent ugliness to all this brutality, but it’s not like The Bastard Executioner critiques the use or need for extreme violence. Rather, the ugliness is simply an obvious and overextended show of how evil the throne and the men who serve a sadistic royal family are, with the show’s writers refusing to paint the characters as anything more complex than wealthy, manipulative demons.
The series suggests a shallow sense of sophistication in its attention to not-so-well-known history.
The Bastard Executioner is thick with talk of history and backstory, and the little drama not aimed at exposition of the past, or teasing the future, is the stuff of trashy revenge tales. The series suggests a shallow sense of sophistication in its attention to not-so-well-known history, which only highlights the amount of historical fat that Sutter has burdened this B-movie concept with. The drama also makes room for Katey Sagal’s witch-like derelict, who traverses the lands outside Castle Ventris and exists only to build up the larger arc of the story. Her first memorable line, “It is time,” is a reaction to a gust of wind, and her dialogue and actions beyond that are similarly vague and dubiously spiritual.
The series is marked by a half-hearted view of faith, lacking in anything even approaching insight, which is damning given that destiny (Sagal’s mystic sees Brattle’s place in a shifting political and spiritual landscape) is one of the central ideas at play here. And as in so many other supernaturally tinged television dramas before it, The Bastard Executioner spends a remarkable amount of time shabbily building up a large, would-be ominous mystery that will eventually be revealed. This constant attention toward what’s on the horizon, or what’s happened in Wales’s past, leaves little room for what’s happening in the moment, more pseudo-sophisticated talk than thrilling action. Actual wisdom, sprouted from the historical happenings, politics, and philosophies of the era, is jettisoned for the view of yet another decapitated head, and a penchant for pain and torture is barely disguised as an attempt to convey a sense of historical realism.