Kurt Sutter follows his extremely popular Sons of Anarchy with The Bastard Executioner, and once you strip away the setting, and bizarre, magical interludes, it looks as though we’re on the road to a lot of similarity between this and SoA. You might think that’s a good thing, but Sutter isn’t writing the way he was when he kicked off SoA. Not in the last season (possibly two) of that show, and not here.
The show kicks off with what is essentially a two-part prequel movie. We meet Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), an ex-soldier at the beginning of the 14th century in Wales. Brattle has abandoned his life as a soldier and settled down to farm in a small Welsh village. Unfortunately, the English Barons that rule Wales are particularly brutal, and when the villagers decide to attack the Barony’s tax collector, the consequences are dire indeed. This leads, through a complex twist of events, to Brattle taking the identity of a “travelling punisher.”
Thus, once past the two-hour intro (which is hard to distinguish from thousands of films), we have set the stage for a feints-within-feints game pitting the English barony against Welsh revolutionaries, with Brattle walking a deadly line, and just about everyone holding more secrets than they can be expected to keep track of.
Brattle’s chief problem is Milus Corbett (Stephen Moyer), the chief advisor to the Baron, who is effectively the guy most in charge, as is the way of nogoodnik advisors who spend a lot of time slinking around.
On the very odd side road of the story, Brattle has had a near death experience, which led to visions of an angel, which leads us to the local… witch?, Annora of the Alders (Katey Sagal). Annora has visions, or knows what Brattle’s are, and pulls snakes out of dead people.
The show hits at certain points, but only enough to make you long for the show you aren’t actually getting. The problem seems to be that Sutter, or his ego, can’t get out of the show’s way. If you whittle things down to the show about Brattle, and his touch-and-go new life as the Executioner, balancing his role with the Welsh and the charade he has to go through to stay alive, there’s a lot of potential. It’s something that you can bullet point and easily sell to a studio, especially if you’ve got SoA on your resume. It’s a show set to mirror what made that show so strong (when it was strong), especially when it comes to all the balls Brattle has to have in the air at one time, and some of the quirky characters.
But, that show is lost in miles of soupy fog, and a lot of elements that are just plain silly. The result is something that feels a lot more like what happens when you can sucker people into filming you LARPing and call it a show, as opposed to anything that is actually supposed to deliver some dramatic content, or storytelling ability. There are certain actors and actresses who, after a time, start to just show up for roles on the premise that – it’s good acting, because it’s what I did. Sutter seems to have a similar theory about his writing.
I’m more sincere about that comparison than it might seem, because much of the show (through three episodes) really sells this odd, LARPing feel. There’s still a story behind LARPing, but it happens at most of the people participating, who have to improv some reaction, which leads to (assuming someone were to judge LARPing in such a way) some goofy dialog, and The Bastard Executioner is nothing if not overloaded with cringe-worthy dialog, and actors who look for all the world like they need a second to come up with something to say on the fly.
Even with SoA and Sutter fans tuning in, I’m not sure how many people will be on board by the fourth episode. As it stands, it’s hard to get through the first three episodes, and SoA fans are not a lock when it comes to the nearly comic stylings this show wants you to sit through as it lays its foundation.
The worst part of that, as I mentioned, is that there’s something to the general idea, and once we get to the real meat of things, there’s every chance the plotting and subterfuge could turn very interesting. But, even then we have to deal with Sagal’s witch, and her The Dark Mute sidekick, played by Sutter himself. The real life husband and wife team are too often a reminder of how far gone this enterprise is, and every time they show up the show seems almost to be making fun of you. Sagal is as bad in this as she was brilliant in SoA, though you can only really blame her for the ever-changing accent.
Of course, this is a show that demands a certain comparison to SoA, and hopefully one that fans of that show will know what to do with. If you watched the final season of that show, and though that now things had finally started to get good, welcome to your new favorite show. If you loved the show for the first few seasons, then though it started going a little downhill, and watched the final seasons, and thought, “What the hell is this?” you aren’t going to make it far with this one.