The middle of September is upon us, and with it the beginning of the fall television line-up. Sadly for us, we still have—at the very least—seven months until Game of Thrones Season 6 debuts, so until then, we have to find a fix to satisfy for our weekly Westeros jones. With that in mind, I have been looking forward to the premier of the FX Network’s The Bastard Executioner ever since I saw the first promo for the show at the end of The Sons of Anarchy.
Having been a fan of Kurt Sutter’s violent, dark and gritty storytelling since his days as a staff writer on The Shield and all the way through every season of the aforementioned Sons, I was excited to see his take on the medieval period piece, something made more popular by the success of Game of Thrones.
As it began, my first thoughts on the show were that I was watching a sequel to my all-time favorite movie, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. As the show is set directly after the death of King Edward I (aka “Longshanks”), it might as well be.
To be honest, I almost turned the channel off in the first 10 minutes of the show, because it just did not feel like a Kurt Sutter masterpiece. From the trippy dream sequence fight between main character Wilkin and the Scottish militants where he is stabbed (but not stabbed?) to the naked angel walking through the battle to the demon dragon rising from the chest of his dead friend, I felt like I was watching that cheap Dungeons & Dragons movie, and I kept waiting for Marlon Wayans to jump out and say something stupid.
But then, in true mad-genius Kurt Sutter style, it started to get good. You have to get through the setup in order to be knocked out…and Sutter definitely delivered the knockout. The more the two-hour premiere went on, the more riveting it became.
It started with the slaughter of Wilkin’s wife and unborn child, along with the other members of their village. I thought I’d become desensitized to Sutter’s proclivity for violence during the seven season run of Sons of Anarchy, but this scene pushed things. It wasn’t enough for The Bastard Executioner to slice open the pregnant woman’s belly—it had to have the villain dab the unborn infant’s blood on the mother’s forehead, and then later display both mother and infant out in the open for the world to see. Yes, Game of Thrones stabbed a pregnant woman at the Red Wedding, but it never pulled out the fetus and played a morbid game of position the dead baby.
The resolution of the episode surprised me. The villain, Baron Erik Ventris (Brian F. O’Byrne), gets his comeuppance before the credits role, as do a few minor nasties along the way. And now a new villain has risen to take the Baron’s place: his right-hand man Milus Corbett (True Blood star Stephen Moyer), a shrewd, sinister individual with aspirations to rise above his given station in life.
Our heroes, in true Kurt Sutter fashion, are flawed. Much like Vic Mackey from The Shield, or Jax Teller from Sons of Anarchy, Wilkin Brattle (played by newcomer Lee Jones) has his demons. He was a knight in service to Longshanks, and he killed the Scots in the name of his King. Now, as the Bastard Executioner, he must overcome challenges and fulfill whatever prophetic dream he had during his last battle while dealing with visions of his dead wife and unborn child, as well as with a mystic healer named Annora (Katey Sagal—Sutter’s wife and Sons alum) and her mute companion (Sutter himself, who’s been known to throw himself into his own show from time to time—see Otto in Sons).
So, if you haven’t watched The Bastard Executioner, and you’re reading this article, wondering if you should dedicate two hours of your valuable time to watching a show that isn’t Game of Thrones, here’s my advice to you: do it. The Bastard Executioner is a complex slow-burn of a story that unfolds in surprising turns. It has just the right amount of sword and board action to keep Game of Thrones fans happy, and just the right amount of Kurt Sutter darkness and edge to keep his fans happy. Watch. This. Show.