We gave it a C
Do you hate your job? Does it make you do worthless things in a dubious way? Does it send you home every day feeling hypocritical, fraudulent, and trapped? These questions have been on my mind lately because
I HATE MY JOB! HELP ME! television has been dramatizing them a lot over the summer. Rachel Goldberg of the Lifetime gem UnREAL is a veritable slave to a degrading reality show that she helps produce. She’s really good at it, too, which only amps her self-loathing. Ditto Elliot Alderson of USA’s Mr. Robot, a cyber-security pro with a divided mind who toils for “Evil Corp.” He resents his monolithic client and the “kingdom of bulls—” culture it supports so much that he … well, it’s crazy. And crazy awesome. Go binge it now. And don’t me started about True Detective’s Ray Velcoro, a comprised cop owned by a lousy legion of competing devils, because I’m done recapping that nightmare. Don’t make me do it again!
To the pile-up of allegorical critiques about poor bastards forced to execute soul-killing functions, we add FX’s The Bastard Executioner, which hits all its points right on the nose, albeit with the dull end of a blade. Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones) was a warrior once, and a great one, but he gave up the way of the sword for the way of Christ and settled into a simple life with the woman he loved. Then catastrophe rocked him, and then fate rolled him, and now, against his will, this 14th century Welshman is forced to wear a dead man’s identity and practice a profession — journeyman executioner; also known as a “punisher” — that puts him in constant ethical quandaries. He’s a Medieval Times Don Draper. His origin story, told in a two-hour premiere, is an ironic passion play, moving through all the stations of the anti-hero fall, from valiant knight, to righteous outlaw, to raging avenger, to badly broken everyman. He’s branded by a mark that sums up his quagmire. Is that a cross on his cheek or a sword?
Created by Kurt Sutter, provoking anew and quickly after wrapping the fitfully terrific Sons of Anarchy, Bastard Executioner has all the sensationalistic blood and guts, breasts and butts, egregious beards and existential bleakness you’d expect from the genre. But as the latest expression of Epic TV, it’s a lightweight Game of Thrones, and sluggish one at that. There’s promise, but for now, the rewards are few, and even then, I worry. The wonderful and always welcome Katey Sagal plays a mischievous witch with cosmic awareness and cryptic script tatted on her back. She speaks with a strange accent. Dracula-ese, I think. This could either be total genius or a total dumpster fire.
The too-long pilot doesn’t establish the premise of the series and Wilkin’s Twilight Zone-y predicament until the final act. Effectively blackmailed playing executioner for a shire in Wales controlled by English conquerors, Wilkin technically serves the will of Lady Love Ventris (Flora Spencer-Longhurst), a newly widowed Welsh baroness with a heart for her disenfranchised people. But both must bow to interests of their alien rulers. In truth, Wilkin’s unwanted new life is a clusterf— of competing masters and emotional obligations. Milus Corbett (True Blood’s Stephen Moyer), the son of the late baron, is a cunning chamberlain who knows Wilkin’s true identity. Gruffudd the Wolf (Matthew Rhys of The Americans in a recurring cameo), is a rebel leader; Wilkin owes him a debt. Jessamy Maddox (Sarah Sweeney) is the wife of the man Wilkin is pretending to be. She completely gives herself over to the ruse, as Wilkin represents a significant improvement upon her late, abusive husband. And there’s Sagal’s Annora, who’s working a long game through Wilkin. She’s his showrunner – a meta-wink that’s further sold by her silent partner, a masked ex-knight dubbed The Dark Mute, played by Sutter himself. While much of Bastard Executioner left me ambivalent, these two mystic conspirators did capture my imagination. I already have theories about what they’re trying to accomplish.
Wilkin has his own mission, too. He’s on a vengeance quest with a band of most un-merry men. I’m tired of Revenge Pop, and even more, I’m tired of the specific kind of vendetta that drives Wilkin. You’ve seen it before, from The Mentalist to Gotham, and you’ll see more of it this fall, on The Player and this. Still, Sutter does make Wilkin a smidge more interesting by giving him a spiritual dimension that pushes against his damnable desire as well as his new, ugly profession. A Christian, Wilkin believes God rescued him from death a couple lifetimes ago, and that he owes his savior a bit more obedience to that Thou shalt not kill thing. The crosses that clutter his culture needle his conscience. Spectral entities troll him. Hallucinatory snakes choke him. It’s enough to drive a guy mad, man! And it might be.
As a viewer interested in pop-culture narratives about religion, I have mixed feelings about Bastard’s treatment. “Roman Catholicism dominates the landscape,” we’re told in a preface to the pilot, and Sutter deals himself various characters to explore this state of affairs. The most unexpected: Berber the Moor (Danny Sapani, Penny Dreadful), a Muslim who is pretending to be Catholic to survive. He gets only gets a few scenes in the first three hours, and his most substantial beat, in episode 2, risks undercutting him to nurture Annora’s mystery. Let’s hope Berber gets more and better. That preface closes with a line that pokes at the age-old complaint, the problem of suffering: “The oppressed peasants of the shire desperately cling to their faith that a loving God is watching over them.” The latter part of the sentence lingers on the screen, a statement of… faith? Protest? Sarcastic doubt? The ambiguity frames everything that follows. Will the drama explore the problem or wallow in it? The former would be more interesting; I suspect the latter is more likely.
The Bastard Executioner may be set a long time ago in a culture war far, far away, but it’s noisy with the here-and-now concerns of justice and class. Most resonant is Wilkin. He’s made to be a brutal cop, a torturer of suspected subversives – a polymorphic metaphor for queasy policing.
In the second episode, which suggests an engine that runs on an ethically fraught execution of the week, Lady Love tries redeem the shire’s self-destructive policies of discourse and defense – demonization; intimidation; shock and awe retaliation — by attempting to engage the Other with love-thy-enemy dialogue. The treatment overall is shallow, but the ironic act of violence the concludes the tale is a clever shocker. Watching Lady Love grow into her power and attempt reform has potential. But other fronts need improvement ASAP. The stuff with Wilkin’s new family is so weak, I worry the storyline is a non-starter. Watching Moyer petulantly skulk and angrily screw anything manservants and chambermaids is already boring me. Feed this beast!
I wish the storytelling was ambitious as the concept. The aesthetic is too conventional, the grit not gritty enough. The action is rote, and the depravity ranges from sick to shruggy. The acting needs to go next level, too. As Wilkin, Jones is naturally if generically appealing, yet he strains when trying to express his character’s tumult. There’s a lot of huffing and puffing and trembling of scruffy cheeks. Perhaps he’ll connect more easily and deeply with the part as time goes on. You can say that about the whole enterprise, actually. Bastard has some cutting themes, but it needs more inspired execution. It’ll take a leap of faith on your part to see if Sutter and company can get there.
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