And so it begins with a dream and a promise, a betrayal and a deception, but also a gnarly little CGI dragon flying out of a corpse to make scary noises.
In the opening moments of the two-hour pilot episode of FX’s The Bastard Executioner, we are dropped into northern Wales in the 14th century — a time of unfair taxation, widespread fealty to the Roman Catholic Church, life-spans of the nasty, brutish, and short variety; and ubiquitous hipster facial hair — to meet valiant knight Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones) as his subconscious wrestles with events of the recent past.
His recurring dream, presented as something closer to flashback: Brattle amid a field of battle dead, taking on the marauding Scottish army Lone Survivor-style, swinging the broad sword despite being woefully out-numbered; he’s encircled by the kilt-wearing enemy and shish-kebab-ed through his lower abdomen en route to certain death. Visited by a mini Rita Ora look-alike, however, an otherworldly being he acknowledges as “Heavenly One” and his “savior,” Brattle is instructed to lay down his sword — a repudiation of his warrior pedigree for some greater good? For Karma’s sake? The motive is unclear—and solemnly pledges to do so. He is spared.
But the knight does not get to exit this wholesale carnage before a surprise meeting with the aforementioned dragon creature. It morphs from a ritual scarification on a dead soldier’s chest to flap into the air, emitting blood-curdling cries — a tease of The Bastard Executioner’s tonal capriciousness and storytelling ambitions.
FX has a lot riding on Executioner as its big, expensive new fall series. And from the word go, showrunner Kurt Sutter makes clear his blood-stained worldview extends across time and space beyond the world-beating success of Sons of Anarchy. The pilot episode manages to intersperse a couple of major setpieces featuring no small amount of arterial splatter with jags of exposition while introducing viewers to a deep bench of characters with multifarious agendas.
Brattle awakens with a start and doffs his shirt to present his chiseled, Fabio-esque physique to the camera for inspection and canoodle with his pregnant wife Petra (Elen Rhys). Poldark-variety titillation aside, the scene establishes Brattle’s spiritual and professional bona fides.
A cross necklace dangles from his neck and his own ritual scarification (another Christian cross) is visible on the character’s upper pectoral — presumably distinctive branding for soldiers in the employ of King Edward I at that time. But Brattle has given all that up to masquerade as a humble barley farmer now. And as he plays a lusty game of grab-ass with Petra across the picturesque idyll of deepest Ventrishire, the viewer comes quickly to understand: This is too good to last.
Cut to Castle Ventris where we are somewhat jarringly introduced to Baron Erik Ventris (Brian F. O’Byrne) and Baroness Lady Love Ventris (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) making what was known in the Middle Ages as a “beast with two backs.” In this way, the couple is trying for a child — Executioner’s leitmotif of tortured paternity making its second appearance in the pilot here — and seems less a man and woman in the throes of passion than two situation-dependent entities enacting a corporate merger.
From there, in short order, the introductions pile up. There is Ash (Darren Evans), Executioner’s running joke, a feral orphan with The Worst Teeth in All of Wales™ who dresses in beaver pelts and enjoys unnatural relations with his sheep Miriam. And there is Gawain Maddox (Felix Scott), the professional “punisher” and journeyman executioner whose turn-ons include smacking his young son upside the head for perceived infractions and punching his wife in the stomach when not peeling hunks of flesh from men’s backs for a living. He’s a “cutter” full of his own self-flagellating scars that my Spidey-sense tells me will play a part in the narrative suspense further into the series.
We also meet Annora, a.k.a. “the Healer” (Katey Sagal), a mystical Valkyrie with a salt-and-pepper mane of Cher hair and an unplaceable Slavic accent somewhat reminiscent of Triumph the Comic Insult Dog. Upon seeing Brattle and Petra making their way across the sun-lit fields of Ventrishire, she remarks to her mysterious, hooded companion the Dark Mute (Sutter in a recurring cameo role): “It is time.”
Ventris decides it is time to kick up the tax collection on his fiefdoms a notch while taking a laborious dump on the baronial commode. He is counseled during this endeavor by trusted consigliere, Chamberlain Milus Corbett (Stephen Moyers), all coiled cunning and silver-bearded menace who advocates cracking down on “righteous peasants” to keep the peace and bolster castle coffers. It’s a delicious character about-face for Moyer, who manages to twiddle the proverbial mustache in stark contrast to his celebrated turn as a certain lovesick vampire.
NEXT: The bloodbath begins[pagebreak]
That impending taxation is what ultimately convinces Brattle to violate his sacred pledge to the Heavenly One and take up arms again. Naturally, the decision to go off disrupting the Baron’s enforced tithing by attacking Ventris’ taxmen with a hooded band of village riders doesn’t sit too well with Petra. Meanwhile, Anorra quietly appraises Brattle’s choice to violate the promise as a sign of divine providence. “God has put him on our path,” she tells the Dark Mute.
By standards set later in the episode, the ensuing ambush unfolds in a relatively bloodless frenzy of flaming arrows and throat slashing. Brattle, for his part, forgoes a sword in lieu of dispatching the tax collectors with a cudgel-like whacking stick. The riders allow one taxman to leave unharmed in order to transmit a warning to Ventris: Slow your roll on the tax collection tip. And the terrified man takes off running—but not before accidentally bumping into the sheep-loving dreadlock man Ash, who’s been keeping lookout beneath a rotting log.
As Brattle contemplates his whacking stick in the afterglow of battle, we learn more of the character’s military past. Another flashback reveals that as he lay wounded, Brattle discovered a key piece of castle intrigue: Ventris and Corbett had worked in cahoots with the marauding Scots to massacre their own troops, thereby quashing Welsh rebellion.
Moreover, the two specifically fretted that illustrious warrior Brattle would be celebrated as an immortal martyr by Shire folk, thereby raising Shire ire. And so they decide to leave his remains for the vultures, unaware the injured soldier lay eavesdropping from behind a nearby boulder — unaware that their treachery would soon return to haunt them.
But somewhere in his heart of hearts, Brattle is aware that killing men with a whacking stick rather than disemboweling them with a broad sword stands as a cheat upon his pledge. And quickly enough — after the surviving taxman returns to Castle Ventris and IDs Ash’s beaver skin pelts, allowing the Baron to locate a specific river in Ventrishire where beavers dam rivers and pinpoint where the masked riders likely reside — Brattle’s broken promise comes back to haunt him even more poignantly.
Before Ventris can head off for a retaliatory ambush, though, the Baroness counsels him to be fair with his people, agitating in favor of due process and the rule of law. Despite the trappings of aristocracy that define her existence, Lady Love self-identifies as a “hopeful Welsh girl.” She’s fond of frolicking in the ocean — “the chill reminds me of who I am” — and commiserating with the common man. Subtly reminded by Corbett that her remarks could be misconstrued as “concern for the welfare of outlaws,” the Baroness delivers a short speech urging Corbett to remind her husband that “his thirst to grow this shire should not be quenched with the sweat and blood of its own people.”
In addition to demonstrating Sutter’s increasing finesse with period and local dialect, the speech serves to establish what I suspect will be a kind of class warfare Lady Love wages from inside castle walls in episodes to come.
With the inexorable certainty of death and taxes, Ventris’ men descend upon the shire and massacre the townsfolk: an orgy of blood and flame where the murder of blameless women and children is rendered in pointillist detail. Although Ventris orders an extra gore-y death for Petra — “Make this one a sight for deep memory!” he instructs his henchmen — at the sight of her cross necklace, the soldier who catches her can’t bring himself to dispatch the pregnant woman and tells her to run.
Moments later, however, she is confronted by an unidentified assailant. “You!” Petra exclaims before being slashed in the belly by a hand wielding a bejeweled dagger. (It sort of goes without saying, if you are offended by this kind of thing you probably shouldn’t be watching a series called The Bastard Executioner.) Before the scene ends, that same hand dabs into her wound to smear a bloody cross on the character’s forehead à la the Manson family’s “helter skelter.” And later, Petra appears on a funeral mound of fresh corpses, her entrails spilling out into the town’s square, her stillborn child exposed to the elements.
In such a morally conflicted universe where mens’ failure to honor promises leads to almost certain despair, can we hold any reasonable hope an abhorrent crime will go without retaliation? Not in the pilot of The Bastard Executioner. Upon discovery of the Shire’s destruction, Brattle and his fellow riders spend a few perfunctory moments grimacing with clenched anguish over their loved ones’ remains before collectively choosing anger over sadness. “I have no plan but vengeance!” Brattle exclaims, snatching up the broad swords that lay buried while he attempted to put his warrior ways behind him.
Ventris soon hears the riders are on the move and heads out with a platoon of foot soldiers to engage them. Along the way, he fatefully encounters Maddox, and seeing a likely application for the executioner’s professional punishing skill, enlists his services, sending Maddox’s family ahead to Castle Ventris.
NEXT: A battle for power[pagebreak]
Facing one another in battle, Brattle’s moment of grand reveal arrives: “Remember me? I’m the knight you sent to his death at the hands of the hoarding Scots!”
Ventris, for his part, is incredulous but ready to rumble. And as legions of Ventrishire locals emerge from the bushes to attack the Baron’s men with guerilla gusto, the battle turns into one of those Braveheart-style conflagrations where everyone is running at each other and yelling at the top of their lungs. Amid the chaotic head-stomping and flaming-arrow shooting, Maddox falls from his horse and is immediately stabbed in the throat with a pointed stick by a malevolent Shire youth — again, a kind of metaphorical patricide.
When things look bleakest for the Baron’s men, Corbett’s cowardly half-brother Leon Tell (Alec Newman) takes flight, leaving his overlord to his doom. But before Brattle can run him through with the big broad sword, the nobleman lashes out to stab him in the gut. In turn, Brattle’s right-hand man Toran Pritchard (Sam Spruell) sticks a blade through Ventris’ skull.
Chamberlain Corbett receives news of his lordship’s death while making a beast of two backs with Ventris’ personal valet in a shadowy hallway — a scene that is not so much judgmental of the character’s sexuality as one that serves to underscore his furtive and brutal nature. Unconscious from his wound, Brattle receives the healing services of Annora, who, when no one is looking, gives the character a down-and-dirty haircut and carves a bloody cross onto his right cheekbone — her attempt at an extreme battlefield makeover to turn Brattle into a Maddox doppelgänger.
Then the healer begins to speak of the mini Rita Ora look-alike Brattle saw in his dream. “It is time to lay down this sword, Wilkin Brattle,” Annora says. “Your Savior needs you to live the life of a different man.” He doesn’t understand yet that she is speaking literally and not figuratively.
Assuming a second false identity within as many days, the character shows up at Ventris Castle with Prichard and the bodies of the Baron and a number of slain soldiers in a risky bid to ascertain the balance of power. But before the pair can leave, Brattle is positively ID-ed by the wormy Leon in front of Chamberlain Corbett, the Baroness, and assembled townsfolk. The erstwhile executioner is not whom he would seem to be, Leon insists. But Brattle, in turn, denies the charge, asserting he saw Leon flee the scene and providing a rationale for his false accusation.
Their He Said/He Said Mexican standoff is ultimately decided by Maddox’s wife and son. Defying most boundaries of logic, the two publicly embrace Brattle by way of vouching for his newly claimed identity — a plot twist Sutter recently admitted he swiped from the 1982 Gerard Depardieu film The Return of Martin Guerre.
But even by that point, Brattle’s transformation into Gawain Maddox is incomplete. Quickly appraising the situation — and fully realizing the executioner is not who he says — the Chamberlain orders Brattle to stay on in Ventris Castle as full-time punisher. His first order of business: executing Leon in the town’s square.
“Why are you doing this?” Brattle asks Corbett.
“Our buried truths bind us,” the Chamberlain knowingly replies, placing a suggestive hand on Brattle/Maddox’s heaving bosom. “I need a man with the heart of a dragon.”
Interior cave: For the pilot’s penultimate scene, the camera pans in on the Dark Mute writing cryptic runes on a vertiginous stone wall. Without his mask and hood we see the character, “Ludwig”, his face and body horribly disfigured by burns. And Annora is naked. Her translucent flesh is also covered with swirling tattooed glyphs. “We need to ready our faith,” she tells him, loosening the Dark Mute’s cape for what appears to be some kind of ritualistic sex. The camera pans back again for the episode’s most shocking reveal: the bejeweled dagger that ran Petra through belongs to him. The heartache, misery, and existential confusion at the center of the Executioner creation myth all flow from the Dark Mute’s mysterious agenda.
Before hefting the heavy broad sword, Brattle sees a vision: Petra and his infant son glowing with heavenly beatitude from a space in the crowd. He goes to them with furrowed brow. We hear Dream Petra utter a single word — “Always” — before being led away by mini Rita Ora.
We see the man who, from this day going forward, will be recognized as Gawain Maddox determinedly ascend the small platform, swing the blade and release head from body, unleashing a small fountain of Jugular discharge.
America: Meet your bastard executioner.