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