We meet the dead man about a third of the way through The Bastard Executioner’s second episode, “Effigy / Delw”: a bloated corpse festering amid scores of wolf carcasses in the Southern Chasms of Middle Ventrishire. With severed arms where his legs should be and legs for arms, he is not the person for whom the search party has been trawling the dark forest. That would be Ash, a.k.a. the feral orphan with The Worst Teeth in All of Wales™, whose unexplained absence has left the rebel revenge-seekers Calo, Pritchard, and Berber the Moor thoroughly spooked.
But given a quiet five minutes with the body, Annora begins working her freaky magic. The healer-witch pours ointment over a chest wound and soon is yanking a thin black snake with a pair of telltale red stripes out of the dead guy’s mouth.
That image — something bilious and deadly issuing forth through an open mouth — supplies a trenchant enough metaphor for the episode. In “Effigy / Delw,” lies beget misunderstandings leading to larger corruptions that result in no small amount of death and dismemberment including at least two severed noses.
In the time since Brattle’s Talented Mr. Ripley-style adoption of Gawain Maddox’s identity, he has faced a pile-on of existential crises. For starters, the punisher’s wife (Sarah Sweeney) seems barely in touch with who he really is. Reminded she doesn’t have to keep up the “farce” of his secret in private, Jessamy demurs. “I’ve known you since I was 9, husband,” she tells him. “You are my husband and I love you deeply. Is that not the truth?” Um, what?!
But more conflicting, Brattle’s ruse in pursuit of revenge on The Guilty — the “noble savages” who torched his village, but who, unbeknownst to him, did NOT disembowel Petra and kill his unborn son — has compelled the character to take up arms against fellow rebels. Early in the episode, a band of youths with painted faces attacks a convoy bearing a funereal effigy of Baron Ventris. Nia, a 15-year-old firebrand is captured after accidentally smashing the statue. And Brattle is brought in to perform what’s known among Guantanamo Bay circles as “enhanced interrogation techniques” to get her to divulge her identity and betray the rebellion.
Here is the punisher’s problem: to maintain his lie, he must place himself at odds with people very much like himself, earnest shire folk lashing out against Baronial oppression.
For her part, the Baroness is dead-set against Brattle/Maddox’s fingernail pulling. Revealed as the “daughter of a beloved Welsh lord,” a woman of the people whose headstrong behavior belies her “to the manor born” pedigree, Lady Love blanches at the use of torture and seems clearly befuddled by the rebellion fomenting against her.
Viewed within Bastard Executioner’s refracting funhouse mirrors of self-delusion, subterfuge, and hidden identity upon hidden identity, you have to wonder, though: Is Lady Love capable of being honest with herself? After years of living in a grand house and dressing in silken finery as a kept woman, she has inherited a powerful station thanks to her husband’s death. Can the character really be so willfully naive as to believe a baroness could retain her spot on the totem pole without a heavy hand governing her fiefdoms?
In an effort to meet the leader of the Welsh rebellion, a mysterious individual known as The Wolf, Lady Love tells Nia’s recalcitrant fisher-woman mum: “I want to understand his need for revolution. What inspires him. Perhaps find a peaceful solution.” You can practically hear all of Ventrishire doing a spit take.
NEXT: More character secrets revealed
On the return trip, rebels attack the Baroness’ convoy and we meet yet another Executioner character who is much more than he seems. As Brattle spills more shire-folk blood fending off the marauders — the guy is really taking an eye for an eye to a whole ‘nother level — Father Ruskin pulls a little blade out of his priestly vestment, picks up a cudgel in his free hand and proceeds to hand out beat-downs and multiple stab wounds with a kind of balletic jailhouse grace. “A strong hand for a learned man,” Brattle remarks to Ruskin later. “I’ve never seen a priest wield a mace like that before.”
Ruskin’s knowing reply: “We all have a past life, good Maddie.”
But for my money, the episode’s most fascinating penny-drop occurs a few scenes later when Chamberlain Corbett admonishes Brattle/Maddox for offering his unsolicited opinion (concerning the rebel hunt) to Lady Love.
“I serve the Baroness, not you,” Brattle piquantly reminds him.
To which Corbett replies: “Gawain Maddox serves the Baroness. Wilkin Brattle belongs to me. Do not challenge me, simple man. I will shred your body and mind!”
And here we have the first explicit acknowledgement so far in the show that Corbett is all in on the grand deception. It begs the question: What is the upside of such risk in keeping Brattle’s secret? If the Chamberlain’s complicity with the identity swap is ever revealed, he’ll lose his position within castle hierarchy. Brattle/Maddox, of course, will likely lose his head. Given Corbett’s pronounced Machiavellian streak and his status as the series’ designated bad guy (not to mention the Baroness’ impending meeting with the King), it’s an agenda that will likely soon be revealed.
Although Brattle has displayed increasing reliance on Anorra — for a special herbal remedy for the doomed Nia, for tips on how to more effectively butcher human flesh — he turns to the castle chapel for solace before bringing the cleaver down on his latest work order. There, he is confronted by a vision of Petra halo-ed in golden light. Is she there to help or haunt, the executioner wonders. Brattle apologizes to his murdered wife.
“I was brought to my end at the right time, for the right reason,” ghost Petra tells him. “When you stop looking for all that is wrong, Wilkin, you will see the right is in your grasp.”
Moments later, we have yet another thing that is more than it would seem. Lady Love’s decree regarding Nia’s fate suddenly metamorphosizes into a black snake with twin red rings just like the one Anorra pulled out of fat dead guy’s mouth! It slinks up Brattle’s arm, coils around his neck and hisses in his face nearly choking him. But the moment he cries out in agony, the snake is gone and the parchment returns to normal.
In the episode’s closing moments, action coheres around the spectacle of another public execution—a procedural trope I wouldn’t be surprised to find at the end of every show installment. There is the table laid with menacing implements of bodily destruction. In the background there is the druidic lute and chanting music. And here comes Brattle/Maddox with a nifty little crescent-shaped blade.
With the dexterity of a tree-trimmer, he slices Nia’s nose clean off to provide a kind of gruesome symmetry. It’s physical recompense for the nose of Baron Ventris’ statue she accidentally smashed during the rebel raid. (“Delw,” after all, is Welsh for effigy or visual likeness.)
The mystery of the fat dead man with legs for arms remains, for now, unsolved. Ash wanders back to camp having fetched Miriam from parts unknown, uttering what could in fact be Peak TV’s most indelible mea culpa: “Yeah, I know, I’d lose my baubles if they weren’t attached to my ding dong!”
But before the credits roll, we see the Dark Mute stringing a thin black snake with telltale red stripes onto a large hook. The character hands the dead animal to Anorra, who proceeds to string it up on a kind of clothesline containing dozens of other thin black snakes with twin red stripes.
In The Bastard Executioner, the witch’s magical fingerprints are everywhere yet nowhere. She not only controls Brattles destiny but his most troubling visions, too.