Roush Review: Executioner Is One Bloody, Pretentious Bastard

Matt Roush
The Bastard Executioner
Ollie Upton/FX

Fall TV PreviewAnd you thought Game of Thrones was brutal. (What, with a title like The Bastard Executioner, you were expecting maybe puppies and lilacs?) Heads do roll, no surprise, in this glum yet sumptuously produced historical potboiler from Sons of Anarchy's master of mayhem Kurt Sutter. Battle scenes in besieged 14th-century Wales are suitably graphic, and the slaughter of an entire village raises the gruesome stakes to such a level you might look back at Thrones' infamous Red Wedding as having been bathed in a delightful shade of pink.

But it's hard not to imagine eyes rolling as well, as viewers plod through the largely predictable and at times laughably pretentious two-hour premiere, which sets up a vengeance quest for warrior Wilkin Brattle (a mopey Lee Jones), first seen being left for dead on a battlefield of gory carnage. In the first of several mystical visions—but the only one so far accompanied by a CGI dragon that reminds us just why FX has gone medieval (see: GOT)—a childlike angelic presence urges Wilkin to lay down his sword: "Your savior needs you to live the life of a different man."

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At first we might assume that this holy order has led Wilkin to the benign existence we next see him enjoying, as a pious peasant husband to the lovely and pregnant Petra (Elen Rhys). But we know better, because in a set-up reminiscent of a classic Western—although substituting rapaciously ruthless feudal barons for unscrupulous ranchers—we're introduced to the snarling villains of the piece: the greedy Lord Ventris (Brian F. O'Byrne) and his calculating chamberlain, Milus Corbett (Stephen Moyer, relishing every sour note). Their oppressive rule and excessive taxation of the villagers of fictional Ventrishire have led to pockets of rebellion. And when the worst happens, which you may see coming from a country mile away, Wilkin can no longer stay neutral like a grizzled Rick from Casablanca. Which fatefully leads to his new job as executioner-"punisher" (read: torturer), thanks to a fortuitous case of mistaken identity.

Katey Sagal in The Bastard Executioner on FX

Ollie Upton/FX

Katey Sagal as Annora

The pilot episode could have been more effective and compelling if we'd first met Wilkin in his accidental new role of death merchant-for-hire and then played back the tragic circumstances that brought him there. But that might have lessened the need for Executioner's most preposterous and unconvincing plot device: the smug psychic healer Annora, played by Anarchy's wildly miscast Katey Sagal (Sutter's wife and muse) with woozy solemnity and a hokey Eastern-European accent that makes her sound like a day player from one of those Universal horror movies from the 1930s. "You have a fate that you must learn to hold, one that will forever mark your place in time," she drones with such blah-blah self-righteous ponderousness you might wish Wilkin would test out his sword on her. (She's accompanied on her rounds by a hideously scarred protector known as the "Dark Mute," played by Sutter himself in what's partly in-joke, partly ego trip.)

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Much of the show is infected with what appears to be a case of Deadwood envy, with characters speaking even the most dastardly dialogue with a self-conscious flourish: "Make this one a sight for deep memory, brutal, and a strike of pain that cannot be hidden with insolent hoods," Lord Ventris orders in one of his darker moments. But the angels are just as insufferable. In the second week, Wilkin is once again visited by a heavenly being, who advises him in a glowing spotlight that feels right out of Les Miz: "When you stop looking for all that is wrong, Wilkin, you will see that what is right was just in your grasp." I dreamed a dream that this would stop, but it just keeps on going.

The Bastard Executioner is at first blow an unsatisfying wallow in extreme violence leavened with corny platitudes, enacted by characters who, with the exception of Moyer's steely-eyed menace, aren't all that memorable. A much richer and emotionally credible story from an earlier period in English history will be arriving soon in BBC America's The Last Kingdom, premiering Oct. 10. But it will be lucky to get even a fraction of the attention that this bloody mess commands.

The Bastard Executioner premieres Tuesday, Sept. 15, 10/9c, on FX