A grimdark fantasy television series from the creator of Sons of Anarchy? Has someone checked on Joe Abercrombie to make sure he hasn’t exploded from gleeful anticipation? My thoughts and initial reaction are somewhat mixed, but I really want it to work. We could use more historical fantasy set during Welsh rebellions against England.
I’m only able to watch The Bastard Executioner when it comes available on Amazon Prime, so I won’t be able to do recaps like I am with Fear the Walking Dead, but I wanted to at least give a review of the 2-hour pilot. It’s a show born of two phenomena. Showrunner Kurt Sutter’s (ratings) success with Sons of Anarchy after writing and producing for the far superior (and one of my top-3 all-time) show The Shield, and the enormous success of History’s Vikings and HBO’s Game of Thrones (the latter of which has entered a prominent place in the cultural zeitgeist and just won all the Emmys). My feelings on Sons are decidedly mixed and Game of Thrones will never equal A Song of Ice and Fire, but this is very much up my alley.
It has the opportunity to address my two biggest complaints about Sons. One was the level of violence. It wasn’t an opposition to violence per se, but the incompatibility with the scale of violence in the setting. Medieval Wales, though? Like the rest of medieval Europe, life there was nasty, brutish, and short and violence free, easy, and casual. The second was that the Sons couldn’t possibly have survived the events of even the first few seasons. Avoiding drug charges in a crime-ridden, dysfunctional city is one thing. But between draconian federal gun laws and the vastly greater resources of federal law enforcement, once you have their attention it’s all over but the crying. The pilot left me disappointed on the first, though. It wasn’t the level of violence, which wasn’t at all out of place in the setting, it’s the treatment of the violence. What should be casual is treated as gratuitous.
But medieval Wales was an inspired choice. Close enough to Game of Thrones’ largely English inspiration, Vikings’ Scandinavia and English coast, and Braveheart’s Scottish rebellion against Longshanks to give viewers a frame of reference, but a location (Wales) and a king (Edward II instead of I) that haven’t gotten the same attention. The fantasy touch is light. Smart again, I think, because I want to watch a (good) fantasy show and because many fantastical elements are terribly difficult to transfer to film, even with an unlimited budget, and The Bastard Executioner’s undoubtedly limited budget is better spent on battles. (One could also argue Katey Sagal’s Slavic witch doesn’t have powers at all.)
The violence is again, too stylized and gratuitous, taking away from the best part of the pilot, the battles. Sutter (or his director) is also trying entirely too hard to play the auteur, with long tracking shots and shifts from color to black-and-white and back and the like. The setting would be better served by a simpler approach (I can’t decide whether that should be traditional or The Shield-style voyeuristic, though). The actors and the characters playing them are largely forgettable, but a good half of them don’t make it out of the first two hours so we don’t really need to know them anyway, I suppose.
So where do we stand then? The Bastard Executioner is beautiful and visually arresting when it doesn’t get a bit fancy (or include too many funny hats). Again, it’s a bloody setting well suited for Sutter’s storytelling and up my alley. None of the leads grabbed me, but they didn’t turn me off either, and hopefully Wilkin, our bastard executioner, and Lowry, the baroness and I suspect the second lead, will get more time to develop and shine in the coming episodes. I certainly want it to work and will give it time for that reason.