'The Bastard Executioner': TV Review

A Welsh rebel vows to put down the sword in a fight against England, but history and unseen fate combine to reverse the decision. 

In a major leap, FX and 'Sons of Anarchy' creator Kurt Sutter create an intriguing and vast medieval epic that surprises and entertains on a number of fronts.

And now for something completely different.

On Tuesday, FX will roll out the new Kurt Sutter series The Bastard Executioner, and will wait to see if the audience for both creator and channel is ready to go beyond what it’s used to. The show is a medieval tale in the Game of Thrones vein that is miles from Sutter’s last hit, Sons of Anarchy, and a genre FX has never attempted.

In fact, the furthest back in history FX has ever gone is the 1980s with The Americans, though the coming second season of Fargo will be set in the 1970s. But Bastard Executioner is set in the 14th century and is centered in Wales, so this is quite an adventure for a network that has dealt exclusively in modernity.

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That said, Bastard Executioner is a very welcome new direction for both Sutter and FX, bringing a meaty swords-and-castles epic to a channel that recently found success with horror and has the creative disposition to go beyond its comfort zone.

The immediate question is whether Sutter’s loyal audience for Sons of Anarchy will transition to an entirely different kind of costume drama and, on a lesser level, whether some critics will give Sutter the benefit of the doubt since he can be a polarizing figure who carries a certain amount of baggage into this new venture.

Hopefully the second element will be a non-issue. This is a bold shift for Sutter as a storyteller (and, like Sons, he has a small role in Bastard Executioner) and it’s always admirable for writers to take on wholly different genres or styles.

What immediately stands out with the first two episodes (three hours total, since the “pilot” is basically the first and second episodes presented in a two-hour premiere), is that Bastard Executioner aims to tell a very large story and asks the audience to commit to an epic journey. In a TV landscape where Game of Thrones towers over this genre (there is decidedly more fantasy in Thrones), and Starz managed to pull in a fresh audience for Outlander, there’s a crowd willing to converge on and be still with slowly unfolding versions of historical fiction that take time to unwind. It’s entirely possible that whatever portion of Sutter’s devoted Sons of Anarchy fan base that doesn’t buy in will be replaced by people who never wanted any part of a motorcycle gang story, even if it was Shakespearean — but they could readily buy into something as ambitious as Bastard Executioner.

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And they should. While even FX expressed some worry that a two-hour premiere on a Tuesday night might be asking a lot for an audience, the pleasant surprise of Bastard Executioner is that it actually sets the hook quite early thanks to epic battle scenes and the engaging presence of lead actor Lee Jones, who plays Wilkin Brattle, a Welsh warrior who vows to lay down his sword after a particularly vicious battle leaves him near death on the battlefield, the beneficiary of an enigmatic message from an angelic vision.

Though Bastard Executioner isn’t yet, in the three hours made available to critics, a sprawling and complicatedly intricate story like Game of Thrones (a benefit, at this point, since that great series gets maddeningly bogged down with the crushing weight of its multiple storylines), every ambitious epic needs a core character that the audience can follow — someone who has overt magnetism before the audience even understands what he or she is all about. Like Sam Heughan before him in Outlander, relative newcomer Jones has a real gift in this area. He’s someone you want to know more about as a character but will stand behind before any real mysteries, traits and deviations of the norm are revealed.

One of the interesting bits about watching Bastard Executioner unfold is how it doesn’t really play into the preconceptions some people might have about Sutter and what he might be up to in this new venture. While Sons of Anarchy got excessively gory (and of course The Shield, where Sutter wrote prior, was no rom-com either), what excesses can he possibly toy with after Game of Thrones, the critical darling, has crossed pretty much every line there is already?

Any series focused on a man using a sword for his day job is going to have plenty of blood and guts, as Bastard Executioner does, but save for one particularly evocative use of entrails, the first three hours of the series come nowhere near the body-piece porn of Hannibal — focusing instead on marching forward the main story.

And even Sutter’s acting role, as the Dark Mute, is notable more for its burn-victim makeup than some over-the-top, self-mutilating prisoner. Which is to say, it helps to remind yourself that every project is different and Bastard Executioner is so far removed from Sons of Anarchy in setting and style to be out of the reach of its shadow.

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And that’s really the slow realization that viewers may get while watching this effectively strong early start — outside of the shockingly different presence of Katey Sagal here, FX and Sutter have leapt forward while looking back in time for a story. Every frame, superbly directed by Paris Barclay, strips away whatever preconceived notions viewers might have coming in and gives Sutter exactly what he deserves as a storyteller — the chance to be judged in the present and credited with making an enormous (and possibly risky) stylistic jump.

And while that might be making a lot of Sutter’s situation, it could be that Sagal, who’s been so wonderful in so many roles in her career, is taking an equally big leap and so too has a lot on the line. Visually, she’s the obvious link to Sons of Anarchy — you can’t look at her in Bastard Executioner and not be jarred into the realization that you’re nowhere near Charming anymore —  but there is nothing, not an ounce, of familiarity in the two roles. Visually, as “Annora of the Alders,” she is striking; straight, long gray hair and loose cloth garments separate her light years from Gemma. And here she’s playing a witch/healer, with Slavic accent.

Sagal falls into the ensemble but her role will have an important reveal eventually — she’s the one who guides Wilkin to the higher calling she sees for him (and here is where Bastard Executioner uses one of a few visual tricks: flash forward and backward with Annora’s visions; plus Wilkin begins to see more visions than just the angel messenger from the battlefield).

The intriguing part of Bastard Executioner will be to see the many possible directions of the plot unfolding. There is a vast historical aspect of Wales rebels fighting back against the English overlords. The series opens with Baron Erik Ventris (Brian F. O’Byrne) and his right-hand man, Chamberlain Milus Corbett (Stephen Moyer), using force to put down the rebels fighting against excess taxation in the region known as Ventrishire. (One of the Welsh rebel leaders, dubbed “The Wolf,” is played by Matthew Rhys from FX’s The Americans, who will have a recurring role and gets to have a little fun in his home country where the series is shot.)

Early on, Wilkin has kept up his promise to put down his sword, and reluctantly helps his ragtag band of local Welsh farmers, including Toran (Sam Spruell) and Berber the Moor (Danny Sapani), fight back against oppression. But they are vastly overmatched. Another main player in the large cast is Flora Spencer-Longhurst, who plays the Welsh Baroness Lady Love, who is married to Baron Ventris and will eventually be an essential mover between Wilkin and Moyer’s Milus character.

As The Bastard Executioner stretches out, it presents the crux of the matter: whatever the higher calling is that leads Wilkin onward, after switching identities with the help of Annora and taking up the blade as the punisher (aka the executioner) at service to Milus, he’s already leading a dual life and Annora seems to see something else for him entirely.

There’s a lot more going on in the series, which is why it kicks off with that two-hour premiere. The ensemble cast is large and strong and littered with enough character intricacies to fuel long-tailed story arcs. And while there’s much to set up, the series moves briskly enough (and with enough action to liven up the detailed story setups) that everything gains clarity by the end of the second episode.

Shot in Wales, Executioner is given strong visual cues by Barclay (including color drain right before act breaks), who doesn’t rely on just a dark, foreboding mud-and-horses look but brings out the vast countryside in daylight as well. Credit Sutter and this strong cast, led by Jones, with surprising on a number of fronts and giving FX the sprawling historical epic it lacked.

Sometimes change can be good for all involved.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine