Out of all its crimes, dullness may be worst of all.
I’ve no plan but vengeance.
Say this for Kurt Sutter: he doesn’t do anything halfway.
The famously combative showrunner doesn’t seem to have “restraint” or “nuance” in his vocabulary, whether pushing the final seasons of Sons of Anarchy into melodramatic nonsense or using Twitter as his platform for berating TV critics, book publishers, or just about anyone who pisses him off. (Apparently I’m taking my life into my hands just by writing this review.) So he’s perhaps not a very nice guy, but few in Hollywood actually are, right? It doesn’t really matter to us if the work is good, right?
Unfortunately, The Bastard Executioner is not good. In fact, it’s kind of awful. It’s an unrepentantly ugly, mean-spirited, undisciplined series, and worst of all, it’s just boring.
With the dozens (hundreds?) of new shows rolling onto our screens this Fall, in order to break through one has to capture the audience’s attention quickly and hold it. Sutter shouldn’t have the luxury of waiting until the 90-minute mark of a two-hour premiere to actually get to the premise of his show. But instead of hooking us immediately, there’s a long, slow trudge presenting characters of varying degrees of flatness: the band of merry misfits; the cruel lord and his crueler right-hand-man; the doomed pregnant wife; the future romantic interest with large, vacant eyes.
After a text-filled preamble longer than a Legend of Zelda cutscene, we swoop down to a battlefield and meet our hero: Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a knight in the army of Edward II (or is it Edward III? Even the series’s IMDB page isn’t sure) who is met with an angelic vision amidst all the disemboweling. “Lay down your sword,” the dark-skinned, white-haired cherub coos, before a laughably bad CGI demon climbs out of a nearby corpse. It seems our Wilkin is a man of Great Destiny. (Yawn.)
And throughout the premiere, the show goes out of its way to remind us of that, primarily through “Annora of the Alders,” a woods witch played by a horribly miscast Katey Sagal. (Yes, she’s Sutter’s wife, but whatever accent she’s putting on is an embarrassing goulash of Slavic vowel sounds.) Years later, Wilkin is living as a farmer in the barony of Ventrishire; his soldier’s swords are buried beneath the floor of his hut, and his patient wife has a baby on the way. So it’s only a matter of time before an attempted rebellion against the petty and tariff-happy Baron Ventris (Brian F. O’Byrne) goes horribly wrong, his entire village is slaughtered, and through pure plot convenience Wilkin finds himself impersonating an executioner in the very court of the man who gave the order. How Annora fits into all this can be spotted from several leagues away — and her horribly scarred, mute companion (played by Sutter himself, naturally) is a better fit for The Goonies than whatever this is trying to be.
But by the time we get there, and the story actually starts to make sense and be sort-of engaging, we’ve already been turned off by Sutter’s seedier impulses — and I don’t mean just the ultra-violence, which I’ll get to later. Both hours of the premiere are directed by Paris Barclay, whose long and award-winning career is no excuse for the stylistic mess he and Sutter have given us. Each act break ends in a pointless dip to black and white, like we’re watching a 1980s soap opera. The credits sequence (set to an Ed Sheeran song, of all people) is overlong and cartoony. The in-episode music swings between just shy of The Princess Bride and grungy rock guitar. The requisite Wilhem Scream in a later battle scene only elicits laughter.
The camerawork, in particular, is downright sloppy: shaky handheld shots yank us right out of scenes on multiple occasions, and even the Steadycam operators seem to have a hard time keeping up with the actors. It’s as if they were under such a time crunch shooting it they either didn’t get enough rehearsal time, or the blocking was hardly directed at all.
It shows in the performances too, which are largely as wooden and dull as the storytelling. Jones is fine if bland as the protagonist, and Stephen Moyer at least isn’t out of place as Milus Corbett, Ventris’s ambitious and goateed Chamberlain. The best performer is The Americans‘ Matthew Rhys, who literally leaps onto the screen in the second hour and does more with the dumb material he’s given than all the others put together. But of course, he won’t even be a series regular, as wasted in this thing as the Welsh countryside — which I’m told is actually quite picturesque, but you can’t tell at all here. Beauty shots for trailers are one thing; in context, it doesn’t even look as good as Vikings, let alone Game of Thrones.
Thrones was clearly on the mind of Sutter as Executioner went into development, and he seems committed to out-doing the HBO series when it comes to grimness and gore. I didn’t think anyone could watch Thrones and come away thinking “Yeah, that could be bleaker,” but I overestimated Sutter’s respect for his audience. Nothing is off-limits, at least as far as FX’s standards will allow: swords through limbs, bellies, and heads in graphic detail; throat-slitting (and worse) of women and kids; a nausea-inducing closeup of an unborn child.
Some of these are painfully obvious computer effects (and don’t get me started on the greenscreens), but the show as a whole has a sordid fascination with blood, and with butts. Forget Thrones‘s “sexposition” — get a load of “expoosition,” in which important information is relayed while a character is squatting over a toilet. The show’s only attempt at humor comes from a running gag about a certain peasant’s too-familiar relationship with his sheep. The Bastard Executioner: a fun time for all!
Sutter has defended his show’s ugliness in recent weeks, claiming that it isn’t “openly gratuitous.” What he doesn’t seem to understand is that it’s not about having violence in your show. If it’s a medieval story, or a biker gang story, it’s expected: the world of the show is brutal, and it’d be dishonest not to depict it in some form. What matters is the way the violence is depicted, and the attitude behind it. What shots you choose to linger on, and how efficiently (or inefficiently) you get the point across, determines whether the audience is duly horrified as you intend, or just becomes so numb to it that it no longer has any affect at all.
The reason I’m still on board with Thrones (aside from being a fan of the books) is because for all its unending tragedy, the thematic underpinnings of its story are exceptionally strong, and the characters are richly, identifiably human. The shocking moments come out of those characters’ actions organically — it’s not merely violence for violence’s sake. Your mileage may absolutely vary as to the batting average of those scenes (my own patience was certainly tested this past season), but there’s at least a motivation behind it other than “but it’s authentic!” — or worse, “but it’s awesome!” If you give into blood-thirst too many times, the power of those moments will soon be gone, and all you can do is keep raising the level of gore until you’ve driven away all but your most jaded viewers.
There’s precious little artistry in The Bastard Executioner. Like Sons of Anarchy at his worst, it’s only interested in its own ideas about heavy metal hyper-masculinity. It’s not a real-world GoT — it’s Braveheart as a snuff film. And that is just not for me.