An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

October 19, 2017

Sutter, The Bastard Executioner

The Bastard Executioner, created by Kurt Sutter. Distributed by FX Network, 2015.

Reviewed by Ashely Conklin
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord…” Isaiah 55:8-9
God’s ways are mysterious and unknowable, such is the premise behind Kurt Sutter’s failed show The Bastard Executioner. Canceled after a single, ten-episode season, the FX series seemed like a promising addition to the growing number of more realistic fantasy epics. After all, TBE contains the usual new “historical” (read: gritty) medievalism staples: oppressive religious and political systems, social upheaval, secret societies and overdone prophesies, a Chosen One figure, and a healthy dose of castles, sword fights, and all the graphic violence and nudity one can expect from a cable channel. In fact, the problem is that it has too many of these motifs, all clamoring for equal attention and very loosely united through the main character, Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones). Wilkin is an English knight, the Chosen One of the series, granted visions from God that steer him from a soldier’s life to that of a journeyman executioner in a small Welsh shire. The show takes place in 14th century Wales, during the tumultuous reign of Edward II in which English barons are struggling to hold onto lands against Welsh uprisings with limited assistance from their weak king. Wilkin and his cohort of Welsh freemen suffer under the oppressive taxation and violent rule of their English overlords, and after their village is slaughtered, they join together in a quest for vengeance that kicks off the ten-episode season. 

Straightforward, right? Unfortunately, with a show that rests upon divine providence and all the mysteries that entails, nothing is quite that simple. The narrative acrobatics required to turn Wilkin Brattle, English Knight, into Gawain Maddox, executioner, render the first few episodes of this series overwrought and unbelievable. Wilkin’s journey is more confusing than mysterious, more accidentally unlikely than providential. And if you can name all of Wilkin’s Welsh companions by the end of the third episode, then you will have done better than I did. The show primarily suffers from trying to be too big and too complicated and so that what is meant to feel mysterious and weighty is instead confusing and contrived, beginning with the main character.

Wilkin Brattle is chosen by God. He doesn’t know what this means. I don’t know what this means, but that’s ok because I’m pretty sure figuring it out is the point of the show. Building a show around a central and, in this case, abstract mystery can work quite successfully.[1] Unfortunately, the events of the show waver between feeling entirely random (because their importance and connectedness are hinted at through ambiguous visions) or deeply significant (due to the series of belief-defying coincidences that caused the event to happen) or, strangely, both at the same time. Wilkin’s entire role as the executioner neatly sums up this problem of feeling portentous and yet entirely random. Since executioner is God’s chosen role for Wilkin, it is accompanied by a near-death experience, visions of angels and serpent-demons, and a spiritual guide, Annora of the Alders (Katey Sagal). Annora spends most of her time onscreen staring dreamily into the distance with flowing, wind-ruffled hair and telling Wilkin limited information about his mysterious past and destiny. Her air of mysticism is cultivated through her foreignness—she is Slavic—and her scarred, mostly-mute sidekick and lover (Kurt Sutter). Annora, as it turns out, is a leader of the Seraphim, keepers of the Gospel of Jesus, and she is in hiding from the Soldiers of the Rosula, a secret sect of the Catholic Church that is hunting them. The storyline of the Seraphim and the Rosula is the one most aligned with Wilkin’s role as the Chosen One, although events within it occur mostly independently of him. These conventional tropes of secrecy and conspiracy help to create a sense of profundity about Wilkin’s newfound calling, and in the very first vision of the show an angelic child tells Wilkin: “You must live the life of a different man.” The angel means this literally: Wilkin Brattle must assume the identity of Gawain Maddox.

Despite considerable setup, however, this identity seems chosen at random rather than for a distinct purpose. Wilkin’s occupation as executioner grants him a position within Ventris Castle, at the center of conflict between Welsh natives and English overlords. Wilkin is blackmailed by the unscrupulous chamberlain (Stephen Moyer) and becomes close to the baroness, Lady Love (Flora Spencer-Longhurst), but it is only Wilkin’s location at court that provides this access, not his occupation. One imagines that Wilkin could retain his role as a knight or perhaps as a mercenary and end up at Castle Ventris and his path would be no less unbelievable than what is actually written into the show.[2] If the show gave any indication as to why Wilkin’s chosen one role is that of an executioner, this would feel more meaningful and less randomly chosen so that lots of people can be horribly mutilated on television. Instead, the show leans heavily on mysticism to force the audience to accept plot-holes and unlikely scenarios. Every time Wilkin starts to feel doubt about torturing or executing someone, a beatific vision of his dead wife, Petra, appears to assure him (and us) that he is doing the right thing. Just don’t ever expect to learn why. The role does not even entirely work, since Wilkin keeps being recruited for military duties outside of those of executioner and more appropriate to a soldier; several characters even comment on this unusual turn of events. The writers have to do extra exposition to explain away narrative inconsistencies in Wilkin’s God-chosen role. The only true reason for Wilkin becoming an executioner seems to be that it is an easy narrative tool to make him look sympathetic by making Wilkin do terrible things and then feel bad about it. Any emotional connection with Wilkin is built through violence: his entire regiment is slaughtered, his entire village is slaughtered, and now he is forced to do terrible things to people because God told him to, so we should feel bad for him because he is basically a good guy who has gotten a bad deal. We like him for shouldering his great responsibility but also because he has the good taste to not be happy about it. It’s a cheap way of making the audience sympathize with Wilkin, one that hasn’t been earned by actually developing his character. Actor Lee Jones possesses the depth and range to do more than emote broodily at the camera; unfortunately, he rarely has the opportunity to do so. 

Additionally, the torture scenes are a means through which the writers can cater to expectations of graphic violence in a medieval show while simultaneously absolving the perpetrator of that violence. This sort of graphic bloodletting should not be surprising in a show entitled The Bastard Executioner and is standard fare for anyone who has watched any number of other medieval-type shows, since, for most modern viewers “medieval” and “violence” are synonymous. According to Kurt Sutter, "I sort of had the mandate that anything that happens -- be it battle sequence, or an execution, or a torture scene -- that it comes out of the story, and you see the character's conflict or their non conflict in carrying forth with that violence. [...] But that it always has a ramification, whether it be an emotional ramification, the character, or somehow it impacts the narrative."[3] Essentially, we know who the good and bad characters are due to the level of violence they will employ to accomplish things and how bad they feel about it afterward. The characters we are meant to like—Wilkin, Love, the Welsh rebels—fight when necessary but often feel bad afterward, and the characters we are supposed to dislike—the English, the Rosula—torture and kill people not simply to dominate them but also because they seem to enjoy it. Wilkin commits violence as a tool of divine will. His heartfelt regret shows that he is really just a good guy, as opposed to the unfeeling torturers of the Rosula (special cameo by Ed Sheeran, whose shining cherubic face may forever creep you out, if it didn’t already) who torture not only to dominate people but also because they seem to enjoy it. Sutter is right; violence does have aesthetic purpose. Unfortunately, here it seems to be used as a narrative shortcut to avoid actual character development.

The main drawback to The Bastard Executioner is that it is too ambitious too quickly. The series often leaves the viewer as confused and lost as poor Wilkin, with no assurance of any answers and no real sense of whether the confusion is a deliberate manifestation of God’s ways or if it is an accidental byproduct of having numerous long-term plots and multiple characters with mysterious pasts. However, if you can make it past episode 4, things will start to make a bit more sense. Or maybe I just got used to being confused. But around episode 4 is where I started enjoying the show, partially because this is where the characters who previously seemed quite flat began to be developed more carefully. For example, I spent the first few episodes waiting for Milus to twirl his mustache (he doesn’t actually have one) while fiendishly laughing because he’s EVIL. He is, after all, blackmailing Wilkin, plotting to marry Love off to a rival English baron, and his advice is always to impose the harshest of measures against the Welsh. What free time he has away from plotting murders and lying to everyone, Milus spends indulging his sexual appetites with a string of servants which include twin sisters and a young male servant named Frenchie. Milus is so clearly THE BAD GUY that it takes several episodes to see that there is actually some depth to his character. From a viewer’s perspective, the problem is not that Milus is a villain, it’s that for much of the season he is a caricature of a villain. This is resolved through the belated addition of backstory and the addition of plot-lines that allow Milus to do something other than plot to murder people. For instance, when Lady Love fakes a pregnancy in order to retain control of her lands, she spends much of the season fretting about how to perpetuate the fraud through bulky clothing, but has no clear endgame for how to resolve the issue. Milus, with unusual gentleness, offers the solution: “The child of Lady Love and Baron Ventris was so blessed, so special that God called him to Heaven even before he was born.”[4] This resolution, though obvious, would be difficult to successfully orchestrate without the help of Love’s closest household, and Milus’ suggestion of it makes it clear that he’s capable of far more than spite and arrogance. With Milus, as with many of the characters on The Bastard Executioner, it takes a bit of time to see his hidden depths, time that many viewers will be reluctant to invest.

Although the male characters are hit or miss—I challenge you to even name Wilkin’s Welsh comrades—the women are the real reason to watch. To begin, there is a surprising number of women for a medieval-set show whose focus is a central male figure, and they showcase a range of personalities and social roles. The women are dynamic, multi-faceted, and, as a whole, far more well-developed than most of the male characters, many of whom viewers may struggle to put a name to throughout the early episodes. One of the most fully-conceived and well-acted women is Lady Love. Love is a sheltered noblewoman oppressed by her husband, and after her husband’s death, she and Wilkin share a vision of their baby. Despite her position as Wilkin’s love interest, Love exceeds that role by turning out to be a shrewd and crafty leader, utterly unafraid to challenge the men that surround her. She outmaneuvers Piers Gaveston at several junctures, ultimately handing him over to English barons for execution, and Milus admits his admiration for her at several junctures, commenting that if Ventris had used her negotiating skills he might have lived longer. Love is, thankfully, not a leader without flaws and doubts. She struggles to reconcile living on the borders between two countries and two identities. Although born Welsh and loyal to her people, there are times when she must “act English,” by imposing harsh penalties on native Welshmen who commit crimes. She gives the order to cut the nose from a young Welsh girl who is responsible for defacing a statue of Love’s late husband. Her identities as Welsh baroness, English peer, and devout Catholic all come into conflict and force her to choose an outcome that she hates—mutilation—but is nonetheless necessary to keep a fragile peace. Love is competent but also vulnerable in a way that makes her far more interesting than if she had been self-assured all the time.

Equally intriguing, if not always likeable, is Jessamy Maddox (Sarah Sweeney), Gawain Maddox’s wife. She forcibly maintains Wilkin Brattle’s secret identity by pretending that he is her deceased husband. Jessamy never explains her motives for doing so, but Maddox was so viciously abusive that Jessamy and her son, Luca, are physically scarred. Even a complete stranger is an improvement on Maddox. Jessamy quietly but firmly insists that Wilkin is her husband, even to him, so that it is unclear if she is a fabulous play-actor or if she is deluded. There is a particularly chilling moment in episode 4 where Wilkin returns home and catches Jessamey continuing the abuse on herself and Luca, leaving herself with a black eye and Luca with burns. When Wilkin, horrified, asks why she does this, she stares at him tranquilly and says: “I don’t, Maddy. You do. As you have always done when we needed correction.” What is most disturbing is Jessamy’s calm assurance that Wilkin aka Maddox is responsible for their injuries and that it is perfectly right that he has hurt them. It is a moment where viewers are left asking: just how deranged is she? Does she genuinely believe that Wilkin is hurting them? Or is this her desperate and manipulative way of holding her fictional family together via the abuse they have always suffered? The delicacy with which actress Sarah Sweeney plays this ambiguity leaves viewers delightfully uncertain if Jessamy is insane or perfectly rational and crafty.

Yet despite having a number of well-developed female characters, many of the most grotesque dismemberments and deaths are reserved for women. The death of Wilkin’s wife, Petra, is particularly repulsive, as her unborn child is displayed atop her body in a scene that evokes and surpasses the gruesomeness of Game of Throne’s Red Wedding. I am not sure that viewers really needed to see that bit of horror in order to understand that Wilkin has lost everything and wants revenge and that the murderer—the show hints that the culprit may be Annora or the person ritually mutilating people—is truly monstrous. That moment and Wilkin’s removal of a young Welsh girl’s nose in episode 3 will horrify and perhaps even test viewers’ gag reflex, which might be the sole purpose for these scenes. But if these scenes are also meant to evoke pity, then they fail because the horror is too visceral to get past to have a real emotional response. Additionally, the violence against women is gender-oriented, targeting specifically female traits, like reproduction and beauty, by mutilating the womb, the face[5], and in the case of a female serving woman, the genitals.[6] In these cases, the female body exists solely to gawk at and be horrified by. 

The high points of the show, such as female character development and the high-caliber acting, are unfortunately not enough to justify slogging through the sprawling, corpse-littered, convoluted world of The Bastard Executioner. The mythology of the show is ill-defined and seemingly massive, there are too many long-term plotlines to manage, and the characterization is inconsistent. While a good story should unfold, viewers need something concrete to grab onto in order to stay invested. Game of Thrones works, even with a massive backstory and numerous characters and locations, because in season one the main storyline - the secret of the royal children's parentage - is fairly simple and motivates what happens throughout the season.  In The Bastard Executioner, it's hard to find a single motivating factor, except perhaps Wilkin Brattle as God's chosen, and I still don't know what that means.

Ashely Conklin
University of Rochester

[1] Lost and The X-Files are two shows that immediately come to mind as having long, successful television runs and a deeply-shrouded mystery at their core.
[2] One plot-point I’ve gotten hung up on is why a reasonably intelligent man like Wilkin is living in a shire named after the man who tried to kill him five years earlier. Worst retirement plan ever.
[3] From Deadline’s report on TBE’s TCA panel, Ross A. Lincoln. “Kurt Sutter on ‘Bastard Executioner’ Violence and His Catholic Baggage.” Deadline. 7 Aug. 2015.
[4] TBE episode 10
[5] Qualifier: in this instance, the girl is being punished for chopping the nose off of a bust of the former Lord Ventris, so this could be seen as reciprocity for the crime. However, I do find it suggestive that the culprit here is female, since beauty is such a prominent female attribute and resides primarily in the face. An interesting medieval analogue to this moment would be Marie de France’s Bisclavret in which the protagonist bites off his wife’s nose in retaliation for trapping him as a werewolf.
[6] This is one of the few instances where the actual torture occurs, thankfully, off-screen, but the aftermath alone will be disturbing to many viewers. The mechanism itself involves a sort of sharpened saw-horse over which the victim is suspended and weights are added to her ankles until eventually the body splits at the genitals.