Nobody — and I mean absolutely nobody — is safe from a brutal impaling on The Bastard Executioner, the new 14th-Century drama from Sons of Anarchy‘s Kurt Sutter.
The show’s two-hour pilot tonight underscored that fact in a deep shade of crimson, delivered on the tips of daggers, the edges of swords, and even on the ends of crudely sharpened sticks.
The Big Bad you’re hoping will get his comeuppance by the end of the 10-episode first season? Cut from the back of the head right through to his hateful tongue early in Hour 2.
The sweet, strong-willed pregnant lady whose life is spared while every other woman, child and senior citizen in her quiet farming village is turned into buzzard chow? Stabbed right in the gut by an unseen traitor — and then unceremoniously piled atop her lifeless comrades.
Hell, even our tormented, titular hero (played by mesmerizing newcomer Lee Jones) winds up with his internal organs on the wrong end of a rapier — right in the show’s opening scene. Luckily (or not?) for him, a glowing child — an angel? a hallucination? that “Slavic witch” in disguise? — pulls him back into the land of the living and a career trajectory that might’ve made hell seem like an all-inclusive resort in Bora-Bora.
(The closest thing we get to a beachside resort in the Executioner premiere is a depressed Welsh baroness letting herself sink below the freezing waves of the Atlantic, then declaring, “the chill refreshes my spirit.”)
Yep, Sutter’s vision here is mostly bleak — with a light patina of mysticism, plus a couple enticing charges of sexual electricity — and if you can’t deal with the sight of characters who don’t immediately wipe away blood from their limbs and faces, then you should probably return directly to The CW without passing “Go” and without collecting $200. For the rest of you, let’s try to recap the action in six pithy paragraphs.
* We open with Welsh soldier (and devoted Catholic) Wilkin Brattle (Jones) getting felled in battle, before a mystical figure visits him and tells him he has a “destiny to claim” — one that involves putting down his sword and serving his “savior.” He also has a crazy vision of a dragon-Jabberwocky-hybrid thingy emerging from the chest of his comrade, an image that’s he’s still having nightmares about when we next see him, reinvented as a humble farmer with a radiant pregnant wife. (Show of hands: Who knew poor Petra was marked for death the moment she was introduced?) Would that Wilkin was singularly focused on his crops, though. Turns out he and his merry band of hooded rebels also spend their leisure time hunting the Baron Ventris’s tax collectors — men whose demand for tithes threatens the very existence of the struggling people under their rule. When Ventris’ right-hand Corbett (Stephen Moyer) does some sleuthing and tracks the bandits to their shire, they take their vengeance out on the women and children who’ve been left temporarily unprotected. Petra manages to plead for her life with one merciful soldier, but later, in the woods, we see her register shock when a familiar (but unseen) face approaches — then guts her and scrawls a cross on her forehead using her own blood. When Wilkin and his men return to the sickening scene of their loved ones’ corpses stacked high, he digs up his old knight’s sword and vows that vengeance is the “only plan left.”
* Here’s where things get a wee bit complicated. Petra’s sorceress-healer pal Annora (Katey Sagal) conveniently winds up in Wilkin’s path toward destruction — and helps him hatch a better plan than “ride to the castle with an army of seven and meet certain death.” Instead, they team up with other hamlets under Ventris’ thumb (including Matthew Rhys’ “Wolf”) and ambush the dude with townsfolk-gone-wild delight. He winds up dead — a fact that, interestingly, doesn’t lead to a single tear shed by his wife Baroness Lady Love Ventris (a luminous Flora Spencer-Longhurst) — a richly earned reaction given that the Baron previously dismissed her as a “barren hole” after a bout of unsettlingly utilitarian intercourse. Corbett doesn’t seem too crushed by the death of his pal, either — instead looking for opportunities to consolidate his power and increase his riches. (He even puts his mutinous little brother to death — and seems to rather enjoy it.)
* In the aftermath of Ventris’ slaying, the badly injured Wilkin looks like he’ll spend the rest of his days eluding the authorities — but that eerily calm Annora (who shares Wilkin’s visions/hallucinations) seems to have other plans. She carves a cross into the unconscious Wilkin’s face — so he can disguise himself as the “punisher for hire” who died in service to Ventris. The only catch is that when Wilkin and his best pal Toran arrive at the castle gates, who’s there but the wife and son of the freelance executioner he’s impersonating! Lucky for him, the fiendish torturer used to take out the stresses of his work on his family, and they gamble that Wilkin can only be an upgrade from the dude who we first saw carving the skin and muscle off a victim as casually as you or I might peel a mango. But it’s not as though Wilkin’s a trained actor — which is why neither Love or Corbett seem to fully buy his story. The Baroness visits him in the chapel, and when she touches his recent war wound, they share a vision of a baby being born — their baby — and it’s followed by that awkward moment when their eyes reveal that they’re both worldly enough to know that kind of special delivery won’t begin with a stork (wink wink, nudge nudge).
* Corbett, meanwhile, is more overt about his ulterior motives — issuing a decree that Wilkin (now known as Maddox) and Toran (going by the name of Marshall) must stay on at Castle Ventris, the better to help him hunt down and punish those who break the king’s laws (and fail to pay his heavy taxes). Is it just me or is there maybe a glimmer in Corbett’s eye — did I mention he’s gay, BTW? — when he puts his hand on Wilkin’s chest and reminds him “you’ll find nothing passes through this shire without me touching it.” (Insert your own “keep that sword in its sheath” joke here. Unless, of course, Wilkin’s more like a three on the Kinsey Scale. Then by all means, carry on, fellas!)
* The premiere ends with Wilkin getting a vision of Petra and his baby — in the company of the Bright Child — before lopping off the head of Corbett’s sniveling brother. Yep, he’s probably going to be better at his job that he wishes he were. And did I mention Annora (whose entire body, it turns out, is covered in tattoos of some mystical scroll-type language) and her mute husband (who appears to have been disfigured in some kind of fire) are living in a cave, doing the wah-chicka-wah, and in possession of the dagger that ended Petra’s life? No, Cher’s “Dark Lady” doesn’t play over the closing credits — but it could have!
* A few more observations/questions: Are Wilkin’s visions truly heavenly, could they be darkness in disguise or is it possible Annora (or some outside force) is causing them? And with the whole “crazy electric Baroness baby vision,” what will Wilkin’s life goals become? On an unrelated note, I really hope we get a little more focus on the original executioner’s bride, ’cause girlfriend really sold it when she convinced the court that Wilkin was her lifelong love. That’s the kind of manipulative mouse who could really surprise us as the series progresses, yes? I’m also optimistic that the Baroness — while she may be cautious — will never let herself trust that power-hungry Corbett as a true adviser. And as for Annora, I’m not yet willing to believe that just because she has the dagger meant that she (or her hubby( used the dagger. That could make me the most naive recapper in The Bastard Executioner‘s brief history but it’s a gamble I’m willing to take over the next eight weeks!
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