To describe FX’s new show, “The Bastard Executioner,” as “gory” would be an understatement. Kurt Sutter, known for creating “Sons of Anarchy” (2008 – 2014), doesn’t hold back in his new television series. The various bloody medieval-era torture mechanisms featured in the title sequence is unsettling enough, but the first episode of the two-part season premiere continually provides similarly horrific sequences of images. If that type of imagery makes you slightly queasy, this show is definitely not for you.
“The Bastard Executioner,” which airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m., takes place in Wales at the start of the 14th century, right as King Edward II is rising to power. Ever since the predominant religion became Roman Catholicism, the Welsh have been resisting his rule. As tension grows between the Welsh and the English, the latter govern with increasing brutality. Initially, the show focuses on two main storylines: that of Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a peasant living in the countryside, and the Baron and Baroness Ventris (Brian F. O’Byrne and Flora Spencer-Longhurst, respectively), the former of which is a cruel member of the nobility. The premiere opens with news of a ridiculous tax hike reaching the village where Brattle and his pregnant wife Annora (Katey Sagal) live. Brattle and a few of his friends decide to kill the tax collector and the English knights that accompany him. The attack is successful, but word reaches Baron Ventris, who is not willing to let this betrayal go unpunished. After some surreal divine experiences — and even some witchcraft — the title of the show is explained at the conclusion of the premiere’s second half.
“The Bastard Executioner” is, so far, essentially what you would get if you combined the goriest parts of “Game of Thrones” (2011 – present) with the emphatic masculinity of “300” (2007). The male characters are focused on vengeance, power and combat, while the female characters are either killed or given insignificant roles. While this is perhaps to be expected in a show of this kind, some meaningful dialogue would be nice.
The series hasn’t quite found its groove when it comes to humor. There are some one-liners that are clearly meant to function as comic relief, but they are not always successful. The episode in general feels a bit disjointed; the separate story lines, though independent, play out in the same time and place and should feel more consistent and connected than they do. “The Bastard Executioner” is able to form some feeling of connection later in the premiere, but it starts off a little rocky.
A two-part opener is unusual for a series premiere, but the format actually helps “The Bastard Executioner” find its footing, as the first part is a little off-pace. Another strength of the show is its subtle use of camera angles and lighting. While these nuances are less effective in outdoor scenes — the gorgeous Wales landscape is often set for a fight scene, during which viewers are primarily focused on spurting blood and severed limbs — the camerawork for the indoor scenes makes use of interesting angles. At one point, Brattle wakes up from a dream in which he is contacted by a divine entity. As he sits up in his bed, clearly affected by this experience, the camera moves horizontally. The sun pours in through a nearby window and temporarily blinds the camera, mimicking the light surrounding the divine entity from Brattle’s dream.
The acting quality varies among the cast. There is something oddly overdramatic about Jones’ acting, which may be the result of intentional choice or poor execution. The cast as a whole is fairly strong, though much of the acting consists of battle cries. The second part of the premiere suggests that the show may move toward a more even balance of drama and violence.
This gory new FX historical-fiction drama is not for the faint of heart, and hasn’t quite been able to execute its premise as cleanly as it could. It is supported by an intriguing plot and a fairly strong cast, however, so it is worth watching — if you can handle it.