Why do people kill and torture? Sadism, fanaticism, social contagion, hatred, anger, honor codes, survival—all reasons seen in the real world, explained in horrifying headlines and cool-eyed histories and some of the more perceptive works of art and literature in history. In other kinds of fictional works, though, the motivations for mayhem are bizarre, removed, ornate—plot contrivances allow for bloody entertainment that prompts only minor twinges of queasy recognition from the audience.
FX’s new series The Bastard Executioner offers an extreme version of this phenomenon, needing a twisty-and-turny two-hour debut to establish what could turn out to be the most reliable killing-and-maiming machine TV has ever seen. Set in 14th-century Wales, its hero is a “punisher,” someone whose job it is to flay and de-fingernail and behead those who’ve crossed his lordly employers. The twist—not enacted till the end of the premiere, though not hidden in FX’s ads for the show—is that he’s a reluctant punisher, an undercover one, living out a version of The Prince and the Pauper where instead of faking erudition he must fake a knack for making people scream.
To arrive at this premise, the show brings together not one but three of the most classic tropes about damaged men who must cause violence. Vengeance required by extravagant harm befalling women and/or children in his care? A struggle against oppression from unambigiously evil institutions? A mysterious Chosen One prophecy? All of this, plus the actor Lee Jones’s surprisingly kindly face and affect, combines so that when his character Wilkin Brattle performs his first public execution, it’s pure payoff: We’re to marvel at the grim weight of his mission, the nifty swordsmanship he uses, and the gore.
The show, from Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, isn’t oblivious to the psychic toll of violence, but nor is it shy about milking it for righteous, video-gamey thrills. The first episode opens with a dream sequence, featuring super-saturated colors and metal music and Brattle in battle. Eventually, a naked angel-girl and a CGI demon show up—it’s the most bitchin’ telegraphing of PTSD you’re likely to see this on prestige TV this week. Another, more experienced punisher on the show has an even worse case of soul damage from his career; he abuses his wife, his son, and himself, ritualistically scarring his body at night. And when innocents are killed—as happens a lot—the show lingers on the tragedy of the situation, though with so much fake blood and entrails that it’s natural to wonder whether the camera is trying to tap into sadness or voyeurism.
Perhaps this is the point—to indulge in the primal allure of violence but also its horrible consequences. With its historical-medieval setting, the show can be defended for portraying harsh truths in much the same way that Game of Thrones can; even more than on HBO’s show, The Bastard Executioner wallows in nasty period details—castle latrines, consumption, socially acceptable sheep buggery. But on Thrones, each flaring of brutality feels like the result of a Rube Goldberg-like allegory about cause and effect. In Executioner, the bad-guy/good-guy divide is less ambiguous, and the murder-to-purpose calculations more disproportionate; passion, not realpolitik, drives a lot of the plot. This might actually be truer to life’s messiness than the careful, morally weighted storytelling of Thrones. But it also feels baser, crasser, cheaper.
Or perhaps that’s just because of the quality of the show more generally. It isn't all bloodletting; there’s dialogue in faux-old-timey lingo laying out palace intrigue and explorations of Middle Ages Christianity. But with visibly second-tier production values, The Bastard Executioner feels a bit more like people playing dress up than the best works in its genre should. The only characters to not fall into cliched dichotomies of rag-tag rebels and power-mad gentry are the women—a mystic of unclear purpose and unclear accent, played by Katey Sagal, and a demure but calculating baroness, played with quiet intelligence by Flora Spencer-Longhurst. Outside of them, the intrigue factor is low; while Thrones’s first episode offered a buffet of engaging personalities, here, you’re not that curious about anyone’s backstories. For now, the entertainment value of the show is one of the oldest and darkest there is.