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.