This article contains spoilers for the finale of “Sons of Anarchy.”
Kurt Sutter, for better or worse, has become a go-to guy for FX. Ever since his involvement as a writer and eventual producer for Shawn Ryan’s “The Shield,” Sutter has risen in prominence among the network with “Sons of Anarchy,” which became one of FX’s most popular series at the time of its finale in 2014.
Now, in 2015, Sutter continues to call FX home with his newest series, “The Bastard Executioner,” a show that continues the usual themes that dominate his earlier work while displaying some of the showrunner’s biggest flaws.
At the core of Sutter’s creations is violence. His worlds are nasty and brutal, forming a cycle of suffering and despair that few can escape. In “Sons of Anarchy,” Jax Teller fought for seven seasons to end the savagery around SAMCRO, only to be sucked into its black hole of barbarity, with death being the only salvation for the troubled biker.
“The Bastard Executioner”
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This idea echoes within “The Bastard Executioner” through the story of medieval warrior Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones, “Home and Away”). Opening with a flashback, Brattle lies wounded on the battlefield when a vision of a child tells him to “Lay down the sword” and “Live the life of a different man.”
Brattle, still haunted by visions of his tormented past, takes the words to heart and settles in Wales with his wife Petra (Elen Rhys, “World War Z”). Living in a time of political upheaval and rebellion against the power of England, Brattle finds his promise hard to keep as, armed with a club instead of a sword, he assists the local rebels in their guerilla resistance.
One of the biggest issues “Sons of Anarchy” experienced during its extended run was the general expansion of its storyline and subplots into an unruly and bloated beast. This issue carries over to “The Bastard Executioner” as the weight of the narrative nearly crushes the premiere. Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, the premiere takes a long time introducing its huge cast of main and supporting characters, with several killed off within the same episode. It’s unfortunate because the ensemble is impressive, but there’s not really enough time for most of them to forge an initial connection to the audience.
Not until 40 minutes into the pilot, when villains Baron Ventris (Brían F. O’Byrne, “Aquarius”) and Milus Corbett (Stephen Moyer, “True Blood”) order the massacre of Brattle’s village, does the narrative truly pick up.
The village massacre is just one of many sequences of extended violence, but it is definitely the most disturbing as mostly women and children, including the pregnant Petra, are slaughtered in the dark, and orange flames shed light on the atrocity. Sutter never shies away from viciousness, but it sometimes seems a little much, as if he wants to show how many different ways a person can be stabbed in one episode.
Under the direction of Paris Barclay, director of 15 “Sons of Anarchy” episodes, most of these scenes work on a basic level. Brattle’s vengeful ambush of Ventris in a hayfield is a highlight of the pilot, if only for the appearance of “The Americans” ’s Matthew Rhys as a Welsh rebel leader. However, there are missteps. The choice of an electric guitar to orchestrate the village massacre feels tonally unwelcome, and the opening flashback displays some color over-saturation that makes the scene feel somewhat cheap.
It’s funny that the show is called, “The Bastard Executioner,” but Brattle, under the urgings of the mysterious and manipulative healer, Annora (“Sons of Anarchy” alum Katey Sagal), doesn’t truly assume the title position until more than an hour has passed, when he takes the identity of the deceased executioner, Maddox (Felix Scott, “The Interceptor”)
In that fact lies “The Bastard Executioner” ’s biggest issue — inside this swollen premiere are decent foundations for a series. Brattle’s first execution is a well-done moment of choice, merging the show’s past and present through the man’s visions. Unfortunately, the show is so extraneously dense that it takes far too long to get to this point. Sutter needs to cast aside this unnecessary baggage present in the pilot and cut to the heart of the new series if he hopes to bring continued success to FX.