Garbage comes in different odors. Rotting milk does not smell like vomit; fish does not stink like skunk; sewage does not reek like moldy leftovers. Bad television, a common form of garbage, exudes a wide range of malodorous stenches. Fall television season, in particular, is reliably full of stinkers, but this year has been a banner one for series so half-hearted and listlessly cynical they emit only the mildly unpleasant aromas of uninspired, bland TV. The airwaves are heavy with the mild fug of feet.
Into this funky smellscape storms FX’s medieval epic The Bastard Executioner, which, like water so hot it can be momentarily mistaken for cold, feels fleetingly like a blast of fresh air: Here, at least, is something made with passion by a passionate man, Kurt Sutter, the frequently impolitic creator of FX’s Sons of Anarchy. But passion can be desirous of the craziest things. In this case, passion has called into being an incoherent Game of Thrones knock-off full of senseless carnage, wooden performances, a dash of nudity, and a few scenes so poorly executed they play like farce. The Bastard Executioner is monstrously fetid, a mound of gorgonzola stuffed into a dead catfish’s gullet, smoked in sulfur, doused with heavy cream and left to rot for weeks inside a port-o-potty in full sun.
The Bastard Executioner begins with a dream sequence that immediately achieves the bogus grandiosity trifecta: blood, butts, and mythology. Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones, who looks like Sam Worthington’s body double) lies on a pallet, having a dream/vision/recollection of a battle in which limbs are graphically lopped, jugulars wildly spurt, and guts are squishily skewered. A woman’s bare posterior floats through the frame. A magical little black girl, with pure white hair, an angel perhaps, appears before Wilkin and tells him “you have a destiny to claim … put down your sword.” A wound on his chest transforms into a little dragon, striking fear into Wilkin’s heart because he has never seen the Khaleesi’s Drogon.
Wilkin awakes to his loving, teasing, pregnant wife in a wholesome Welsh village under the brutal heel of the English Baron Ventris (Brian F. O’Byrne) at the “Dawn of the 14th Century.” We are first introduced to Ventris as he humps his wife, the kindly Baroness (Flora Spencer-Longhurst), from behind, before unhappily climbing off and complaining that this latest attempt at baby-making will fail, like all the others. (A freebie research paper: The Meaning of Doggy-Style in the TV Dramas of the Dawn of the 21st Century.) Ventris is thus unflatteringly compared to Wilkin without The Bastard Executioner having to stage an out-and-out dick-measuring contest: It can stage a baby-making contest instead. Ventris’ swimmers don't swim! Lo, he must be a bitter and resentful ruler!
And, lo, he is. Ventris, though not his wife, is petty and cruel. He is enabled in that cruelty by his almost equally cruel right-hand man Milus Corbett (Stephen Moyer). The two unfairly tax and repress the common Welshman, while overreacting to any signs of disobedience. Wilkin is convinced by his neighbors—which includes an oddball who is having a sexual relationship with a sheep; the only jokes anyone on this show tells are about bestiality—to lead a little raid on some of Ventris’ men. It has gruesome, spot-the-intestines ramifications that set the whole plot in motion and eventually turns Wilkin into the titular executioner.
Bastard Executioner is aping Game of Thrones. It has the swords, the mysticism, the dragons, the unexpected deaths, the costumes that are perfectly grungy, the faces with just the right amount of dirt makeup. It even tries to outdo Games at its own game, inventing craposition, a questionable riff on sexposition, in which Baron Ventris discusses plot points while defecating. But the endless violence on Game of Thrones, while certainly thrilling at times, is understood by the show to be a kind of sickness. Violence begets more violence begets more violence, and thus Westeros is plagued and dying, its best citizens slaughtered or turned into vengeful killers. Its bloodthirstiness is intrinsically tied to George R. R. Martin’s larger point, that chaos does not always progress toward order, history toward enlightenment, stories toward happy endings.
Bastard Executioner, in contrast, has the violence down, but not yet its meaning. The show believes in the entertainment of blood. It delivers entrail-soaked slaughters of characters we barely know. A man is flayed in passing. A fetus is stabbed. It suddenly kills major characters—as Game of Thrones does—as if this is ballsy, not a common trick. It jumps from fight to fight to fight, each connected by impenetrable thickets of dialogue that, in retrospect, you needn’t bother parsing. The story reveals itself. As for its mythology, this is largely dumped on Katey Sagal, who plays Annora of the Alders, a kind of analogue of Game of Thrones’ Melisandre: a powerful witch of questionable motives. But Annora is preposterous. Sagal gives her a terrible accent—Eastern European by way of Britain—and when she speaks to her sidekick, a mute man so badly burned he looks like lizard Voldemort, Bastard Executioner plays like a spoof of medieval knights’ tales, instead of a sober retelling of one.
The Bastard Executioner wears medieval garb, but it is also a throwback to a more recent moment, just a few years ago, when many shows with “serious” ambitions thought the way to mimic The Sopranos, The Shield, Breaking Bad, and so on was to be as macho as possible, as if Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey and Walter White were not examples of machismo gone malignant. It’s not just the violence. It’s also the relative lack of female characters, all of whom, in their way, are obsessed with the manly, noble Wilkin. This is a show that reinterprets Chekhov’s gun with a pair of female twins: If hot twins are seen in a castle in one scene, they must be having a threesome in another. There’s even an aggressively wobbly camera, as though a slathering of Paul Greengrass’s visceral style will help make the viscera pop.
For all its flaws and clichés The Bastard Executioner is not quite boilerplate. This is decidedly not a show for me, but it is someone’s idea of a really cool TV show: lots of sword fighting, lots of brooding men, lots of momentous destiny. In some of the fight scenes, you can almost hear someone saying, “Dude! That was awesome!” It’s a kind of TV-analogue to the action movie: For some, it doesn’t matter if the movie is bad, so long as it blows things up real good. Bastard Executioner cuts off heads with panache. Jones’ Wilkin is never more graceful than when he whirls his broad sword through a neck. The resulting dead body, like everything else here, will stink pretty good.