The most remarkable thing about The Bastard Executioner is that a drama about Welsh guerrilla warfare of the 14th century—surely you remember Llywelyn ap Gruffudd ap Rhys, Payn de Turberville of Coity, and the sack of Dinefwr Castle—is not the most insanely uncommercial show ever to appear on the rambunctious FX cable network. That would surely be Starved, a 2005 sitcom about eating disorders—you read that correctly—in which bulimia wisecracks vied with enema slapstick for the laughs. At least for seven episodes, after which there were too many peasants with torches and pitchforks clambering up the Fox Corp. walls to continue.
I don't think The Bastard Executioner will expire in seven episodes. But with obscure subject matter, enough characters to populate a Dostoyevsky novel and more slithering entrails than a Cajun chitlin' cook-off, it has a bumpy road ahead.
Created by Kurt Sutter, the man behind all-time FX ratings champ Sons of Anarchy, The Bastard Executioner follows Wilkin Brattle, a British knight who buries his sword for life as a Welsh farmer after a religious vision.
But as time passes, he bridles under the heavy taxation and ruthless misrule of the feudal overlord for whom he once fought. Reluctantly—"I serve God and family, not cause or crown," he insists—Brattle joins a rebel ambush of the royal tax collector and his men, with disastrous results that force him to assume yet another false identity: that of a journeyman executioner, in the service of the same crown he just attacked.
Calling The Bastard Executioner a Game of Thrones rip-off would be much too harsh. But the similarities are there: The conniving royals. The pervasive violence—"battle" in The Bastard Executioner is a euphemism for "massacre," with disemboweled corpses and slit throats scattered around like confetti at Freddie Krueger's birthday party. The relentless fascination with the crudity of medieval life. (Lyndon Johnson was apparently not the first vulgarian despot to issue orders to his staff between defecational grunts.) And the usual assortment of amusing gothic eccentrics: witches, deaf-mutes and shepherds too friendly by half with their wooly wards. There's even a dragon. Or maybe it was just a winged demon; my medieval zoology isn't the strongest.
But if television can support 7,000 lawyer and zombie shows—those are separate genres, by the way—it can probably handle two sword-and-sorcery epics. The Bastard Executioner's problem isn't plagiarism but perplexity. It's a complicated story (Brattle inhabits three separate identities in the two-hour debut episode alone) with a bunch of subplots (have I mentioned the mystery murderer? or the angel with a secret agenda?) told in murky accents (the show is shot on a lavishly slummy Welsh set and most of the cast is drawn from the British stage).
And then there's the matter of all those characters, with matching scruffy beards and impenetrable Welsh names. (Don't get me started on Gruffudd y Blaidd, the leader of the Byth Encil.) A considerable amount of the premiere is spent getting to know characters who—spoiler alert—don't survive the first two hours.
Sutter in the past has proven a masterful story teller, so it's possible The Bastard Executioner's opacity is simply a matter of trying to cram too much into a pilot episode, a not uncommon problem in television.
Indeed, the final quarter-hour or so is the strongest part of the premiere, with the backstory established and the focus finally fallling on what promises to be the real point of the show, Brattle's double-agent existence within the castle walls. "You have a fate that you must learn to hold," says the angel who appears in Brattle's vision. The challenge will be sticking with The Bastard Executioner long enough to find out what it is.
The Bastard Executioner. FX. Tuesday, September 15, 10 p.m. EDT.