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The Bastard Executioner, Season 1 never soars and often stumbles

The Bastard Executioner, Season 1 never soars and often stumbles

The Bastard Executioner
Created by Kurt Sutter
Premieres Tuesday, September 15th at 10 pm (ET) on FX
Three episodes watched for review

Kurt Sutter has been a familiar name to fans of television and FX for a number of years, leaving his mark on the cop drama The Shield before gaining his own fame for the biker drama Sons of Anarchy. The channel wasted no time in bringing Sutter back onboard after the end of the latter, giving a series order greenlight to his new series, The Bastard Executioner. Switching the action from modern-day biker gangs to medieval-era Welshmen, Sutter’s new series shows some potential, but its missteps are too large to ignore.

The show starts off very clumsily in trying to develop its characters, with many of them easily categorisable into good and evil camps, leaving little to no room for moral ambiguity despite the actions of individuals. It achieves the latter by ensuring that no matter how bad the actions of the good guys are, the actions of the bad guys are ten times worse. The show makes it very clear whom it wants the audience to unquestioningly root for, which subsequently robs many scenes of tension, and causes the show to sidestep a few opportunities of questioning the methods used. This is in addition to the now-tired motivation of the death of female partners to serve as the primary motivation for the actions of male characters.

As the show progresses, however, and once the character setup has been taken care of, the situations the characters find themselves in, and the way the story unfolds, makes for a noticeably more intriguing series, particularly as the one character who develops some degree of nuance in the pilot steps much closer to centre stage. The success of the series will lie in whether the writers consider the characters simplistic or complex. If they go the former route, and put the simplistic characters in complex situations to test how they react, as the show seems to promise, then it certainly holds potential. If, on the other hand, the series looks at the characters as complex individuals who can be observed without repeated stressors, then the show may very quickly lose its allure. This may also require bringing more characters into the fray; for example, the effect of multiple characters’ decisions to lie in public is not given the weight it deserves, with the show instead simply focusing on how it affects the hero.

The lack of focus shown towards character development, however, is not on display in the series’ approach to brutality. For better or for worse, the show doesn’t shy away from the effects of fights and attacks, sometimes to the point of distraction, with everyone fair game. The blood flows freely, and wounds are created and displayed onscreen. There is, however, no real visceralness to the attacks. The intent of the show is clearly to focus on the gore, rather than the impact, and it succeeds in that regard. If subsequent episodes can pair this focus with coherent and well-directed action fight scenes, which sadly have yet to be displayed in the episodes released to critics, this has the potential to be one of the more exciting aspects of the show.

Overall, the series shows cautious promise. The performances are fun to watch; while the lead performance by Lee Jones is one of the weaker ones, Stephen Moyer and Katey Sagal are both entertaining with the material they’re given. As the Baroness, however, Flora Spencer-Longhurst is one of the show’s strengths. Darren Evans’ prominent presence is an amusing one, as he seems set to become one of the go-to castmembers for medieval-set series in any genre, but he carries himself well here, with little to no trace of his chef character from Galavant.

The quality of The Bastard Executioner will be entirely reliant on what it chooses to focus on. The strength of the show lies in seeing the situations the characters find themselves in, not in seeing how the characters propel the story forward. If the series continues down the path of intriguing story beats paired with strong and brutal action sequences, it may be worth a watch. If, however, it looks to the characters to carry the story and keep the audience engaged with a tale of good vs. evil, it may soon end up among the more forgettable offerings of the 2015-2016 television season.