“I need a man with the heart of a dragon.”
It took three seasons for a pregnant woman to be stabbed to death on Game of Thrones. It takes 40 minutes for the same thing to happen on The Bastard Executioner, Kurt Sutter’s epic follow-up to Sons of Anarchy. The two-hour premiere (which airs tonight at 10 p.m. EST) is barbaric; throats are slit, men are flayed, and children are smacked. The unrelenting violence is the first thing you’ll notice about TBX. The second: There’s anarchy, but it’s not Anarchy.
That may sound obvious, but it’s easy to see the narrative similarities between The Wire and Treme, or The West Wing and Sports Night, beyond each pairing being created by the same person. Not Sons and Bastard, though. There’s a correspondence between the shows — they both ripple with self-indulgent machismo, characters are constantly brooding, and Katey Sagal and Sutter pop up (more on them in a bit) — but the latter is more Westeros than Charming. It goes beyond the blood, too. There’s sex, butts, and even a dragon.
If that sounds like a superficial recap, well, that’s kind of the problem.
The Bastard Executioner takes place in the “dawn of the 14th century” in Wales. Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones) has vowed to lay down his sword and live a happy domestic life with his cheery wife, until something horrible happens and he pretends to be a dead man and becomes a “punisher by trade.” He’s a medieval Don Draper. Along the way, we meet the cruel Baron Ventris (Brían F. O’Byrne), his right-hand man Milus Corbett (True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer), cunning Lady Love Ventris (Flora Spencer-Longhurst), and Annora of the Alders (Sagal), a Red Lady with grey hair and bewildering accent. That’s a lot of nonsense names to remember, but for now, “oh look, there’s Vampire Bill” and “hey, is that Philip Jennings from The Americans?” (it is) will suffice.
(Sutter has a small role as the “Dark Mute.” He knows a thing or two about that.)
The early part of the premiere is a slog, with too much exposition and not enough intrigue, except for the disorientating first scene. It’s brightly lit, men are being slain all over the place, there’s a woman’s glowing butt, and the aforementioned lizard-dragon-thing peels itself from a man’s skin and flies away. It’s bewildering, but The Bastard Executioner is at its best when it’s weird, and should be more often. Otherwise, it’s just stuffy language and familiar sets.
Game of Thrones is overwhelmingly successful not only because of the blood or butts, although those help. People are so attracted to George R.R. Martin’s series because of the intelligence of the characters — we enjoy Tyrion devising his wildfire plan, or Arya scheming to get her revenge on those who’ve done her harm, or Jon Snow, well, he knows nothing so bad example. But early on in The Bastard Executioner, there doesn’t appear to be any one character who’s smarter than everyone else; the episode zips from brawl to castle interior to barn back to brawl, without an opportunity to understand anyone’s motivations. Brattle seeks vengeance, but you get the sense that he’s going through the motions, waiting until a better idea presents itself. It’s dull. This was a problem on Sons of Anarchy, too, where Jax would form an alliance with an enemy club, only to break it, over and over again. We need to know at least some of the characters are smarter than the viewers. Otherwise, you have season two of The Walking Dead. (The show could also use a lovable Opie or Bobby Munson, but he/she may present himself/herself in time.)
The final 30 minutes are stronger, with a clearer focus (and a nifty last shot), but will non-Sons fans even make it that far? They should, because there’s enough in TBX to not write it off completely. Kurt Sutter is a volatile and passionate man. For this show to succeed, he needs to embrace that side of his personality, without resorting to been-there-seen-that carnage.
A head chop here or there is fine, but not when you don’t care whose head it is.