As far as titles go, “The Bastard Executioner” pretty much nails it. It explains the premise with three quick words (a fatherless man kills people for a living), adds hidden context (he’s forced to do so, which also makes him a poor bastard) and has a ring of vulgarity to it, which sets up the expectation for an excessive amount of blood and gore.
Problem is, the show itself takes a long time getting to everything but the blood and gore, creating a slow build to all of the good stuff and story set-up within. Those narrative-driving moments finally begin to emerge towards the end of the show’s second episode–rolled into the pilot here to create a two-hour premiere.
A man known for his exposition, Kurt Sutter is under an intense spotlight with this new series thanks to fan expectations. As the creator of “Sons of Anarchy,” Sutter grew used to FX granting him extra minutes whenever he wanted to extend an episode’s story. That luxury didn’t come until the show had proven itself and the audience was hooked on the moral journey of Jax Teller. “Executioner” hasn’t had time to develop and grip viewers in the same way–but it acts like it has. Even the opening cards explaining the feud between the English and the Welch feel over-extended.
The series opens with soldier Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones) losing on the battlefield during one of the show’s many fight scenes. Dying, he receives a divine message from a child (who bears a striking resemblance to Daenerys from “Game of Thrones”) to lay down his sword and begin life as a new man. Indeed he does, until his new life is shattered and he is forced to pick the sword back up and avenge his dead wife and unborn child.
Avenge them he does, but Wilkin is then propelled into a worse life than the one he left behind after a “sorceress” (Katey Sagal) convinces him to assume the identity of a dead punisher. Under the watchful eye of the widowed Baroness Ventris (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) and her dark adviser Milus Corbett (Stephen Moyer)–who knows Wilkin’s true identity–he is forced to do incomprehensible deeds that extend beyond simple killing.
Jones, Moyer and Spencer-Longhurst deliver exceptional performances in each of their scenes, and indeed save most of the two-hour premiere. Meanwhile, “Sons” fans used to Sagal’s purring voice as Gemma Teller may find her accent here jarring. As for the creator himself? Sutter once again shows his love for the makeup chair as a disfigured character, only this time he’s barely recognizable as The Dark Mute–the man who does the biding of Sagal’s Annora of the Alders character.
It is as much a journey of self-discovery and preservation as it is a story about war and religion, rolled into a project that thrives on scenes with deep, sometimes confusing dialogue juxtaposed with brutal shots of violence–think a pregnant woman being stabbed repeatedly in the belly or a man being skinned alive. Each scene is meant to feel important and standalone, with the picture fading to black and white at the end of each segment. Pilots often contain an excess amount of set-up, but this resulting premiere is an offering that feels haphazardly stitched together–the audience often left pondering the relevance of each scene. By Episode 3 that pace and journey shift to relevant and thoughtful, but it sure is an exhaustive journey to finally get there.
“The Bastard Executioner” premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX.