As I discussed last week, Bastard Executioner had a rough start, stealing the aesthetic and violence from Game of Thrones without remembering what makes it compelling, and creator Kurt Sutter showed an inclination towards repeating his mistakes in later Sons of Anarchy seasons instead of returning to his instincts in its tight beginning. Does Bastard Executioner’s third episode, “Effigy/ Ddelw,” improve? We discuss the good, the bad, and the ridiculous.
Stephen Moyer, who plays the delightfully devious Milus Corbett, is the only actor who knows what kind of show this should be. While everyone else seems to be going off the memo that this is Serious Drama and they should under no circumstances be having any fun, Moyer is clearly having a blast — maybe because he was on True Blood. He knows what’s up. He knows there is a time for joyless brooding and a time for camp and a fine line between the two.
Somewhat paradoxically, Moyer’s looser performance renders Milus Corbett easier to take seriously than the other characters. He fits more seamlessly into the world and feels less like he’s playing Medieval Dress Up. If every actor was on the same tonal page as Moyer, this show might not have quite so much bad. Which brings us to…
Last week I mentioned the dream sequences and Kurt Sutter’s spotty track record with the mystical. That problem is not going away. From Wilkin Brattle’s hallucination of snakes to his angelic dead wife, the mystical is plentiful here. Rather than conveying an air of intriguing mystery, which is presumably the intention, it comes across as borderline goofy. And speaking of the ethereal, Katey Sagal is a great actress but nobody could play the thankless part of Annora. Even if it turns out her yenta accent is fake and she, like Wilkin, is playing the long con, her medieval Wise Woman with a comically obvious wig has too many echoes of characters like Miracle Max to take with any measure of seriousness.
Again, this wouldn’t be such an issue if the show had a different tone, but the show is asking the viewer to take her stone cold sober and straight. The result is distracting and tonally jarring.
As this is a Kurt Sutter show, more often than not, this category will apply to acts of over-the-top violence. In “Effigy/ Ddlew,” this manifests in the form of nose removal. By Sword. In this episode’s primary storyline — which was route yet serviceable; a slight step up from the pilot — Wilkin Brattle, conflicted fake executioner, must teach a young Welsh girl a lesson when she’s caught in an act of rebellion against the English. In his continued pale imitation of Sutter’s first hero, Jax Teller, Wilkin is slowly but surely becoming corrupted by the very system he’s trying to subvert. When the girl is brought to the chopping block, he can’t say, “sorry, I don’t feel like doing my executioner job today,” so he chops her nose off instead of her head. The scene, while ridiculous, is effectively tense.
The final verdict:
Part of creating a believable world for a viewer — which every TV show demands, and period dramas demand even more — is establishing trust. Trust that a showrunner knows what the hell they’re doing and that they’re telling the story they’re aiming to tell. If viewers are too busy second-guessing the writer’s intentions, it’s hard to get immersed. That was one of the many reasons I stopped watching Girls; the writers seemed unable to make up their minds whether everyone is supposed to be terrible or whether we’re actually supposed to find them interesting. In Bastard Executioner, Stephen Moyer’s performance is winkingly knowing, but the rest of the show is deadly serious. It’s not a bad thing for actors to have different styles — it’s why another period show, Penny Dreadful, is so compelling. Josh Hartnett’s understated naturalism and Eva Green’s scenery-chewing emoting make a magical combination by playing off each other; it doesn’t seem like they’re acting in two entirely different shows the way Bastard Executioner does right now. If a show feels like it can’t make up its mind, then why should the viewer?