The funniest scene in The Bastard Executioner is a little shade aimed right at Game of Thrones fans. It's a quick sight gag, deep in the first episode — we see one of the evil fourteenth-century noblemen (this show has loads of those) hiding in a discreet corner of the fortress, banging the daylights out of one of his young manservants. When the coitus gets interrupted by official business — sorry, Your Lordship, but it's time to sign off on slaughtering some peasants — the manservant turns around, tosses his curly hair and blinks his long black eyelashes into the camera. Dude looks exactly like Jon Snow. And don't think for a minute that's a coincidence. Kurt Sutter, the Sons of Anarchy auteur, is moving into Game of Thrones territory with his own mega-violent medieval saga. And this scene is just his way of telling the competition, "Winter is coming."
The Bastard Executioner patrols a very different corner of space-time than Sons of Anarchy did — Sutter brings all the head-bashing gore of the California biker-gang melodrama to medieval times. Welcome to fourteenth-century Wales: A nasty place, where beheadings are the main mode of social interaction. The sadistic English barons ride across the Welsh countryside. When the peasants revolt, they get drawn and quartered. Skulls get smashed. Throats get cut. "Bloody work is the Lord's," says one of the Welsh rebels piously. Did somebody say the peasants are revolting? You keep expecting Mel Brooks to show up and reply, "You said it — they stink on ice."
The concept is clever: the SAMCRO bikers go to Westeros. The battle scenes definitely evoke the Sons bikers, with all their gun-running, rib-cracking, eye-gouging, Harley-stradding, artery-severing ways. So it figures Bastard would take the same chop-'em-and-mop-'em approach to an even gnarlier time, the Middle Ages. It's a real fuck-you to Game of Thrones, all its precious literary trappings and hoity-toity nobility — and even if you love Thrones, there's something admirably punk rock about how Sutter gives the formula such a hostile pulp make-over.
But Sons was always a Shakespearean family battle at heart — I loved it because it was a generational cagematch with the Sixties vs. the Nineties in modern California. It was Charlie Hunman's Jax, such a Kurt type, vs. Ron Perlman's Clay, such a Dylan, with Katey Seagal's bad-ass matriarch Gemma pulling the strings behind their backs. In the first few episodes, Bastard doesn't have the same emotional resonance, because there's no family conflict going on behind the violence — no parents, no kids, no siblings. Lots of anarchy here, but no sons.
Lee Jones is the executioner Wilkin Brattle, glowering like Ned Stark in the first season of Thrones, except it's Ned Stark auditioning to play Eddie Vedder in Corduroy: The Pearl Jam Musical! Once a soldier for King Edward I, Wilkin sees a vision on the battlefield — a blonde cherub, apparently trick-or-treating as Dany Targaryen, who tells him to lay down his sword. So as the show begins, all Wilkin wants to do is retire to the farm and live in peace with his pregnant wife. Yeah, well, if you've ever seen a movie or TV show before, you know exactly how retirement works out — before you know it, Wilkin is bereft, blood-soaked, vowing revenge. Seagal plays the witch who magically transforms Wilkin so he can adopt the identity of a dead executioner, or "traveling punisher." Stephen Moyer from True Blood hams it up as the Littlefinger-style scheming chamberlain, while Sutter himself plays a weirdo called the Dark Mute. (Maybe they'll introduce his sidekick, the Hate Follow.)
It's a long way from Charming, California — especially in terms of the ripe dialogue, where sinister lords say things like, "I'll gut this warrior bandit! Choke him cold with the snare of his own entrails!" There's nothing remotely subtle about Bastard Executioner, obviously — the mystical scenes are real groaners, with way too many ghosts, angels, spooks and spells. This is the kind of story where — in case you can't tell why this noblewoman is making so much steamy eye contact with Wilkin — they name her character Baroness Lady Love.
The violence makes Sons of Anarchy look like Downtown Abbey. But Bastard really nails the grubby atmosphere — every place we see looks sad and grim. Even the castle is caked in filth, to the point where you can practically smell the mildew and wolf urine no matter how many candles they light. It evokes Vincent Price in the classic low-budget Hammer horror flick Witchfinder General, where he roams the burned-out wastelands during the English Civil War, executing victims in the holy name of a revolution that's already failed. Bastard is depressing the same way Witchfinder General is depressing — the old days are a truly wretched place to visit. As Mel Brooks would say, this was back when things were rotten.