Kurt Sutter has never been one to shy away from violence and gore. Having been the creative mind behind both The Shield and Sons of Anarchy, Sutter is the master of the tortured antihero. Both Vic Mackey (The Shield) and Jax Teller (Sons) were protagonists that in the end, were nigh impossible to root for. The reasons behind this were rooted in the propensity for horrific violence that both men possessed, as leader-types who watched their lives crumble around their poor decision-making. For the FX showrunner’s newest project, The Bastard Executioner, we see a similar character forming, this time set in early 14th century Wales.
All the classic Sutter touch points are there in the early stages of the debut season: A protagonist skilled in brutality trying to reform his life, an unquenchable thirst for vengeance, innocent loved ones caught in the crossfire, and Katey Sagal flitting around the periphery making trouble. In the past, the content of Sutter’s shows have been right on par with Game of Thrones in terms of violence, and The Bastard Executioner is no exception. As noted by AV Club in their review of the first three episodes:
Executioner will certainly sate viewers with a hunger for violence. From its earliest moments, the show is packed with airborne viscera and sanguine geysers, reinforcing Sutter’s reputation as a storyteller capable of delving into unbelievably violent worlds without flinching.
The GoT similarities don’t stop there though, as we see an ambition that goes far beyond most other cable dramas. Executioner shows us the chaos and instability that defined medieval fiefdoms in the 14th century. The local lords attempt to keep their peasantry under their collective heels, while our main character, Wilkin Brattle, fights against his wealthy oppressors. In trying to draw comparisons to Game of Thrones though, we have ourselves a full-on Icarus situation.
Anytime a show features a cast of characters involved in medieval politic intrigue and visceral warfare, the first thing audiences will do is measure it against GoT. This was the fatal flaw of Netflix’s ambitious yet ultimately disappointing Marco Polo, and the similarly ambitious Bastard Executioner encounters the same issue. Whenever you go up against GoT, you’re challenging one of the most popular and well-written TV shows in the world, propped up by source novels that provide a dense canon and mythology.
For The Bastard Executioner to achieve the same longevity of past efforts from Kurt Sutter, it’ll need to find a way to separate itself from the GoT comparison. Beneath the violence and brutality, Sutter has proven himself to be a skilled storyteller capable of producing eminently entertaining television. There are few people out there who could honestly say they wouldn’t watch what amounts to Sons of Anarchy set in medieval society, making the bar that much more achievable for Executioner.
Sutter will have to dig deep to overcome the show’s initial flaws: The slow pacing, the unsettling violence that tops anything we’ve ever seen on FX, and the limited scope of the story. The basic plot revolves around one man’s quest for vengeance, while he battles with his own religious morals in the face of that. There’s a whole lot of unlock potential for more than simply geysers of blood and giant swords hacking off heads, and if The Bastard Executioner can bring those elements to bear, we’ll have the next great masterpiece from Kurt Sutter.
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