After a two-part pilot and a pair of standalone episodes, The Bastard Executioner has become a show that’s fully worth watching. We’re too far past the point at which Kurt Sutter’s Welsh medieval torture baby could ever be called “perfect,” but where he’s contented himself playing solo rounds of speedball since the series’ premiere, he finally has the chessboard out in “A Hunger/Newyn.” Maybe he’s been playing chess all along, though, moving pieces from square to bloody square in service of seeing his overarching goal—whatever it is—realized. If so, Sutter is the most glacially-minded chessmaster in the history of the game, but at least the direction of The Bastard Executioner’s split narrative has started taking shape.
“A Hunger/Newyn” (pronounced “ne-ween”) starts out with a handful of disparate images—two men on the run from English guards and Annora doing cryptic things as Annora does, among others—before settling into a multi-arc groove. Baroness Lowry is on her way to Windsor to meet with King Edward II and hash out the future of Ventrishire in a post-Ventris world; Corbett, in her absence, hatches a plot to develop Ventrishire into a place of economic and military power, courtesy of nefarious collusion with visiting Baron Pryce (Richard Brake); Wilkin continues to adapt to his new role as punisher; and Annora’s witchery is further explored both in her cavern residence and in the dungeons of Windsor, where Tobias, the surviving man from the pre-credits opener, finds himself left at the mercy of Ed Sheeran.
If you were on tenterhooks to find out who the singer/songwriter would portray on The Bastard Execution—by all standards a show that has little need for someone of Sheeran’s precious disposition—well, now we know. He’s a punisher, just like Wilkin, except that he cuts a far more sinister figure. Maybe we don’t expect Sheeran to direct the mutilation of another human being. Maybe it’s his pale, ginger visage. Maybe it’s the fact that Windsor’s jail, decorated with the flayed skin of former prisoners (“seraphim,” apparently, according to Tobias’ hosts), naturally add a few degrees of evil to anybody creeping around in their depths. And, of course, since it’s 14th century England, the man running Windsor’s old school enhanced interrogation department happens to be an archdeacon. Surprise!
The emergence of this character—a holy man who endorses and practices the most unholy brutality imaginable in the name of his god—drives home The Bastard Executioner’s primary theme of dual identities. Wilkin, obviously, embodies this motif better than any other character on the show: The title refers back to him, a Welshman in Englishface pretending to be someone he’s not. Drilling down from Wilkin, there’s Toran wearing the guise of Marshal, Lowry presenting outward grace while fostering inward contempt, and Corbett acting in the manner of a loyal servant while he sharpens his daggers behind Lowry’s back. None of the show’s major players are who they say they are. They hide, either because they must (Wilkin, Toran, and Lowry), or because they’re just duplicitous by nature (Corbett).
Seeing these identities develop gradually is one of the best recommendations for watching The Bastard Executioner in the first place. For Wilkin’s part, “A Hunger/Newyn” finally allows him to show a little bit more of himself. The blank slate is starting to show its true colors. He’s still leagues behind both Lowry and Corbett, though, both of whom have felt better emphasized by The Bastard Executioner’s writing thus far. Wilkin’s most crystalline qualities are his all-purpose goodness and his desire for revenge. There’s not much to that, but, again, “A Hunger/Newyn” adds more to him than we’ve see thus far. Lowry and Corbett are a good deal more complex, particularly Corbett, who Stephen Moyer plays with an infectious Machiavellian delight. He’s having nearly too much fun playing up the chamberlain’s devious side, whether he’s scheming with Pryce or engineering the downfall of Pryce’s right hand man (which, in turn, leads to the series’ most creative character demise yet).
Lowry, meanwhile, must contend with the subtly nasty jabs Corbett makes about her, while also fending off Frenchmen and generally being subjected to dismissive misogyny at all times. Flora Spencer-Longhurst deserves tons of credit for her work here; she’s easily The Bastard Executioner’s standout performer, capable of interchanging dignity against disdain simply by twitching the corners of her mouth. She’s an absolute treasure. (Should Sutter have just ditched the executioner angle entirely and used her as his heroine? Great as the “false punisher” premise is on paper, her story is infinitely more compelling than Wilkin’s.) Like Game of Thrones, The Bastard Executioner is doing serious work as a document of patriarchal society and gender inequality. Unlike Game of Thrones, Sutter’s show is already swathed in pseudo-fantastical weirdness, which “A Hunger/Newyn” rapidly expands on.
As always, the show looks handsome, but aesthetic isn’t The Bastard Executioner’s chief problem. Momentum is. “A Hunger/Newyn” finally gets things rolling, but only just now, and it’s possible that we’re already too far behind the curve for its fresh dramatic twists and turns to matter. If so, at least we’ve gotten one good, solid hour of television out of this saga, but the fragmentation of Sutter’s yarn appears to be its biggest weakness. The faster The Bastard Executioner coheres as a whole, the better.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft brews.