Effigies and snakes; that’s all The Bastard Executioner deigns to give us this week, all instances of rhinectomy aside. Annora’s growing collection of artisanal hanging serpents are probably the least important detail in “Effigy/Delw” (pronounced “del-oo”), but the sight of them suspended in air, gently lit by the blaze of her torch, does give the episode a brief and welcome moment of eye-raising surprise. That scene tells us quite a lot about Katey Sagal’s enigmatic practitioner of all things occult, notably that whatever it is that she and the Dark Mute (who, as of now, is mute no longer) are actually doing, they’ve been at it a long, long time, and killed off a whole lot of snakes in the process.
Her long term goals and motivations remain mysterious, for the time being. Less murky are the lines separating Chamberlain Milus and our man Wilkin. What a shocker: They know each other from the days before Wilkin decided to take up arms against the king. In a normal show, that would play like a major story-changing revelation. Here, it just feels like wheel-spinning, a chance for Milus to further his plots and schemes against the Baroness’ kindler, gentler style of rule. Obviously, he intends on using the relationship growing between the good lady Love and Wilkin to his advantage in one form or another, and why not? A torturer has to be good for something other than hacking off noses and gracefully dicing Welsh rebels in battle.
Most of “Effigy/Delw” deals with the aftermath of the pilot’s major turns, specifically the death of Baron Ventris and Wilkin’s appointment as Castle Ventris’ punisher (but not the kind who wears a menacing skull-emblazoned T-shirt). Wilkin is settling into his role as much as he can, given his charge: It doesn’t take a genius to realize that he’s going to end up brutalizing and decapitating his countrymen, which should prove quite the quandary. “Effigy/Delw” doesn’t really present that moral dilemma, though, which feels like a missed opportunity. Sure, we know that Wilkin doesn’t really feel too keen about being tasked with maiming the poor red-headed lass, but by the end, Annora gives him a deus ex Braveheart to assuage his misgivings.
There’s an entire arc in Wilkin’s ultimate decision to carry out his orders, and The Bastard Executioner turns away from it. Part of that is because of the Baroness herself, who intervenes in an effort to spare the girl pain. There’s a clear parallel between Love and Wilkin, two Welsh people taken into the English fold against their will: It’s not hard to imagine how the late Baron wound up making her his wife, if you know anything about functions of medieval conquest, while Wilkin might argue that the death of his family put him on the path to Castle Ventris. In the end, he had more choice than Love, but free will or no, England’s authority over Wales has landed them both in a position to fight their oppressors from the inside (or, if nothing else, stymie them).
So they do what they can. Milus wants the imprisoned girl’s head. Wilkin gives the son of a bitch her nose. Love, of course, makes that call, and by the time “Effigy/Delw” gets to its “mutilation of the week” sequence and Wilkin does his dark work, we immediately see that Milus isn’t exactly thrilled with the outcome. Maybe this is as close to a peaceful solution as Love and Wilkin can arrive at, but a nose on a platter seems like a bold taunt when Milus asked for a head on a pike. There’s a compelling contrast to the grim inevitability of the jockeying over the girl’s fate, versus the more mystical and cryptic machinations of Annora, who is starting to look like the most significant character, other than Wilkin, in The Bastard Executioner. (Love is a close second. The show is still figuring itself out, but let’s not overlook the fact that two of its main protagonists are women written with a well-rounded hand. Annora and Love both have more character together than all the men combined.)
Annora, and by extension the Dark Mute, give the series a sense of unpredictability. For now, the rest is still too busy trying to be the kind of show every other network wants to have: Violent and sexy to a fault. Annora’s maneuvering keeps The Bastard Executioner from going stale, but that might just further prove that the series has no idea what to do with Wilkin. He hallucinates his dead wife, Petra (who is still stuck with terrible dialogue even after her passing), and spirit snakes, manifestations of the guilt he’s chewing over as he and his fellow aggrieved Welshmen plot their vengeance. Wilkin wants to kill the man he believes murdered Petra now-ish. His friends want to wait so they can deduce who took the lives of their own loved ones. Meanwhile, we’re just waiting to see who Wilkin is as a person. Maybe, as he goes further down the gory, agonized rabbit hole, we’ll actually see that person emerge from the viscera.
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 Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% Vermont craft brews.