“I know nothing in my heart anymore.” Truer words have never been uttered on The Bastard Executioner, but if the show’s cast remain uncertain about who they’re meant to be, at least Kurt Sutter is confident in the series’ identity. His medieval soap opera has really hit its stride in the last two weeks, with plot coalescing in “A Hunger/Newyn” and taking full shape in “Piss Profit/Proffidwyr Troeth,” where Corbett shows just how ruthless he can be, Lowry outwits Gaveston with naught more than a jar of wolf urine, and Wilkin stains his soul with the blood of innocents yet again. (Arguably, only one person punished by Wilkin’s hand genuinely qualifies as “innocent,” but it’s worth noting that the villains he’s offed have each been framed.)
Wilkin is an oaf—a just, good-hearted, heroic oaf, but an oaf nonetheless—caught in between two far superior calculative bodies. Despite serving as The Bastard Executioner’s namesake, he’s a supporting player in the political maneuverings of both Lady Lowry and Corbett, who are both jockeying for position in a post-Baron Ventris world: She’s trying to pass herself off as pregnant with the Baron’s heir to block the King’s decree of division, while Corbett continues searching for ways to cement his alliance with Baron Pryce. Beside this pair, Wilkin looks downright noncommittal when he isn’t being tormented by ghosts. Isn’t he on a mission of vengeance? Shouldn’t he be finding, or carving, a path toward seeing his vengeance realized? What, exactly, is Wilkin trying to achieve by doing nothing of his own accord? (At least all of the Wilkin/Lowry shippers out there are closer to seeing their dreams come true, though “Piss Profit/Proffidwyr Troeth” doesn’t contextualize their climactic embrace through any kind of romance. It’s more familial than that.)
You can answer these questions just by referring back to the story, of course: Posing as the punisher in an English settlement makes wreaking bloody havoc on your oppressors a bit tricky, and when the de facto big cheese in said settlement knows who you really are, that task becomes ever so slightly more challenging. Corbett holds more than Wilkin’s name over his head, too, namely the safety of his imprisoned friends. It’s inevitable that The Bastard Executioner will let Wilkin have his satisfaction in the long run, but until then Sutter clearly has other designs in mind. He isn’t telling a straightforward revenge yarn. He’s making an honest attempt at exploring feudal politicking through a lens of high melodrama. That brings us right back to where we started with “Pilot,” noting the obvious debt The Bastard Executioner owes to shows like Game of Thrones and to movies like Braveheart, which respectively draw from and recreate theatrical elements of British and European history.
Sutter hasn’t moved away from those influences, but his story has come to shoulder their burdens more comfortably. As Wilkin and Lowry struggle with their respective existential anxieties, Corbett sets our hero on a mission to waylay a cart carrying gifts meant to bribe the King; ostensibly, any tribute made to Edward might persuade his decision-making process in regards to the fate of Ventrishire, and Corbett just can’t have that. Naturally, he’s lying his ass off to Wilkin, who winds up murdering a bunch of guards and setting the cart on fire. No big deal, except that Corbett neglects to mention who the cart happened to be carrying. Meanwhile, Piers Gaveston has made his own trip to Ventrishire to ascertain whether or Lowry actually is with child, which, duh, she isn’t. She knows it. Isabel knows it. We know it. Piers knows it, but the sleazy bastard can’t prove it without the talents of his “piss prophet.”
The episode title is a cheeky play on words, but the bizarre pregnancy tests in “Piss Profit/Proffidwyr Troeth” are real. Consider that overarching goal of playing in the sandbox of medieval history achieved. But the odd antiquity of mixing pee with wine is really just a function of Gaveston’s conniving and Lowry’s ingenuity, which, frankly, is really Annora’s ingenuity. Is this what Annora is here in Wales to do? Trick the king’s man into accepting Lowry’s deception? (Not that he does. You haven’t heard the last of Piers Gaveston, hammy villain supreme!) In truth it doesn’t matter, as “Piss Profit/Proffidwyr Troeth” is all about adding more depth to already robust characters. Forget Wilkin. The Bastard Executioner is really all about Lowry and Corbett. (And it cannot be overemphasized how great Flora Spencer-Longhurst and Stephen Moyer are in their respective roles.)
Speaking of: Who wants to bet that Piers dies the single worst death of any character on the show once his time comes? Nobody humiliates Corbett as flagrantly as Piers does and gets away with it. Wilkin might be giving his revenge a good and proper stew, but is Corbett the type to nurse a grudge instead of immediately getting even? He’ll accept Wilkin’s outburst of physical aggression before he’ll let Piers hold one over on him, even if, at the end of “Piss Profit/Proffidwyr Troeth,” Piers is nominally defeated. What’s especially great about the intimate indignity Piers inflicts on Corbett is how it serves the plot while teaching us more about Corbett’s background. (It even feels perfectly in-character for Piers, who in his short screen time has been easily established as a greasy creep.) If The Bastard Executioner continues to marry this kind of narrative economy and character building, then Season One might add up to something better than its stilted first half suggests.
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.