After what appears to be a brief, fairy-tale opening title sequence for The Bastard Executioner, one might feel as though the new Kurt Sutter series won’t be quite as bloody as previously thought. As the last explanation frame falls away, the viewer falls from heaven to earth, directly through a thatched roof where we spy Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones).
Brattle writhes atop a cot, either in pain or in the throes of a nightmare from which he cannot escape. With a quick flash, we see that it’s neither. Wilkin is reliving his memories of the war for King Edward I and how he was left for dead among his fellow soldiers along the English and Scottish border. It is here, as the Scots battle the English, blood and body parts flying, that we realize this is no fairy tale, but there is magic to be found.
As Wilkin is dying, he suddenly sees a young girl, her hair and clothing a blinding mass of white light. She reaches for his hand and he sits up in awe. “I am devoted, your servant.” The girl tells him that he has a destiny to claim and that he needs to lay down his sword and become another man. He agrees, then wakes again amongst the slain army of Edward I. As he moves around the battlefield, looking over the soldiers, he reaches down to shut the eyes of someone he recognizes. The wound on the man’s chest shifts, coils up and lifts from his skin. A demonic dragon appears before him, twisted and hideous. As the dragon opens its jaws to roar in anger, Wilkin wakes with a start, back on his cot under the thatched roof. He reaches for the wooden cross that hangs around his neck, his knuckles white. His life has changed, as he promised it would.
Petra (Elen Rhys), his very pregnant wife, enters the hut and the pair begin to banter, teasing and chasing each other as they start yet another day on their farm. They fetch water, converse with Ash (Darren Evans) and his sheep, and very briefly speak with Annora of the Alders (Katey Sagal). She offers herbs to Petra to boil in water and then instructs her to place the broth on her husband’s wound, so that he will not become ill from the injury. As Wilkin and his wife walk away, Annora tells the Dark Mute (Kurt Sutter) that Wilkin was put on their path.
The scene shifts to Castle Ventris, where we meet Baron Erik Ventris and his wife, trying to conceive a child. She is optimistic while he … well, not so much. He leaves after the deed is done and her handmaiden enters, offering to draw her a bath. The young Baroness opens the window that overlooks the town and says she needs much more than that.
We then get our first look at the actual title sequence, not just the brief fake-fairy-tale opening. The song, performed by Ed Sheeran, who has a part in the series, by the way, is very telling when paired with the imagery. The entire sequence is black, white and red, depicting the tools of a punisher’s trade – torture devices and tools, blood splatters on nearly everything – along with some religious items like a rosary and a crown of thorns. A line that stands out from the song: “Do you feel any pain?” Yeah, I think they’re all about to!
We’re welcomed back by Baron Ventris sitting on the pot while holding a political meeting with Chamberlain Milus Corbett (Stephen Moyer). I can only imagine how many takes were ruined as they tried not to laugh during the filming of this scene. The Baron grunts and groans, tells his Chamberlain that the tariffs and taxes need to be raised and then he stands, bent over, while his servant literally wipes the excrement from his backside. Another servant enters, advising that Baron Pryce is against the current tariff to use the waterways around the isle. As they stroll from the castle and into the courtyard, we get our first look at Sons of Anarchy alum Timothy V. Murphy as Father Ruskin. He is teaching children from the Bible, the book of Genesis. The Baron instructs his servant Randolph, who we learn is the Chamberlain’s brother, to go back to Baron Pryce and tell him the tariff just went up. When Pryce hears the news, he isn’t pleased – his wife is sick and there are many in line to collect their wages, including a traveling punisher with a cross-shaped scar burned into his right cheek who is only given half of what he is due. When he argues, the men tell him if he wants more pay, he can go to another town. The punisher stalks away angrily, pushing his son and wife around as he goes, telling them they will be moving along to Castle Ventris.
Back at Wilkin’s village, the men folk come running to announce that they need to attack the Ventris tax collector so that they might survive the winter and avoid starvation. Wilkin agrees and Petra looks angry. Along with Wilkin, Petra’s father also is gearing up for the attack. Ash is asked to come along, since he knows all the secret paths to escape should they get into trouble, but he’s not allowed to fight. The families gather to say goodbye to the men, all set against a peaceful nature scene where birds are singing and light strums of guitars play in the background. You know what this means – Sutter is about to kill a whole lot of people.
The raiding party attacks the tax collector’s camp at night fall, killing all except the collector himself. They let him live to give a message to the Baron – we aren’t paying your taxes! The collector gets on horseback and high-tails it out of camp. Ash, who has been playing lookout down the road, thinks the thundering hooves are from his village buddies, and pops out of hiding. The collector gets a good look at him as their eyes meet, but the collector keeps going.
Meanwhile, Wil is not happy about all the death around him, and he surveys the bodies pensively. Flashback to five years prior when he is dying on the field: he hears voices and suddenly, recognizes them. Why, it’s Baron Ventris and Chamberlain Corbett. They jest about the death of Brattle, saying he will no longer find favor with the King, and that they will leave him in the field rather than bring him back because they don’t want him to be immortalized by the people. Back to the present, Wil and the raiders recover what they can from the collector’s things and then cook some animals over the fire before they settle down for the night.
Back at Ventris, the tax collector tells the Baron that all his men were killed, the collections taken and he thinks he saw one of the men without the hoods. He recognizes the pelt Ash was wearing as beaver, and so the Chamberlain and Baron set out with troops to the only place on the isle that is home to beaver – Wil’s village.
Meanwhile, Wil and his friends give away some of the spoils in the neighboring village of Glen Darby Pirch and Ash asks how come Wil doesn’t use a sword and instead uses a carved club. Wil tells them, “I serve God and family, not cause and crown.”
Ventris and his men ride into Wil’s village in the night, rousing everyone, finding only women, children and elders. He threatens to slice the neck of a child if they do not reveal where the men are. Petra lies, telling them they’ve gone hunting. Ventris doesn’t believe her and takes the child into his own hands, laying his own sword against his neck. The child’s mother gives in, telling where they truly are. Petra insults the Baron and in his ire, he kills the boy anyway. He instructs his men to kill everyone and points at Petra, telling them to make it brutal. She runs and everything erupts into chaos. Petra races into the forest, where one of Ventris’s men finds her. As she cowers on the ground, begging for her life and that of her unborn and innocent child, the man notices the cross she wears around her neck. He rips it from her and tells her to run and never come back, or else she will die. She runs. Wil’s village is burned to the ground and no life but Petra’s has been spared. When the tax collector questions the horror that is taking place, Baron Ventris orders the Chamberlain to kill him, too. Randolph watches, horrified at the scene before him.
The scene changes back to Petra, who is cowered near a twisted tree. She turns at the sounds of footsteps and stands, recognizing the one who approaches. All the viewer can see is a set of black gloves. Suddenly, the person stabs Petra directly in her stomach and she falls to the ground. The camera zooms in on the gloved finger, dabbing the tip in her blood, then makes a cross on her forehead. The hilt of the sword comes into view – ornately carved with three bright orange stones.
Wil and his friends return to their village, seeing the smoke rising in the distance. They race to the village and find a horror scene. Every building is ash and all the bodies of their loved ones are piled along the main road. Petra is sprawled on top, her eyes open and body splayed out, her unborn son cut from her womb and placed on her breast. The cross erected in the middle of the body pile is too much for Wil and he curses it. They recognize the body of the tax collector and realize who is responsible. Wil runs to his destroyed home, flips over their table and digs. From the earth, he brings animal skins and as he unrolls them in front of the men, they finally see his sword. They recognize it as belonging to a knight of Edward I and realize that Wil is no farmer. Wil straps on his sword, mounts his horse and throws down the carved club.
The men begin to follow him and he stops, telling them to take care of the dead. “I have no plan but vengeance,” he says. The men tell him they have all earned the right to seek it. He agrees and they all leave the village behind. As they head out, they come across Annora and the Dark Mute. She convinces them that if they continue on, they will surely die. She says there is another way, a way to not fight alone.
Ventris and his men find out that the villagers are on their way to Ventris after finding their village destroyed and he decides to meet them on the road. He takes two legion, and tells the Chamberlain to stay behind and keep watch over the castle. On their way to meet Wil and his rebels, they come across the traveling punisher, asking who he is. He tells them his name is Maddox and what he does for a living. The Baron asks him to come along, as they will have use of his services. They send Maddox’s wife, infant and young son along to the castle to wait for their return and has Randolph escort them back.
Wil and his men stand their ground on the road among the haystacks as Ventris and his army arrives. Wil calls out the betrayal he suffered at the hands of Ventris prior to the slaying of those in the village. He offers the Baron death. The Baron dismounts his horse and says Wil must be a ghost or a dead man. Wil grins as handfuls of rebels emerge from the forest and uncut hayfields, surrounding and outnumbering the Baron’s men. The slaying begins.
As you can imagine, Sutter plays the battle well – cue more blood, gore, stakes and swords through hearts, faces and limbs, and even Ash, who wasn’t allowed to fight previously, emerges from beneath a haystack to stab a man right in his privates. Remind us never to make him angry!
The Baron is the last of his men standing. Wil and the Baron re-enact the scene from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome – two men enter, only one man leaves. Just as Wil is about to defeat the Baron, the Baron stabs him in the stomach. Wil’s friend comes to the rescue and shoves his sword through the back of the Baron’s head and out through his mouth. Pretty safe to say he ain’t coming back!
When we see Wil next, he is passed out from his injury and Annora is placing some herb mixture on the wound, telling Ash and the others that he will sleep but survive. When they move away, she waits until no one is looking and begins cutting off his long hair. She then takes the knife and cuts a cross-shaped wound into his right cheek. Ash catches sight of what she’s doing and calls for help, thinking her to be doing Wil harm.
Wil wakes, finds his hair shorn to his shoulders and his face bleeding. Ash tells him the healer did it and Wil confronts her, asking why she would do this. Annora tells him it was to save him, his only chance to live is be supposed dead. “You have a fate that you must learn to hold,” she says. She mentions the bright angel child from his vision on the battlefield and Wil is stunned. He has never spoken of the girl to anyone. Annora speaks the same words to him that the angel child did and he sits in front of her in disbelief.
Wil and one of his men take the dead Baron back to Ventris, propped up by a cross and on his own horse. They take the bodies of some of the old men and boys who died in the fight and claim to the Baroness that they are the seven hooded men who stole from the tax collector. Randolph sees Wil and knows it is not the traveling punisher, as he claims. They call the punisher’s wife from the castle to have her confirm who Wil is. The punisher’s wife looks on Wil, with her baby in her arms. Wil walks toward her, tears welling up. He tells her he’s sorry, obviously for the loss of her real husband, who Wil has no idea was abusive to her and her children. The woman doesn’t miss a beat and calls him Maddy, thanking the Lord that he has returned to her. She confirms to everyone watching that it is indeed her husband, Maddox the traveling punisher. Randolph makes a fuss, stating he knows what is happening. Milus, seeing an opportunity to rise in ranks at the castle now that the Baron is dead, says his brother is either a liar or a coward, because Randolph left the Baron before the fighting had even begun, so how could he possibly know if this man wasn’t the punisher if he wasn’t there? He sentences his own brother to death.
Randolph is taken away by guards and Milus escorts the Baroness into the castle to mourn her husband. Later, the Baroness (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) comes to the church to pray and finds Wil. She sees that he is bleeding and tells him to let her see the wound. When she touches him, she has a vision of a crying baby being born. They both appear to have the same vision and look at one another in shock. She tells him to find a healer to tend to the wound and leaves. Milus overhears their conversation and upon seeing the Baroness leave, asks if he may have leave to offer the punisher a permanent position in the castle. She agrees.
Milus enters the church, telling “Maddox” that he now has a permanent home in Ventris. “I need a man with the heart of a dragon. Our buried truths bind us.” Does Milus know the truth? One suspects that he does based on the anger on Wil’s face and the tense exchange of words.
Meanwhile, a tattoo-covered Annora and the Dark Mute strip down to bare skin in some dark cave, and as they “renew” their faith, one presumes by having sex, the camera pans down to a sword near the Dark Mute’s clothing – it has three orange gems in the hilt.
The final scene is a bloody one – Randolph is brought from the castle and tied in place to receive his punishment. Maddox’s son tells him all the tools have been sharpened and smiles up at his “father”. As Wil questions and attempts to prepare for what he is about to do, he sees Petra in the crowd, holding their son. She is glowing like the angel child from his vision. He walks toward her and reaches out for her. The vision breaks and he is standing in front of Ventris’s soldiers. One of them bears Petra’s cross and Wil recognizes it. His rage bubbles to the surface once more and determination is written all over his face. He strides with conviction to Randolph and slices his head clean off.
What a great ride we have in front of us! Sutter and his team are once again bringing a richly detailed world to life. I’ll avoid comparing and contrasting the new series to Sons, because it’s been done to death. Ignoring any preconceived notions of what the series might be, you’re going to enjoy the show for what it is: a tale of a man who must embrace who he has been hiding from and who he truly is in order to exact justice on those who have wronged him.
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