The Bastard Executioner is exhausting. It’s an absolute mess of a TV show, with no real dramatic force or any sense of pacing, and its story is filled with elements that should be interesting—revenge, swords, sex, betrayal, some dude named The Dark Mute—but fall flat as soon as they hit the screen. This is not new to anyone who’s been reading these reviews every week, as I’ve struggled to really do more than shrug at this show’s existence because it can only muster a shrug when it comes to character motivation and narrative intrigue. With all that said, I’ll take the dull, lifeless version of The Bastard Executioner over this week’s cruel and despicable version any day.
The Bastard Executioner has boasted little character development ever since its overstuffed premiere, but “Broken Things/Pethau Toredig” shows that it’s not just a symptom of a new show finding its footing, but rather the writers failing to add any depth or personality to the characters. Last week’s episode ended with a brutal showing of violence. The entire episode was structured to lead to that moment, presenting the moral conundrum faced by the Baroness and Wilkin—whether to execute an innocent man for their own selfish gains—as something that weighed heavily on them. In my review I criticized the show for refusing to engage with their ultimate decision to execute the man, but reserved some judgment thinking that perhaps the show would use such a moment as fodder for moral contemplation or plot purposes in the next few episodes.
If “Broken Things/Pethau Toredig” is any indication though, The Bastard Executioner has no interest in exploring that storyline. Instead, it moves on immediately, Wilkin and the Baroness back to their lovey-dovey selves as if they didn’t just sentence an innocent man to die in the most brutal way possible. Look, I don’t need a TV show to be a beacon of morality, but what I do need is a careful contemplation of character that signals an interest in telling a story that’s meaningful and engaging; or, you know, the very basic tenets of crafting engaging drama. I struggle to even understand how The Bastard Executioner can be so far gone after only eight episodes, but here we are, watching as the show pushes a once promising love story to the forefront while ignoring all the brutality and violence that’s come before.
Consider for a second that “Broken Things/Pethau Toredig” sees Wilkin and his fellow secret pals bury one of their best friends, Calo, who was murdered by Corbett in last week’s episode. Consider that Wilkin knows it was Corbett because he admitted as much. Consider, for just a second, that putting your friend into the ground might weigh heavily on your soul, might lead you to contemplate whether the crusade your on, which is rather undefined at this point anyways, is perhaps getting out of hand, what with your friend in the ground and the innocent man you sent to die just a day prior. Consider that “Broken Things/Pethau Toredig” sees Calo buried and then has Wilkin state that he didn’t mean for all this to happen, only for his friends to say it’s totally fine, leading Wilkin to shrug it off and get on with his day. I’m not even exaggerating! It’s baffling in terms of storytelling that these characters continue to march ahead, chugging through one tedious plot after another with no sense of pacing, no emotional or narrative consequences, and no real attention being paid to even the most basic of details.
I mean, “Broken Things/Pethau Toredig” talks a lot about secrets. The word is uttered in a hushed tone over and over again as if it’s a bad omen, with characters talking about how “destructive” secrets can be. And yet, when those secrets are revealed, absolutely nothing of consequence happens. When Wilkin revealed his true identity to the Baroness last week, they got on with their lives and killed an innocent man. When the Baroness reveals that she’s not actually carrying a child in this week’s episode, Wilkin makes a joke and the two hug and kiss and instantly forget about it. Unexciting conflict resolution, which is often devoid of action or tension, is of course part of any good story; what The Bastard Executioner is doing though is resolution without a hint of conflict, and it’s painful to watch each and every week.
The bottom line is this: The Bastard Executioner, and specifically this episode, never once forces its characters to reckon with their atrocious behavior and misguided choices. That leads to two glaring problems that come together to create one gigantic problem: 1. “Broken Things/Pethau Toredig” peddles violence as if its exposition, to be presented and then never considered again, and 2. the show has never shown any interest in fleshing out is female characters, other than perhaps the Baroness. The result? Tonight’s disgusting, disturbing scene where Corbett, after discovering that the twins have been working with Piers, sentences one of them to be tortured by the Reeve. Now, this shouldn’t even have to be said, but as always, let’s preface this argument: violence is okay. Violence in a medieval drama is certainly okay. But nonsensical, exploitative, cruel violence as peddled by the show (not the character) is a problem.
What purpose does the brutal scene tonight, where we see a naked woman hanging, dead and bloodied, from a medieval torture machine—all after Corbett has sexually assaulted her sister—end up serving? If it’s to show how menacing and violent Corbett is, we’ve seen that already. We know he’s a monster. What other explanation is there? The Bastard Executioner, despite the fact that it’s only eight episodes old, has a history of exploitative violence and cruelty towards female characters, and tonight’s despicable scene of sexual and physical violence is just another infuriating example.
Up until now, The Bastard Executioner had merely been dull, a poorly executed bit of historical drama. “Broken Things/Pethau Toredig” tips the scale though and reveals just how mean-spirited this show is—again, that’s different than a character being mean-spirited—and how little it cares to craft a story with depth, complexity, and heart.
- I don’t even know what else to say. Annora’s wall of snakes thing was kind of cool, I guess.
- The show’s approach to violence is a lot like Corbett’s, apparently. This week he walks into the dungeon, points at a torture instrument, says “use this,” and then leaves.