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The Bastard Executioner’ takes a violent trip into the past

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Kurt Sutter’s attention to historical detail sets The Bastard Executioner apart from typical dark, cynical contemporary cable dramas.

Two and a half stars

The Bastard Executioner Tuesdays, 10 p.m., FX.

There’s plenty of macho posturing and brutal violence in The Bastard Executioner, the new series from Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, and it all serves to build up an outlaw brotherhood in some ways similar to Anarchy’s motorcycle gang. But Executioner is set in a very different world, 14th-century Wales, and it deals directly with political and social history, or at least it tries to.

Set in the aftermath of a failed rebellion against the English, Executioner focuses on the remains of those rebel forces, in particular pious warrior Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones). Through a convoluted set of circumstances that take up nearly the entire two-hour pilot, Wilkin ends up posing as the title character, a torturer and executioner in the employ of the same English barony that he’s been fighting against.

While Wilkin might be a sensitive guy looking to leave his blood-soaked past behind, Executioner wallows in violence and gore, to the point that multiple characters who seem to be central to the story end up killed by the end of the first episode. The violence is sometimes so cartoonishly over the top that it feels like it belongs in a Monty Python movie, and rather than emphasizing the danger and uncertainty of the time period, it comes off as grotesque and showy. Still, if you want to see a teenage girl get her nose cut off, this is the show for it.

Sutter’s attention to historical detail sets Executioner apart from typical dark, cynical contemporary cable dramas, and for that matter from a fantasy show like Game of Thrones, to which Executioner has been somewhat unfairly compared. It’s disappointing, then, that Sutter throws in a rather silly mystical element, embodied in an Eastern European witch played by Katey Sagal with a ludicrous accent. Sagal’s Annora helps Wilkin with prophecies and visions as he attempts to avenge his fellow revolutionaries from within the enemy’s camp, but the presence of angels and magic spells undermines the show’s supposed historical accuracy.

The political machinations, led by True Blood’s Stephen Moyer as a devious chamberlain, are more interesting, especially when they delve into the complex dynamic between the English ruling class and the Welsh peasants. But Sutter seems more interested in severed limbs and mysterious pronouncements (he also gives himself the role of Annora’s disfigured, hooded companion, prone to delivering cryptic dialogue), at least so far. It doesn’t help that Jones makes for a bland protagonist, and Wilkin’s agonizing over carrying out his executioner’s duties isn’t particularly interesting.

Sons of Anarchy built up a complex cast of strange characters over time, and Executioner may eventually get there—if it doesn’t kill everyone off first.

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