It’s a post-Game of Thrones world and we’re all living in it, albeit a bit nauseated, squeamish, and with our fingers covering our eyes while we cringe. (Or, and maybe this is even worse, we’re living in it completely desensitized to a never-ending onslaught of brutal imagery.)
Ever since Game of Thrones planted its flag—or in this case, its decapitated lead character’s head impaled on a stick—on a television landscape increasingly hospitable to overflowing sanguine rivers, an exhausting slew of cable networks have charged the territory with their own prestige dramas, hellbent on conquering the HBO epic’s stronghold as TV’s bloodiest drama.
The most recent of such offerings is FX’s The Bastard Executioner, which premiered Tuesday night. It’s a period drama set in Wales at the dawn of the 14th century. From Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, it’s a series with grand ambition and an even grander budget for fake blood. It also boasts a clever plot conceit tailor-made for brutal scenes of violence, and as such relishes the opportunity to up the ante when it comes to graphic slicings and dicings and geysers of burst arteries.
As such, it also raises the bar when it comes to the level of crude, explicit violence audiences are willing to tolerate in the service of medieval plot. And with a dismembered-body count tipping one side of the scales and thin character development and moral complexity failing to add enough balancing weight on the other, The Bastard Executioner might have the answer to the question: How much is too much TV violence?
The show begins by introducing us to Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a warrior whom we meet fallen on a battlefield in the midst of a vision. In that vision, a (naked) woman tells him his destiny commands him to put down his sword and “live the life of a different man.”
But with evil English barons oppressing Welsh fiefdoms like the village Brattle lives in with his pregnant wife, the pacifism can’t last. He leads a rebellious raid on tax collectors with his neighbors, only to return and see the aftermath of the tax collectors’ merciless revenge: the butchered bodies of all the women, children, and elders they left behind in the village. Brattle’s new, self-proclaimed destiny: “I’ve no plan but vengeance.”
But when another intense and exceptionally deadly battle leaves Brattle exposed as the baron’s Enemy No. 1, the true meaning of the original prophecy becomes clear. In order to save his own life as he pursues his crusade, he must assume the identity of a dead man loyal to the opposition.
That man, it turns out, was a punisher—an executioner—and here we have the most grisly version of The Prince and the Pauper yet. Instead of the commoner passing himself off as upper crust, Brattle the once-sworn pacifist is now playing the part of someone who gleefully tortures, beheads, and commits other erstwhile acts of barbarianism on anyone who happens to betray his new employers.
The macabre switcheroo isn’t revealed until the premiere’s final act, a shame as its cleverness is the strongest evidence of The Bastard Executioner’s potential. The climax lives up to the two-hour buildup, however. The episode ends with the crisp, swift shwing! of Brattle’s weapon as he makes his first execution in his new role. The final image we’re left with is a head falling off a kneeling body.
But the gasp of the moment—as blunt and startling as any killing scene on TV—is stifled by the overabundance of graphic imagery that preceded it, an amount of bloodshed that couldn’t be similarly Band-Aided by narrative justification for such grim and often disgusting violence.
Up to that point we had already seen skin being fileted off a prisoner’s back with a knife. The village massacre scene is the epitome of hard to watch, with a Sophie’s Choice of which moment was the most appalling: the slitting of a child’s throat or the unfurling of a pregnant woman’s bowels as she lay dead atop a heap of her friends’ and neighbors’ bodies.
There’s the face that is stomped on, the skull that is stabbed, and, in another shade of gross, an entire scene of dialogue that plays out while one character is defecating on the john.
Does graphic violence signal prestige in television? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But The Bastard Executioner is certainly trading on that as its Bible. It’s certainly not the only series to do so, and other TV shows have benefited from following such commandments.
We watched with a mood approaching morbid glee as Khandi Alexander, slurping sounds and all, attempted to commit suicide by chewing through her wrists on Scandal, and cheered the show’s descent into dark violence during an arc in which Kerry Washington’s character is held hostage as a needed maturation for the series.
Even elsewhere in this fall’s lineup of TV shows this applies. A graphic suicide anchors the premiere of ABC’s Quantico, elevating its serious tone. And, if anything, we thought Fox’s upcoming Scream Queens could be more gruesome.
So this isn’t any sort of rant from a pearl-clutching prude. We don’t even own pearls. In fact, we see power and meaning in the graphic use of mature content, whether it’s language, sex, or violence on television.
With the trend in movie violence gravitating ever-infuriatingly toward sensationalism to the point of hollowness, or often so scattershot and needless that it becomes valueless cacophony, we should embrace this delicately aggressive increase in violence on television—especially when gore is depicted as elegantly as it is on Hannibal, as operatically as it is on Game of Thrones, or as grittily and authentically as it was on Sutter’s own Sons of Anarchy.
But just as, for example, nudity and sex on Game of Thrones is often criticized as gratuitous, irresponsible, or even sexist—where art thou, peens?—viewers can be turned off, even scarred, by full-frontal assaults of excessive, needless bloodshed. What for some is “sexposition,” the word used to describe Game of Thrones’ set dressing of scenes with nude actors and their sexual acts, can be an excuse for pornography to others. There’s almost something pornographic to the relentless blood of The Bastard Executioner’s premiere.
Is it provocative, confronting, and creatively titillating? Arguably; there is a fair amount of critics who are saying just that about the show. But the timing of The Bastard Executioner amidst an onslaught of Game of Thrones copycats and a palpable fatigue with the use of supercharged violence to lure viewers in makes the show’s dialed-to-11 levels of gore the perfect case study for a tipping point in TV violence.
Because here’s the caveat: The Bastard Executioner, for all of the comparisons to Game of Thrones that it could not possibly live up to and all the gory mayhem of its pilot, is a series with great promise. Kurt Sutter, for one, is a vital showrunner in the TV world, one whose ambition is only matched by his cajones. The final-act twist that will guide the rest of the series is a great one, and the themes explored are valid.
Why people torture, the value of a human life, and the social implications of sadism, survival, and brutality are all worthy topics of exploration. Vengeance, redemption, good rising against evil: There’s a reason these are such common tropes. And actually showing acts of violence in all of their shocking, inhumane glory may be the most effective way to illustrate these tropes and topics.
It’s often a side effect that, whether intentional or not, such acts are glamorized or glorified, and there are certainly moral implications to that. But that could be written off when there are obvious narrative reasons for depicting violence in order to magnify its horrible consequences. That the killings are so primal and ghastly is justified and maybe even expected given the medieval backdrop of the show.
We see an audience for The Bastard Executioner—at least, we would if we were able to uncover our eyes, which we just spent two hours shielding from the show’s, in our opinion, needlessly graphic violence.