From the get-go, there are swords, blood and sorcery. We have been transported to Wales, of all places, in the 14th century. There's a fierce battle going on. Fellas with swords are gutting each other like nobody's business. A naked woman carrying rosary beads moves slowly through the bloody battle. Nobody pays the slightest attention.
The Bastard Executioner (FX 10 p.m.) starts with that extraordinary scene. In case anyone thinks this might be a Game of Thrones knock-off (and there's a lot of that knocking-off going around), it is far from it. This baroque exercise in medieval madness and gore is the work of Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter. And since Anarchy was anchored in Shakespeare, especially Hamlet, this is not some whimsy unleashed upon us.
It opens with a stunning two-hour pilot tonight, rich and mad with plot, violence and meaning. Soon enough it becomes clear this extravagantly made series is about class war and the revenge of the oppressed. Yes, it is blood-soaked, and has flashes of the mystical, but it is, if comparison must be made, Game of Thrones with brains.
Our main figure, very much the anti-hero, is Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a fierce warrior fella who, after a vision, quits the warrior business and settles down to farm the land, live in nice village and have a child with a loving woman, Petra. He's achieving this when along come the henchmen of Edward I and ruin everything. They murder his pregnant wife in a massacre of uppity peasants, and he sets out on a long journey of revenge. He assumes the identity of a professional executioner and savagery ensues.
In the centre of power, where the nobles live, bristling conversations take place. The beautiful Baroness Ventris (Flora Spencer Longhurst), who is supposed to live in shame because she has been unable to provide a child and heir for her husband, Baron Erik Ventris (Brian F. O'Byrne), inserts herself pointedly into political conversations. Everything is about money and tithes. The Welsh must be conquered and made to pay. The Baron's sly sidekick Milus Corbett (Stephen Moyer, who was Bill Compton in True Blood and is brilliant here), is in favour of violent subjugation. The Baroness disagrees and tells him, "No commoner wants rebellion. That only comes after hope and reason are burnt to the ground. You won't break them. And we both know there is nothing more dangerous than a Welshman with nothing to lose."
The plot is derived from the real Welsh revolt of 1294-95 against English rule. It can also be seen as a drama about all subjugated people, in conquered nations, reacting with brutal ferocity when pushed to the limits of endurance by their conquerors. Wherever the grass grows, bloodthirstiness is a response to persecution.
Many viewers will find it hard to stomach the violence in The Bastard Executioner. But there is much more to it. Even the mystical qualities have an authenticity to them.
The mysticism is mainly represented by the figure of Annora (Katey Sagal), who is deemed a healing figure by some and a dangerous witch by others. And yet she tends to brand people, literally, with the the Christian cross. She is accompanied everywhere by a hooded man, who is played by Sagal's husband – and the series creator – Sutter. It is all disconcerting and yet not without emotional power.
What Sutter has embarked on here is extremely ambitious, a saga about power, revenge and identity that is never frivolous. It is often about what we call today "the root causes" of terrorism. It is about state authority and how that authority blithely undermines individual, family and tribal identity.
The cast is excellent. (By the way, look out for Welshman Matthew Rhys, from FX's The Americans, under a thick beard in the pilot, and singer Ed Sheeran makes an appearance later on.) The dialogue often sparkles with a flinty eloquence and, if you can tolerate the gore, it is as smart as it is entertaining.