For the past 5+ hours of FX’s and Kurt Sutter’s new show The Bastard Executioner — each episode is slightly longer than the previous one — I have really tried hard to maintain my sense of humor about a show that is not only historically inaccurate, but ludicrous in the extreme. In a time when social position was practically geologically stratified, we have people of aristocracy and nobility — i.e., the Baroness — running about talking to people who are servants — i.e., the faux Executioner — and vice versa, ignoring the all important middle-men — i.e., the Chamberlain — when those middle-men rose to power by being in the middle. Those middle-men were the ones who communicated between the lower, peasant classes and the noblemen, aristocracy, and landed knights. Thus, their power. Sutter has not only thrown historical, political, and social accuracy to the winds, he has made a show based on a premise that makes no sense, and thus, the whole story fails.
If you’ve been reading my blogs, you know the basic premise of the show. A group of about 7 men living in a small village somewhere in Wales who don’t like the Baron’s increased taxation go about, in the 2-hour premiere (which was really episodes 1 and 2, just to confuse us, I suppose), killing the Baron’s tax-men. Baron’s wife, who is Welsh, somehow magically figures out which village in the entire Shire the men came from, and “betrays” their location.
Baroness seems not to have any loyalty to the Baron, since she washes out his seed after intercourse so that she will not get preggers, but I guess where taxes are concerned, it’s a different story. Somehow, like by throwing dirt on a map or throwing a dart at it or something, she manages to guess the one place in the entire Shire where the rebels are coming from, and reveals it to her husband and his Chamberlain.
and all the Baron’s horses and all the Baron’s men go riding out to said village to capture and kill the rebels.
Of course, the Rebels are not there, because that would be too simple a conflict, and this show likes gory, grotesque, and gratuitous conflict, so Baron and his men kill everyone in the village.
They kill everyone except for the main protagonist’s preggers wife, whom the Baron’s man allows to escape “for the life of her child.”
Then a mysterious person, whom the preggers wife knows and recognizes, kills her and takes out the fetus. (Even with a prosthetic, it was a disgusting, horrifying scene.) Then the Baron’s men pile up all the villagers in the middle and burn everything — except the bodies — to the ground.
Rebels come home and act really surprised that the Baron took revenge for their killing his men, even though Sheep-Boy, who’s mildly retarded and has sexual relations with a sheep, was seen by the Baron’s men without his hood. And it was Sheep-Boy’s beaver vest that gave the Baroness the clue to where the village was located.
Because, you know, there’s only one village on the coastline of Wales.
Now Rebels go after Baron’s men, have a big fight with like a gazillion peasants against the Baron and his men, killing the Baron, but not the Chamberlain — played by Stephen Moyer, who obviously had a better agent than the actor who played the Baron — and now the Rebels want revenge against… I don’t know… who’s left?
Meanwhile, weird Healer woman, played by creator-writer Sutter’s real-life wife, Katy Sagal, with an unidentifiable accent,
finds our protagonist in the woods, and scars his face with a cross,
so he can go on living in the Baron’s castle as the Official Executioner, who’s now dead but who had a cross cut into his face — for reasons unknown — where the real Executioner’s wife “identifies” him as her husband, since her real husband was a mean and cruel bastard who deserved to die, if only to give this show some Urgency and suspense.
Real-but-dead-Official Executioner also has a son, who gladly welcomes “new dad” on sight, hoping, I guess, that anyone would be better than his real dad.
Chamberlain is suspicious, however, for no known reason. I mean, other than the historical fact that Executioners were official, paid, often hereditary positions and served in certain places where everyone would have known them. Chamberlain is clearly the villain of this piece, with Moyer smirking through virtually every scene, and he forces Faux Executioner to prove his skill by cutting off head of Chamberlain’s own brother.
The Faux Executioner’s skill with a sword, which comes from his fighting Scottish rebels during the civil war, where he was injured and left to die,
makes the Baroness suspect that he is more than an Executioner.
I mean, these guys tortured and killed people for their livelihood, with all sorts of medieval instruments, axes, swords, knives, etc, but she thinks his sword-work is exceptional?
Very forced conflict, but basically, I’ll try to go along with it.
So, the premise of The Bastard Executioner (a less well-known but regularly used definition of “bastard” is “fake,” “not original,” and is used in the art world for forgeries) is that he’s a Faux Executioner.
Hey, and that’s the premise of the film The Return of Martin Guerre, where a man returns from the war, telling everyone that he’s Martin Guerre, even though he doesn’t look quite the same as they remember, and even though his whole personality is changed. Instead of being the vicious jerk of his pre-war days, he’s now a nice guy, causing everyone — even the viewing audience — to question whether he is, indeed, Martin Guerre, and if he’s not, who is he, and why is he pretending to be Martin Guerre?
The Problem with the Premise
What’s the problem with the premise? How about the fact that the Faux Executioner’s wife knows he’s not her husband, and just in case she ever tries to forget, he keeps reminding her.
His faux son knows he’s not the real Executioner.
And as of last week’s episode, the Chamberlain knew he wasn’t the real Executioner.
Yeppers, the Chamberlain not only knew that the protagonist was not the real Executioner, the Chamberlain knew his real name, which I didn’t even know till then: Wilkin Brattle.
Not to worry. Sutter threw in some faux conflict — not involving slicing off girl’s noses, men’s heads, men’s arms and fingers and genitals. It seems that the Chamberlain himself has a secret, and somehow the Faux Executioner knows what it is. They’re blackmailing each other.
A peasant is blackmailing a Chamberlain, who has power.
You can’t make this stuff up, though Sutter and his co-writers are trying really hard to do so.
Now the viewers know the Faux Executioner is fake, the Chamberlain knows it, the faux wife and faux son know it, all the Rebels and the Healer know it, and the Baroness suspects it.
The Faux Executioner might be headed for trouble, but the show is headed for even more because there’s no conflict or suspense or Urgency.
It’s just plain boring.
This story is taking place before the Bubonic Plague — also known as the Black Plague and the Black Death because it turned the bodies black from necrosis — wiped out 40-60% of Europe’s population, virtually ending serfdom — which differs from slavery because the peasants belong to the land, not to the men who own it. The serfs cannot be sold away from the land, though the land itself can be sold or given to another. Slaves belong to the owners, not to the land, so slaves can be separated from families and sold to owners in other places. Thus, most serfs lived and died on the same small tract of land or village; they were not permitted to leave it. That was the law.
Until the Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe, wiping out entire villages and shires, leaving landowners with no one to work their fields, harvest crops, or care for their animals. At first, the landowners, who were aristocracy or noblemen, paid each other for the use of the remaining serfs. So if Lord John had lost all his serfs but Sir William still had 50% of his, Lord John paid Sir William a fee to allow his serfs to travel to Lord John’s lands to do his work.
As you can imagine, once the serfs realized that God would not strike them dead for leaving the land to which they were bound, and that landowners would pay for their labor, the serfs themselves fled not only the Plague, but their villages and the landowners. Some serfs set their own wages to work other owners’ lands; some headed for cities to work for themselves. The Bubonic Plague not only decimated the European continent’s population, it virtually ended serfdom as an institution and rearranged the social order of the medieval world.
But The Bastard Executioner takes place before the Plague changed the social order, and in the world which this show represents, aristocracy would not mix with royalty except under the command of the royalty — as was demonstrated when the Baroness was ordered to come to the King, Edward II, at Windsor Castle, last week in episode 4. Furthermore, aristocracy and nobles would not mix with peasants-serfs, who were less than servants, less than slaves. They were simply serfs: they were part of the land and nothing more. That’s how middle-men, like the Chamberlain and men like him, came into power. Someone had to deal with the serfs, and the nobles wouldn’t dirty their hands by doing so.
To put it most simply, the nobles and the aristocracy, no matter how minor, like the Baroness, and the serfs/peasants did not interact directly.
Yet every time the Faux Executioner goes into the chapel, which would belong to the Baroness, not to the people, the Baroness manages to come in at the same time and have a little chat with him. Last night, she came upon him sitting in one of the manicured gardens, indicating that it belongs to the Baroness.
Could not happen.
Not in that time period.
No servant, no serf, no Executioner — Faux or otherwise — would be simply sitting alone in the Baroness’ garden.
And the Baroness would not walk in alone, either to the chapel or the garden, and find said servant — because the Official Executioner would be a servant of the Noble of the Shire in which he served — sit down beside him and talk to him as if he were her equal. I mean, the woman doesn’t even talk to the Chamberlain as if he were her social equal. He wasn’t, but the point is that the Chamberlain would be the man to whom the Baroness talked if she wanted something from the Official Executioner and vice versa. (And the Chamberlain is only dealing with the Baroness because the Baron is dead, and the King has not given the Baroness a new husband.) The Chamberlain would then pass on any information he considered relevant to the other party involved.
In short, this scenario could happen:
But not this one:
The most dreadful historical inaccuracies are the ones which are allowing all these different, clearly defined and separated social classes to interact in ways that simply would not have been possible.
The Importance of Being Servants
Where are the Baroness’ servants?
Nobles had servants: cooks, chefs, cleaning women, blacksmiths, executioners. The Baroness should be surrounded by female servants at all times to protect her reputation and her honor. That was the way of the world, even for noblewomen. Even for queens. They would have been completely isolated from much of the world by their own inner world of daughters, wives, and widows of noble families. These positions were fought for, they were hereditary, they were coveted. Men wanted these positions for their daughters, sisters, wives, etc. because it gave the men power through association.
This Baroness seems to have one female servant, who knows all her secrets, and who goes with her everywhere. Except where the Faux Executioner might be, like the chapel or the garden. This makes no sense. These female servants did more than wait on the noblewomen: they protected the honor and reputation of the noblewomen.
The same would be true for male nobles. In the premiere, while having a discussion with the Chamberlain, who was the Baron’s servant, we saw the Baron get his behind wiped clean by a lower-level servant: one who now seems to belong to the Chamberlain after having allowed the Chamberlain to sodomize him.
The King, too, would have always been surrounded by servants, chambermen, etc. In fact, the King would have been surrounded by an entire court of servants, noblemen, aristocracy, none of whom we saw last week in “Hunger,” when King Edward II invited the widowed Baroness to Windsor Castle to discuss a new marriage (the King would have had to approve of her new husband, even if he didn’t actually choose him).
Meanwhile, the King’s goofy friend and suspected lover Gaveston, who covets the Baroness’ lands, would have been a nobleman, even if he were a French one, to be able to have the kind of close relationship with King Edward II that we saw in “Hunger,” where Gaveston greets the Baroness, orders her about, threatens her, and eventually takes her to the King.
(Gaveston is based on an historical character, accused of having overdue influence over King Edward II because they were lovers, but since Edward II was married, I’m not sure if the English nobles objected so much to the suspected sexual relationship between the two men, or to the favoritism King Edward II displayed toward Gaveston, or to Gaveston’s personal and political influence over Edward II.)
In any event, this show has some nobility, a middle-man, a King, lots of people who seem to be peasants and serfs, but not very many servants. How do the writers think those castles sustained the nobility? On the backs and the labor of all those servants, who were vitally important, but who are missing from The Bastard Executioner.
I noticed that Sutter has not written the last two episodes, and it looks like the writers are trying to add some conflict to the story: conflict that does not involve endless scenes of torture, dismemberment, and killing. Gaveston, the King’s favorite, covets the Baroness’ lands. Since she has no husband to protect her, she would be defenseless.
Unless she had a male son who would be the dead Baron’s heir.
So she told Gaveston at the end of episode 4, “Hunger,” that she was with child.Of course, he doesn’t believe her. I don’t know how long she was married to the Baron, but with no reliable methods of birth control during that time, she has a reputation for being “barren,” as Gaveston pointed out last night.
Yes, Gaveston (whose faux French accent is dreadfully bad) came to the Barren Baroness’ castle in last night’s episode, with a man who can supposedly “read piss” to determine if she’s really with child.
I saw the episode listed as “Piss Profit” but some reviewers have been calling it “Piss Prophet.” I’m not sure what the Welsh subtitle means because I don’t have my Welsh dictionary handy, but I’m pretty sure that there weren’t any such pregnancy tests back then.
In fact, most women didn’t even let anyone know they suspected they were pregnant — not even their husbands — until the “quickening,” when the child first moves in the womb, between the 4th and 5th months of gestation — since miscarriages were so common, even among the relatively healthy royalty, aristocracy, and nobility.
Still, the Baroness told Gaveston that she was with child — to prevent the King from dividing her land into thirds: two thirds were going to the Barons of neighboring shires, and the one-third along the coastline, which includes the castle, would go to Gaveston. Why he would want this land is not made clear, especially since the King is in London, in Windsor Castle, but apparently this Gaveston covets that Welsh land so the Baroness had to lie about being pregnant to keep the land.
That’s some conflict.
Except for the fact that the viewers already know the Baroness is not pregnant: she gave her servant Isabelle her bloody linens to wash in “Piss Profit/Prophet,” and bewailed the fact that she doesn’t know what to do to get with child.
Then she meets the Faux Executioner in the garden and…
Oh, man, is this getting pitifully obvious?
He takes her, alone, at night, down to the coast, to meet the Healer.
Said Healer gives the Baroness the “urine of a very pregnant wolf” to use in her own chamberpot, thus passing the “Piss” test, much to Gaveston’s outrage and dismay.
Even today, the human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), produced by the fertilized egg, cannot be detected until after the egg has implanted itself into the wall of the womb, so “false negatives” are common if pregnancy tests are done in the very early stages of pregnancy. In any event, this marker wasn’t discovered until 1930, so I have absolutely no idea what the “Piss Prophet” was doing last night or what “Piss Profit” might mean.
And if That Weren’t Enough Conflict…
The Baroness and the Faux Executioner met again.
After the garden episode.
In the chapel.
There was much wrist and forearm groping.
Leading to an embrace.
Witnessed by the Faux Executioner’s “friend” who disgustedly turned away from the chapel door and told the Executioner’s faux wife where Faux Executioner was so she could look in and see her “husband” embracing the Baroness.
The faux wife is going to be more than a little faux mad and jealous.
The Chamberlain, who’s making his own play for increased power by attempting to arrange a marriage for the Baroness with the next-door Baron, is going to be more than a little upset himself if she really passes the next “Piss Test”…
Especially since the King’s man Gaveston humiliated the Chamberlain: first, Gaveston ordered him to perform oral sex on him, then Gaveston slugged him in the head after the Chamberlain knelt down in front of the sans-trousers Gaveston, who said he wouldn’t have the Chamberlain’s dirty peasant mouth on him.
Maybe things are going to get more interesting now that Sutter’s not writing the episodes…
Then again, we’re 5 episodes in — in an era when shows usually have only 8-10 episodes per season — and things are still just not happening quickly enough.
The Bastard Executioner: Martin Guerre Meets Game of Thrones (premiere, s1 e1-2)
The Bastard Executioner: When Martin Guerre Doesn’t Know the Rules (s1e3)