Watching the slaughter of innocents by a power mad dictator can be a lot to take in the premiere of FX's new series The Bastard Executioner.
Entertainment, after all, is escapism. Glens of carnage witnessed by the cast of 14th century Welshmen doesn't seem that different from the grisly footage populating the world news segments on other cable networks.
But once Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter drenches the fields with the blood we've sadly grown accustomed to, his experienced hand begins to craft an actual story in The Bastard Executioner that might be worth the prior discomfort.
Lee Jones leads the show as Wilkin Brattle, a former Knight of England's King Edward I saved from a death in battle so he can live this epic tale. One hopes as the season wears he'll get the hang of grieving convincingly because if the two hour premiere is an indicator, he's in for a lot of screaming tears. Even when Brattle shuns the sword, rebels and revolutionaries tend to find him and his fighting skills useful.
Their common enemy is the baron of Ventrishire, a coastal fiefdom in Wales awarded to the sort of man who insults his wife for being barren and then murders a child to prove a point. That perfectly sets up his wife, Baroness Lowry "Love" Aberffraw Ventris (Flora Spencer Longhurst), a Welsh noble married off to the English brute, to be the genteel and pious half of the oppressive regime.
Like its predecessor Game of Thrones, there's a fantasy element to The Bastard Executioner that when executed properly gives the universe a bit of intrigue. However, Brattle's visions of ghosts when he needs guidance ring false for a man so devoted to Christianity that only a message from an angel could make him surrender his knighthood.
The mysticism is best left to Slavic healer/witch Annora of the Alders, played with the right amount of menace by Sutter's wife, Katey Sagal. She guides Brattle along in his journey after he's forced into posing as another man to survive.
It's this turn that really makes The Bastard Executioner worth watching. Deeply wronged by the nobles several times over, Brattle will have to serve as their sword until his day of vengeance comes. For now, he has a trusted band of fellow aggrieved rebels perhaps not as convinced that service to their enemy will beget ultimate justice.
Sitting in our villain's chair is right hand man to the baron and schemer Milus Corbett (True Blood alum Stephen Moyer, who must be finding his new home on basic cable as filled with naked women and sexual depravity as his last one on HBO). Corbett conceals Brattle's rebel identity to gain his skills and possibly all of Ventrishire if he plays his cards right.
It's the conflict inside the castle walls that will propel Sutter's show from medieval snuff to contemplative drama. God is a character in The Bastard Executioner though he has no credited actor: Each person feels his work is in their creator's service.
Sussing out the message Sutter's trying to send with the constant brutality will take an iron stomach and an expert eye. But if it's as engaging as the possibilities laid before us in the show's first three hours, we can put off dinner on Tuesday nights for a while.