What he has done with the first season of The Bastard Executioner is truly amazing, and as is his modus operandi, completely unexpected and wonderfully against the grain. Television has developed such deep and predictable grains, it’s hard to watch more than a few minutes of a new pilot and not be able to completely project the arc of the show.
SPOILERS If you haven’t watched the entire first season of the show, do not continue, unless you want to know how it develops, and are satisfied watching how it’s done. Truthfully, as crazy-good as the twists and turns are, TBE is a masterclass in state-of-the-art storytelling. I can’t think of another show that has been structured like this one, and I don’t think it’s hyperbole to state that it has set a new standard.
Okay, that much done, here’s the scoop.
There is an established formula to producing the standard movie or series. The vast majority of commercial movies and series use this formula, because it’s so ingrained in the viewers mind (whether we know it or not) that to deviate creates discomfort. Sometimes that discomfort can be good, but for the most part, producers aren’t interested in risking their millions, so they go for the comfort.
Elements: Protagonist (main character), Antagonist (bad guy), Relationship character (the sidekick or mentor who knows something the Protagonist needs to know, and is there to help). The Theme is what the Protagonist is supposed to learn.
First 10-15% of the script: “Normal life” is shown, all is well, and we are shown a baseline of the world of the story.
At the 10-15% mark: The Protagonist faces a decision, based on events that may or may not be in his or her control. How the events are reacted to determines whether or not there is a story.
At the 25% mark: The second act begins. Problems begin piling on and things get more and more dangerous and chaotic. The questions that are being raised begin to be answered at the 50% mark.
75%: This is generally the lowest point for the protagonist, where he is as far away from his goal as he ever will be. He then confronts the antagonist (the bad guy – or good guy in the case of a story with an anti-hero), fixes things up with the relationship character, they tie up loose ends, and ride off into the sunset.
That’s the nuts and bolts of how a movie is written. You can find out more by reading about The Hero’s Journey, the Three Act Structure, or read a great book called Save the Cat.
Aside from the basic screenwriting formulas, most shows start with a stable world that steadily becomes chaotic, sometimes returning to balance, sometimes not. Consider Sutter’s previous show, Sons of Anarchy, where a motorcycle club was comfortably integrated into the community of Charming, California, everyone pretty much knew their place, and things worked as they were supposed to.
Over the next several seasons, this all came unravelled. People lied, died and were murdered. The bonds of the club and community were tested, and while some held, many didn’t, inviting chaos to take root, and then overwhelm the show’s world to a point where nothing but the self-sacrifice of the Protagonist can even begin to banish that chaos. Of course, in the aftermath of the tragedies that began to arrive at a dizzying pace, nothing remotely like the baseline SOA started with can ever be achieved, the best the survivors can hope for is a quieter time to attempt to heal their wounds.
Sons of Anarchy fans who were expecting this kind of storytelling from The Bastard Executioner were in for a surprise, but it was the way show runner Sutter pulled it off that demonstrated his true mastery. From the start, TBE looked like it was following the formula. Baseline, Protagonist, Antagonist, Relationship, Theme.
But somewhere along the line, things changed. In the last two episodes of first season, we learn that even though we knew Wilkin Brattle was not who he pretended to be, he was someone even he didn’t know he was, Katey Sagal’s “Annora or the Alders” son. The beauty of that reveal, is that many attentive fans had figured that out, and they felt good about themselves, right? Well…They hadn’t figured out that Wilkin is a descendent of Jesus Christ, had they? Come on, there were hints dropped all along the trail. A mystic woman traveling with a Knight Templar as her bodyguard? The subtle reveals about Gnosticism? Sure, I didn’t consider the possibility before the truth was revealed through dialogue between Annora and Wilkin, but it didn’t completely come out of left field, either. Sutter, Paris Barclay and their crew are way too good to pull something like that. Every reveal was legitimate. No deus ex machina here.
It’s easy to break things, and much harder to put them together, especially when it’s clear all the parts aren’t from the same whole. In the last half of the ten episode first season of The Bastard Executioner, Kurt Sutter and his incredible group of writers and directors, managed to start with chaos, and construct a solid world that will form the baseline of the next several seasons. Honestly, I haven’t seen that before. People who were in conflict with the established heroes of the story, and seemed patently evil, were shown to be honorable, good and true. This was partly shown through the interactions of the characters, and partly through comparing them to the greater outside world.
I’d like to somehow compare this show to Sons of Anarchy, but I can’t. It’s a different show. Both brilliant, but intrinsically different. I think many show runners clearly draw their shows from the same well, going back time after time until the well is dry. Others may draw from the same well, adding a different flavor of Crystal Light to each bucket to make it seem like a different drink, and quite frankly, most viewers fall for that. But in creating his new series, Kurt Sutter has not only drawn from a different well, I’m not sure he’s even serving up the same liquid, but then I tend to overextend metaphors. You know what I’m saying, right? TBE is a completely different story, told in a much different way.
I take that back. There is a thread that connects TBE and SOA, and that’s Kurt Sutter playing a role that is tortured, long-suffering and ultimately self-sacrificial. “Big Otto” Delaney sacrificed himself in the next to last season of SOA, but his Dark Mute, who we learned was a Knight Templar, dramatically self-sacrificed in the season finale, to considerable martial effect, you might say.
The Bastard Executioner – 11 out of 10 stars! Well done, Mr. Sutter.