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.
Kurt Sutter is a sick, twisted whack-job…and I love him like a brother. Very few TV showrunners today have the stones to go into production with a show that is certain to produce such volumes of notes from the network (even FX). He does it though, and to be honest, I do NOT want to see what they convinced him The Bastard Executioner, Tuesday nights at 10pm on FX, he could do without. Really Kurt, leave that out of Blue-Ray Extras. Please.
At least three times, watching the two hour pilot episode and the excellent second week’s show, the thought that even Sons of Anarchy‘s Happy might well have had to close his eye and turn away, and remember, Happy loved Chuckie’s chili mixed with some guy’s head they were hiding from the cops. TBE in some ways, makes SOA look like CHiPs, with a few more guys.
Not really, but I think you understand where I’m headed with this. The Bastard Executioner is some damn good stuff.
Sutter’s real-life spouse, Katy Sagal stars, playing an Eastern European healer/witch, who is obviously more than meets the eye. I think we’ll find that if DNA testing had been available in medieval Wales, would have shown her mom-like attention towards main character, Wilkin Brattle…uh…justified. Note: This is NOT spoiler, since I have no friggin’ idea how the show goes. I just have my theories. Katy absolutely shines in her portrayal of Annora of the Alders, even though she appears to be working sans-makeup, which would have to be the result of makeup, of course. She’s beautiful in a stark way.
Miss Sagal’s husband, showrunner Kurt Sutter, who plays her companion/husband/boy-toy/whatever, “The Dark Mute,” continues to play out some weird self-mutilation thing as Annora’s husband? Bodyguard? In Sons, he played the always-incarcerated “Big Otto” Delaney, who over the course of the series, lost an eye, bit off his own tongue to make a point, and took a bunch of lead in a big house last stand.
The story has the potential to be a big one. It’s starting with a very limited mission of vengeance that, as these things so often do, gets complicated. I’m hooked. A word to the wise, however, as I said earlier, it’s not for the weak of stomach. I don’t think I’m exaggerating much when I say it makes Game of Thrones look like an animated Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In the last season of SOA, Sutter shocked many with a storyline that included a school mass shooting that occurred just off camera.
How do I put this? The Bastard Executioner wastes no time in striding right across that line in the pilot. This is going to be a big show.
“Sons of Anarchy” is a great show, because it doesn’t try to portray the MC world as it truly exists, but, as Paris Barclay and Kurt Sutter say, a “great comic book.” A character on “Vikings” has it right when he says “Everything begins with stories,” and the mythology of “Sons” has power that extends beyond the world of bikers. There’s so much story told underneath and in between the narrative, and that is what is powerful, not all the speed and guns.
For instance, two or three times in this final season, we’ve seen the guys in the garage working on restoring JT’s 1946 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead, the bike John was killed on, that the bike not just be the unfired rifle hanging above the fireplace mantle that Checkov references. I believe the SOA mythology will wrap with Jax dying on that bike. Jax’s riding a big bagger Road King this season isn’t just about his needing a replacement bike after his parked Dyna Wide Glide was run over by that pimp from early in the season. He’s become the leader he was destined to become, and the Road KING helps reveal that. Riding a bike with bags also, I think, represents the additional *baggage* he’s accumulated since taking the gavel. It’s not just for the convenience of having saddlebags in which to hide the gun he needed to kill Damen Pope in the Season 5 finale. Unto his last, Jax’s stepfather Clay, who was responsible for JT’s death, always rode a Dyna. He was never the legitimate King of SAMCRO. Jax is, and that has changed him. I believe it will ultimately kill him.
Gemma was always grateful that “the family flaw,” a heart defect that she survived, but killed Jax’s younger brother Thomas, didn’t manifest in her oldest son. What she has realized, over the past seven season of “Sons,” though, is that a darker flaw, passed down from JT to his firstborn, an existential question shared with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, did, and it’s one that if not answered correctly, will be Jax’s undoing. JT let the flaw overcome him and drive him to despair and the loss of his will to fight for his life. Jax took the opposite road, attacking the question head-on, determined to overpower it. The correct response lies in the middle of these two choices, and it’s one that the audience hopes Able will discover. Fix the problems you can, while not letting those things you can’t control destroy you.
Like “The Shield” before it, a show Kurt Sutter wrote for, “Sons” is a masterclass in telling a story on television, and as a writer, I’ve learned a lot from it. I hope to work with KS someday.
Update: ***Spoiler*** Looks like I was right, though I admit that when I wrote this, I had no preminition that *The Shield’s* Michael Chiklis would play a part. I also realized, in posting this update, that Jax hadn’t replaced his Dyna Super Glide with a Road King, but a Harley Road Glide. Sorry about that.