FX’s upcoming medieval-set drama The Bastard Executioner will by design have plenty of visceral violence and gore. The series takes place in Wales during the reign of Edward 1 of England (AKA Longshanks, the guy who tussled with Braveheart), and the main character is a former soldier who hides his true identity and becomes an executioner. As such involves some of the most tumultuous and violent events in English history, and one of the bloodiest professions on earth. Which means it’s going to be pretty damned violent.
Of course, brutal violence is something of a hot issue right now, with Game of Thrones a massive hit whose popularity is matched only by the controversies that happen several times a season over its graphically violent content. So it makes sense that during the show’s TCA panel, attended by creator Kurt Sutter, executive producers Brian Grazer and Paris Barclay, and stars Lee Jones, Stephen Moyer, and Katey Sagal, the topic would come up. Asked how the Sons of Anarchy creator draws the line when it comes to violence on the show, particularly in light of Game of Thrones, Sutter defended his approach, insisting that he tries to make sure it comes from “an organic place”.
“I think my mandate, as it was on Sons and it’s the same for [Bastard Executioner], was that the violence, as absurd as it could be sometimes on Sons, that it always came from an organic place, and that it was never done in a vacuum,” Sutter said. “Meaning that to every violent act there are ramifications… yes, it’s a medieval setting, and there are laws in terms of punishment that were brutal and heinous. [But] that’s a reality of the world. ”
He did say that there are ways to keep the violence from being “overly gratuitous,” so that it serves the story. “I sort of had the mandate that anything that happens – be it battle sequence, or an execution, or a torture scene – that it comes out of story, and you see the character’s conflict or their non conflict in carrying forth with that violence,” Sutter said. “But that it always has a ramification, whether it be an emotional ramification, the character, or somehow it impacts the narrative.”
However, he was also quick to note that the show isn’t actually a nonstop parade of violence, despite the premise. Earlier in the panel, he’d already said that in pitching the series to FX, he promised that it wasn’t just going to be a show “where there’s just a head in a basket every week.” Here, he pointed out that in the pilot there aren’t all that many scenes of physical violence, just two battles and one execution. “So I feel,” he said, “like the other scenes in the pilot portray emotional conflict, portray moral conflict, spiritual conflict.”
Asked if he’s mindful of taking the violence too far or thinking about these controversies, he said however that he isn’t approaching the series like that. “I can’t come at something with an external agenda in terms of how I make this or this or this. I feel like when I tell stories, the mythology of the world, the characters, what you’re left with, what I would hope, is some sort of path to all those things. I can’t think of ‘how do I make this not that?’ When you do that, I feel like you’re f***ing with things that are important, in terms of organic storytelling. I personally can’t work that way.”
Other topics under discussion included the attention to period detail – cast members are in fact wearing dentures to make their teeth look dirtier – the mythology of the show that flirts with introducing magic into the otherwise real world setting, and how the show will explore tensions between lingering paganism and ascendent Catholic Christianity as English law overtakes Welsh society. About that last bit, Sutter drew laughs when he admitted that “it’s just an opportunity to work out all my catholic sh*t.”
The Bastard Executioner premieres on FX September 15, 2015.