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The Bastard Executioner: 6 Things to Know About Kurt Sutter's Bloody New Drama

It's brutal — and brutally slow

Adam Bryant

FX is going medieval on its TV competitors this fall.

After seven seasons of high-octane drama - and record ratings -- on Sons of Anarchy, Kurt Sutter hopes to continue winning streak at FX with his latest effort, The Bastard Executioner. The 14th century drama, which premieres with a two-hour pilot on Tuesday at 10/9c, tells the story of Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a former soldier in the English army who, after receiving a divine message, lays down his sword to become a farmer in Wales. However, when Wilkin gets mixed up in a rebellion against the cruel Baron Ventris (Brian F. O'Byrne) with disastrous results and a bad case of mistaken identity, he is forced once again to become the warrior of his past and serve as an executioner to keep from blowing his cover. Fall Preview: Get a first look at all the must-see new shows

His journey is made all the more complicated by the manipulations of Wilkin's closest ally, Annora of the Alders (Katey Sagal), a mystical healer who believes Wilkin is divinely destined for greatness. But Wilkin is also at the mercy of the scheming Milus Corbett (Stephen Moyer), Ventris' right-hand man who knows Wilkin's secret, and Lady Love (Flora Spencer-Longhurst), the baroness whom Wilkin now serves and with whom he begins to form a deeper connection.
So, has FX found its very own Game of Thrones-esque epic? Read on to learn everything you need to know.

1. It's very different from Sons. Trade in motorcycles for horses, automatic weapons for swords and spears and the sunny Northern California locale for the damp Welsh countryside. But it's also a different kind of story. "I knew that, after doing The Shield and Sons, I didn't want to do another crime drama piece," Sutter tells TVGuide.com "That didn't necessarily mean I wanted to do a period piece, but I just wanted to do something with a different type of conflicted hero and push the boundaries a little bit."

After a meeting with producer Brian Grazer, the specific idea began to click into place. "We both had this affection for the character of an executioner -- what is that like in terms of the moral conflict?" Sutter says. "The only mandate [FX Networks CEO John] Landgraf had, and I agreed with him, is he didn't want it to be a head in a basket every week. So, I wanted to find a more complicated way into it. I knew that I wanted it to have a mystical component -- I get to work out all my Catholic sh-- -- so there's a big arching mythology in terms of Wilk's journey that we lay breadcrumbs to throughout the series."
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2. But some of Sons' themes are still present. Like Jax Teller before him, Wilkin's story begins from a noble place. Just as Jax wanted to turn his broken motorcycle club into something more legit, Wilkin fights for what is right and just against a harsh regime. However, just like Jax, Wilkin eventually has to resort to dark and violent means to move forward. "He's always been a very pious guy but has this innate capacity to be a warrior," Sutter says. "It's a different kind of antihero. He's not making these decisions out of self-interest -- a lot of them are being imposed on him. There will be a lot of times when who he is as a warrior will supercede any sense of guilt or moral conflict and take over and drive him. It's that back and forth. ... But I also think it's a bigger metaphor of the things we do to survive. At what point are we OK with turning a blind eye to things we know are ultimately wrong?"

And, just like Sons, it ultimately comes back to family. "I'd like to think that the same way the outlaw motorcycle culture became backdrop to character and relationships, that the same thing will happen here," Sutter says. "Ultimately, it is a family drama. It will become about his relationship with Lady Love and Wilkin's journey and his struggle to push through all these external conflicts -- being an executioner and being manipulated and his conflict with God -- to find what his true purpose is. At his core, he knows there's something greater that he's supposed to be doing."

3. It's brutal. This should come as no surprise to anyone who's watched Sutter's shows. "It's all the sh-- I love to do," he says with a laugh. "There's a lot of violence, there's a lot of action, and that's the stuff that is fun for me. Also, it's a little bit of the candy in terms of the viewers. It gives you a different viewing experience to engage that way and then go into heavier character riffs." In this case, the "candy" involves seeing people flayed alive, women and children being murdered mercilessly and, of course, the occasional head being chopped off. It's definitely not for the squeamish.

Get your first look at FX's bloody Bastard Executioner

4. It's also brutally slow. One of the biggest frustrations with latter-day Sons of Anarchy was how complicated and convoluted the plot often became (and how much the show's running time sprawled to accommodate it.) Those same issues exist here, as the two-hour pilot is very deliberately paced as it sketches in Wilkin's backstory and introduces dozens of characters who will die just when you figure out why they're important to the story. But for Sutter, that setup was necessary. "To get to this thing organically, I really wanted to tell the origin piece," he says. "I think it reveals so much about who they are. I think it speaks a lot to character."
In truth, unlike most pilots that establish their premise very early on and then show you all the possible ways the story can go, The Bastard Executioner doesn't really lock into the story it's telling going forward until the final moments of the long two-hour episode. And although Episode 3 also felt measured to a certain degree, Sutter insists things will start to pick up. "The pace of the episodes will at least feel like [they have] a greater sense of urgency than the pilot," he says. "The external circumstances of rebellion and secrets and conflict are in place and give those episodes a greater sense of urgency."

5. Stephen Moyer steals every scene he is in. After six seasons of playing vampire Bill on True Blood (Suuuh-kie!), Moyer is relishing his villainous turn here. He's easily the most compelling character and all eyes gravitate to him in every scene. "[Milus] is very much like Jemma -- he knows all things and is the master puppeteer," Sutter says. "In this first season, he is the guy driven by his own self-interest and using people like pawns. There's no outward sign of, 'I'm the villain.' It's all done through very noble, courtly behavior, but underneath it, it's nasty and self-motivated."

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Adds Moyer: "He's found himself in a situation where if he doesn't do something, there's no reason for him to be left in this society. He is trying to throw some balls in air to keep himself at the higher echelon that he's reached. He's out for himself, and if that means some heads have to roll, that's part and parcel of it."
6. There's a healthy does of "WTF?" Perhaps the biggest head-scratcher of the series is Sagal's (heavily accented) witch Annora. Her character -- along with her mute lover/bodyguard, played by Sutter -- definitely brings a dose of fantasy to the proceedings. "She has definitely connected to some kind of divinity," Sagal says. "She has lived many lives and somehow she is connected to Wilkin and his mission. She understands more than he does what it is that he's being led to do."
But will she use her mystical powers for good or evil? The jury is still out through the first several episodes. "Annora is definitely driving the bigger mythology," Sutter says. "She definitely is laying the track to something greater, which for me, opens it up to endless story in terms of the direction our hero's being pulled in. These first couple seasons are about him finding out what that path is."

The Bastard Executioner's two-hour pilot airs Tuesday at 10/9c on FX.