One of these medieval TV shows is awesome and the other makes me yawn just thinking about it.
After Game of Thrones raised the bar to dramatic new levels for shows with armor and swords, I was psyched for The Bastard Executioner with its cool name and engaging promos. After actually seeing an episode, I was very disappointed and felt like a chump for expecting anything. The Bastard Executioner seemed cheap and , in some really weird way, to know nothing about the history that it was fictionalizing. Sure, they had the right clothes (as far as I know) and someone had looked at some reference books, but the attitudes and philosophy seemed very modern, like someone was re-doing a Steven Segal movie in period dress (a prediction you heard on Media Medusa first!) or like any time Keanu Reeves is in a period piece and does everything wrong, implying, “Gnarly!” with his every word.
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The Last Kingdom is a new show on BBC America that slipped under my radar somehow. The Last Kingdom is also a period piece with lots of swordplay and a compelling ad campaign (a Saxon raised by Vikings who has to work for the Saxons). So I think that what I thought The Bastard Executioner was going to be is well-realized in The Last Kingdom, where the history has a well-worn feel, like a leather gauntlet, and the stakes are real because the situation was real, taken from history around 800 AD, when the stakes were very high.
The Bastard Executioner takes place in 14th Century Wales and a warrior, Brattle, beats his sword into ploughshares (not literally) and marries. Then his wife is killed along with his whole village, except for a few people who were away with him. He assumes the identity of an executioner, who is more like a barber, except instead of cutting people’s hair, he tortures, mutilates, and kills. Brattle spends a lot of time with the people he wants to kill without actually killing them. The executioner’s wife and son go along with the lie because the guy was such a jerk. It’s actually a lot more complicated than I make it sound, but I don’t care enough to write it all down, because I’m already bored just thinking about it.
On the other hand, The Last Kingdom takes place in Wessex in the early 9th Century. England has been almost entirely taken over by Vikings and they are pounding on the door of Wessex. Enter Uhtred, a Saxon (British guy), whose father was slain and battle. Uhtred was taken first as a slave by the Vikings, but won his way into being adopted by Ragnar, a Viking chief. Ragnar is killed by some Vikings who are jerks — although they are all kind of jerks — and Uhtred is blamed, so he starts working with the Wessex people in the hopes of finding his way back to his English lordship, his rightful place that has been usurped by his opportunist uncle.
First of all, you don’t have to be a history professor to know that religion was kind of a big deal, well, always — but certainly more so in the days before the printing press, TV, or really much in the form of entertainment. For most people, religion was the one thing that they had that could be kind of fun. The Last Kingdom has a lot to do with Christianity and paganism (damn pagan Vikings!) and some of the Christians are — gasp — good people trying to do the right thing in a Christian way, something we don’t get to see much on TV. Outlander, another period drama, is full of pious hypocrites. Hell, The Last Kingdom is only 800 years removed from actual Christ, and it’s really interesting to see the differences between now and then for the religion of a third of the world’s population. The Bastard Executioner had a Muslim pretend to be a Christian to avoid an argument with the requisite mean priest, but didn’t make any interesting points about pre-televangelist Christianity. I’m making it sound boring, but the history of Christianity is often the history of war and torture, which isn’t boring, unless you happen to be watching The Bastard Executioner.
The Last Kingdom also has a complicated situation based on history. (Vikings are called the “Danes,” as “Viking” is a verb that means to go out and kill people and steal their stuff.) Although I don’t know how much I learned, I certainly got a feel for a time that I know about mostly through fiction. Although, of course, it’s based on the Grande Dame of historical fiction Bernard Cornwall’s work and is, at its very essence, fiction. But it doesn’t feel that way! If you like historical fiction or history, get yourself some Cornwall. His Sharpe’s series is amazing.
So that’s all nice, Professor Boring-History stuff, but how are the shows? The Bastard Executioner is one of those shows that had to bend over backwards to make the premise work and seems to dwell on some awful piece of torture every episode. There was an instance where they took one of those strong young women I mentioned earlier and cut her nose off. True to the time? Sure. But I’m actually watching this stuff to be entertained.
The Last Kingdom has some moments like that, but they are simply moments, told for the purpose of realism and furthering the story. I think I turned The Bastard Executioner off after the nose thing and never turned it on again. On the other hand, there was a moment where a guy was burned to death on The Last Kingdom and he was able to have a moment of bravery as a result that made me want to stand up and cheer. The Last Kingdom is more like a combination of Game of Thrones and Deadwood, whereas The Bastard Executioner is like The Blacklist — high concept, and most of the time is spent trying to get you to buy the concept. Even if you don’t like historical fiction — hell, if you don’t want to admit that Outlander is historical fiction, but you like that — give The Last Kingdom a try.
Both shows do all right on the strong women front, but I’m going to give The Last Kingdom huge credit for the character of Brida, who is strong, intelligent, interesting, funny, and maybe the most entertaining person on the show. A lot of historic shows can take some refuge behind “it was a very sexist time” and not have a lot of women well represented, but The Last Kingdom truly has something special in Brida. Hell, she’s very sexual too!
I don’t know where either of them are filmed, but I’m guessing that The Last Kingdom is filmed in England, where you take off the TV aerial, move the cars out of frame, pull up a few horses and you have an accurate period set. I swear The Bastard Executioner was using CG on some of their town scenes and it had that feel of cheap movies (Sharknado) where the shots feel like they are tight because if they move a millimeter, you’re going to see something you shouldn’t, like a cell phone tower or a Roomba. I certainly don’t know anything about early clothing styles, but The Last Kingdom certainly seems correct, even if my wife did mention that the Vikings all looked like hipsters with their beards and leather pants.
Hell, I didn’t even mention Rutger Hauer’s in the pilot! The Last Kingdom, it’s well-acted, intelligent, and interesting at all moments. Check it out!