September 10, 2015

The Bastard Executioner doesn’t waste any time getting medieval. FX’s gory new drama from Sons of Anarchy mastermind Kurt Sutter immediately sets you down in the middle of a 14th century Welsh battlefield as royal troops butcher a band of rebels. Blood spurts, limbs fly, and a naked woman strolls among the carnage. Top that, Game of Thrones!

The king’s henchmen unwittingly spare the life of Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a warrior who has a mystical vision of angels and dragons and pledges to lay down his sword. But his peaceful life as a farmer is shattered when his pregnant wife–who might as well be wearing a dead meat sign around her neck–is slaughtered by Edward II’s goons. Swearing vengeance, Brattle assumes the identity of the titular torturer and infiltrates his enemy’s castle.

The Bastard Executioner‘s two-hour pilot clanks like a suit of armor as it goes through the motions of its super-antihero’s origin story. Jones–a newcomer whose brief list of credits includes a short film called Slut: The Musical–doesn’t radiate star wattage underneath all that grime and chain mail. One wonders what the more charismatic actor Charlie Hunnam, who brought surprising depth and grit to his performance on Sons of Anarchy, could have done with this part.

A stellar regiment of supporting players buttress Jones. Ex–True Blood vampire Stephen Moyer simmers as a bisexual baronial chamberlain who holds Brattle’s secret against him, former Sons thug Timothy V. Murphy shows up as a priest who’s far from a man of peace, and Katey Sagal–Sutter’s real-life wife and muse–enchants as a witch who casts a spell on Brattle as well as on her masked minion, the Dark Mute (played by Sutter himself).

The ripe dialogue (“I need a man with the heart of a dragon,” Moyer’s schemer hisses to Brattle in one homoerotic moment) sounds more natural coming from Welsh village dwellers during the Middle Ages than it did out of the mouths of motorcycle-gang members in modern-day Charming, Calif., the setting of Sons of Anarchy.

Just as that show took a while to get in gear, The Bastard Executioner may need time to sharpen its storytelling. But by the second episode, when Brattle is ordered to give a rebellious 16-year-old tomboy the ax and Sagal’s sorceress yanks a demonic snake from the throat of a dismembered corpse, it’s already starting to exhibit signs of developing into a bloody good show.

–BRUCE FRETTS

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of TIME.

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