The Binge — Jessica Zafra

CRITICS explaining the phenomenon that is Game of Thrones tend to overlook the obvious reason: it’s a very good show. Sometimes it is a great show, and even when story lines fall flat, the memory of its peak moments keeps the audience believing that greatness will come again. Game of Thrones has not just put the historical adventure/fantasy genre in the mainstream, but during the annual 10-week period that it is on the air, it turns everyone into nerds. “Serious” reviewers make it a point to remind everyone that the fantasy genre is “silly,” thus identifying themselves as condescending asshats. Casual viewers find themselves cramming the history of Westeros, its noble houses and their twisted relations. In their search for explanations, some are even driven to the books by George R.R. Martin. TV that makes people read complicated doorstoppers — it’s no longer “the idiot box.”

A scene from <i>The Bastard Executioner</i> with Lee Jones (C) as Wilkin Brattle
A scene from The Bastard Executioner with Lee Jones (C) as Wilkin Brattle

When a show is so successful that its own producers acknowledge the role of illegal downloads in boosting its cultural capital, it is inevitable that other producers try to get in on the action. In the 42 weeks of the year that the audience is waiting for the next season of Thrones, similar shows can fill the demand. Fortunately, there is no shortage of material for the historical adventure/fantasy genre. Has someone acquired the rights to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series? Isn’t it about time that Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles were introduced to a younger generation? If Peter Jackson is planning to turn J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion into a 20-part film series, tell him to look into TV instead.

Since Thrones premiered five seasons ago, other shows have tried to follow its “formula.” Perhaps its biggest impact on TV is its sadistic readiness to traumatize the audience. In its series premiere, an adorable boy was pushed out of a tower after he witnessed the queen committing twincest. That was the point at which Thrones got its audience hooked, and it spent the next episodes reeling them in. And then, before the season finale, the hero of the story got his head lopped off. The audience was well and truly caught. Viewers who hadn’t read the books were floored; readers were pleased that the showrunners did not flinch from the material. TV shows have always killed off characters, usually due to offscreen contract disputes, but not the one everyone assumed was the hero. Now, no one is safe.

Two of the new entries to the historical adventure category are The Bastard Executioner on FX and The Last Kingdom on the BBC. The Bastard Executioner is by Kurt Sutter, whose previous series was the biker drama Sons of Anarchy. It is set in the 14th century, during the Welsh rebellions against the English king. The Last Kingdom is an adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, a series of historical novels set in the 9th century, when most of England was ruled by Danes. Cornwell also wrote the Sharpe books, about an English soldier in the Napoleonic Wars, that became a TV series starring Sean Bean, the late Ned Stark of Game of Thrones.

Whether they like it or not, these two shows are being compared to Thrones. Cornwell doesn’t like it — he declared Thrones “boring”, which is probably not the way to draw in the loyal citizens of Westeros. I don’t know if someone in the Saxon Stories actually says “Every man must be prepared to die,” but in Westeros the line is “All men must die,” which is not only neater and more economical, but is a translation (“Valar morghulis”) from an invented language.

The graphic violence on Thrones is often cited as one of its attractions. The series premieres of The Bastard Executioner and The Last Kingdom are so bloody, I’m surprised there are any characters left to keep these shows going. The one familiar face on The Last Kingdom is Matthew Macfadyen, and he is dispatched faster than you can say his name. And yet the wholesale bloodshed has less impact than that on Thrones, because we don’t know who these people are, and we’re not emotionally invested in their survival. Lesson: It’s not sudden, gory death, stupid, but the sudden, gory death of someone we care about.

The Last Kingdom starring Matthew Macfadyen
The Last Kingdom starring Matthew Macfadyen

Reviewers like to complain about convoluted plots, a charge that hasn’t hurt Thrones. Maybe it’s time to change some assumptions about the audience. The Last Kingdom has fewer plot lines than Thrones, and yet it has been called “convoluted.” Is it so hard to watch television? There is one protagonist, Utred of Bebbanburg, a Saxon boy of noble birth who is kidnapped and raised by the Danes, and it’s his story we follow. Utred is played by Alexander Dreymon, who looks fetching in the historical adventure staple of long hair, furs, and dirt. His goal is to reclaim the birthright that was stolen from him, and his plan is to ally himself with whoever can advance his cause, be they Saxon or Dane.

Like its hero, The Last Kingdom is divided in its loyalties, and this makes for better TV. The Vikings are fearsome warriors who like to keep things simple, the Saxons are brave defenders who like to plot. Alfred (David Dawson), the sickly, nerdy younger brother of the king of Wessex, rises to become Alfred the Great by using brains and diplomacy. Fans of the History Channel series Vikings will find it an enjoyable counterpoint: the invasions of England from the point of view of the Saxons. The king of the Danes in this period is one of the sons of Ragnar from Vikings.

The Bastard Executioner is not convoluted because it has only the semblance of a story. Its hero, a Welsh knight named Wilkin Brattle, has a vision in which a child advises him to lay down his sword and take a different path. So he becomes a farmer, but then he gets drawn into the fight against the corrupt English barons. Due to a last-minute plot device in the premiere, he becomes the executioner. Surely this can’t be the change the vision advised him to undertake, but what can you do when that’s the title of the series?

To paraphrase Ned Stark, the hand that writes the review must swing the sword, and this is an easy choice. The Last Kingdom stands, The Bastard Executioner’s head rolls.

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