By James Nelson
I never liked Sons of Anarchy. The story of a criminal biker with good intentions never resonated with me as a viewer, but in spite of me hating the characters, the show itself was good. So when I learned the Kurt Sutter, the creator of SOA, was developing a period drama set in medieval England I got unnecessarily excited. Certainly a show like this was right up my alley. How I was so terribly wrong.
This is my biggest complaint, but for someone with a degree in history (who focused on medieval english history), I feel like I’ve earned the right to talk about this. The show is set in Wales about the year 1307. They never bother to pin a year down, so I’m just going by some possible context clues (The main character has swords with the sigil of Edward I, whose reign ended in 1306). My problem with this is the reign of Edward II is a catastrophe. He’s a abysmal ruler who got himself deposed by his French wife, and the show itself is set during a period of (relative) calm in Wales. If you wanted to tell a story about a welsh uprising, setting it a decade before or after would give you vibrant and tragic stories to pull from with the Llewelyn revolt in 1294 and the Welsh revolt in 1315.
I do applaud the choice of Wales as the setting, as at the time they had their own culture, and even language at the time. The problem is, I don’t get to see that in the pilot. We meet a group of peasants who are unmistakably English…in Wales. This would make sense if the fictional shire this show is a land belonging to a Marcher Lord, but they never even make mention of the Marcher Lords, so that just makes me confused.
So why pick Wales as your setting if you’re not going to use it? Because through much of the pilot it feels like Sutter just wanted to remake Braveheart. The reason this irritates me is that Wales is a dynamic place at this time, with the Welsh getting their rights gradually taken away with each rebellion, yet they were still partially ruled by Welsh lords and English lords (even though the majority of the lands were split between the king and other English nobles). At the same time the land itself was being settled by english settlers and the welsh peasants were being evicted. It is made even more interesting by the fact that the english and welsh peasants spoke different languages, and with the complete lack of education available to peasants, they probably couldn’t have even communicated with each other, especially not to the extent that they coordinate an attack at the end of the pilot. By ignoring all these little nuances the show is indistinguishable from any other piece of fiction set during the medieval period, and that’s a shame (especially for the first modern telling of Welsh oppression by the English).
In addition, medieval England was not a place known for multiculturalism. The jews had been expelled 15 years ago en masse for instance. Yet, this show goes out of its way to show africans (like probably enough to equal the entire african population of England at the time) and I have no idea what was up with Katey Sagal’s accent in the episode. She couldn’t have been Romani (because they did not appear in Europe at all until 1378) and she couldn’t have been Russian because well, normal people didn’t migrate in those days (unless you’re nobility, and if you’re nobility, why would you spend you time with dirt farmers?).
Just like the setting, their all interchangeable. Unlike in SOA where everyone had varying levels of moral grayness, this show is a study in black and white. The good guys are really good and the bad guys are ridiculously evil. The horrendous acts perpetrated are needlessly evil, irrational, and exist solely for the protagonist to lay down his vow of nonviolence. For example, in a flashback (where the protagonist is a knight) we see him laying in a field of corpses when the evil lord shows up with his henchman and says something to the effect of “Yes, these bodies, good. The Scots did well. Let’s let them bake in the sun, yes, evil plans, mwuhahaha” even though these were his soldiers he had ordered into a defeat … for some reason. We legitimately never learn why (because why doesn’t matter, the protagonist just needs a reason to hate this guy even more)
We also spend the whole pilot getting to know a bunch of interchangeable peasants who die (including the titular executioner).
The protagonist also speaks to what happens when you make a period drama and don’t pay attention to the period (or, you know, hire a historical consultant). He’s a knight at the beginning of the show. That means he’s minor nobility. That means has his own land, his household, and serfs, so even though he had been ordered into a battle specifically so he could loose, he would still have those lands and that title. Why on earth would he go live with peasants?
Have you seen Braveheart? Okay the, you’ve seen this pilot, except there’s also a tinge of magic and horrible production quality. Basically, just go watch Braveheart.