The Bastard Son & the Devil Himself filters Harry Potter through Hostel and delivers a blood-soaked fantasy drama that upends the typical tropes in endlessly entertaining ways.
This review of The Bastard Son & the Devil Himself is spoiler-free.
The Bastard Son & the Devil Himself has everything going for it. The title can’t be ignored. The genre is young-adult fantasy, beloved among streamers. The creative team is helmed by Joe Barton, whose Giri/Haji is a masterwork. The source material is a well-liked trilogy of books by Sally Green. This new eight-part Netflix original series is as guaranteed a hit as the platform has had in quite some time.
The good news is that the show – which has been suspiciously undermarketed – deserves the attention. It’s great; an energetic upending of well-worn genre ideas stocked with a charismatic cast and eye-catching visual effects. Many have described the show as an X-rated Harry Potter, and elevator pitches don’t come much more succinct and attention-grabbing than that.
The bastard of the title is Nathan (Jay Lycurgo), who in Harry Potter terms would be the boy who lived. But for how long? As a baby, he’s taken away by the Council of Fairborn Witches and thrust into the care of his maternal Gran, along with his half-sister Jessica (Isobel Jesper Jones), but it’s his dad Marcus’s side of the family that is a cause for concern. Marcus is a notorious Blood Witch who, among other things, is alleged to have turned into a wolf at a peace summit between the Bloods and Fairborns and eaten the entire Fairborn delegation. Since then, he has killed nine of the ten Council members dedicated to hunting him down.
The catch is that when witches turn 17, they inherit their power. So, Nathan might well grow up into any old Fairborn, like his mother. Or he might inherit some dark power from his father and go postal. The Council has been keeping an eye on him all through his life, checking in monthly to see how quickly he heals, whether he has violent dreams, is quick to anger, wishes ill on other witches, or can hear hearts beating in people’s chests. When Soul O’Brien (Paul Ready), the head of the Council’s hunters, moves into town with his family, including his daughter Annalise (Nadia Parkes), it’s clear he’s there to keep an eye on Nathan too. But, in true teen-drama fashion, Annalise and Nathan have more than an eye for each other.
As standard as all of this sounds, it’s in the execution that The Bastard Son & the Devil Himself really excels. Its idea of arcane arts is refreshingly inconsistent, so you never quite know how the next spell is going to manifest, and its violence veers between physically brutal and artistically rather lovely, such as in the recreation of a murder scene that leaves the victims out of it and instead depicts their demise through their floating groceries, splitting furnishings, and hovering organs.
It’s a confidently structured show, too, knowing exactly how much exposition to unspool to provide appropriate context without bogging down the pace, and it knows when to proceed linearly or loop back on itself. The only downside of the approach is that it doesn’t really have the desire to dig into the allegorical components of the fantasy ideas underpinning the plot. It’s easy to read coming-of-age and gaining one’s powers at 17 as a rather obvious puberty metaphor, but the essential conflict between two opposing witch sects has a less obvious point beyond conflict. Better, I suppose, is how the show challenges the idea of inevitability – destiny, prophecy, all the usual fantasy things – by insisting that it’s really one’s environment that defines them. If Nathan didn’t have an awful sister, wasn’t prodded and poked throughout his life, and wasn’t provoked by people who insisted he could only ever be one thing, would his life have turned out very differently?
That makes The Bastard Son & the Devil Himself a potent exploration of identity, parenting, high-school politics, and growing into our true selves rather than the person imagined for us. But above and beyond all that the show is a brutal good time, taking the safest and most cliched of genres and making it feel suddenly edgy and dangerous. You’re going to hear people talk about this one.