In television, there are some shows that value order above all else. Boardwalk Empire’s narrative operates on a novelistic plane, frequently coming across as directionless in its early episodes but neatly tying story threads together in the last third of the season. Mad Men prizes thematic depth and the idea of artifice, its cast of characters trying desperately to hold it together in order to become the idealized versions of themselves. Even Breaking Bad, a show that was all about violence and self-destruction, operated on the natural logic of the chemistry its protagonist deeply respected, every action having an equal and opposite reaction.
Cinemax’s Banshee, however, has none of that order. And more to the point, it revels in the fact that it has no order. Moreso than any show on television, even its testosterone-jacked sibling Strike Back, Banshee is pure unadulterated chaos in every episode. In the second season plots have involved (to name a few) the torture of a extremist Amish schoolteacher, a deep-voiced nigh-invulnerable colossus of a Native American, a Jason Statham doppelganger in a sharp suit who was beheaded by a semi truck, a small-time grifter fed into a meat grinder and a pack of neo-Nazis beaten half to death with medieval weaponry. This is a show that is unapologetically violent, over-the-top and a few degrees removed from reality, a brazen exercise in pulp fiction that has no interest in holding anyone’s hand along the way.
Yet despite all of its chaos, there’s something more to Banshee than being mindless and random violence. Part of it is the production values—the direction by Greg Yaitanes and company and the score by Methodic Doubt make the show’s lunacy almost hypnotic at times—and part of it is the fact that the show is able to deploy thematic thoughtfulness when it wants to. My colleague Phil said that the show felt “slower and more turgid” in its first few episodes back, and while there was a definite creakiness as it dealt with season one’s aftershocks it moved past that fairly quickly. If season one was about Anthony Starr’s unnamed main character trying to insinuate himself into the role of Sheriff Lucas Hood, season two was about Hood coming to terms with what staying in that role meant and about the fallout his presence had on the rest of the town.
That focus on the life of Banshee was one of the season’s strong points, which is why it’s initially disappointing that the season finale “Bullets And Tears” opts to take us out of that universe and once again put our (anti)heroes up against the entire Ukranian mob. With the Big Bad of Ben Cross’s Rabbit finally pinned down in a New York City church, Hood and his on-again/off-again girlfriend Carrie (Ivana Miličević) decide they’ll never get another shot like this and prepare to go to war. What follows is a dizzying array of cross-cuts and flashbacks, the battle preparation of both parties alternating with scenes of happier days showing the young lovers as valued members of Rabbit’s crew. (Flashbacks which also allow for the welcome return of Christos Vasilopoulos’s Olek, one of the first season’s best recurring villains.) There’s a lot going on here that’s central to the Banshee mythology, showing the betrayals that set up the original status quo in between shots of vodka and ruthless fistfights, to the point that it’s almost exhausting. As good as some of the Rabbit stuff this year has been, it’s also been a distraction from the Banshee town dynamics, and it’s possible to argue Rabbit should have died in the season one finale to open the show up for full-bore expansion of the rest of the story.
That being said, refocusing the plot on Rabbit does allow the episode to bring the Hood/Carrie relationship back into to focus. The two have been largely estranged for most of the season as Hood moved deeper into his sheriff role and Carrie alternated between jail time and putting her family together, a move that left Ivana Miličević marginalized. Here, seeing the two interact in past and present reminds us of the charisma between the two actors, and why Hood’s considered her a woman worth taking so many ludicrous risks for. While the fifth episode “The Truth About Unicorns” explored that in a quieter, almost surreal light, “Bullets And Tears” lets them kick a bit of ass together, moving seamlessly together to punch and kick their way through a crowd of Chinatown gangsters.
And any gripes about the narrative are dismissed as soon as Hood and Carrie start moving up to the church, a sequence that may well be a video game boss fight in terms of execution. The direction by Yaitanes and the Methodic Doubt score gives it epic scope, with bullets flying in slow-motion, characters diving behind pews and Julian Sands as a priest in spotless robes speaking of the sorrow when a family goes to war—it’s action depicted in brutal, beautiful operatic fashion, so evocative of a John Woo film I half expected white doves to fly behind Hood at some point. It’s simultaneously triumphant and tragic, the early successes of the pair undercut by backing them into a corner and forcing Hood to once again sacrifice everything so that Carrie has a chance. And the fact that our hero charges a firing squad armed only with a knife and a fiendish grin, only to be saved by an overweight black gangster named “Fat Al” and a cross-dressing Asian hacker, is simply one of those manic twists Banshee revels at using to save its hero.
If the gunfight represents Banshee at its most over the top, the denouement with Rabbit proves the show can be quietly gripping when it wants to be. In his final moments Rabbit appears not as the shadowy monster who’s plagued Hood and Carrie for two seasons, or even the ruthless throat-slitting gangster in his prime seen in the cold open flashback—he’s merely a tired old man who wants to have one last drink and to sit with his daughter before his life ends. Those final interactions in which he wearily tries to find some order in the chaos, and the refusal of Hood or Carrie to extend him anything more than final goodbyes, are spectacular performances from Starr, Miličević and especially Cross. Maybe Rabbit lingered too long on the show, but this is a fitting departure for a figure of such mythic resonance.
It’s a sequence so emotionally charged that I fully expected the episode to fade out there and leave the questions of what’s going on in Banshee for the third season—except all of that action only took up two-thirds of the episode. This allows for an important denouement, as the second season was as much about the repercussions of Hood’s and Carrie’s actions as it was about the lengths to which they’d go. Banshee’s deputies were been left far less orderly than they were before, the mayor collapsed into a drunken wreck, and the criminal elements made and broke all matter of new alliances. The last third of the episode brings those conflicts back to the forefront, offering just enough resolution to tee up an even more volatile third season.
That’s especially true regarding the criminal element, as with Rabbit out of the way the path is clear for a new Big Bad, and there’s finally a chance that Ulrich Thomson’s Kai Proctor can take that role on. The existence of Rabbit has allowed Banshee to postpone making Proctor a major antagonist, as he’s gone from uneasy ally to distraction to nemesis of Hood at multiple instances over the course of ten episodes. That ground has shifted in recent weeks thanks to the death of the real Hood’s son Jason, killed by a jealous Proctor for bedding his niece Rebecca. Jason was a drag on the middle of the season, but he serves a narrative purpose as Hood’s catalyst—first by trying to do the right thing for the boy, and then as the impetus for white-hot vengeance. His decision to try being a real cop and take Proctor down makes a firm enemy of the other man, and draws the lines in a way the writers have hesitated doing.
And speaking of Lili Simmons’s Rebecca, she’s stirring up her own fair share of trouble. In a show full of unstable elements she’s been one of the most interesting to watch, a seemingly innocent girl who never truly exposes how she feels about the violent life she’s been drawn into. One week she’ll be horrified at her uncle’s depravity, the next she’ll be locked in eye contact with him as he’s being serviced by a stripper. Once Proctor goes to jail, she’s even got the nerve to defy her uncle’s horn-rimmed angel of death Burton (a marvelously creepy and understated performance by Matthew Rauch) and give the impression she wants the reins of power for herself.
Certainly her apparent alliance with Kinaho chief Alex Longshadow changes the perception of that character irrevocably, as it goes from undercutting her uncle to putting her firmly in his camp. If the church gunfight was the dark beauty of Banshee, the encounter between Longshadow and Rebecca is the show’s ugliest side, an encounter that begins with sex, turns to assault and skirts the edge of rape. It even becomes mythological at one point when Longshadow declares himself the “Thunder Man” after surviving a punctured carotid and two bullet wounds to the chest—only for the the mythology to be cut short when Rebecca completes a Mozambique drill and puts him down. The look on Proctor’s face once he sees the photo of this mess, and the later look as he embraces her post-shower, speak to the fact that he’s only coming to realize who he’s taken under his wing. (And one wonders how long the unspoken incestuous attraction between the two can remain unspoken.)
But in the end, it all comes back to the man calling himself Lucas Hood. It’s almost a joke at this point how quickly Hood can recover from a beating—Job even hung the lampshade last week by comparing the inside of his head to a Jackson Pollock—but Banshee’s second season has pushed further to point out that this physical and emotional abuse is starting to wear Hood down. Between his conflicted feelings for the women who surround him, various hallucinations of Rabbit and his escalating lack of patience for procedure, Hood’s seemed closer to Logan than Wolverine this season, trying to do the right thing in his own misguided way. There’s clearly more to Hood than indestructibility, and both Starr and the writers have gotten progressively better at bringing that across.
And with the death of Rabbit, he seems to have found an interest in striving for a real home—reaching out to Siobhan to invest in their relationship, accepting the badge back from Brock, and looking around his office with a sense while he may have lied his way into this place it’s something that finally belongs to him. At least until Deva shows up in his office in the closing scene, and the relative peace he’s found is knocked over by two words: “Hi Dad.” Between that—and his revelations to Carrie that there’s whole parts of his life he hasn’t even shared with her—it’s a safe bet that season three will be peeling back even more layers of the character and just where he wants to be.
“Bullets And Tears” doesn’t throw out as many cliffhangers as the first season finale did, but there’s no question that when Banshee returns the status quo is irrevocably shaken up. Deva knows the truth of her origin, Proctor’s seen his niece in all matter of new lights, and the power structure of the Kinaho tribe has a void that seems sure to spark a civil war—especially with the teaser of colossus Chayton returning from a Louisiana exile. Last season, a lot of people asked the question how long Banshee could maintain this premise, and the events of this season indicate it asks its own question in response: “Who the fuck cares?” At this point, speculation is a moot point, and all the show wants is to keep its blissfully well-executed anarchy pushing forward.
Episode grade: B+
Season grade: B+
- The one move I couldn’t get behind in the finale was the murder of Emmett and his wife by the vengeful skinheads. The clear argument is that he crossed the line and could never go back to his original role on the show, but even by Banshee standards this felt like unnecessary bloodshed. Thankfully Demetrius Grosse had a few standout scenes before departing—particularly in the aforementioned skinhead beating—and his departure will allow Hood to recruit new deputies who can react amusingly to having an apparent fucking lunatic as their commanding officer.
- Sad underuse of great actors in law enforcement roles this season, as Zeljko Ivanek was taken out after two episodes (though he returned for the finale’s flashbacks) and The Wire’s Reg E. Cathey played a homicide captain who interrogated Hood back when he was arrested for the diamond heist. Hopefully the latter will be stirring up more trouble in season three.
- Speaking of cast hopes for season three, Alex’s death gives me hope Odette Annable will return as his assassin sister Nola out for blood. A show like this always has room for a femme fatale, and her prior ties with Hood would augur more chaos in the Hood/Siobhan relationship. Plus, that brief scene with her and Job earlier this season sparked interest in those two getting into all kinds of mischief.
- The prevalence of Pappy Van Winkle bottles this season has me wondering if Sugar and Job were responsible for the theft of multiple cases from a Kentucky warehouse last year.
- That final glance between Hood and Carrie seemed to indicate the two are trying to close the door on their relationship but all I can think of when I see them together is the “love’s bitch” speech from Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
- Best Job look of the season: the white suit he wore when meeting Jason for the first time. Though that Marie Antoinette/Heidi hybrid look he sported at the drag club earns a special prize for ostentatiousness.
- “How many lives have you lived?” “None, really.”