Antony Starr, Matt Servito (Cinemax)

In the wake of “Bloodletting,” I find myself asking a question: what makes a serial killer story good? It’s a time-honored tradition throughout TV, and yet there’s so clearly a difference between when it’s done right and when it’s done wrong. Your good serial killer stories—Hannibal, True Detective season one, The Fall—are the ones that are less about the killers than they are about the people hunting them, a fixation on the rot that their actions represent. Your bad serial killer stories—Criminal Minds, The Following—are the ones that fetishize the violence that these people perpetuate, practically reveling in every horrible act that’s more often than not performed on a crying young woman. The former uses psychology to elicit a reaction, while the latter is all about exploitation.

And so, it is with a heavy heart that I have to declare Banshee is telling a bad serial killer story. It’s been my fear since the season introduced Rebecca’s body carved up in a ritualistic matter, and when the show attempts to truly get into the meat of that story it lands with a resounding thud. “Bloodletting” is packed with all kinds of great stuff—an interesting new character, a twist to the white supremacy story, Carrie with a goddamned flamethrower—and yet the scenes dwelling on the serial killer are a monumental albatross around the neck of everything else. The good is still enough to outweigh the bad, and yet the bad is so bad and so out of keeping that it feels capable of bringing the whole season down.

“Bloodletting” dispels any early speculation that Hood or Proctor may have been in some way complicit in Rebecca’s death by showing us the killer—or killers, rather, a married couple who have an unorthodox way of celebrating promotions. And not only are they serial killers, they’re also devil worshippers, carving up their victim in the presence of their chanting coven. There’s an extremity to how they’re presented that’s meant for shock value, but the shock goes so far as to make it alien to what we’re accustomed to from Banshee. It’s a split made ever worse by how director Everardo Gout shoots the scenes, opting for a grainy approach resembling a handheld camera that’s so distinctive it becomes an advance warning of the content to come.

The issue with these scenes isn’t their violence per se: Hood once cut an albino’s penis off and crushed him under a dumbbell, so the weakest of stomachs have long since fled the show. The issue is in the tone of the violence, as it’s up to its bloody elbows in all the worst of the genre. Scenes depict a naked woman screaming for mercy, the camera lingering on tears and tits to an extent past gratuitous, and the glee on the killers’ faces as they drink in her pain is obvious. And while Banshee has a rich history of colorful antagonists, our main killer is assembled from serial killer tropes across the spectrum of grotesque, more akin to someone out of a one-dimensional 80s action film like Cobra with his plethora of Satanic tattoos and sing-song voice to victims. (And bony ridges emulating horns on his forehead, which… what?) Banshee is easily one of the most visceral shows on television, but all of these moments take the viscera to a place where it’s not fun anymore.

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There’s no joy in tearing “Bloodletting” down for this story, especially because everything that’s not related to the killer is excellent. As gross as this narrative is it does put Hood back in a prison cell, a move that pushes the show’s oldest conflicts ever closer to the breaking point. Despite the circumstances Brock clearly relishes the chance to finally assert some sort of authority over Hood, Matt Servito’s voice cracking with both frustration and the hope that after years of mystery he might get some answers. When Proctor learns of the arrest and goes to collect Hood, it’s less about thinking he’s found the killer than it is finally having an excuse to put Hood down. And when Brock gets in the way—and goes so far as to almost draw down on Proctor—it nearly becomes the final round in the battle for Banshee’s soul, law and crime about to destroy each other while the man who kept the uneasy peace for so long is a trapped spectator.

Into this tension steps Eliza Dushku as FBI Agent Veronica Dawson, who’s genuinely amused at the fact that had she been five minutes later it might have been a crime scene. While Dushku’s last major television role in Dollhouse pushed her to play a lot of different types of character, Agent Dawson is a role solidly in the wheelhouse she first inhabited all those years ago in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. All of Faith’s same qualities are there—brashness, dark sense of humor, happy to use her sex appeal or impressions of being damaged—but it’s tempered by a clear intelligence and ability to read people. In every way the serial killer story fails to fit into this world, she slots in perfectly.

Banshee as a show has always had great luck in its femme fatales, and even though it kills them off more than we’d like it always makes sure to cycle new ones in. Dawson makes a terrific addition to that roster, as even though she doesn’t come to blows with anyone there’s little doubt that she could—and in witnessing the standoff she’s almost disappointed not to have a chance to participate. She’s a perfect foil for Hood almost immediately, seeing the truth in his statements and writing him off as the suspect even before another body shows up, and then asking him out for a drink afterwards because it seems like fun. And because no one is allowed to step into Banshee without emotional baggage far past the carry-on limit, we learn that while off-duty she likes to bust up crack houses and smoke whatever they leave behind. (Though not before putting down paper on the sofa, a great character detail.)

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Speaking of Banshee femme fatales, Carrie has her best episode of the season when Hood’s arrest triggers her to go for an even bigger score in Proctor’s distribution center. Every single one of Carrie’s scenes this year feel like part of an audition reel for Ivana Miličević to have her own action movie franchise after the series concludes, and this is the most dynamic one yet. She torches Proctor’s entire operation (with far more grace than Rebecca did to the Boedickers in “The Burden Of Beauty”), takes out thugs with Daredevil-level precision behind a plastic screen cover, and then runs away from an exploding building in that most glorious of action movie setpieces. Previous outings have showcased the tension she’s trying to burn off, and this is a reminder that she’s incredibly good at what she does even when she’s busy ignoring all the consequences of her actions.

Things don’t go entirely according to plan however, as Carrie winds up trapped in the conflagration. Normally, you’d think that this would form the perfect excuse for Job to step up to the plate, overcome the demons that months of torture led to nest in his brain and come through to save Carrie’s life. Except Banshee is much smarter than that, its commitment to how damaged its characters are shining through. Job’s not there because he genuinely thinks Carrie needs the help, he’s there because he can’t be alone in a dark empty house, and as much as he screams at himself to get over there the similarities of the explosions to his flashbulb torments still have a hold on him. Snide comments about “storing your AKs next to your Ann Taylor,” Job is broken now, and Hoon Lee makes it clear on both his face and his stance that no fix will be easy.

We also get a good bit of narrative development on the part of the white supremacy movement, both with Carrie and Bunker realizing its connection to Proctor and Proctor doing his part to shore it up by arranging Watts’s release from prison. This gives the Kurt/Calvin/Maggie love triangle and its associated dramas a welcome jolt, as Banshee pulls out a terrific reveal that Watts is Maggie’s father, and by extension Calvin’s father-in-law and the grandfather of his child. It’s a brilliant move that adds so much shading to Calvin’s resentment, and magnifies ten-fold all the fears that Maggie expressed to Kurt last week about her son. Chance Kelly amplifies all of the confidence that Watts showed in his introduction last week in spades tonight: throwing racial slurs at the parole board, sitting down to eat Calvin’s meal and grinning through each bite, singing Hank a lullaby in German. This is an antagonist worthy of Banshee, one who complicates everything in the best of ways and has a whale of a time doing so.

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All of these developments are compelling ones to witness, and ones that make it even more maddening that it has to share space with this serial killer dreck. Perhaps it would be more forgivable if it wasn’t the final season or it wasn’t a shortened season, but the fact that it’s both those things turns the plot into wasted time that Banshee doesn’t have to spare. With the halfway point reached in the season, time is an ever-more precious commodity, and the degree to which “Bloodletting” succeeds in spite of its flaws only makes the presence of those flaws hurt all the more.

Stray observations:

  • Best Job Look: He still hasn’t worked up the energy to shave his head, but he’s rocking some flannel now that he’s out of captivity.
  • I agonized harder than I ever have grading a Banshee episode with tonight’s grade, but in the end Carrie with a flamethrower was enough to give it the plus. The presence of the Satanic scenes kept it from going any higher letter-wise.
  • No room above to mention the Proctor story, but it provides some useful underlines to their pre-murder tensions: Proctor’s move to cut Rebecca out of the expanded distribution drove her move to the Boedickers, and even before her disappearance she was taunting him with the men she’d bring home.
  • Out of curiosity I did some IMDB research to see if Dushku marked the first appearance of someone from the Whedonverse on Banshee, and it turns out that it’s not: MiliÄŤević played Riley Finn’s wife Samantha in Buffy season six.
  • Billy Raven returns! He seems to be wearing that Kinaho sheriff’s badge well.
  • Comparisons to Daredevil came up so frequently while watching these scenes, I found myself searching for a character MiliÄŤević could play in a potential season three. Lady Bullseye perhaps? Please, comic fans, throw out some suggestions in the comments.
  • Burton eating ice cream is a runner-up only to Carrie using the flamethrower in terms of the episode’s best visual.
  • The opening shots of the food preparation make it clear that someone on the creative team was catching up on Hannibal prior to shooting this.
  • “The life that you’re choosing, it ends one way.” “Maybe. But at least it’s my choice.”
  • “What a fun group!”
  • “Oh, I hear you loud and clear. Bitch.”
  • “Innocent might be a bit of a stretch.”

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