If I’m anything, I'm a man of the people. After weeks of seeing you, dear commenters, celebrate and ask for reviews of Cinemax’s Banshee, I burned through all of Season 1 in less than two days so that I could bring you such a review. And while I never doubted the taste of the vocal folks asking for more Banshee coverage, I did underestimate just how much I would enjoy the series’ first 10 episodes.
Here’s the thing about Banshee: It’s ridiculous. Hilariously ridiculous. It doesn’t exist in any recognizable form of reality. The initial premise is silly enough in its own right—ex-con comes into small town looking for his lost flame and takes over the identity of the murdered new sheriff—but the show doesn’t stop there. Instead of spending much time putting that con-turned-sheriff Lucas Hood into situations where he’d have to learn to walk the straight and narrow, the show consistently allows Hood to break numerous laws and violate any number of human rights. Further, we expect a Cinemax show to provide lots of violence and nudity, but Banshee even tops Strike Back in these departments. The nudity and sex scenes are amusingly gratuitous and that’s well and fine. But the violence? Wild, and so impressively shot. Every episode provides an extended, well-choreographed, nicely filmed fight sequence, creating an overwhelming sense of brutality and aggression that few shows on television can compete with. Hood’s showdowns with a rapist MMA fighter in “Meet in the New Boss,” the evil albino prison thug in “Behold a Pale Rider,” and Banshee kingpin Kai in “Always the Cowboy” are the three most successfully staged fights I’ve seen on television in recent memory.
Even though Banshee presents a heightened world, the characters and performances keep it compelling. Antony Starr was a bit of a blank slate in the first few episodes, but over the course of the season, his performance (and the show’s nice use of flashbacks) displayed how years of pain and anger turned him into a cold and calculating man. Ivana Miličević’s been in tons of things over the years and it's nice to see her to get to show some range as Anna/Carrie. She’s really the heart and soul of the Banshee, and Miličević makes her character’s plight truly matter. And while Starr and Miličević top-line the proceedings, Ulrich Thomsen and Lili Simmons are Banshee's breakout performers. Kai and Rebecca’s respective struggles with their families in the Amish community are, like many of the things on the show, kind of ridiculous, but really, really engaging. Thomsen and the writers did a great job of transforming the Kai character from a boilerplate villain in the early episodes to a complex, yet clearly still evil man in the final few.
All in all, Banshee doesn’t even pretend that it's a gritty, realistic portrayal of small-town crime and politics; this a fast-moving, violent, pulpy thriller that aims almost solely to entertain. And I don’t mean that as a slight at all. Above all else, I admire shows that know what they are and what they are good at and take those strengths to the extreme—Banshee does that.
Banshee's knack for self-assessment was on display in “A Mixture of Madness,” the Season 1 finale. The episode culminated the season’s stories in predictably fun and ridiculous fashion. With Rabbit’s infiltration of the town complete, everyone in Hood’s life—both the sheriff’s department and the entertaining super-team of Sugar, Job, and Anna—had to band together to save Hood and protect the man who'd (mostly) had their backs in the past. The early part of the episode was a little slow, but it was in preparation for a second half that involved extended shootouts, torture, over-the-top lines (I especially loved Ben Cross’s “No, THIS is love” while Rabbit stabbed Hood in the side), and flat-out carnage. At one point, I cackled at the amount of violence, ammo, and dead bodies piling up—and then Brock caused Rabbit’s men to blow each other up with a rocket launcher. I mean, seriously!
What worked best about the finale was how it stayed committed to the show’s mission statement of hyperbolic insanity. Anna finally got her revenge on her father Rabbit by shooting him twice in the chest... only for Rabbit to escape while Anna and Hood were having their intimate moment. The main villain survives for another day and another season of torment. Moreover, even with a lot of questions and the FBI hanging around, the show didn’t stop throwing seemingly suffocating obstacles at Hood, as a few hunters discovered the real Hood’s body in what appears to be the most poorly dug grave of all-time. So, it’s going to get worse.
Yet, amid all of that bloody fun, Banshee’s season finale still mixed in a few really great moments that didn’t involve bodies, guns, or blood. Despite the show’s insistence on ridiculousness, it also rarely lets Hood and Anna off the hook. This episode’s flashback with Hood warming up to a prison psychologist—only to learn she was on the Rabbit payroll—gave us another reason to understand Hood’s pent-up anger, but also reflected that, for this man, there really isn’t an escape. Not in prison and not in Banshee, even under a false identity. The same can be said for Anna, who saved her Hood, triumphed over her father, and kept her children safe, only to lose them once some of the truth came out. Hood wanted to resurrect parts of the past when he came to Banshee, while Anna was trying to keep it buried; they both failed. They’ve always been powerless in this extended fight with Rabbit, and despite this small victory, it seems like they’re still going to be powerless.
“A Mixture of Madness” was a fittingly wild conclusion to a wild season of television. I’m glad a certain sect of you spoke up, about Banshee and I’m even more glad that I watched the show. Until Season 2.
– I presume that the mayor died in Kai’s planned explosion and that’s weird. The character never had much of a place in the story, or at least the writers certainly didn’t make much of a place for him. Based on the scenes with his wife, it seemed like there was more going on (maybe he’s gay?), but the show didn’t explore it. Perhaps his death sets up another mystery for Season 2, or even better, a Sugar Mayoral campaign.
– Lili Simmons is running away with Cory’s New TV Crush of 2013 race.
– I watched Season 1 in a very short period of time, so I’d love to hear how it differed for those of you watching week-to-week.
– Favorite moment of the first season? Best fight?