A man with an appropriated identity. An existential contemplation of what it is to be human—and whether we can change what’s in our stars and become different people, or if the past is destined to be prologue. Strong women whose substance and magnetism sometimes overpower the men, including in their ranks a supporting female character that is the beating heart and soul of the series. A darkly handsome, baritone-voiced, thirty something journeyman actor who creates an iconic character in a star-making role.
Sounds suspiciously like the justly-celebrated, ground breaking AMC series, “Mad Men”, and it might have been, if Don Draper was transported to the present day in Pennsylvania Dutch country as an ex-con jewel thief with a knack for a fight and putting people he loves in physical, not just psychological, danger. Add to it his trading in his tailored Brooks Brothers suits and cigarettes for a sheriff’s uniform, badge and an arsenal of weapons, and you might have the Cinemax hit series “Banshee”, which returns for its fourth and final season on the testosterone-laced cable network on January 29.
At first glance, Banshee could be construed as yet another kinetically-driven action series, featuring morally compromised criminals operating in a state of nature with a distinct lack of resident law enforcement, particularly during enough balletic scenes of violence so as to make famed action director John Woo swoon with envy. And, on one level, it certainly is that. Just like “Sons of Anarchy” in that sense, without the Shakespearean overtones, but rather with quiet Amish folk in the background who operate at the margins and provide a stark contrast to the action taking place in the foreground.
But Banshee, like “Mad Men”, is up to something that’s richer and more complex, which became particularly apparent in the second season, when the series takes the time necessary to fully develop the central character, the enigmatic Sheriff Lucas Hood, played with a world-weary, charismatic lethality by 40-year old New Zealand native Antony Starr. Like Hamm’s portrayal of the iconic Don Draper, Starr crafts an indelible portrayal of a man trying desperately to create a new identity while shaking off his past, with the latter unfortunately sticking like particularly stubborn lint to his creased olive drab khaki pants. While Draper causes psychic damage, getting too close to the simmeringly violent Hood is a real health hazard for friend, lover or foe.
The Starr character comes to Banshee to reclaim his lost love after going to jail for 15 years to ensure her safety. She’s the lithe, seductive and self-possessed daughter of a Russian mobster (the latter played with almost regretful yet delicious malevolence by veteran actor Ben Cross). The object of Hood’s affection has changed her name to Carrie Hopewell (spoiler alert—not much hope to be found there, at least for the first three seasons) and is played with a sense of dangerous grace by the formidable Croatian American actress Ivana Milicevic. She wants no part of a reunion—he with a new identity after a shoot out fells the real Sheriff Hood, who comes to town only to be cut down by henchmen of the town sociopath Kai Proctor (played with complex, understated and tortured menace by Dutch actor Ulrich Thomsen) before reporting for duty, and she living an ordinary life as a district attorney’s wife with two kids in tow. While Lucas and Carrie are in and out of each other’s orbits for much of the series, the amount of collateral damage they wreak is enough to populate the body count of several small wars.
It would make my head hurt to try to cycle through all of the twists and turns of plot over the first three exhilarating and addictive “Banshee” seasons. Plus, I’d like you to check it out and let me know if you think I’m crazy for falling for this show the way I have. But this is literate, well-crafted, albeit unbelievably bloody and violent entertainment, and you’ll quickly figure out why I arose from my blog-writing torpor to write about this show.
What motivated me in particular to get behind the computer was the sixth episode of Season Three, entitled “We were all Someone Else Yesterday”, an exercise in wish fulfillment that rivals Don Draper’s revisionist Thanksgiving at the end of Mad Men’s brilliant season one.
The episode is essentially “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Banshee-style, where the fake Sheriff Hood fantasizes about what life would have been like had the real sheriff lived and the fake one had simply left town in a convertible with his brilliant transvestite friend Job (a magnetically articulate Hoon Lee), rather than stayed to reclaim his lost love. Like Mad Men, Banshee’s best moments are memorable set pieces that sear the brain and batter the soul. Watch the last three poignant, unutterably sad minutes of this episode (which I will not mar by spoiling the plot), and I dare you to not end the hour crumpled in the corner in a fetal position while dampened in a puddle of your own tears.
I played that black and white dream sequence over and over, just to indulge my emotions while marveling at the economy with which Starr delivers an honest and conflicting set of emotions across his battered yet attractive face. It’s a marvelous, minimalist piece of acting that intimates his rueful understanding of his real circumstances with such ambiguity that you are left wondering whether his character in this fantasy sequence is living in that moment, or whether he understands and acknowledges his true fate and is sadly consigned to it. Or, perhaps a third scenario– that he is projecting what life might be like if he just stayed around a while to see what might unfold.
It’s also refreshing to see a show runner with enough integrity to know when the string is running out. Series creator, Jonathan Tropper, is calling it quits after the eight-episode fourth season, despite stellar ratings and the loud, anguished protests from Banshee Nation. Given that it is Cinemax’s highest rated original show, Banshee could have gone on to at least a season five. But Tropper believes the show is close to being played out, and he has plans for an insane finale that I’m sure will pack an emotional wallop and leave Banshee fans wishing for more (unlike, for example, “Dexter” fans, who, if they’re honest, know that the once fine Michael C. Hall vehicle survived at least three seasons past its sell date).
Matt Servitto, the witty character actor best known as FBI Agent Harris on the seminal HBO series “The Sopranos”, said in a recent interview that “Banshee” had its “jump the shark” moment in the first episode of the series when it asks viewers to suspend their disbelief about the very premise of the show, so the rest of the run has been gravy to him. It is true that his character, Deputy Sheriff Brock Lotus, and his fellow Bansheeans seem unusually incurious about the new sheriff’s antecedents. And, evidently, social media sites must be blocked, at least within the city limits. In an era of Facebook and Snapchat, it’s hard to believe that at least the FBI agents swarming around town as the bodies pile up wouldn’t be able to figure out that Sheriff Lucas Hood is a lot of things, but he’s not really Sheriff Lucas Hood.
But Sheriff’s Hood’s deputies, including Servitto and the compelling Trieste Kelly Dunn, who plays Siobhan Kelly, the woman who first wins Hood’s admiration and ultimately his bruised and heavy heart, seem for the most part happy to have the guy around. Particularly given his obsession with bringing the dangerously amoral Proctor to justice, which is something the small yet tough as nails Sheriff’s department appreciates in their sheriff. They and Banshee viewers have willfully and greedily suspended their disbelief for three wild seasons. So will you. Buckle up and binge—you won’t regret it.
Harlan R. Teller