Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Catching up on... BANSHEE, season three

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

It's not often that I binge thirty hours of scripted television in less than a few weeks, but I gorged myself on three seasons of Cinemax's Banshee ahead of 2016's fourth and final run. It will feel very strange to watch this show with seven days between episodes, that's for sure. I'd been led to believe from a few friends that it was a case of third time's the charm with this latest season, and I'm in full agreement. It often felt like someone else had taken over running the show, using the potential of the concept and its actors to craft a better version of itself. It's too late to try and make this show more "realistic" (if Breaking Bad is Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, Banshee is Jean-Claude Van Damme in Kickboxer), so it instead just had a lot of fun with its ludicrousness and sometimes transcended its scabrous nature.

It helped that the direction and writing were much improved this year; executing more elaborate set-pieces, inventive camerawork, and developing story ideas that felt like someone had actually spent some time researching. Maybe Cinemax threw more money at Banshee's production because it's become successful enough to deserve a boost, or the filmmakers have grown more creative with their budget? Whatever the reason, the visual appeal of the show skyrocketed and there were a handful of very impressive sequences and creative flourishes that I enjoyed seeing.

Banshee has never had a problem when it comes to fight choreography and the use of good makeup effects, but things definitely ramped up this season. In particular, there was a prolonged fight between bow-tie wearing henchman Clay Burton (Matthew Rauch) and tomahawk-wielding assassin Nola (Odette Annable) that was an astonishing achievement for a television production—with a steady-cam following their every punch and kick around and inside a parked car, in what seemed like one continuous shot.

But what marked season 3 out from the twenty preceding episodes was very simple: things actually felt like they mattered because there were huge consequences for characters we've gradually begun to care about. For two seasons we were being told, repeatedly, about how emotional the backstory of Hood (Antony Starr) and Anastasia (Ivana Miličević) was as lovers and the "family" of a powerful gang lord—but that stuff just never clicked for me. It felt like generic backstory and Starr and Milikevic never really pulled me in. Maybe that's why the Hood/Anastasia romance was practically dropped in favour of pursuing the romance between Hood and his deputy Siobahn Kelly (Trieste Kelly Dunn) this year.

This season also felt like a very different beast because we'd moved on from Ukrainian crime lord 'Rabbit', so a variety of different villains rose to take his place. Chief amongst them (pardon the pun) was a tribal gang leader called Chayton Littlestone (sonorous Geno Segers), whose hatred for 'the white man' in general—and Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen) in particular—provoked him into recruiting a hardcore group of Native Americans to avenge the murder of their former Kinaho chief Alex Longshadow (a crime actually perpetrated by Kai's niece Rebecca). Chayton was a physically formidable opponent for Hood to tussle with, in contrast to the elderly Rabbit (who was all talk and reputation), and thus a more deserving combatant for a bruiser like Hood.

Sealing the deal, Chayton's reckless assault on the Banshee P.D (resulting in an emergency lockdown and bloody siege) ended with the Redbones leader snapping the neck of Siobhan right in front of a helpless Hood. And while a few major characters have died on Banshee before, Kelly's death was the first to carry some undeniable weight and meaning—not least because she was sleeping with Hood and had recently discovered he's not the town's real Sheriff. (In some respects her unfortunate fate was sealed after discovering Hood's a con, admittedly). Hood was visibly rattled by his failure to save Siobhan, and it also came as a shock to viewers because we've been subtly conditioned to feel relaxed about whatever crazy situation Hood finds himself in—as he usually finds a way turn certain failure into surprising success. But that wasn't true here. Vigilante justice was relatively swift after a handful of further episodes, with Chayton now a fugitive hunted by the military before absconding to New Orleans pursued by an off-duty Hood and deputy Brock (Matt Servito), but the savage loss of Siobhan was something that haunted a big chunk of the season and enabled us to see Hood as a real man with emotions instead of a cold one-man army.

There were still some very questionable ideas sprinkled around the ten episodes, of course. While I approve of the idea to give Kai a lover his own age (a woman who sees the good inside him, or is perhaps just enchanted by his darkness), did it really have to be Brock's ex-wife? It felt very unlikely she'd seriously fall for a notorious local gangster like Proctor—considering her husband's profession and after almost immediately walking into bizarre situations like a bloodied man sewing up his own bleeding wounds in a kitchen. It wasn't impossible to make this idea work, but it needed more time and sharper writing. I barely even knew Brock had an ex, so her defection to 'the dark side' didn't carry much weight.

There are times when I also think the show completely misjudges how willing we are to mindlessly follow Hood and his antihero friends. The latter episodes of the season involve Hood having to rescue his friends from a military base commanded by Colonel Douglas Stowe (Langley Kirkwood), who were caught and being interrogated for stealing $6 million from the camp's safe. Stowe was running an illegal scheme and he's a bit of a psycho with PTSD, sure, but everyone else on that base are U.S soldiers just doing their job... so sequences in the finale when Hood and Gordon (Rus Blackwell) are shooting their way onto the site, killing armed personnel, were problematic for me. Stowe may not be a nice guy, but we're ultimately watching the leader of a bunch of thieves kill innocent soldiers on military soil with the help of a district attorney. I know it's "only a TV show" and Banshee has a loose grasp of morality at the best of times, but usually its outright villains are reprehensible killers you don't mind seeing getting slaughtered by antiheroes... but ordinary servicemen unaware their boss is getting his hands dirty? I found it a bit unsettling how blasé it was about the "collateral damage".

There were a few times this season when I wondered if the show might become the 'reverse Breaking Bad' (with a criminal slowly becoming a good man after playing cop for so long), but by the end I don't think that's really on anyone's mind. Hood's slightly less wild than he was at the start of the show, but if anything it's his attitude that's rubbing off on the show's genuinely good people—particularly Brock, who's now complicit in murder on two occasions, and seems resigned to the fact Hood's brand of justice could be the only way to depose Kai Proctor. As if to signify this, Brock grew a black beard this year.

Beyond all that, this was a very entertaining season—even if it's not fine art, and it becomes slightly comical how many beatings its characters can take every week. It's a boobs n' blood Cinemax show, so what do you really expect? Banshee knows its male-skewing audience and delivers all the madness, violence, nudity, and superficially shocking moments it can muster—in bursts of story that rarely last more than three episodes, before it's busy introducing another subplot or character to take up any slack. Admittedly, one of the best things about Banshee's run is how each season seems to shift focus to something earnestly introduced in the preceding year, so it looks like season four will deal with the local Aryan Brotherhood—of which cop Kurt Bunker (Tom Pelphrey) is a former member, guilt-stricken over his neo-Nazi past that's written all over his body in hateful tattoos. When we last saw him, his ink was being blow-torched off his body by his own brother. It's that kind of show. And I'll be watching the final season next year.