Last year, the executives at Cinemax had to be incredibly pleased with the launch of The Knick. Between the involvement of a serious movie director in Steven Soderburgh, the involvement of a serious film actor in Clive Owen, and an overall positive critical reception that placed the show on or near several best of 2014 lists (ranked No. 25 at The A.V. Club, for instance), Cinemax finally had a show in their stable that could be considered a prestige drama. After years of being viewed as the late-night soft-core porn provider easily referred to as “Skinemax.” Cinemax could now be mentioned in the same breath as the big guns of cable drama HBO, Showtime, and AMC.
But, as The A.V. Club’s own Noel Murray argued earlier this month, not every television show needs to be packaged as prestigious, and there’s plenty of room for “mid-reputable” TV. Cinemax has expertly nurtured shows of this caliber for the last few years, first with Strike Back—ending this year after a solid four-season run—and following it up with Banshee. In two seasons Banshee has grown into one of the most entertaining shows on television, a gloriously over-the-top example of pulp fiction strengthened by the support beams of solid characterization and inspired direction. It’s a blend that shows no sign of losing its potency, with its third season premiere “The Fire Trials” proving the Banshee team remains in full command of their instrument.
Audiences who were drawn to Cinemax’s original programming following The Knick will find the show more welcoming to new audiences than last year, as the events of the season finale “Bullets And Tears” tore much of Banshee’s preexisting framework wide open. Central villain Rabbit was killed, the relationship between Sheriff Lucas Hood and his long-ago love Carrie was laid to rest, and several secrets finally came to light. One of the last pieces of business from the finale is taken care of in the premiere’s cold open, as Hood and his deputies track down and execute the white supremacist Hondo who gunned down Deputy Emmett and his wife. It’s a tight, beautifully executed scene as Hood stalks Hondo through an abandoned lot and leads him into a trap, an early reminder of how technically savvy the show is.
Banshee also remains strong on the emotional levels, playing out the aftershocks of the destruction of Carrie’s marriage. Both the Hopewells have been thrown into chaos with the truth of Carrie’s identity and Deva’s parentage, and neither one is doing particularly well. Gordon’s an unshaven wreck of a man begging Hood to leave him with what little he has left, and Carrie’s right back where she started 16 years ago, busing tables and fighting off (quite forcefully in one instance) the attentions of their patrons. Refreshingly, there’s almost no romantic connection forced between Hood and Carrie in this aftermath, even when he has to clean up her mess. Much of the history between the two was buried last year between Rabbit’s death, the loss of the diamonds, and the burning of the home Hood once wanted to give her, and thankfully neither the writers or the characters are in a hurry to dig that past up.
Speaking of Deva, her knowledge of who her father is has led her to act out in typical acts of teenage rebellion: dying her hair, getting tattoos, engaging in petty larceny. Teenage daughters can be a risky business on cable dramas, as the fall from viewer grace of Homeland’s Dana Brody proved, so Banshee will need to tread carefully as Deva comes to terms with her new life. Thankfully, most of the focus stays on Hood rather than her, as he intercepts her breaking into a head shop and instead of lecturing her uses the opportunity to teach her B&E 101. It’s a marvelous use of parental cross-cutting as Hood casually walks Deva through all the steps to a successful heist—work alone if you can, cut the glass instead of breaking it, keep an eye out for safes—at the exact same time Carrie is implementing all of them to supplement her diner tips.
Deva’s not the only one left unsettled by the developments of the finale. The shooting of Hondo has only made the department more complicit in Hood’s liberal definition of justice, and while Siobhan’s keeping such tension under control Brock’s asking Hood point-blank if he’s executed people before and having drunken late-night conversations at Emmett’s grave. Matt Servito has been a bit underserved over the last two seasons in the role of the career small-town cop, simultaneously resentful of and horrified by the stranger who took the job he felt was his. Turning him into a ticking time bomb of guilt gives the character more potential, and more fuel is added to it early on with the introduction of an ex-wife who uses 911 for booty calls. Plus, Brock’s now grown a sadness beard in response to Emmett’s death, a tonsorial development with a long track record of improving shows.
And as all of that domestic tension builds throughout the episode, Banshee is busy setting more active fires alight. While Ulrich Thomson’s Proctor hasn’t yet taken on the role of Big Bad—quietly fortifying his business and exchanging threatening banter with Hood in the diner parking lot—that role is filled ably by the return of Kinaho colossus Chayton Littlestone. Easily the most fascinating new character of the second season, Geno Segers’s promotion to regular bodes well for season three. Rabbit was a devilish, almost mythical figure in the show’s first two years, but Chayton is practically an elemental force, a difference illustrated in a brutal bare-knuckle brawl lit only by campfire where he reasserts his position of leadership. “We are here to fight in a war we will never win,” he declares, and the conviction in his deep baritone voice is that of a man for whom no other path makes sense.
Chayton doesn’t miss a beat in waging his crusade, with his first strike against the armed forces of the government that stole the land of his ancestors. If the brawl and Hondo’s execution were signs of Banshee’s artistry, this is an exhibit of its glorious insanity, Chayton taking out four marines and a police car armed only with a bow and arrow. Nothing logically makes sense about it, but the scene is so well paced and Segers so unflinching in the act that in the universe of the show it clicks perfectly. And the slow-motion moment where Hood and Chayton lock eyes is the starting gun of a new showdown for the show, one without the history of the first two seasons and grounded in a fight for their home.
This heist also leads to a new setting for the season, the mostly decommissioned military base of Camp Genoa just outside of Banshee city limits. Much like Justified, Banshee is a show that is very good at fleshing out its world as time goes on, and the atmosphere of the military base—a location of order in contrast to the town’s chaos—makes an interesting departure from what we’ve seen while at the same time feeling like it’s part of this world. The setting also introduces a potential ally or antagonist in its commanding officer Colonel Stowe (Langley Kirkwood, seen recently on programs like Dominion and Black Sails) who outright dismisses Hood as a small-town cop and appears to have no compunction about setting the commandos on his payroll on the trail of the Redbones. And if that’s not enough, he’s also Carrie’s new fuck-buddy, because Banshee never met a scenario it couldn’t make more gloriously problematic.
With a new setting comes Hood’s uncontrollable impulse to reach for a big score. His walkthrough with Deva proves his instincts are still sharp as ever, and the sight of millions of dollars in government funds has him licking his chops, and the feeling as he eyes the vault door and security cameras is contagious. The idea of a big heist being planned out over the season is an idea with a lot of promise, particularly given it starts out already deeply entwined with established characters Chayton and Carrie. Even better, it augurs the reintroduction of the fabulously flamboyant Job, introduced sporting an M60 in the middle of his own heist—yet another fantastic action scene in an episode that doesn’t lack for them. His displeasure at returning to Pennsylvania is masterfully spit out by Hoon Lee (“I hate you, you know that? I fucking hate you”), and is a feeling certainly not shared by the audience.
Early on in the episode, Frankie Faison’s Sugar looks around his bar and wistfully comments that he’ll miss the quiet when it’s gone. I certainly don’ t, as the louder the show gets the better it is, and “The Fire Trials” proves that nothing stays quiet in this town for long. It’s likely that Banshee will never be mentioned in the same conversations as The Knick beyond their mutual network, but when it’s on—as it is in this premiere—the adrenaline rush and excitement is enough to create an engagement every bit as rewarding.
- You asked for it, and here it is: The A.V. Club is adding Banshee to our weekly rotation! I’m very excited to discuss this show with all of you over the next few weeks.
- Best Job Look: Reentering Sugar’s bar with his skull done in metallic orange with black jaguar dots.
- Another welcome return is Odette Annable’s Nola Longshadow, seen in the closing moments of the episode entering the room where her brother was murdered. The look of haunted guilt on her face suggests she’s as out for blood as Chayton is, and she brings a level of razor focus that could form a legitimate challenge to his brute force.
- “The Fire Trials” introduces a new deputy to the Banshee Sheriff Department, Billy Raven (Chaske Spencer), formerly of the Kinaho reservation’s police force. As expected, he’s mostly viewed as “not Emmett” by the rest of the department, even as he gives some praise for the station being functional. We’ll see how many weeks that naiveté holds up.
- The difference between Hood and Carrie’s respective place in life is nicely illustrated in an early cross-cutting scene that shows both enjoying sexual encounters, but getting something entirely different out of each one: Hood’s moving on and being playful with Siobhan in their post-coital languor, Carrie’s distant with Stowe and can’t get out of the hotel room fast enough.
- Matthew Rauch deserves some kind of Emmy for how terrifying he makes the simple action of Burton removing his tortoise shell glasses.
- Stowe says the killing is now a matter for NCIS. I would kill to see them try to do a crossover episode with the NCIS franchise and the look of horror the CBS audience would have.
- “You’re the fucking sheriff!” “Allegedly.”
- “You know, I’m actually starting to believe in God. And I’m thinking that motherfucker hates me.”