Saturday, February 7, 2015

Banshee Review: "Tribal", or how Cinemax's Most Fun Show Turned Me into an Emotional Mess

I used to think Banshee was a stupid show. Fun stupid, certainly—there is always vicarious pleasure to be derived from watching invincible heroes maneuver out of impossible situations, especially when they complement their brawny machismo with a wink and a smirk. The show's first season was happily insane, and even as its second run deepened its mythology and tightened up its writing—an improvement that rated fairly well in my catalogue of 2014's TV shows—I never experienced it as anything more than impressively choreographed entertainment. Banshee has always been an enjoyable show, and it's grown funnier and more confident as it's progressed, but it never made me feel anything.

That all changed last night with "Tribal", the fifth episode of the show's powerhouse third season. (At the risk of stating the obvious: Spoilers follow.) As per usual, it's a strikingly well-executed hour, with sharply staged gunplay and agonizing tension. That tension is especially high this week thanks to "Tribal"'s structure as a bottle episode; apart from a handful of scenes with Kai Proctor's dying wife, the entirety of the hour takes place within the confines of the CADI, the car-dealership-turned-police-precinct that finds itself under attack from the fearsome Chayton Littlestone and his band of dispensable Redbones. At the outset, Sheriff Lucas Hood dodges a hail of gunfire and slaps the Emergency button, dropping down protective gates and temporarily insulating the CADI's occupants—a merrily dysfunctional band including Hood's deputies, a handful of convicts (including Proctor), and terrified civilians—against Chayton's military-grade firepower. At this point, I settled in for another typically exciting episode of Banshee, one laden with improbable action beats and gory violence.

"Tribal" delivers that, but also much more. The heart of the episode focuses on what sneakily became, over the past season-and-a-half, the heart of the show: Hood's relationship with his loyal and conflicted deputy, Siobhan. When Banshee began, it needed an outsized romance to match its pulp origins, and it found that in Hood's decades-old love for Carrie Hopewell, the woman he spent 15 years in prison for. (If you missed it, Hood isn't really a cop, he's a career criminal posing as a cop. Or, as his confederate Job put it in the prior episode when pointing out the differences between Hood and Siobhan: "There are fake cops—that's you—and there are real cops—that's her.") But as the show gradually ditched its comic-book extremism in favor of a more character-driven outrageousness, the sparks between Hood and Carrie gently extinguished themselves, and his tender, developing romance with Siobhan became the show's most touching and complicating subplot. Earlier this season, when Hood wryly observed how absurd it was for the two of them to take separate cars to work, Siobhan needled him that this would remain the status quo until they moved in together, a prospect she didn't want to push. Hood's playful response: "You can push a little." It was a funny, seemingly throwaway scene, but it was actually a seminal moment for Banshee, with Hood acknowledging that he might be willing to put down roots in this dusty Pennsylvania town instead of just looking for the next big score.

Of course, their relationship became a whole lot more complicated in the episode preceding "Tribal", when Siobhan discovered Hood's true identity (or, more to the point, that he doesn't even have a true identity). After an understandable freakout that involved her waving her gun in Hood's face, Siobhan composed herself and eventually demanded that he resign. That, of course, is a narrative impossibility—there is no Banshee without its fraudulent sheriff—but midway through "Tribal", the episode takes a timeout from its hot-blooded action for Hood and Siobhan to share a strained, remarkably honest conversation. She remains enraged and confused about Hood's seeming betrayal, but she also recognizes that she loves this man, whoever he is. And Hood, it becomes clear, has fallen in love with her as well, to the point where he's willing to drop his perpetual disguise and reveal himself to her fully. It's a stunningly quiet moment on a shamelessly loud show, and it creates the flicker of possibility that Hood and Siobhan might actually find true happiness together.

And then, Chayton snaps her fucking neck.

Trieste Kelly Dunn on "Banshee"

I confess that I knew Siobhan was going to die roughly two-thirds of the way through "Tribal", when she tells Hood to head to the basement without her, a moment of unmistakable foreshadowing that I prayed I'd read incorrectly. But really, I should have anticipated this soul-crushing development a few scenes earlier, when Hood whispers to Siobhan his real name. Or maybe I should have figured it out even before that, when Brock, another of Hood's deputies, confesses that he can no longer accept Hood's frontier justice, informing him with grim frankness: "Everything you touch turns to blood." Hood touched Siobhan, and now her blood's gone cold.

It must be said, the way she dies is a bravura piece of filmmaking unlike anything Banshee has ever pulled off. Antony Starr has grown increasingly comfortable in his role as Hood, softening the character's broad outlines and settling in as a pleasant combination of wisecracking sheriff and cavalier outlaw. But when Hood turns a corner and sees Chayton's arm snaked around Siobhan's throat, Starr delivers his best work of the series, first barking in wild fury, then suddenly surrendering as tears enter his eyes and he recognizes that he's helpless. Banshee has proved time and again that it's as capable as any TV show of delivering breathless, blood-spattered violence. (The battle between Nola and Burton in this season's "A Fixer of Sorts" is one of the most breathtaking fight scenes I've ever seen on television.) But it's never done anything like this, turning down the volume as Chayton murmurs "Shhhh" to Siobhan, and you think that maybe he'll let her go, and then... snap.

So it's a brilliantly executed moment, but it's also one that really shook me up. Part of that is thanks to Trieste Kelly Dunn's quietly excellent performance as Siobhan; with minimal grandstanding, she turned Hood's lover from a stock sidekick into a real character, shading her with steely toughness and silent vulnerability. Still, while I always liked Siobhan, I never imagined that her death would feel like an emotional sledgehammer, pulverizing me with a sense of inconsolable loss. Hell, I never imagined that Banshee could make me feel any emotions at all. It was always the mindlessly fun show on Cinemax, the hour on Friday night where I could turn off my brain and revel in its outlandish heists and exaggerated set pieces. Now, my heart is in this show, even if it feels like it just got ripped out.

I am not entirely happy with this development, and I question what it means for Banshee as a show going forward. It appears that it's no longer content just to serve as gleeful, no-holds-barred entertainment. Now, it wants to mean something. We'll see if it can. In the meantime, I remain reeling from the clobbering impact of this terrific, shattering episode. As a series, Banshee has always made me smile. But with "Tribal", it did something I never could have suspected: It caused me pain.

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