No intelligent discussion of stylish television, action scenes, sex on screen, or sheer pulpy pleasure can be complete now without mention of Cinemax’s first ever original drama, Banshee. That alone is a hell of an achievement. Thanks to an excellent ensemble cast, visual direction every bit the equal of Hannibal, Breaking Bad, or anything you’ll see on the silver screen, and characters more layered and intriguing than they ever needed be for a guilty TV pleasure, the show will rightly be remembered as a cult classic and one which will hopefully serve as a career springboard for the many talented people who worked on it.* And yet, you can’t talk about Banshee; a show which screamed from the mountaintop in primal exaltation, without discussing its abysmal, whimpering, limp-wristed, hobble-off-into-the-night, final season.
* – My shout, for what it’s worth is that Anthony Starr would be superb as the morally assaulted Commander Shepard should the Mass Effect movie ever get going, but don’t hold your breath.
Banshee season four, for a variety of reasons, was barely the same show as the one that proceeded it for three years. A change of filming location didn’t help – Banshee went from being a town you could imagine driving through in five minutes to a urban sprawl and so the, “small town; big trouble” cells that ran through the show’s blood were immediately weakened. Gone was the charm of a cop shop in an old Cadillac showroom, replaced by… well, a police station. How dull is that?
A needless two-year time jump didn’t help matters either. This has always been a lazy writers’ technique for character development and only rarely, as in the case of Battlestar Galactica’s season two finale does it ever really justify itself with a payoff that simply couldn’t have been achieved another way.
Then there was sidelining beloved characters for new ones which added nothing to proceedings. Bringing in the talented Eliza Dushku as a junkie FBI agent was largely pointless. There was never any threat (as there had been with Zeljko Ivanek’s Fed), of Hood’s past being discovered. Having established Brock as Sheriff, a new investigator wasn’t required. Hood’s ‘new’ love interest of the year was Rebecca, who, for no narrative payoff whatsoever, was pregnant with his baby before she was murdered off screen so Banshee could swap action drama for a police procedural format.
New officer I’m-sure-she-had-a-name-but-who-honestly-remembers as Proctor’s spy in the Banshee Police Department was never given enough development for anyone to care as to her motivations or fate, and so when her end came, no one cared. Speaking of Proctor, that whole becoming mayor thing never really went anywhere, did it?
Job had been kidnapped at the end of season three and his absence for the first half of season four left a chasm in the show’s landscape. Hoon Lee as a crossdressing, gun-toting, whisky-swigging, foul-mouthed, hacker has been one of TV’s most charming characters in years, and his exasperated, “it’s about fucking time,” upon his return was surely echoed in every living room as it happened.
Then there was Sugar; the first friend our hero made in Banshee. Wise ex-con bartender may not be a new role, but Frankie Faison brought good humour with an undercurrent of darkness to it, and his reward was being reduced to a bit part for most of the final season. Deva and her brother are non-entities too – the latter doesn’t appear at all.
Banshee has always matched its heroes against TV’s best comic-book villains, who remain in the mind long after their runs (often single episodes) are done. Nola Longshadow who tomahawked her way into one of TV’s finest ever fistfights. The Jason Statham-like cockney assassin who feeds the birds Scotch-soaked bread while calmly discussing his own mortality. Olek who loved Ana dearly, but whose loyalty to her father meant he would kill her if need be. The enormous bookkeeper who was too fat to fit in a car and so was transported everywhere in a pimped-out lorry. The terrifying albino who seemed physically invincible. Chayton Littlestone whose dreams of a native American violent revolution at times seemed entirely plausible. Mr Rabbit, whose wrath would hunt Hood to the ends of the earth for vengeance. Kai Proctor, who openly defied God to strike him down for his crimes, but privately wished only for redemption in his mother’s eyes.
And a bespectacled, bow-tie wearing, silent aide. Yes. Banshee did bad guy very well indeed.
And as part of this, it had built up its local Nazi population as future villains-in-chief from early on in its first season. When they executed a black police officer – one of the show’s few entirely good and honest guys – his wife, and their unborn child, it was easy to hate them and wish for their destruction. When they blowtorched the skin off a young officer who had left the Brotherhood and tried to start a better life for himself, we knew they would be the primary threat to our heroes in the last ever season.
Except they weren’t. There was a new Satanist serial killer and his death cult. On paper, a man believing he acts on the word of the Devil is absolutely ridiculous enough for this show. But to stretch it over seven episodes in a not-particularly-interesting serial killer plot? That’s never been what Banshee’s about. You’d be forgiven for thinking this season had been given over to trialling a new show as the final season of The Practice did for Boston Legal. Eliza Dushku in a noir detective thriller, anyone? Oh wait, Netflix kind of did that already.
And why did anyone bother bringing in the Colombian Cartel for a cameo? The Nazi Senator? (always nice to see Frasier’s Bulldog, mind you.)
Then there were the fights. Oh dear Lord, the fights. Daredevil is understandably lauded for its choreography but next to Banshee’s Lucas Hood, Matt Murdock is a ballerina. Remember the corridor scene in Daredevil’s second episode? Banshee did it first. Nola’s one-shot battle with Burton in, around, and through a classic Rolls Royce was stunning. Ana’s episode-long fight to the death with Olek was tear-inducing. Hood fighting for his life at the side of a road while eighteen wheelers scream past, his desperate struggle to survive in prison, his arresting of a rapist cagefighter. All were a visual feast of brutality TV hasn’t seen since Spartacus and Crixus fought the Romans.
Throughout it all has been the unspoken promise that we would eventually see Hood face off against Burton and while the show’s final episode did deliver this, it paled in insignificance given what had come before. Like the rest of season four, this fight just didn’t come close to the energy of what preceded it.
Showrunner Jonathan Tropper made a point of often saying not everyone would make it out the series finale in one piece, and yet, they pretty much did. Ana got her children back. Hood got to ride off into the sunset. Job returned to metropolitan civilisation, Brock got to be Sheriff of the sleepy town he loved, Bunker settled down with his love and her child, and Sugar retired a millionaire. No one likely has a complaint about this; there’s nothing inherently wrong with a happy ending, but it’s not what we were promised.
Banshee had a good final episode to a miserly final season to a superlative television show. As one friend suggested, you could always imagine it was cancelled after its third season and leave it there. Rocky V, as we all know, never really happened. Maybe Banshee season four didn’t either.
And maybe that would have been for the best. Something seems to happen to shows in their fourth seasons. The West Wing, which for its opening two seasons was as fine as television has ever been, struggled so much in its fourth year to get traction that Aaron Sorkin quit the show. Of the many hilarious episodes in Steven Moffat’s Coupling, no one’s favourite is in season four. Sherlock’s fourth ‘season’ (the Victorian Christmas special) was universally panned. Luther, which is arguably the best police drama the BBC has ever produced, had a two episode by-the-numbers fourth run. Channel 4’s chavtastic Misfits never really recovered from the loss of so many of the original stars and the fourth season was the beginning of the end. Battlestar Galactica which tore the label of best ever sci-fi series from Star Trek and never gave it back, nevertheless had a confusing, disappointing, and muddled fourth and final year.
Banshee. Sweet, beautiful Banshee went from a blazing hot sun of stylish and emotive action drama to… well, nothing of any note whatsoever and the scenes we wanted to see were largely absent. Brock finding out the truth about Hood was good, but it was one standalone scene sidelined by a lame serial killer plot, rather than built up to and savoured over time. Proctor always knew there was something off about Hood; how would he react to finding out the truth? What exactly was the familial connection between him and Sugar? Who wouldn’t have preferred to spend more time with Rebecca scheming to take over her uncle’s crime empire and risking likely death at his hands than see her serve as a plot point for a story no one wanted told? What, exactly did Hood becoming a hairy hermit accomplish? His finally leaving as Sheriff wasn’t worthy of a scene? Why wasn’t every episode just Sugar and Job flinging lovable barbs at each other before retiring to Tahiti together to set up a cocktail bar & hairdressers?
Banshee remains in my top ten list. It is a wonderful show, and one I’ll enjoy revisiting for many years to come. But if it teaches us anything about making television, it’s that maybe, just maybe, you should plan to end things by the end of your third year, and if you want to make a different show, go make one. But don’t change a winning formula as Jonathan Tropper said they explicitly set out to do after the action-laden season three. Don’t keep the brand and change the format. We deserve better as viewers.
And Banshee deserved better as a show.