Greg Yaitanes and Jonathan Tropper, the two main minds behind Cinemax's original series Banshee, are undeniably confident in their product. They know what it is, and how to sell it. Hence why Banshee's pilot episode, which aired in early January 2013, included one of the wildest shootouts ever seen on a television show.
Banshee's protagonist, at the time nameless (and played by Kiwi actor Antony Starr), is fresh out of the pen after completing a 15-year jail term; he's trying to drive out of New York City, straight toward the Amish town of Banshee, Pennsylvania, where his former criminal partner and lover Anastasia (Ivana Miličević) is living, or, technically, hiding out, under the new name of Carrie Hopewell, housewife and mother of two children. His trip is quickly interrupted by some suit-and-tie-clad gangster who wants him dead—and to reach that end, he engages the ex-con in a high-speed car chase on a crowded NYC street, in broad daylight, while firing bullets at the convict's car. The con eventually flees from his car on foot as the gangster keeps shooting, carelessly emptying bullets into the windshields of taxis. The con suddenly stops running, though, when he sees a massive tourist bus turning over on its side and speeding towards him, ready to crush him. And, of course, that pesky gangster is still unloading his pistol in the con's direction.
It's a reckless yet tightly choreographed action sequence that would feel right at home in the best of big-screen motion pictures. And it happens a mere four minutes into Banshee's premiere episode. As if to let viewers know, "Yeah, this show isn't going to mess around." And to confirm that, at the pilot's 15-minute mark, the con, in a grungy Banshee dive bar, snaps a goon's arm in half, shivs him to death with a steak knife, and then grabs a bottle of steak sauce, jams it into the sheriff's, a Mr. Lucas Hood's, throat, killing him.
Just so, you know, he can adopt the name Lucas Hood, become the new sheriff of Banshee, and reconnect with Anna/Carrie. As if the Banshee creators are saying, "You know those things called 'exposition' and 'patient world-building'? Yeah, screw those—we'd rather fuck shit up."
How one responds to those opening 15 minutes of Banshee's pilot dictate how he or she will feel about the remainder of the show's first season, a 10-episode triumph of over-the-top action cinema, intricate character development, and shameless nihilism. It's similar to how the first episode of American Horror Story's inaugural season—the episode in which, if you recall, viewers met the S&M ghost and were introduced to Dylan McDermott's naked rear-end—signaled the insanity that co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk had in store. Whoever couldn't hang with the initial AHS madness were indirectly advised to abandon ship.
In Banshee's case, as with American Horror Story, the rewards for those who stuck around were handsome. Although it started off aggressively macho and hinted at some kind of Michael Bay-like orgy of bro-centric genre overload, Banshee's first season didn't take long to balance out its craziness (i.e., moments like Hood fighting a gargantuan albino inmate while in the seediest prison this side of Oz) with tenderness between its characters, lending a raw and affecting resonance to Hood's situation. He's a supreme ass-kicker, a lawman who doesn't care about the actual law, and a wronged man trying to salvage a lost love, one who'll never back down from a challenge.
Much like Anna/Carrie is trying to keep her family together amidst the resurgence of her dangerous background. So when, in the season's eighth episode, "We Shall Live Forever," Anna/Carrie gets into a nearly full-episode-long brawl with a former male colleague, the superficial pleasures of seeing actress Ivana Miličević whoop serious ass just as convincingly as Gina Carano in Haywire aren't shallow. Her survival is even more desirable than the beatdown. Thanks to the show's ability to humanize its emotionally fractured and dangerous characters, she has, by that point, earned the regular Banshee viewer's compassion.
The same can be said for every other flawed resident of Banshee, PA, all of whom are in a world of trouble as Banshee's second season begins (tonight at 10 p.m. EST). Hood and Sheriff's Department underlings are put on trial for the bloody, explosion-riddled firefight they waged against crime lord, and father of Anna/Carrie, Rabbit's (Ben Cross) men during the first season finale, "A Mixture of Madness," which led to Anna/Carrie putting two bullets into Rabbit's chest. And had takedowns like this:
Her husband, Gordon (Rus Blackwell) knows about her romantic history with Hood and, coupling that with the fact that she's killing folks now, he's kicked her out of their house. She has also lost her job, placing her in dire straits and desperate for cash—thus, she rejoins Hood and her old, effeminate colleague Job (Hoon Lee) for a armored truck robbery, at high speeds, of course, and with guns aplenty. After all, Banshee is still Banshee.
And now, based on the first two episodes I've seen so far, Banshee is even more self-aware than before, in the best way possible. The dark humor is still intact, as seen when cops are investigating the wreckage caused by that armored truck heist while a horse-and-carriage slowly rides along past them on the road. Remember, this is happening within Amish Country. The show is also no less prone to T&A, with new antagonist Nola Longshadow (Odette Annable) propositioning Hood in the local bar and having wild sex with him seconds later. Rest assured, Lucas Hood is still sleeping with ridiculously beautiful women and lumping bad guys up with fists, roundhouse kicks, and assorted weaponry on the reg. In next Friday's episode, "The Thunder Man," there's a dynamite single-take fight sequence, set in a hallway, that's not unlike the one in Oldboy. The only difference is that Greg Yaitanes' camera follows Hood from over his shoulders while he's smashing ceiling light fixtures over dudes' heads. The sequence's direction and visceral effects are Banshee at its best.
Later in "The Thunder Man," there's a moment in which a certain kind of animal's innards are used for an act of extreme vengeance, and, while the scene's specifics won't be spoiled here, it's more nauseating than anything seen on The Walking Dead or American Horror Story recently. By now, though, Banshee's creative team really have no need to hold anything back. Future episodes have titles like "Ways to Bury a Man," "Evil for Evil," and "Bullets and Tears." This show isn't about to broaden itself to welcome audiences who aren't naturally inclined to revisit an old Steven Seagal movie over, say, Woody Allen. Nor should it. When ultra-violence and R-rated noir are executed as unapologetically and skillfully as Banshee, you're either on-board or left by the wayside…with an overturned tourist bus set to crush your self-serious ass.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)