Welcome to Banshee, a scenic wonderland best described as a demented Brigadoon. This small town in rural Pennsylvania acts like a black hole, attracting various international criminal overlords, drug cartels, neo-Nazis, heavily armed Indian racial activists, renegade Army units, and one ex-con jewel thief posing as Banshee’s sheriff. The world of Banshee runs on a magical dark energy – violent, chaotic, hypersexual, and relentless. Cinemax’s Banshee (2013-16) resembles the immensely popular Sons of Anarchy (2008-14), Kurt Sutter’s Shakespearean biker gang soap opera. Both shows seem to occur in an alternate universe where the normal rules of civilization, physics (when it comes to bullets and fighting), and narrative logic seldom apply. Like Banshee, SOA also features an endless parade of violent encounters in a similarly mythical town called Charming. In this northern California enclave, criminals, terrorists (the IRA for some reason) and inherently corrupt law enforcement leave piles of bodies in their wake week after week.
The drama in both shows revolves around a rough, charismatic anti-hero. Banshee’s is Lucas Hood (Antony Starr), whose real name is never revealed. Released from prison after fifteen years and on the run from his crime lord boss Rabbit (Ben Cross), the enigmatic master thief tracks down his ex-lover Anastasia (Ivana Miličević), Rabbit’s daughter, in Amish country.
On his first night in town he witnesses the new sheriff murdered during a robbery gone bad. Seizing the opportunity, the ex-convict assumes Lucas Hood’s identity to both hide from Rabbit and buy time to reconcile with Ana, who is now Carrie Hopewell. Ana is married to the district attorney and has two children, one of who is Hood’s. Hood struggles to maintain his new identity as a lawman while still embracing crime alongside his partners Job (Hoon Lee) and Sugar (Frankie Faison). Ana even comes out of retirement, drawn to Hood yet committed to preserving her safe, suburban idenity. Hood quickly runs afoul of the local kingpin, Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), a wayward son of the Amish community who built an impressive and enduring criminal empire in the heart of little Banshee.
Whether it is evading Rabbit’s hordes of Eastern European hitmen, Proctor’s golem-like freak bodyguard Clay Burton (Matthew Rauch), or Redbones tribal gang leader Chayton Littlestone (Geno Segers), Lucas Hood acts as an unwitting agent of chaos for Banshee, simultaneously attracting and repelling threats to his adopted town.
Why do I love Banshee? Of course it is frivolous, escapist fare. Maybe that’s the answer, but its more than that. Banshee revels in its own absurdity and commits fully to crazy storylines in which this picturesque town becomes the center of the criminal universe. There are amazingly choreographed fight scenes between Hood and several monstrous men who could snap him like a twig in real life; equally energetic love scenes with women who, while stunningly beautiful, are complex characters with all the advanced fighting skills of their male counterparts; and Hood’s brooding and dark past, while cliché to an extent, is strangely compelling. The performances are strong. Antony Starr and Ivana Miličević are a smoldering ill-fated couple. Proctor’s excommunicated Amish niece Rebecca Bowman (Lili Simmons) is much more than a pretty face, she’s Proctor’s equal when it comes to ruthless Machiavellian maneuvers. Fans of The Wire will love seeing Frankie Faison as Sugar, the ex-boxer bar owner who becomes Hood’s confidante and ally. And Job, the trans computer genius played by Hoon Lee might have the most passionate fan base of them all.
Maybe because I just finished a re-watch of Mad Men, but I can’t help but think of Lucas Hood as a Don Draper character, and not just because they both steal someone’s identity to escape a disreputable past. We know Don Draper is Dick Whitman and as Mad Men unfolds Don’s armor is stripped off of the character, leaving him a painfully vulnerable, sobbing mess. Too many lies, too many reinventions, but perhaps the series’ conclusion suggests Don Draper has finally reconciled with Dick Whitman. True growth and a chance for happiness might exist.
Hood became Hood to recapture a love that can never be with Ana. Like Don, Hood brings much of the chaos on himself, although the turmoil in Banshee is decidedly external and rarely internal. Banshee ends with the menacing Proctor finally brought down by his own avarice, at enormous cost, and Hood finally leaves Banshee on his Harley for a fate undetermined. Sugar urges Hood to open himself up to life, not just run away. “The past has kept you locked up long enough. Today, there is really one question left to ask yourself. What are you going to do now?” This seems to be the sentiment guiding Don Draper’s exit as well.
It is not exactly meditation and the ding of a bell signaling commercial nirvana, but there is optimism for a character who has suffered (and has caused so much suffering). Maybe Hood can leave one destructive identity behind and find some peace with himself. The Banshee Chamber of Commerce no doubt wishes him a long overdue farewell.