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Review: The final season of ‘Banshee’ is excellent, except for this one thing

Senior Television Writer
03.31.16 12 Comments

Through its first three seasons, Cinemax's Banshee was one of the most violent, gory dramas on television. The show doesn't just revel in excess; it would barely have a reason to exist without it. At its core, the series is a familiar, seemingly unsustainable, pulp thriller about a criminal (Antony Starr as Lucas Hood) posing as a cop in a rural Pennsylvania town. But because the show's creative team, led by Jonathan Tropper, insists on overdoing nearly everything – more blood, more broken bones, more odd character traits, and just more, period – Banshee has been one of this era's most surprisingly reliable entertainments. Week after week, and even scene after scene, the show takes tired old cliches (say, the smug and invulnerable local crime boss Kai Procter, played by Ulrich Thomsen) and piles layer after layer of detail onto them (Procter is not only a shunned former member of the local Amish community, but grapples with a host of emotional demons) until they feel compellingly new again.

Take this stunning fight from last season between Matthew Rauch's Burton and Odette Annable's Nola – allegedly the two toughest killers in town – and how it just keeps going and going long after such a fight on nearly any other show (save maybe Daredevil) would have stopped, mixing in surprising visuals (that camera move over and through the car!) and stomach-churning injuries, all while allowing both characters to fully live up to the reputations Banshee had given them. A little shorter and/or a bit less graphic, and it's still an impressive piece of action choreography, but not so different from what you can find elsewhere; pushed to the limits this way, it's a calling card for everything that's made the series so bloody entertaining to date.

With the start of the fourth and final season tomorrow night at 10, though, I wonder if Banshee might have attempted one excess too many, and found one sickly old trope that even it can't entirely rehabilitate.

For the most part, the new season (I've seen four of the eight episodes) is excellent. Tropper and company find new contexts for most of the characters to match their altered surroundings. (Though the show still takes place in the same town, production moved from North Carolina to Pittsburgh for the final season, so nearly everything looks different.) Hood's former lover Carrie (Ivana Milicevic), for instance, is taking out her grief over the death of her husband on some of Banshee's endless supply of nasty thugs (some episodes almost feel, in a good way, like Milicevic's audition reel for a superhero movie), while Kai's niece Rebecca (Lili Simmons) moves from the show's margins to the center of everything that's happening. It's all to the good for a series whose premise on paper has no business making it to a fourth season, and it takes many of the characters and actors to some impressively dark places. (As badass, genderqueer hacker Job, Hoon Lee has long given one of the show's most vivid performances, but he finds some remarkable new levels of vulnerability as we find out what happened after Job was kidnapped at the end of last season.) And other once-minor players, like reformed white supremacist deputy Kurt Bunker (Tom Pelphrey) and his still very racist brother Calvin (Chris Coy), come to the forefront in ways that keep the final season from feeling like a rehash of all that's come before.

But in the middle of this comes a brand new kind of story for the show, and one that made me cringe not with delight at Banshee's latest impressive bit of the old ultraviolence, but with concern that Banshee had become TV's latest drama to prominently feature a serial killer.

Thanks to Criminal Minds, Luther, The Following, and all the other modern TV series that fetishize the activities of these guys, it's become nearly impossible to tell a serial killer story without seeming like the show is taking pleasure in it all. It can be done well, as evidenced by Hannibal (which more or less turned the killings into science fiction, and also mostly avoided both showing the victims suffering before death and using women as the victims) and the second season of Happy Valley (which presented its killers as pathetic and/or sick men who couldn't stop themselves), but there are just so many traps to avoid that it's almost always more trouble than it's worth, especially for a crime show like this that's gotten by just fine without this stuff.

Now, Banshee is a clever, self-aware series that's often enjoyed acknowledging cliches or trying to turn them on their head. There's a subplot in one upcoming episode about a director filming a serial killer torture porn movie that seems to directly acknowledge how vile and self-indulgent this kind of material so often is. And that storyline eventually brings in Eliza Dushku as an FBI agent so colorful, weird, and damaged that it's a wonder she's never been to Banshee before. But there are also a bunch of scenes of women screaming as they're being snatched, or whimpering with terror as they lie helpless in wait for the killer's monstrous ritual, and there's really no way to put lipstick on that pig.

It might seem odd to suggest that any kind of violent story can be too much for a show designed to be too much about everything. But as dark and nasty and psychologically tormented as Banshee has always been, it's also been fun on some level, and it's incredibly hard to have fun playing in this particular sandbox. I want to have faith, given everything the show has done in the past – including making me a convert after I was ambivalent about the first few episodes – but watching the serial killer scenes made me feel as incredulous as Job did when he first learned that his old partner in crime wanted to pose as a small-town sheriff: Yeah, maybe you can pull this off, but why would you want to even try it?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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