‘Banshee’ co-creator on season 3: ‘There have to be severe consequences’

Cinemax”s “Banshee” concluded its third – and unquestionably best – season tonight with a whole lot of violence, mystery and big emotion that”s characterized the pulp thriller from the start. It”s not that season 3 did anything appreciably different from the first two, but rather a matter of the execution going up a notch, with more elaborate fight scenes (including an episode that was wall-to-wall action as the Banshee police precinct came under siege), more colorful villains, and more dire emotional stakes.

Earlier this week, I got on the phone with the show”s co-creator, Jonathan Tropper, to discuss how the season played out and plans for the future, which includes a shorter fourth season and a move of production from North Carolina to Pittsburgh.

When the season began, you had two big intertwined threats. You had Chayton coming back and starting this insurrection by the Redbones, and you had Hood and his crew trying to rob the military. Chayton you would up resolving first and then you dealt with the military later. How did you decide that that was where this season should ultimately climax, as opposed to Hood versus Chayton?

Jonathan Tropper: Forget planning a season. Even in the way we write our episodes, I really try to stay away from conventional episodic structure. The typical episode structure would be build, build, build in about 46 minutes and hit the big climax and then give yourself five minutes to wrap it up. And what we try to do is really surprise. A big setpiece like the Nola-Burton fight might happen 15 minutes into an episode instead of 40 minutes. And what I like about that is if you have a huge explosive moment at the 30 minute mark or at the 35 minute mark or the 25 minute mark it feels like the culmination of an episode and then suddenly you”re like, “Oh shit, there”s more story.” It”s this rewarding feeling that there”s more story to tell when you think you”re done with the story. And so we approach the season the same way. The obvious finale is going after Chayton. Let”s tell that story in episode eight and then when fans are feeling, “Wow, that was the end of the season – oh wait a minute, we still have all this other stuff to get solved.” And it was just a way to make the season feel less predictable and ultimately, I think, more rewarding.

You had spent so much time building up the mythology of Chayton and the idea that Hood couldn”t beat him. How did you decide how Hood would ultimately succeed?

Jonathan Tropper: The way he ultimately succeeds is he can never beat Chayton in a fight, one-on-one. We chip away at Chayton. Chayton starts getting hurt in episode 6. He gets hurt, he gets wounded, jumps into the river, goes to Louisiana, and is in the fight club where he gets hurt a little there. So that by the time Lucas finally catches Chayton, he's been getting battered for days, if not weeks, and he's in a weakened state physically. So ultimately it”s not that Lucas bests him physically, it”s that Chayton has reached literally the end of where he can go and, being a warrior of heightened spirituality, he”s not going to fight it anymore. He embraces his death. And so it was just sort of a gradual weakening of Chayton”s physical state.

So Chayton kills Siobhan, and then in the finale, Gordon dies in the rescue of Carrie and everybody else. Was it by design that Lucas and Carrie”s significant others at this point in the series were both going to die this season, or did those two things come up independently of one another?

Jonathan Tropper: Believe it or not they actually came up independently of one another in the planning of the season, because there isn”t a larger master plan here to clear the way for these two to run off happily ever after. That”s not what”s happening here. What is happening is the culmination of a principle that we established when we first started the show which is that these characters, whether they”re heroes or anti-heroes, there have to be severe consequences for what they”ve done. And you can”t get behind a couple coming together when it costs the lives of good people. So our plan was never, “Oh, let”s give up all of their love interests so that they could get together in season 4.” That”s not the plan. The plan is to follow the arc of two people who have told some very bad lies and who have selfishly insinuated themselves into positions they should not have, and the consequences have been dire. And the idea is just that you don”t get to decide when you”re going to stop paying for your crimes.

You end on a cliffhanger with Job. Did you know when you set that up where he is, or is that something you figured it will be a fun way to end the season, and you”ll figure it out later?

Jonathan Tropper: We know exactly where he is. I remember I was ten years old when “Empire Strikes Back” came out, and when that movie ended, I was blown away by the fact that they hadn”t rescued Han Solo. And even though I knew intellectually there would be another movie, as a 10-year-old kid, you”re not seeing movies that don”t rescue the good guy. And it left me wanting more in the most painful way possible. And when we were planning the end of season 3, we talked about that “Empire Strikes Back” tone where this story is still unfolding. We”re not done telling this story. And, of course, it provides a great trigger to enter season 4 knowing that the one guy that”s qualified to find Job is Job. So who the hell is gonna find him now?

Given that we spend so much of the finale on the flashbacks with Hood and the David Harbour character, would viewers be unreasonable in assuming that the one may have something to do with the other?

Jonathan Tropper: The viewers would not be unreasonable whenever making those kinds of assumptions. Whether they”re true or not is a separate situation, but I certainly am not surprised by that and Lucas”s past is definitely a part of Job”s past and therefore obviously connected to where Job has gone.

You mentioned the Nola-Burton fight before. My understanding is that Odette (Annable) had to leave the show because she had another commitment. How did all that come about?

Jonathan Tropper: This is one of those things that some writers on TV shows don't like to talk about. Siobhan's death was a difficult story point that came organically in the writers' room and we realized what the right way to generate the story we wanted to tell. Gordon's death likewise. Nola's death, as they sometimes are, was born out of logistics. We always wanted her back, ever since we introduced her in the first season, and it was always a question of what else she had going on. And there was a period at which we didn”t even have her in the scripts for season 3 because we didn”t think we could get her. And then when her show got pushed by a few months we suddenly could get her, so we wrote her in, but it”s very hard to go season after season not knowing if we”re going to get her or not. And as much as we love her and she loved doing the show, we decided now that we know we have her for a few episodes, so let”s just give her a great fitting send off so we”re not i playing this game every season of wondering whether we should build story around Nola or not.

The reaction to that fight, even by the standards of this show, said seemed really exuberant. People were very impressed by what you did. What do you think it was about that particular one that made it as special as it was?

Jonathan Tropper: Two things. First of all, I think I think a tremendous amount of credit goes to our stunt team. I think Marcus Young and his team put together a fight that just delivered on every possible level. And the second thing, which is one of the fun things about our show, is that we tell multiple storylines in every episode and in every season. And every once in a while, we”ll sit down in the room and realize, “You know who”s never met? Like, when”s the last time you saw Carrie and Procter talk to each other? When”s the last time you saw Nola and Burton in a room together? Nola”s supposed to be the most dangerous women in Banshee and Burton”s supposed to be the most dangerous guy in Banshee. They should probably meet.” And I think there is a little bit of a kind of fanboy excitement at those two from slightly separate worlds of Banshee who you”ve always maybe wondered, “Who would win in a fight?” and actually showing you who would.

That”s also the episode where Hood is on the big rig with the man who ordered the death of the real Hood”s son. Among the various super villains you”ve introduced, that was a fun one. Where did the idea for that come from?

Jonathan Tropper: We always try to leave a few strands loose, some of which we”ll pick up and some of which we won”t, but the idea that we could bring this gangster from Oregon and the challenge was how do we make it different? How do we make him feel like somebody new and not central casting? And we thought about this idea of just a horribly obese gangster who was so fat that he can”t even use conventional means of transportation. And I had this vision in my head, which I”ve had for a long time, long before we did “Banshee,” of a guy thinking he”s in a room and then opening up a door and suddenly being on the highway. I just thought that there was a great visual surprise to that.

How long had you been itching to do the “Assault on Precinct 13” episode with the Redbones attacking the Cadi?

Jonathan Tropper: We didn”t have that idea before we started planning the season. I think initially the first germ of it came from Greg Yaitanes, and I don”t remember exactly where he got it from. It was his first thought that it would be really cool to do a contained episode in the Cadi that felt like a siege. Because, every year we try to do the “Banshee” version of a bottle episode. On most shows, bottle episodes are to save money. Our bottle episodes tend to cost more than any of our other episodes. But we always try to pick something a little different, and with season 2 we did the unicorn episode, which was so vastly different from anything we”d done. We didn”t want to repeat ourselves, and so instead we thought, “Let”s do this siege episode for episode 5, where we could have all of our stories converge in the same real estate.” And we started planning the season with the intention of landing them all in the Cadi for that fifth episode which gave us a great way to direct the season as well, to direct the energies of where the narrative was going to go. And I think it became really one of the best episodes we”ve ever done.

And then you follow that with an episode that”s at least somewhat stylistically in common with the unicorn episode, where Hood is imagining this alternate reality where he saved the real Hood and everything unfolded differently.

Jonathan Tropper: Yeah, the “Sliding Doors” episode. We wanted to revisit the roots of the show and we realized what happens is, whenever you lose somebody, anytime something traumatic happens, there's a natural inclination in your brain to keep going back to the moment where you could have changed it. And for Lucas, it”s like if he hadn”t just made that impulsive decision to become the sheriff, none of what followed in the next two seasons would have happened. And a lot of people died and he caused a lot of pain, so he”s sort of fantasizing that he just came into town and had the good sense to get the hell out.

You did the Job cliffhanger, and introduced Bunker, whose story we only got to see play out a little bit towards the end of the season. You were clearly planning this year out with next year in mind, even though the renewal didn”t come until later. Had Cinemax given you a sense that you were likely to come back, or you figured you would try this no matter what?

Jonathan Tropper: We”re Cinemax”s highest rated show. Something really bad would have to happen for us not to have the option of coming back. And we”ve always had tremendous support from the network, so we go on with the assumption that we”re always going to come back until we”re ready to not come back. You can”t do your season with no thought to the future. If you”re killing characters, you have to be introducing characters. It would be really hard to start season 4 if I have to suddenly introduce new characters. You could do it, but we generally assume we”re going to be able to come back if we continue doing our jobs well.

Let”s talk about the next season. You”re relocating to Pittsburgh and you”re also doing two fewer episodes. I assume Pittsburgh is for the tax incentives but why are you doing a shorter season this time?

Jonathan Tropper: The shorter season is really the newer model that Cinemax is moving to on newer shows. Our show is a pricey show to produce, andI can”t really speak to what the corporate decisions for that were, or what the calculations were. But they asked us if we thought we could tell our story in eight episodes. They have their reasons, which are financial and happening above my pay grade. But I think the move to Pittsburgh was also fairly expensive. That”s all speculation on my part. That happens above my pay grade, so for whatever reason on certain shows, they”re looking at the eight episode model. And I think we”re kind of the flagship show. We”re an obvious one to try that on.

And you feel like you can do squeeze ten episodes worth of story into an eight episode bag, and it”s not going to be an issue?

Jonathan Tropper: If we had gone into the season planning 10 episodes and then told we had to do it in 8, that would be an issue. But before we went into the writer's room, we knew about the eight episode issue, so you just plan accordingly.

A lot of people in this show have died. A lot of people have found out that Hood is not who he says he is. How much longer do you think creatively you can and want to keep this story going?

Jonathan Tropper: We have a plan. We've always had a plan. The network's aware of our plan. I'm really loathe to talk about it, only because I think it colors the way you watch it, even if you know it”s the second to last season or if you know it”s the last season. And our feeling is that when we”re ready to announce that, we will, but we”ll not let people know what that plan is. At the same time, I”ve said from the beginning that this is not a premise that lends itself to seven or eight seasons. At some point, it has to evolve. I think we showed at the end of the finale of season 3 that we”re planning for everyone to be in a different position when we come back. You know if that last scene with Hood and Procter I think was pretty indicative, and I think you can only be a fake sheriff for so long.

What you”re suggesting is that there”s a chance that we may be watching – maybe not next season, maybe not the season after – a season of “Banshee” not knowing it”s the final season, and then it comes to an end and Cinemax says, “Oh, by the way, that was the final episode ever.”

Jonathan Tropper: Well, I suspect that that wouldn”t happen. I just think that would be an argument between the network and the writers and how they want to present that. Obviously, you have to weigh the recommended marketing reasons to announce this is the final season. And then there are, I think, storytelling reasons to not. And so that”s all stuff that I think needs to get worked out but has not been discussed yet.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com