… behold, a pale horse! And the rider’s name was Death, and Hell followed close behind.
– Kai Proctor quoting Revelation 6:8 to Lucas Hood
Cinemax’s Banshee (2013-2016), now in its final season, is an adrenaline spike to the heart. With its über violent, sexually charged, boundary pushing, hyper-real content – not to mention it’s breakneck pacing and eclectic score – one could easily think of it as the ultimate guilty pleasure. But while it’s true that its pulpy, over-the-top content screams the loudest, giving the audience more than enough entertainment bang for its buck, it’s also true (believe it, or not) that Banshee has something to say about identity and the possibility of human transformation. And central to those issues is the role of violence (and death) as it connects with historical, even universal transformation. Even if the story itself is less than plausible, there’s an undeniable alchemy at work, the strange ingredients of which come together in a potent elixir that hits you like Scottish gruit ale.
New Zealand’s Anthony Starr plays the unnamed protagonist, an ex-covert ops hitman, master thief, and recently released convict, who, after 15 years in prison, finds his way to small town Banshee, Pennsylvania in search of his lover and former partner-in-crime, Anastasia (Ivana Milicevic) – the daughter of Ukrainian crime lord, “Rabbit” (Ben Cross) whom they’re both running from. Through a series of rapid-fire events, our anonymous lead assumes the identity of the newly appointed, newly arrived (from out of state), and newly dead sheriff of Banshee, one “Lucas Hood”. Not surprisingly, it turns out that Anastasia has also assumed an alternate identity as “Carrie Hopewell”, wife of District Attorney (later Mayor), Gordon Hopewell, and mother of two children.
This is the bare bones, stripped down rifle of a story that comes with a full metal jacket of questions that have everything to do with the notion of human identity. In fact, that’s precisely what Banshee is about, says Jonathan Tropper, co-writer, co-creator, and executive producer of the show. Thus, the idea of pretending to be someone you’re not is a focal point of the series. Who are we? What constitutes human identity? Is transformation possible? Or, is the question of “who we are” determined by nature and therefore beyond our control? As the series unfolds, it becomes clear that Tropper and company have very definite answers to these questions, and they use the story to flesh out those answers. And like any well written show, Banshee beckons its viewers, even dares us to think critically and reflectively about the issues at hand.
It turns out that the world of Banshee is not far from David Cronenberg’s world, a place where violence is as natural as breathing, and when it stops it feels like something’s wrong. So, even before our main character gets to the town of Banshee in the first episode, violence is never far behind him, and he meets it with alacrity and more than a little jouissance. Not only is he at home with violence, he’s a veritable conduit for it. Of course, this is no accident. In his many interviews, Tropper is clear about what drives the show, and what it sets out to communicate. For example, by the end of season 2, with the threat of Rabbit gone, and his pursuit of Carrie diminished, “Hood” is left to ponder the possibility of being someone different. But for Tropper, a self-proclaimed “naturalist”, becoming someone different is impossible, since “who you are” is determined by nature from the start. The tension then between who I am, and who I should be is the precise pivot point of the show.
Thus, we quickly discover that any thought or movement toward being someone other than who Hood is, is met with frustration, disappointment, and even more violence as he tries, in vain, to pound the square peg of who he is, into the round hole of who he wants to be. In Banshee’s world then, we are the sum total of our biological parts, which means even if a person wanted to change, it’s simply not possible. You are who you are according to the dictates of nature. Period. The fact that Hood killed his brutalizing father, joined the army at 18, and was later framed by an elite, covert arm of the government to do their dirty work, underscores the violence intrinsic to Hood’s world. His cumulative experience then only served to sharpen the violent tool he already was, is, and will be. In the same way we don’t blame a venomous snake for its behaviour, so too we can’t blame Hood for his actions. He does what does because of who he naturally is.
Since violence and death are as natural and necessary as breathing, it’s no surprise that Hood is nonplussed by his emotions and the glimpses of love he’s given. In Banshee’s universe, love is a fly in nature’s volatile ointment. In the end, it’s more trouble than its worth, since, in Hood’s case, it generates even more violence because it goes against the grain of who he is. But if change is not possible on a particular human level, let’s be clear, change does take place on a larger, historical, even universal scale. As a foreign object thrown into the eco-system of Banshee, Hood is essentially nature’s go-to guy, “elected” to bring about necessary and predetermined transformation to that system. And that looks like good old-fashioned metaphysics if you ask me. To be sure, the upheaval affected by his presence serves a higher deterministic purpose, one destined to evolve and ultimately find consummation at some future point, the details of which mere humans are not privy to.
But the truth is, this split view of the world is all-too familiar, one that’s been shaping and reshaping our collective consciousness since the time of the Greeks. Even though this “dualistic” worldview still holds sway in universities, and in the culture at large, it has come under heavy fire, especially in the 20th and now 21st centuries – because it overvalues one half of experience and devalues the other half. Indeed, when Alan Lightman talks about the growing crisis of “faith” in physics, he’s talking about recent discoveries that are calling into question long held beliefs about the cosmos. Whether we like it or not, he says, phenomena once thought to be “necessary consequences of the fundamental laws of nature” now have to be understood against the backdrop of what appears to be, by-and-large, an accidental universe (Lightman).
Not surprisingly, this ground shifting in the sciences is connected to rumblings in the humanities where similar assumptions about fundamental causes and fixed principles have been entertained since the time of Plato. But as Lightman suggests, upsetting as it may be, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and rethink our cherished ideas about who we are, how the world works, and our place in that world. So whether we’re talking about the external or internal universe, the point is, in the face of a changing, exceedingly complex, multidimensional, deeply textured world, traditional black and white models of understanding the world, and our experience of it, are no longer viable. Of course this means that Banshee’s deterministic, “cause and effect” worldview is far too simplistic for its own good when it comes to understanding who we are and why we do the things we do.
You might say, “well, it’s just a story”. And that’s true. But let’s remember that the show is not a fantasy. It may be fanciful, even hyper-real, but it still has something very specific to say to us. As we have seen, it’s a story that comes from Tropper’s deeply held assumptions about who we truly are and how the world really works. Because stories in general have the power to shape our sensibilities it’s a mistake to allow them to wash over us. And since we live in a world now saturated with images, where more people fixate on their devices, watch more television, and see more movies than read books, it’s imperative to come to grips with the fact that every image tells a story. If every story has something to tell, they also have something to sell. And what they’re selling, invariably, is a view of the world that is value laden. This means that all stories explicitly or implicitly answer fundamental questions about human existence – Who are we? Where are we? What’s right? What’s wrong? What’s the remedy? How should we live, and why?
In Banshee’s case, as we have seen, it’s telling/selling us a view of who we are, how the world works and why; and significantly, such questions always entail the ethical question: how then shall we live? So the question is this: what of the story and the assumptions that underlie it? Is Banshee, as an exaggerated microcosm of our world, an adequate representation of that world and how things work, fundamentally? And does the depiction of Lucas Hood give us a fair view of humankind and our place in the world? Since its worldview cannot account for the profound complexity of our experience, it does not do justice to that experience, in which case, nature does not have the last word – as newer models of understanding indicate. The obvious suggestion here is that human experience or “nurture” has an inevitable impact on “nature”, on who we are, even as nature itself affects nurture. As one might expect, the implications of this are far reaching, especially when one (re)considers who Hood is and why he acts the way he does.
But while Tropper and company’s view of the world may be black and white, and therefore reductionistic, there are rogue, disruptive elements in every story that highlight or otherwise draw attention to the gaps or inconsistencies in them. In the case of Banshee, that element comes flamboyantly dressed in the transgendered character of Job, who resists every attempt at pigeonholing or easy categorization. Indeed, in the opening episode, the very name of the salon he owns and operates – “HiShi” – destabilizes the brick wall that separates all hard and fast distinctions that follow, including, most especially, the one standing between “nature” and “nurture”. In so doing, it highlights the porous character of every brick, suggesting there is no way to determine the “truth” of who we are, mainly because our tools and abilities are limited. In fact, it’s dangerous to pretend we can definitively determine the truth in any form it takes. Moreover, the fact that we don’t know who “Lucas Hood” really is (and neither does he), and that the show is all about pretense, secret keeping and role playing, indicates that we’ll never get to the actual bottom of who we are. If then we’re not reducible to our biological parts, it might be more accurate, yet unsettling, to suggest that we are the many roles we assume.
But this is no groundless, free play of action where anything goes. With this possibility everything changes from the impersonal dictates of nature to personal responsibility. And responsibility changes everything because it makes us responsible and therefore accountable to each other for what we do. Contrary to the metaphor I mentioned earlier, this suggests that the fly in the ointment is actually violence (and death), and the ointment itself is love and life. And where there is love and life, there is the possibility of hope and transformation.