[This is a review of the Banshee season 2 premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
I'll be the first to admit that when Banshee, Cinemax's insanity-fueled homage to pulp, premiered around this time last year, it didn't exactly wind my watch. There was a tremendous amount of plot trotted out in that initial outing, and after sifting through a ton of exposition, none of it seemed to make the characters interesting as anything outside of rudimentary tools for progressing that plot. That is to say: There was a lot of potential in the premise, but the individuals caught up in that premise fell a little flat.
As the season progressed, however, and the story of an unnamed, recently paroled (and seemingly indestructible) ex-con who'd assumed the identity of a recently deceased sheriff began to spin its wild narrative vortex, leaving a path of destruction in its wake, there emerged an intriguing and entertaining tension around the newly christened Sheriff Lucas Hood (Antony Starr) and his involvement in the dark Pennsylvania town that bears the program's name.
Needless to say, by season's end, there was certainly enough going on with Hood, his lost love Ana/Carrie (Ivana Milicevic), and Rabbit (Ben Cross), her violent, Ukrainian crime boss of a father, to serve as fuel for the show, but somehow, Banshee also managed to throw in a feud between the town's own crime boss, the excommunicated Amish slaughterhouse owner, Kai Proctor (Ulrich Tomsen), and Alex Longshadow (Anthony Ruivivar), the soon-to-be chief of the Kinaho Tribe.
There was an admirably loose, freewheeling, making-it-up-as-we-go-along kind of vibe to the series – especially in later episodes – that was evocative of the very man who was at the center of every outlandish event the town would endure. By season's end, it seemed like Hood's ruse (and the very premise of the show) would come crashing down around him. And, as we see in the season 2 premiere, 'Little Fish,' it kind of did; only Hood (with some recuperation, of course) wound up being the last man standing.
Because season 1 ended with what appeared to be the culmination of at least one central plotline of the series, the premiere winds up being a strange amalgam of recap and insinuation. Most of the episode is spent with the Banshee sheriff's department being deposed by the cancer-ridden, chain-smoking Agent Racine (Zeljko Ivanek, The Bourne Legacy, Argo), who, mercifully brings a great deal of the show's incredibly dark humor to the proceedings. This, oddly, helps keep things from being entirely bogged down by exposition disguised as Racine's line of questioning, which is quick to point out that Carrie has been exposed as Rabbit's daughter – which she believes threatens Hood's secret – and that she now faces criminal charges, which will be overseen by her husband Gordon (Rus Blackwell).
Meanwhile, the rest of the town's four-person police force is given little more than a slap on the wrist because, as Racine puts it when confronting Agent Xavier (Derek Cecil), these "small town shenanigans" are "little fish" compared to capturing the very much still alive Mr. Rabbit.
At first, Racine – with his sunken eyes and gaunt face – seems like the typical obsessed with the one-criminal-he-can't-catch FBI agent, but his insistence that his "cancer has cancer" and the knowing look he gives Hood when reviewing his case file and then meeting him in person, makes him one of the more interesting characters to be introduced since the series began. Ivanek has a way of delivering lines like he's chewing on a particularly tough piece of meat, and the result is another uncomfortably funny character in Banshee who could do some considerable comedic damage if he were to ever share some space with the show's resident comedic duo of Job (Hoon Lee) and Sugar Bates (Frankie Faison). Throw in a scene approaching Lynchian levels of surrealism, where Rabbit wakes in the forest and crushes a hapless squirrel in his hand, and it's clear this show hasn't lost its twisted sense of humor.
But it hasn't exactly found the essence behind the conman pretending to be Sheriff Hood, either. As durable and single-minded as he is (and as convincingly hardened as Starr's performance is), Hood remains something of a cipher. A certain amount of uncertainty is expected when you're setting an entire series around a man with no name, but deliberate ambiguity doesn't necessarily translate into a compelling mystery. For all his supposed love of Ana/Carrie, it can sometimes come off less like genuine affection and more like the only thing he actually knows.
Now that's a storyline or character aspect worth investigating, if it's true, but considering he practically beds every pretty face he sees in that ramshackle storage room he calls home, there's precious little evidence that the man everyone calls Hood is his own worst enemy when it comes to finding some kind of anchor in the world. There's plenty of suggestion that Deva (Ryann Shane) will be the next thing keeping Hood in Banshee, so as the season progresses, it will be important for the character to see how that dynamic shakes out.
In the end, the season 2 premiere feels like the series premiere in many ways and yet, surprisingly, for a show that made its name largely off a depiction of brutal violence and sex, there's little of that here (with the exception of Hood's tryst with Odette Annabel's Kinaho assassin, Nola). 'Little Fish' is an exposition-heavy episode of television that manages to make intimations for some of its major characters, without offering much in the way of actual progression. (Thankfully, in the coming episodes, the show does manage to play out some of what it's hinting at here in interesting ways.)
Most of the interest here in this first outing comes from characters finding themselves stuck in a period of transition – like Hood, they're caught between two lives. If, amidst all the fisticuffs, high-speed robberies, and squirrel crushing Banshee can discover and show the audience what it is about these characters that makes them want to choose one life over the other, then season 2 might just top the first 10 episodes in something other than the crazy department.
Banshee continues next Friday with 'The Thunder Man' @10pm on Cinemax.