Saturday, February 8, 2014

Banshee Review: "The Truth About Unicorns" - A Long Drive to New Places

Ivana Milicevic takes down an assassin in "Banshee"

Cinemax’s Banshee is a show I don’t normally write about because it’s a show that I generally don’t take very seriously.  That’s not meant as an extreme criticism of the show, since it doesn’t really take itself that seriously.  Banshee is an utterly gratuitous show, filled with gratuitous language, gratuitous violence, and gratuitous sex.  But last night’s episode “The Truth About Unicorns” flipped the show on its head, eschewing the brutal fights, lurid bedroom scenes, and extraneous plots for a tight, focused hour chronicling Lucas and Carrie’s trip back from prison and delving into the question of what might have been.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Banshee is the story of an unnamed jewel thief (Anthony Starr) who, upon being released from prison, heads to Banshee, Pennsylvania to find his former partner and lover, Carrie (Ivana Milicevic).  After assuming the identity of the new town sheriff, Lucas Hood (who conveniently had never been to Banshee and was killed in front of our still unnamed protagonist), he discovers that Carrie has moved on with her life and is now married with two children.  Not content to move on with his life, Lucas remains in town as the sheriff who has to navigate a pulpy, violent world populated by a former-Amish mobster, an Amish community, a Native American population and other colorful characters, including Carrie’s gangster father, Rabbit, who is intent on getting revenge on Lucas for stealing from him.  It’s an insane premise that works largely because the show embraces its insanity.  There isn’t another series on television quite like it and sometimes being competent and unique can work just as well as being good but familiar.

What makes “The Truth About Unicorns” stand out, then, is how much of a departure it is from a usual episode of Banshee.  It’s obvious almost instantly as the episode employs rapid cuts in several scenes to play with time or to show us alternate realities.  The second scene, for example, cuts back and forth between reality, where Carrie greets Lucas outside the prison gates with little more than a “Hey” before getting into his truck, and Lucas’s imagination, where Carrie runs into his waiting arms and they embrace like long-parted lovers.  Later, near the episode’s end, we get the same rapid cuts between Lucas and Carrie leaving his burning cabin (and the life he had hoped for them), and their return to Banshee and the life neither truly wants, but which provides just enough reason for them to stay.

Apart from its visual style, “The Truth About Unicorns” leaves the usual jumble of stories aside to tell the story of two people, the lives they lead, and the lives they could have had.  We see them strolling through an open-air market in a distant town, buying clothes and toys for the kids.  They case a jewelry store, as though the last fifteen years never happened.  And Lucas takes Carrie on a detour to the secluded rural home he bought prior to his incarceration that he believed would someday be theirs.  The long drive and night alone allows for these two characters to reflect on the horrible things they’ve experienced and witnessed (and done and said to each other).  I’ve never considered either Starr or Milicevic to be a particularly dynamic performer but they are phenomenal here, showing ranges of emotions I’d never have expected from either of them.  Starr, especially, manages a level of lovelorn here that kept me riveted throughout.

Banshee being Banshee, the episode couldn’t be all talking and sideways glances and so Zeljko Ivanek returns as our not-so-friendly, neighborhood FBI agent.  Apparently he’s known all along that Lucas wasn’t really Lucas, but he was willing to play along because he’s been on a twenty-year mission to bring down Rabbit.  He lays all this out right before taking a bullet to the back of the head from one of Rabbit’s assassins.  The battle that follows is, like the rest of the episode, seemingly out of place in an episode of Banshee.  The show’s violence is most often of the bloody, bone-crunching kind.  But here, after a brief initial firefight, the action stills, Lucas and Carrie stalk the assassin through a field of tallgrass.  It’s a tense, almost silent scene, punctuated only by the score and rustling of grass.  The camera work here is stunning as well, especially the overhead crane shots.

If there is one complaint to be made out “The Truth About Unicorns” it is the score.  Due to the paucity of dialogue (amazingly only five characters have speaking roles in this episode), the score tends to be a bit overwrought, trying a little too hard to create drama and forgetting that one of the themes of the episode is “less is more.” 

That small quibble aside, “The Truth About Unicorns” is an amazing episode of television and a fantastic display of what can happen when a show steps outside of its comfort zone.  I doubt we’ll see more episodes of Banshee like this and, really, that’s probably for the best since I’m not sure they could handle this slowed pace for long, nor would be in their interest to try.  But as an experiment I would say they succeeded in just about every way, for one week, at least, turning competent and unique into just plain great.

One spare thought - 

Lucas and Carrie never touch during the episode, despite spending most of its running time no more than an arm's length apart.  The show goes a bit far in pointing this out during the market scene, but it's such an effective idea: these two are so close together physically, but so far apart emotionally that they can't bear to even touch each other.

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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