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‘Banshee,’ ‘Game of Thrones’ and the Problems With Serial-Killer Plots

I very much wanted to write a glowing tribute to “Banshee” today, the day of its series finale. And yet despite having loved its first three seasons, I can’t do that, in part because the Cinemax drama got tripped up by a device that also marred at least a couple otherwise interesting shows this season.

Banshee” could have spent the majority of its final season showcasing its wonderful cast, it could have told more enjoyably pulpy stories with rural-noir flair, and it could have left fans slack-jawed with glee after giving them a swan song full of fantastic action scenes and creatively staged fistfights.

Instead, it gave us a serial killer. An incredibly boring serial killer who led a Satanist cult. Believe it or not, that whole storyline was dumber than it sounds. 

The character and his preposterous coven felt as though they’d been borrowed from the most predictable procedurals on TV. I still can’t quite believe that in its final season, “Banshee” hired Eliza Dushku to play a damaged FBI agent — a role tailor-made for her skills — and then subsumed her character into the silliness of the serial-killer plot. She spent a large part of a recent episode strapped to a table as a ridiculous Satanist with forehead bumps that were supposed to be horns talked about his fidelity to the Dark Lord.

I’m trying to think of a word that conveys complete boredom mixed with disappointment with a side order of massive eye-rolls, and I’m coming up empty.

For its first three seasons, “Banshee” skillfully played around with the standard elements of action-based dramas as well as film noir: It had a damaged hero using a false identity, a distinctive setting filled with crime and memorably damaged people, shards of tender romance amid the cynicism and a thoughtfully askew visual aesthetic, as well as lots of sex and skull-rattling fights. But it always came down on the right side of cliches — it was aware of them, but never quite fell into the traps of imitation, rote predictability and superficiality.

“Banshee’s” fights weren’t just a chance to show off fisticuffs; punches landed with real force, left big bruises and were usually motivated by deep emotional desires. Characters fought to get revenge, to demonstrate solidarity, or because they were determined — even in situations that seemed hopeless — to go down swinging. Lucas Hood (Antony Starr), who impersonated a lawman in the small town of Banshee, might have been an impulsive mess, but his moral dilemmas were depicted with real clarity and verve, and the same was true for his knockabout friends. This was a fun, escapist show that was much smarter and more complex than it had to be.

And then this season four mess came along, and it’s as if “Banshee” forgot to exhibit any self-awareness about truly dopey TV cliches. Serial killers are everywhere on TV, and most of the time, they’re incredibly boring. There are a few exceptions (“Hannibal,” most notably), but usually there’s nowhere to go with them. They just do the worst, most evil thing every time they show up on screen. They allow a show to gesture at the nature of evil and psychological depth while really just supplying it with a chance to show more women cowering in fear. Sigh.

Just look at “Game of Thrones,” where the amount of real estate given to the one-note Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) has been entirely unwarranted. Ramsay is just the worst, a fact that was established almost the minute he appeared on screen, and he has continued to be a sociopathic nightmare well into season six. But he’s awful in the same way every time, and that’s extremely dull.

In a show that is all about people’s movement through different moral agendas — from pragmatism to amorality to self-interest to clan loyalty — Ramsay has been a fixed point, but not in a good way. A character going from incredibly monstrous to even more monstrous is not a journey; he’s just become a bigger and blunter version of the thing he always was. Tyrion, Daenerys and other characters have evolved; the Sansa of season one is not the Sansa of season six. Hodor hasn’t changed much, I’ll grant you, but Hodor is loyal and brave. Ramsay just kills and tortures people, and that got old back when he was terrorizing Theon. 

Ramsay might as well be from a different, much less interesting show. There’s little to root for or think about in his scenes, which lack suspense because they’re extremely repetitive. One can only hope that as “Game of Thrones” begins shedding characters as it heads into its home stretch, he’s one of the first to be jettisoned.

It’s also worth nothing that once Zoom on “The Flash” was revealed to be a deranged serial killer, he became far less interesting. The CW drama simply didn’t have the time to give the character the kind of development that we’d need in order to care about his childhood traumas or anything else. In the end, Zoom, or Hunter Zolomon, came off as just another boring sociopath. Genre shows often rise or fall on the quality of their villains, and once we were asked to spend time on Zoom’s by-the-numbers flashbacks and murderous rages, he became a whole lot less compelling.

Still, “The Flash’s” Zoom missteps pale in comparison to “Banshee’s.” Not only did it give a huge amount of real estate to the silliest Satanist in recent memory, it also (like “Breaking Bad”) decided to send in a truck load of Nazis to spice things up in its final season. They were almost as dull as the serial killer, and brutal in generally uninteresting ways. Violence on “Banshee” offered a certain poignant resonance or thrilling excitement in the past, but this season, a fair amount of it became hard to take because it didn’t involve motivations or characters worth caring about.

I wish the final season had given a lot more screen time to Frankie Faison’s Sugar, the barkeep who essentially ran a clubhouse for the main characters. Hoon Lee’s Job has always been one of the best characters on TV, so it would have been nice had much of his final arc not involved scenes of him tortured or his recovery from torture. Kai Proctor is the kind of finely shaded villain that most crime-oriented shows wish they had, and Ulrich Thomsen deserves a lot of credit for making him as layered as he’s been all four seasons, even when his character was dragged throughout some of the final season’s more sigh-inducing storylines.

Proctor henchman Burton (Matthew Rauch) very rarely spoke, but when he took off his glasses, you always knew someone was going to get a memorable beatdown. The scary-silent Burton was just terrific: Few characters on TV had as much terrifying presence, and it was the mystery of what motivated him that, in part, made him interesting to watch. The dapper, quiet Burton presents an example of a TV sociopath done right.

Starr and Ivana Milicevic have always been terrific as “Banshee’s” core couple, former criminals who can’t quit their larcenous past or each other. I hope to see all the cast members in meaty new projects soon, including Matt Servitto, who has been terrific as Brock Lotus, a lawman in a town run ragged not only by criminals like Proctor but by the unpredictable Hood as well. For four seasons, Servitto made Lotus’ frustration both believable and entertaining, and a recent confessional scene, in which Hood admitted his crimes and lies to Lotus, was so spectacular that it almost made me forget all the contrivances that got the show to that moment.

Unless a show is as ambitious and aesthetically accomplished as “Hannibal,” serial killer stories can very easily end up being exploitative, predictable and limited. And even though “Hannibal” succeeded where others failed, it could be tough to sit through. It’s understandable why TV shows want to use implacable killers who lack remorse — they can be sturdy and useful antagonists. But unless those murderers have the sophistication of a Hannibal Lecter or the weird charisma of a supporting character like “Banshee’s” Burton, these men usually wear out their welcomes very quickly. 

Ultimately, I am sorry to see “Banshee” go, and the first three seasons are still well worth watching (and if you fast-forwarded through season four’s serial killer scenes and Nazi storylines, I wouldn’t blame you). I’m also sorry that it fell into the kind of trap it had been smart enough to avoid in its past. But as viewers learned from Hood time and again, self-sabotage can trip up even the best laid plans.

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