Gregory Shummon/Cinemax
Jeff Jensen
March 13, 2015 AT 12:00 PM EDT

It begins with a white man wearing a lavender bow tie, picking a severed ear out of the trash.

He holds it with perfectly manicured thumb and finger, examining it through round spectacles with the quiet intensity of a preying mantis. The ear has a diamond stud in the lobe. We hear the hatchet before we see it. It is flying toward the man, whirling and whooshing, flung from the woods. It sinks into the man’s right shoulder and staggers him to the ground. A woman with long brown hair—the hatchet thrower—approaches. She wears a dark shirt tucked into dark jeans and a white Arts and Crafts-y choker.

We hear a muted, warped wail on the soundtrack, a distinctive Native American chant. I’m assuming she’s Native American, too, but I don’t know for sure: I have never watched an entire episode of the Cinemax series Banshee until this very moment, the third episode of its third season. “So here’s the plan,” she announces. “First, I’m going to kill you. Then I’m going to slowly gut your boss and his Little House on The Prairie niece.”

“I don’t think so,” the man with the bow tie replies. He pulls the hatchet out of his shoulder and rises and swings wildly at the woman’s head. He misses. And the fight is on.

It’s a tightly choreographed, cleverly shot and edited brawl in which the man and the woman punch, kick, knee, elbow, pound, toss, trip, tackle, slash, chop, and stab each other bloody while moving around the perimeter of a Cadillac parked in the aforementioned boss’s driveway. It lasts for roughly five minutes. At one point early in the contest, the man successfully kicks the woman into the backseat of the car, then follows her inside. The drifting camera tracks across, over, and even through the vehicle to capture the melee, trying to create the illusion of a single take—but not trying too hard at it. Banshee, as I’m about to learn, is an artful piece of work, but far from pretentious.

The fight leaves the Caddie. The woman gets two shots to the man’s face, cracking his glasses, leaving a piece of glass embedded in his cheek. He extracts the shard and glares at it. Oh, you done made him angry now!

He kicks her to the pavement, which gives him opportunity to pop the trunk of the car. Inside, there’s a collection of tools mounted on a vinyl board: scalpels, handcuffs, rope, some scary dentistry utensils. A torture kit. The man grabs a pair of blades. He tags her in the thigh, the gut, the back, then stabs her four times in quick succession near the base of the neck. You’d think this would end the fight, but no: We’re not even halfway done. The woman slashes the man along the wrist with the hatchet, yanks the scalpel out her body, then gets to her feet to fight some more.

Gregory Shummon/Cinemax

Punching, kicking, yada yada yada, the woman cuts the man across the belly, then gets behind him to drive the hatchet into the man’s back. She pushes on the blade, driving it in deep. We hear squishy sounds. The man shudders. He allows himself to consider that he has lost, and is going to die… and then he remembers. We get fragmented flashbacks to another dire moment in the life of the man—a defining moment; an origin story—in which he was beaten to the point of death, but found a way to survive, to turn the tables, to win.

The man separates from the woman. He not only dodges her next hatchet swing, but also grabs her forearm and cracks it over his shoulder, then cracks it again. She shudders, and she remembers her own re-creation myth, or rather, the nightmarish beginnings of it: A memory of another man having his way with her, a predator pumping drugs into her arm, moving up on her, kissing her….

The woman separates from the man and kicks him to the hood of the Cadillac. The angel hood ornament pokes into the base of his spine. In this moment, both combatants take a beat. They’re both hurt badly, fading quickly. The woman’s memory continues: She recalls another man, a hulking hero who saved her from the bad man who injected her with drugs, a Native American dude who calls her “Nola.” I’m guessing that Nola either loves this man or works for him or both, just as the man with the lavender bow tie might work for or even love the boss whom Nola wishes to kill. In the weeks to come, I’ll learn how close my guess is to the truth.

Nola gets what she needs from this memory to make another run at the man. Still, she is weak, and she misses when she tries to tomahawk him with the hatchet. He throws her to the hood of the Cadillac—a hood that is now missing its ornament. While Nola was recalling her savior, the man was prying the pokey thing free. She turns and sees the man’s right flank is vulnerable. She chops into his gut with the hatchet, but it sticks, and she doesn’t let go of the handle, leaving her vulnerable. The man thrusts the pokey angel hood ornament into her throat. She groans. He twits the angel, pulping her voice box. Nola doesn’t groan anymore.

The man with the lavender bow tie tosses the angel aside, then reaches into Nola’s throat and grabs whatever he finds. He squeezes. He recalls again the man who held him captive and whipped him. He choked that man to death, squeezed the life out of him, just as he’s now squeezing the remaining life out of Nola. If killing a person with bare hands was something new and horrifying back then—and I get the sense from the flashback that it was—it isn’t now. The man curls a lip and makes a choice, and then rips out her larynx or a chunk of esophagus or something throat organish. (I know a lot about anatomy.) He rolls the fleshy tube with his fingers until it begins to fall apart and drops it.

In her last seconds of life, Nola remembers the man who saved her. Drug hazed, she is begging the man to let her die, but he won’t have it. “You’re already dead,” he says. “It’s time to start living again.” But whatever new life he purchased for Nola is over. Eyes teary from pain, terror, and failure grow dim and vacant, and she drops. The man exhales, then collapses from exhaustion. Not once since he said “I don’t think so” has he said anything. No cries, no whimpers.

He sits on the pavement next to Nola, and the whole sensationally sick sequence ends with a shot of both warriors slumped against the grill of the Cadillac; Nola dead, the man alive. Physically, at least. He looks to the heavens, then casts his eyes to the ground, the arc of his gaze the arc of his fallen life.

But don’t take my word for it. You can watch it here:

It was this crazy-awesome fight scene that finally got me to give Banshee a serious test drive on the evening of January 23. Earlier in the day, the TV critics I follow who’ve long championed the drama—and who had seen “A Fixer Of Sorts” in advance—were buzzing about the sequence’s inspired filmmaking and outrageous savagery on Twitter. My curiosity was piqued. What can I say? I’m a geek for outrageous savag— er, I mean, inspired filmmaking!

Until this moment, my impression of Banshee had been shaped by chunks of three episodes that I happened to see by total accident over the past two years. Aside from some hot and heavy humping and a curious Christian character who didn’t seem all that Christian (I have a weakness for morally murky men of faith), Banshee didn’t strike me as all that remarkable. But the tweeting intrigued me. Maybe I was missing something. Maybe Banshee had gotten better. I decided to clear my mental browser of its Banshee history and engage with an open mind.

When you watch a show for the first time, you’re hyper-attuned to how it’s trying to introduce itself and impress you. This is even more the case when you jump into a series in medias res, because you’re working hard to figure out just what the heck is going on. This puts Banshee in a good position to impress, because every episode—at least the ones I watched this season—seems hellbent on engaging the audience with equal energy: This is heightened reality pulp fiction that wears its choices on its sleeve, that entertains with ostentatious storytelling as much as extreme story beats.

But it’s not all flash and gash: Banshee attends to the inner lives of its people. It grounds everything by doing this; even its most show-stopping setpieces reveal character.

“A Fixer Of Sorts” was indeed a very good episode of Banshee. Clay Burton (Matthew Rauch), the man in the bow tie, vs. Nola (Odette Annable) might not have even been the best part of it. The story was an important one for the show’s main protagonist, an ex-con on the run from the bad men for whom he used to work. He hides in plain sight in Banshee, Pennsylvania, home to his former lover and partner in crime, where he assumes the name and job of the town’s sheriff, Lucas Hood. He’s played by Anthony Starr, and I openly covet his steel, his emotional availability, and his meticulously groomed stubble-beard.

In the story, an intrepid FBI agent named Robert Phillips (Denis O’Hare, always great) comes to town and arrests Hood. On their way out of town, another man hunting Hood—a corpulent, eccentric assassin, played with great seedy relish by Shuler Hensley—abducts both of them. Hood turns this loathsome creep into road kill, then rescues O’Hare from assassination. Grateful, Phillips agrees to let Hood live his life, though the agent confesses he’s made a mess of it: Before leaving Banshee, Phillips spilled Hood’s secret to Hood’s lover, a sheriff’s deputy named Siobhan (Trieste Kelly Dunn). Heartbreak ensues. Meanwhile, a gang of Native Americans known as the Redbones shoots up the strip club owned by that aforementioned Christian, Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen, who alternately reminds me of a dried-up Sting or a very tired Christopher Nolan). He’s also a drug dealing gangster with a dying mother. Sweet Jesus, was this one busy hour of TV.

“A Fixer Of Sorts” got me watching Banshee, and I haven’t stopped since. I’m not ready to review it. I should watch the first two seasons first. But I am ready to declare myself a fan, thanks in large part to one truly phenomenal episode that ranks among the best hours of TV so far this year—it’s not “A Fixer Of Sorts”—and a handful of outstanding individual sequences. They include…

Gregory Shummon/Cinemax

Kurt Bunker’s skinhead origin story

The fifth episode of the season, “Tribal,” was Banshee’s finest hour this season, an homage to siege thrillers like Rio Bravo and Assault on Precinct 13. It found most of the main characters trapped inside Banshee’s police station, trying to survive an all-out attack by the Redbones, led by the fearsome Chayton (Geno Segers)—crazed for vengeance following the death of his brother Tommy, who led that aforementioned raid on Proctor’s club and was killed by cops. (Got that?)

In the midst of all the sound and fury, the episode found opportunities for a few extraordinary, quiet, character-focused moments. The best one concerned Kurt Bunker, a former skinhead gangster heavily tatted with Nazi swastikas, looking for a vocation that will bring him redemption; he hopes becoming a cop will do the trick. Pressed by district attorney Alison Medding (Afton Williamson), an African American woman, to explain his tattoos and convince her why she should believe this zebra has truly changed his stripes, so to speak, Bunker explained his origins: how he fell into a gang that gave his family and purpose, how he took on their worldview without thinking it through.

The story is simply a long, thoughtful answer to a very valid question, from a man who doesn’t expect to be understood or forgiven. And the performance—a soliloquy—by Tom Pelphrey riveted without being sentimental.

Gregory Shummon/Cinemax

Chayton snaps Siobhan’s neck

The brutal bit that made “Tribal” more than just a nifty bottle episode—something searing and essential. You wondered after “A Fixer of Sorts” how Banshee would or could move forward with Siobhan knowing Lucas’ secret, how they could credibly sustain their relationship without subverting her character.

The answer is that they couldn’t, and so the show had to let her go. But it did so with a shocking act of violence that would frame and define the rest of the season. Chayton’s revenge had unspoken subversive subtext to it, nurtured by visual storytelling. His tribal war paint—black across the top of his chest; dripping down his belly like flag stripes; reaching up his neck and cheeks and merging with the red stripe across his eyes to form a kind of superhero mask—resembled, to my eyes at least, a heretical parody of Captain America. This is a rather loaded, ironic symbol for a Native American to be appropriating in an episode that has him waging war with an expression of American justice, fronted by a man who’s something of a loaded, ironic symbol himself. Lucas is a criminal, a master thief who’s appropriated—okay, stolen—another man’s authority, identity, even land. Was Banshee after something here? Or am I just seeing/projecting junk meaning?

Gregory Shummon/Cinemax

The Camp Genoa Heist

The seventh episode, “You Can’t Hide From The Dead,” found Hood cracking up from grief over Siobhan and struggling to find catharsis for his rage. Chayton slipped through his fingers in the previous episode and has gone missing. Hood decides to exercise his angry angst by executing a heist that he and his criminal associates have been plotting all season, stealing millions from a corrupt colonel who runs nearby Camp Genoa. This fantastic foursome includes Hood’s ex-lover and ex-partner Anastasia (Ivana Milicevic), ex-boxer, ex-con, current bar owner Sugar (Frankie Faison), and the simply excellent, stylish, cross-dressing hacker Job (Hoon Lee). (You know how every cult show has that one quirky character that gets deemed “a fan favorite”? Banshee is, like, almost exclusively composed of such “fan favorites.”)

As Hood, Anastasia and Job infiltrate the camp, they affix surveillance cameras every few hundred yards or so, and from a nearby truck, Sugar monitors the feeds to warn them of threats. Things go wrong.

Hood starts hallucinating Siobhan at a most inopportune moment. The colonel shows up when he’s not expected, and quickly sniffs out the operation. The gang has to battle its way out of the camp with all of the money in a non-stop, one-damn-thing-after-another gunfight that isn’t settled until the last possible second. Ratcheting up the suspense and making the whole sequence so memorable is the unique presentation: We only see and hear what those surveillance cameras can detect and pick up. Now, it takes a ridiculous number of surveillance cameras to make this conceit work—how many Best Buys did these guys have to wipe out for this operation?—but the effect is inventive and gripping nonetheless.

Gregory Shummon/Cinemax

The Death of Chayton.

It takes place in the episode “All The Wisdom I Got Left,” during a story set in New Orleans. The sequence makes fantastic use of setting, commenting on the hollowness of both Hood and Chayton and the dead-end nature of their conflict.

It begins with Hood chasing a wounded, bleeding Chayton through the French Quarter. It’s a ghost town. No one in the streets or on the sidewalk. Weird. It continues into one of the city’s above-ground graveyards, Hood stalking Chayton in the necropolis, shooting at him, missing, only blowing away tombstones. It culminates in a strange place: a storage area or junkyard for Mardi Gras décor, oversized figurines inspired by pop and local culture. Yoda. Dinosaurs. Death masks. Hood corners Chayton. Chayton strips and declares himself superior to Hood in every possible way. He’s spiritual. He’s a warrior. He has honor, purpose and integrity. “You’re nothing,” Hood says, and fires his shotgun, taking a chunk out of Chayton’s side.

Chayton ignores it and defiantly begins to pray. Hood interrupts him. “Hey!” Chayton opens his eyes. Hood pulls the trigger again, and the blast obliterates half of Chayton’s head and leaves an eyeball dangling from what remains.

There’s lots of subtext here, I’m sure, and when I’m done trying to forget about Chayton’s gory mug, I’ll figure it out. Before then, I’ll be watching the season finale tonight to see how Hood moves forward. Then I’ll be moving backward so I can start watching Banshee from the beginning, with the popping eyeballs of a devoted and dazzled new fan.

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