TV Rewind: An Ode to Banshee and Its Legacy of Resilient, Complex Women

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TV Rewind: An Ode to <i>Banshee</i> and Its Legacy of Resilient, Complex Women

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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(Editor’s Note: Be aware there are some series spoilers for Banshee below.)

The successful rebranding of Cinemax in the 2010s rested on producing scripted originals that would attract the premium network’s majority male viewership. So it’s hardly a surprise that the fan-favorite Banshee is seemingly tailor-made for the protoypical male gaze: excessive, gruesome violence is used as frequently as gratuitious sex and nudity are deployed within its pulpy narrative, which follows an ex-con (Antony Starr) who walks the line between criminal and cop after assuming the identity of a recently deceased sheriff. But spend a few hours in the small hamlet of the series’ title and a truth begins to emerge: There’s much more going on than just violence and sex, both in terms of the overarching narrative and its many players. If you stick around longer than that, you’ll also see that while Lucas Hood (Starr) might be a fascinating (anti)hero who flirts with masculine fantasy—multiple beautiful women fall into his bed with laughable ease early on, including the widow of a man he kills—the show actually belongs to the women in his life.

With the exception of children and the elderly, the female characters of Banshee are not weak. They are rarely in need of saving, not from the choices they make nor the violence at their doorsteps. The writers subvert the damsel-in-distress trope early and often, playing off viewers’ knowledge of what the show’s many women, including Carrie Hopewell (Ivana Milicevic), Siobhan Kelly (Trieste Kelly Dunn), and Nola Longshadow (Odette Annable), are capable of, as well as the expectations of those within the narrative who haven’t a clue. The result is a thrilling takedown of male arrogance and misogyny as they harness their strength and reveal why it’s a mistake to underestimate them. Their physical abilities are either equal to or surpass those of their typically male opponents, and so some of the show’s most memorable action scenes involve not Hood but these women, from Carrie’s nearly episode-long brawl with Olek (Christos Vasilopoulos) in Season 1 to Nola’s made-to-look-like-a-single-take fight with Burton (Matthew Rauch) in Season 3.

But like Banshee itself, the strengths of its women exist beyond the physical. They are also more emotionally evolved and mentally tougher than the men depicted in the show, mostly because they’ve had to be as a result of the hyper-masculine world in which they exist. Carrie is a prime example of this. Her relationship with Hood is the foundation upon which everything rests, and it is dictated almost entirely by her wants and needs. When Hood arrives in Banshee after serving a 15-year prison sentence, Carrie is at once the woman he loved and no longer the woman he knew; on the run from her gangster father (Ben Cross) after double-crossing him years ago, she left behind her life as Anastasia to become the wife of Gordon (Rus Blackwell) and mother of Deva (Ryann Shane) and Max (Gabriel Suttle). Her identity was shaped well before we joined the story, and because she had a 15-year head start on Hood, Carrie is also the stronger, better adjusted of the two. She recognizes she can’t go back, that the relationship and life they’d dreamed about in secret is dead. She didn’t need to see the home Hood bought for her go up in literal flames in one of the series’ best episodes (Season 2’s “The Truth About Unicorns”) to understand that.

Hood is slow to reach the same conclusion; throughout Season 1, he tries to make Carrie see that they belong together, even going so far as to use Deva—the daughter he never knew he had but recognized almost instantly—as proof of their future rather than a product of their shared past. That Hood is the person holding onto the last remaining traces of their relationship and the person more likely to (angrily) declare his feelings is directly related to his years of stagnation while in prison. But it’s also a reversal of traditional gender norms, in which women are usually depicted as being emotional or unable to let go. It’s another example of how Banshee seeks to subvert viewer expectations.

But if Carrie is meant to be Hood’s equal and partner in crime, Siobhan is his conscience and a chance to start over. The lone female deputy in Banshee, she is regularly underestimated and even targeted while on the job. However, Siobhan isn’t innocent or fragile, and never in need of saving. A survivor of domestic violence, she lies to Hood about where her ex-husband is staying, and exacts revenge on him personally when he returns. This is not the only instance of Siobhan bending or outright breaking the law throughout the show. But her subtly defiant streak and quiet desire for vengeance isn’t what draws Hood to her; it’s her independence and resilience (and probably the fact she doesn’t immediately fall into bed with him). While it might have been built on a lie, their relationship is as real and raw as any fight depicted in the show, adding an emotional counterweight to the near-constant action, which is why it’s so devastating when Siobhan finds out Hood lied about his identity, learns his real name, and dies within the span of a couple episodes in Season 3. That Siobhan is the only person from Hood’s new life to learn his identity (not even viewers learn it by series end) is proof of the depth of his love for her and how badly he wants to start over. Like Carrie, she holds immense power over him, a point driven home by his immense grief over not being able to prevent her death.

While you can argue Siobhan was fridged, it’s difficult to deny the strength of the story that followed and the emotional effect it had on Hood. The series loves to play a game of “what if?” with its characters, but the lesson is always the same: You can’t go back and change what happened, you can only agree to move on and try to be better. So Siobhan’s death does serve a purpose. Unfortunately, you can’t say the same thing about the death of Rebecca Bowman (Lili Simmons), the niece of local crime boss Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen) whose murder in Season 4 sets off a season-long mystery and forces Hood to confront more of his past decisions.

A walking set of contradictions, Rebecca is an attractive young woman from the local Amish community who, like Hood, is searching for her identity at the outset of the show. She wields her sexuality like a weapon before we ever see her pick up a blade or a gun. It’s a direct response to her modest, humble upbringing, and as she grows more confident in herself and her place by her uncle’s side once he takes her under his wing in the wake of being shunned by her parents, she uses her femininity and sexuality—the only things she can rightfully control—to her advantage in business as well as her personal life. But what makes Rebecca such a strong addition to the narrative, especially in the beginning, is that she’s not fully formed. Like Deva but unlike Carrie, her identity is still being written. So for all of her bravado, the writers are careful to remind us that she is still learning how Kai’s dark and dangerous world (and humanity by extension) operates. While she might not have much outright power, she’s bright, has ambition, and takes initiative, however misguided her choices might be at times. By giving her the room to grow and make mistakes, the show grants her agency—even if by immersing herself in her uncle’s criminal enterprises without looking back she also becomes an agent of chaos, leaving nothing but death and carnage in her wake.

It would have been shockingly easy for Banshee co-creators Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler to populate this hyper-violent world with stereotypical, personality-free women who exist only to fulfill some toxic male fantasy—the show is pulp at its finest, after all—and those women certainly do exist within the confines of the series. But for a drama that always existed a few degrees shy of reality, the fact that Banshee surrounds its hero with women who span the spectrum of womanhood—women who are complex, subvert tired tropes, and leave their mark like a handprint on the heart—makes it more realistic that most TV series. Women really do contain multitudes, and Banshee returns to this idea multiple times throughout its run. So this might have been the story of the man who was not Lucas Hood, but it’s the women like Carrie, Deva, Siobhan, Rebecca, and even Nola who are its legacy.

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Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.

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