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Truths About Unicorns: A Look at Arrow and Banshee’s Second Season Improvements

Truths About Unicorns: A Look at Arrow and Banshee’s Second Season Improvements

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by Sean Colletti and Randy Dankievitch

Sean Colletti: Second seasons are notoriously difficult to pull off. We saw the collapse of Homeland after putting together an exciting debut season, and it’s certainly not alone in recent promising shows that have struggled to improve upon themselves—or even just prevent themselves from declining. Two shows, though, have really stood out to me this year in terms of upping their games in their second seasons. Both Arrow (The CW) and Banshee (Cinemax) have come from relatively meager beginnings to grow into two of the most entertaining and rewarding TV experiences for me at the moment.

And I think it’s specifically that idea of coming from those beginnings that impresses me. Shows like Hannibal and The Americans came out swinging and brimming with confidence, so the differences between their first seasons and what we’ve seen from their second seasons so far make up a much smaller gap in quality than the differences between the seasons of Arrow and Banshee, I would argue. I want to start with Banshee, which just finished its second run.

My experience last year with the show was unremarkable. During mid-season premieres, it was actually one of the shows I dropped after watching the pilot, and it wasn’t until coming back to it weeks later that I began to see some real potential in it. What were some of your first impressions of Banshee, and could you walk me through how your opinion of the show evolved over the twenty episodes we’ve seen so far?

Randy Dankievitch: Given its premise—jewel thief being chased by Ukranians becomes fake sheriff in an Amish town?—I was surprised how quickly I became a fan of Banshee. Maybe it’s the lack of quality, non-CGI drenched action films these days, or maybe I’m just another sucker for boobs and broken knuckles, but the first season of Banshee hit a soft spot, primarily because it wasn’t concerned with being a Very Important anti-hero series. Co-creators Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler (who are credited with writing every episode of season one) kept their focus small in the first season, building a town full of people living in their own shadows, adopting identities to try and hide themselves in plain sight (the police station housed in a used car dealership was a great visual metaphor for this throughout the season).

It certainly had its rough spots; it embraced its pulpiest elements early on (earning its place in the proud Skinemax lineage in record time), and with so many characters and dynamics to establish, naturally felt a bit stiff. But as the show began to fill in that world in season one’s second half, bringing characters like Rebecca and Rabbit to the forefront and moving away from Baddie of the Week material, Banshee revealed itself to be something more than just blood and breasts—a show that used its violence to examine the flaws within its characters. Can a person change if they are “broken,” or is being “broken” just a facade to keep ourselves hiding from our own darkness?

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These are the kinds of things Banshee is interested in—a trend that’s continued in season two, which has moved slightly away from the romantic undercurrents of the first season to broaden its narrative horizons, something the show appeared it wouldn’t do by revealing Rabbit was still alive. But with racially-tinged murders, a divided tribal council, the arrival of Jason Hood, and the initiation of Rebecca into her uncle’s world, Banshee grew both larger and deeper without losing the sharp, cynical personality that made the latter episodes of the first season such a fun show to watch.

But like I said, a lot of those elements weren’t completely fleshed out in the first few episodes. It took a bit of tweaking for Banshee to figure out its formula for success. What was it that intrigued you to return to Banshee, and what’s stood out to you about the show’s evolution?

Sean: I came back to it in some off-time, and it was the fight with Sanchez, the MMA fighter, in the third episode that really did it for me. Honestly, I’m not pre-disposed to like overt masculinity in anything, and Banshee originally seemed like a very “manly” show. But the brutality of that fight and every little thing surrounding it—that the guy deserved to get his ass kicked and that Siobhan pushed Hood into it by comparing him to all their old, corrupt bosses easily influenced by Proctor—literally made my jaw drop. From there, I was on-board in terms of entertainment (and I still think there isn’t a show out there that does hand-to-hand combat better than Banshee, though the choreography and stunt work on Arrow is also fantastic). And as that season progressed, I was on-board with the characters and story.

Banshee, in its second season, ended up veering pretty far away from all those pre-conceptions. Something I really champion about it is that it isn’t a typically masculine show. Its female characters (Siobhan, Carrie/Ana, Nola, Rebecca) are some of the strongest I’ve seen on television recently, and that’s been a huge part of enjoying these most recent episodes for me. Banshee has such a large cast that it’s amazing to say that I’ve been thoroughly satisfied and impressed by how they’ve given each character—even friggin’ Burton—some kind of backstory or some individual moments to shine in episodes.

And that’s also something I’ve loved about Arrow’s second season. The cast has noticeably widened, and even though they haven’t succeeded as well as Banshee has with some supporting characters (when was the last time we saw Summer Glau?), they’ve no longer made it the Oliver Queen Show. One of our fellow Sound On Sight writers wrote an interesting piece about that shift, commenting on how Oliver as a character has become a little less interesting as a narrative driving force as he’s tried to invest himself in the lives of those around him. Hood, too, has warmed up to a lot of people, whereas he was very much a lone wolf for a lot of the first season. Do you think this is indicative of second seasons in general? That it’s a good idea to begin focused on your main character and then to expand that focus at the expense of that character study becoming less of thing? Have you been less interested in Oliver and Hood in these seasons?

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Randy: Early on, both Banshee and Arrow were serialized shows adopting a procedural-esque format to tell simplistic stories. Lucas had his ghost of the week, Arrow had his minor DC villain, and both tried to explore the changes in these mysterious men in two different timelines. And both struggled with it—Arrow more noticeably because of the show’s sheer scope and thanks to its massive world of characters and self-proclaimed importance as a superhero show. Banshee’s complex premise and overarching narrative was mostly contained within the small borders of one Pennsylvania town, and the sheer compactness of Banshee’s 10-episode first season made for much tighter, more effective character arcs than Arrow’s drawn out, network-friendly 22-episode first season.

But between seasons, Arrow took the time to address nearly all of the show’s biggest problems, finally playing to its strengths as a modern “hero” narrative. With the majority of his “origin” story out of the way (the broad strokes, at least; season two’s attempts to deepen that on “the island” have been hit-or-miss), Arrow’s been able to move past its melodramatic first season to a much fuller, confident show in its sophomore season. A rapid expansion of the show’s cast of characters has actually paid dividends; where villains appeared seemingly at random in season one, largely disconnected from the overall season narrative (which in itself didn’t have a whole lot to do with Oliver’s personal journey, except the conveniently tragic ending), season two’s multiple intertwining stories and baddies have given everything a lot more dramatic weight in ways the more character-centric stories of season one couldn’t (mainly because they boiled down to “do I kill or not?” and “do I love her or not?” for just about every character).

Sure, it comes at the expense of some more complex character arcs, but Arrow’s showing it can do less with more, like with Felicity and Oliver’s growing tensions or Roy embracing the anger within him, to dark results. Like good comic books do, the evils lurking in season two of Arrow are the avenues to explore character—in season one, this thematic connection was often incidental, at best, with characters emoting between random fight scenes and silly flashbacks to an island that nobody cared about.

I also think a big component of both shows’ improvement comes with the lack of overwrought romantics. Too often in season one of both Banshee and Arrow, “who do I love and why” became too much of a focus, detailing the “tragic” love stories of Lucas/Ana and Oliver/Laurel and how they define and drive their respective protagonists. Instead, these seasons have pushed them both into easily-defined relationships (Lucas with Siobhan, Oliver with Sara) for the sake of exploring these men on a deeper level—specifically, their struggles with morality.

Their philosophies on the subject are very different. Arrow certainly believes in embracing the light within oneself (if possible), where Banshee is happy to let its characters revel in darkness. But the ultimate point is the same: these two men hide themselves behind different identities (like, say…a “hood” of sorts? Like Lucas Hood or The Hood? Convenient symbolism, folks!) to try and escape their pasts.

The Promise

Sean: Greg Yaitanes. Greg Berlanti. There are a few other weird coincidences, but I just blew your mind with that one, right? You mentioned the “good comic book” aspects of Arrow, and I would say Banshee has embraced the same ones. The most engaging to me—and this is something Justified did in its legendary second season—is the handling of antagonists structured around a “Big Bad.” Superheroes have their supervillains. Oliver Queen has Slade Wilson. Lucas Hood has Kai Proctor. Anastasia had Rabbit. And then there are other characters lurking around, embodying some of the evils you’re talking about (I’m thinking of Sebastian Blood and the Dollmaker in this season of Arrow and Chayton and big Jonah in Banshee).

Not only do these characters-as-devices make episodes or seasons more goal-oriented, they help populate their worlds with ideas. It’s strange, but one of the things I’m going to remember most about this season of Banshee is the scene after Chayton gets the squad car to flip over. Emmett is standing his ground as best as he can in the face of death. Instead of killing the deputy, though, Chayton tosses over his handcuffs, criticizing Emmett for being shackled by the white man. Characters like the Albino are mostly there to be larger-than-life foes for our protagonists. But Chayton and Blood (like many others on quality TV shows, like Mags Bennett in season two of Justified) are more than just obstacles. They help communicate larger themes or points the series are trying to make to their audiences. Even Jonah and the Dollmaker satisfy much more than some of the season one bad guys by representing that Blue Velvet kind of horror that’s creeping up from below the surfaces of Banshee and Starling City (or which has taken over at this point)

So, imposing a structure through these rivalries has really helped made these second seasons stand out in ways that I didn’t think was possible. I was content with enjoying Arrow and Banshee purely on the entertainment level, but both have basically punched me in the face with two boxing gloves labeled “Quality” and “Show.” Just look at the technical stuff here. Arrow hasn’t done an episode quite on the level of “The Truth About Unicorns” (Banshee’s fifth episode of its second season, which will go down as one of the best individual episodes of TV this year), but both have made their visual aesthetics pop—Arrow with a paper-thin budget.

All of these components working in tandem have helped elevate them beyond easy categorization-by-association. People might see “boobs and broken knuckles,” as you put it, and think Banshee is that Skinemax show. Or they might see abs, abs and more abs and write off Arrow as standard CW stuff that caters to the young audiences. Those people would be dead wrong, though – Arrow and Banshee have showed a kind of maturity this year that proves they mean business, even if they’re still very concerned with entertaining viewers.