In 2014 HBO released the first episode of True Detective. In the matter of weeks, as the series continued, detectives were back in fashion. True Detective helped to bring back the archetypal figure of the jaded and dark detective that was made so popular decades before with noir film and pulp novels. True Detective was such a success that other networks started developing their own detective shows. The new age of mysteries was born.
However, it was a difficult genre to grasp on. The first season of True Detective still seems like lightning in a bottle. Many pretenders have taken their shot at the throne, but none has still managed to sit on it. Even True Detective itself slipped, and the following two seasons had a lukewarm reception. It is in this scenario that Hulu bets on Under the Banner of Heaven to become the new king, and the truth is that it might actually pull it off.
Under the Banner of Heaven is a miniseries on Hulu based on the nonfiction book of the same name that bears the subtitle, “A Story of Violent Faith” by author Jon Krakauer. Krakauer also served as the author of the “Into The Wild” book, which was adapted to the screen in a movie directed by Sean Penn.
The show was adapted by Dustin Lance Black, and directed by David Mackenzie, who has directed very well regarded films, such as “Hell or High Water” and “Starred Up”. The miniseries tells the story of detective Jeb Pyre, a Mormon, who lives by the faith presented by his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-days Saints. One night, Pyre receives a call, a gruesome murder as occurred in his little town of Utah, and it seems that a very well regarded family of his church might be involved. What Pyre will discover on his journey will put his faith to the test.
Moral conundrums are basically the bread and butter of a good detective story. The main protagonist must always face evil in the eye and overcome it or be broken by it. Even in the stories where the protagonist decides to simply move away, it is clear that it has lost something important on the way there. This type of situation is what makes these stories compelling in the first place, and keeps audiences guessing on how the protagonist will respond.
On this miniseries, Jeb Pyre, our main character will face one of these conundrums, but not one he expected. Faith is one of those very entertaining but controversial subjects to talk about. Opinions on the matter are strong, as many define their entire lives on what they believe. Seeing other people making fun of what you believe with such strength is not easy, nor it is the other way around. It is a complicated and messy subject, but humans are complicated and messy, and it makes for good thought-provoking television.
Because the show is based in true life crimes, it becomes something that hits even closer to home, as real people lived these situations and because of it their faith in their God was tested to the max. Garfield’s performance as Pyre is amazing, he creates a character that is both effective and inept, charming and repelling, all at the same time. It will all depend, of course, through which lens you decide to look at him, but made no mistake, you are only looking at a person. No more or less that what we all are.
The veteran, Gil Birminghan, reunites once again with Mackenzie and delivers the other side of the coin when it comes to jaded detectives. His Bill Taba has already seen too much horror in his line of work, and he is only there to help Pyre come through the other side in the best possible shape. Even Pyre describes Taba as a bad influence, but the pair grows on you rather quickly and what seems like an odd couple at first, becomes something so much right by the end.
Mackenzie’s direction seems to go back to his work in Outlaw King, but where that film was of course a medieval epic, Under the Banner feels more naturalistic. The use of space and each of the shots really makes each moment feel intimidating, even when they are not supposed to be. It really shows how many moments affect the character and in which way.
The subject matter of the show will without a doubt make it controversial for some parts of the audience, but at the end of the day the quality of the show should placate any criticism coming from ill intentioned places. It is truly brave for a show to tackle such a subject upfront, and everybody involved in the production should feel proud of it. Maybe more shows should learn that religion isn’t always there to be attacked or praised without any sort of nuance.
Great actors, a powerful story and a subject that is not often seen in scripted television. Under the Banner of Heaven has everything it needs to become one of the best shows of the year. We can only hope people give it a chance.