Banished: Ep. 1

“Of all sad words of mouth or pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.”

John Greenleaf Whittier

Oh gods. I watched Banished probably over a week ago and the only notes I have in my notebook read, respectively, “Oh, that’s sensitive, isn’t it” and “OMG it’s Faramir”. These are helpful, as you can imagine.

OK, let’s start with a Plot Synopsis in the hope that inspiration will come. Banished is a newish drama on BBC Two set in the penal colonies of Australia in 1788. Life is brutal for the convicts and for those sent to guard them: there are too many convicts to feed, so life is cheap and punishment brutal. Hard labour is the norm for the men, while the women “belong” to the British soldiers; any male convict “interfering” with the women (this is 1788, so euphemism is rife among the governing class) is to be hanged. And, it transpires early on, this is more or less what has happened. A convict woman, Elizabeth, is found in the men’s barracks, sleeping with (but not “sleeping with”) her lover, or rather the man she loves. Things do not go well for him.

It’s all rather oddly chaste, given the circumstances (penal colony, women regularly used as prostitutes, etc.), but this is, I suspect, part of the point: how do you live a decent life in a community where the worst is always expected of you? How can you find honesty in a den of thieves? In a lawless place what laws can you live by?

These are questions asked by the subplot, too, in which a convict stands up to another convict who nicks Catelyn Stark’s food, and is punished for his efforts by having his food stolen regularly instead. Eventually he grasses up the thief in an attempt to escape starvation, earning the derision of the entire colony in the process, only to find that the governor (played by David Wenham, which is where the Faramir fangirling comes in) doesn’t believe him. Or, rather, refuses to believe him: for the thief is a blacksmith, the colony’s only blacksmith, and to believe poor James would be to lose the blacksmith. (Because, what do you think the punishment for theft is? That’s right, hanging. They were big on hanging in 1788.)

And so this unhappy cast of characters – convicts, soldiers, priests and governors – pick their way from dilemma to dilemma in a godforsaken place across a godforsaken sea, a thousand miles from a home they might never see again. Love or life? Principle or pragmatism? Break a vow or take a life? Condemn a colony or condemn a man? The questions these characters end up facing are unanswerable, of course, and each question is harder than the last. Banished is engaging, for sure, although it occasionally tips into hysteria (the overtones of the Crucifixion are a little heavy-handed in the closing scenes here), and it will be interesting to see where it goes.

(That went well, I thought.)

(Points for anyone who can tell me which film that last line’s from. I can’t remember, and it’s annoying me.)

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