By Cameron White
Season 2, Episode 11: “Banshee”
Original airdate: Nov. 12, 1999
It was probably during So Weird‘s remarkable second season that Disney Channel realized the show would never really fit in with the rest of its lineup. The characters on its other shows, like Even Stevens, Lizzie McGuire, The Famous Jett Jackson, or even Kim Possible, had a solid nuclear family built into them. So Weird, by stark contrast, made every effort to find the weak spots in the characters’ relationships with their families and exploit them in some way or another. So it goes that “Banshee,” another seminal entry in So Weird‘s oeuvre, is about the dark corners of a family’s heart. The show balances its two major conflicts—between Fi and the banshee and between Molly and her father—by dipping into its mythology, using the Irish legend of the banshee to unveil a new secret about the death of Rick Phillips, and the fracture that death caused.
The episode is defined by the contrasting welcomes Grandpa O’Shannon gives to the teens, particularly Fi, and the coldness he shows towards Molly. When Molly greets him with a “Hi, Da,” he barely acknowledges it; the same lack of sentiment is shown to her gift to him, a plate inscribed with the Irish word for “welcome.” He proclaims it “very nice” before informing Jack that his queen on the chessboard is in for a rough time. In these brief moments with Mackenzie Phillips and Terence Kelly, the show successfully sells the rocky relationship between father and daughter, one that could not be more of a contrast to Fi and her attempts to reach out to her dead father via her explorations of the paranormal. Molly can only provide gifts and grandchildren; Fiona can bring knowledge beyond human understanding.
Of course, that knowledge does not exclude the journey of death. Throughout the episode, portents point to Grandpa’s seemingly imminent death; there’s the banshee, which Fi sees one night hovering over him and wailing, as is the banshee’s modus operandi, but there’s also the cairn the family encounters while walking. The word cairn derives from Scottish Gaelic, and is used to denote a man-made pile of stones for a variety of meaningful cultural purposes, including honoring the dead after a battle (a belief stemming from Highland folklore) and as gravemarkers in Celtic lore. When Fiona returns to the chessboard, she sees the white king laid horizontally, the universal indicator of checkmate. Grandma seems to wish that she and Fi are just “two old ladies worrying about that cranky old man upstairs,” but the show uses these visual cues to point towards an inevitable conclusion.
As Fi heads out to search for the banshee, interrupting Jack sending another email to Gabe, Molly finally tells Grandpa the good news: Molly’s got the record deal, “and now that it’s finally here… I’m scared, Da.” When Grandpa insists that she’ll survive, though, Molly gets angry, insisting that he’s never once said that he’s proud of her, and he tells her that she’s never wanted him for anything. The two seem at an impasse and the show seems ready to pull the trigger on his death, even as Fi and Jack wander off into the woods again. The conversation brother and sister have could not be more different in tone: while Jack continues to proclaim his Scully-esque skeptical nature to the world, he’ll still follow Fi into the woods if he thinks someone might want to hurt his family.
Thus, the show launches into one of its best sequences, and one of its most important ones as well. Jack leaves Fi at the cairn to investigate the banshee’s wailing, which is just as well because the banshee appears before Fi, saying that she knows who she is. Fi fights back, saying that if the banshee knows who the O’Shannons are (and “what we are,” recalling the fact that the O’Shannon bloodline is of witches), then Fi (and not Fiona, as Fi says that Fiona was her great-grandmother) wants a chance to bargain for her grandfather’s life. Meanwhile, Molly and Grandpa get into a second argument, this time focused on how cold he was when Molly was a child, which Grandpa insists was because Molly was strong, so he needed to be stronger in order to protect her. Molly apologizes first, and then he notices the song she wrote for him: “The Rock,” which she was last seen writing in “Werewolf.” He finally goads her into playing it, and the song scores Fi’s sequence.
Molly takes on the role of the banshee, in a sense, except instead of foretelling death, her song is about Ireland, and her father, and her gratefulness for having a hardened sense of self, an identity forged by a man as cold and unwavering as the place he came from. As this is happening, Fi wanders the halls of her ancestors, guided by the banshee to the spirits that watch over the O’Shannons. The theme of the scene, as of the song, is balance. The spirits insist on the balance of life and death, and that Grandpa’s death is part of the great circle of life, and so on. Fi rightfully unleashes an angry retort: if the world is balanced between life and death, why did Rick have to die so suddenly? Why did the spirits come for him before Fi ever had a chance to know him?
“It was not we who took him.”
The revelation seems to strike the spirits as suddenly as it does Fi, who is only just beginning to comprehend the greater forces at work in Rick’s death. Visually, the show connects Fi to Molly with the rings they wear, which Grandma says were Fi’s great-grandmother’s (yes, Fiona, the one Fi is named after) before she gifted them to Rick and Molly. Fi now wears her father’s ring, and the show uses those rings to connect the paranormal events tugging at the Phillips family with the emotional realizations coming together. Fi is one step closer to uncovering the truth behind her father’s accident, and Molly at long last reaches out to her own father, with a song more heartfelt than any apology or word of gratitude she could ever offer. In that moment, the banshee decides to let Grandpa live—not quite out of emotion, but of a recognition to the imbalance inherent in the Phillips family.
“It’s funny… you could capture… what’s in my heart… when I’ve so rarely shown it to you. I’m very proud of you, Molly.” As Molly receives her words of pride, for the second time Fi returns from a visit to the afterlife, chilled to the bone and cradled in Jack’s arms. The journey continues in the mortal realm, even as the glow of the spirits’ enlightenment to Fi begins to fade.
This is dark material, and not in a bittersweet joyful way, like the Even Stevens Hanukkah episode. Undoubtedly, “Banshee” belongs on the list of episodes that indicated to Disney Channel that So Weird would not fit into the network’s new paradigm. It’s an episode that is too comfortable with challenging its viewers into thinking about death and its meaning in this world. In the same way, So Weird was becoming too comfortable with mining the darker elements of its characters for drama, in a way that almost no Disney Channel series before or since had ever done. But it is precisely this uncomfortable relationship between show and network that made So Weird one of Disney Channel’s finest works, even after the new paradigm asserted itself in the third season. “Banshee” stood the test of time to remind today’s audiences of that.
Cameron White is a freelance writer currently residing in Arkansas. He writes about television over on his blog, Wayward Television, and tweets the story of how he met your Aunt Robin. His obsession with television was founded in 1996 by The Disney Channel and fostered by his discovery of Firefly in the summer of 2007. He would like to warn you that (THE) WINTER (WONDERLAND) IS COMING.