Problem solving is a typical task for television writers. With every new page a new problem arises, and the task for the next page is to solve that problem while raising more. For every time your hero succeeds, a new obstacle is placed in their path; for every time your hero falls, a new path opens up before them to offer salvation. It’s a never-ending cycle for a show like Strike Back, as with each new threat stymied there’s another threat that emerges from the woodwork to give Section 20 a reason to fight another day.
On an episodic level, this problem solving can become repetitive. There were a few points this season where the machinations of this process became apparent, particularly in last week’s penultimate episode. The problems introduced were quickly dispatched, used to kill time while the show waited to dispatch of its biggest problems in the second-season finale. Hastily scrawling new problems on the ledger this late in the game only to erase them 40 minutes later distracts from the problems that matter: Conrad Knox, the nuclear warheads in his possession, and the continued existence of the psychotic Craig Hanson. The season has done a good job of establishing these problems, using the nuclear triggers and the death of Stonebridge’s wife to set up an inevitable collision course that felt cheaply delayed by the events in last week’s episode.
However, if we think about problem solving on the scene-by-scene level, it is what makes Strike Back so distinctive. The show’s missions are about going into uncertain situations and adapting accordingly, and the two major setpieces in tonight’s episode are prime examples of this. When Section 20 enters the hotel where Knox is meeting with the Nigerians in the “occupied” zone of Johannesburg, they mostly mow down everyone in sight—the body count is particularly high this week—but they have to keep shifting their expectations based on new circumstances. The scene offers a great use of space, evoking the floor-by-floor action dynamic of The Raid and Dredd 3D but within a more grounded military aesthetic. No one from Section 20 dies in the sequence, and only the Johannesburg police commander even gets injured, but the consistent appearance of new problems requiring new solutions moves through the space efficiently and builds considerable momentum that isn’t squandered when both the Nigerian and Knox escape to fight another day.
The way those loose ends complicate the scenes in the tunnels of Johannesburg is another prime example of what the show does so well. They go down into the tunnels to disarm a nuclear bomb, but then find out that there are two further complications: Not only does Knox have a dead man’s trigger (meaning that Dalton is unable to disarm him immediately), the two bombs are paired and cannot be disarmed independently. They present a solution of synchronizing their watches to disarm them remotely (with no other communications, another problem), but then their loose ends come back to bite them: The Nigerians stand between Scott and the bomb he’s trying to disarm, while a recently escaped Hanson—who led them to this location, because that’s how cartoonish sociopaths roll—interrupts Michael’s task to initiate the fight we’ve been waiting for all season.
I don’t normally like to outright recap a sequence, but I found this to be particularly well designed. There’s never really any concern that the bombs are going to go off: Even with Cinemax playing coy with what cast members would be returning, blowing up Johannesburg would be an incredibly complicated detail for the show to negotiate in future seasons, and it just seemed plain unlikely. But even after the show gives us the “how” with the synchronized removal of the triggers, they play with the “when” quite brilliantly. Hanson nearly incidentally removes the trigger at the end of the original five-minute countdown before Stonebridge shoots him, while Michael’s workaround with the pipe banging countdown offers that great moment of realization from Scott and the eventual disarming of the bombs. At its best, Strike Back delivers this kind of roller coaster, making up for its lack of long-term suspense by ensuring that you’re on the edge of your seat in the short term to discover just how the characters are going to solve this particular problem.
But while this week’s episode is a well-designed action thrill ride, it’s also taking on the burden of the season’s longer story arcs. The show isn’t really built for detailed character study, but the arc structure the show uses can work well when it’s kept simple. Stonebridge’s battle with Hanson is the ideal climax to that story, with some visceral fisticuffs and the sense of emotional closure Stonebridge is looking for. Yes, I wonder what the point of last week’s anticlimax was in the grand scheme of things, and Hanson’s escape from the police is the apex of his exaggerated villainy, but it’s exactly as satisfying as it’s supposed to be for Stonebridge to put those bullets into Hanson in the episode’s climax.
The season finale also continues to offer insight into the villain’s side of the story, as we learn more about what would drive Conrad Knox to this extreme action. Charles Dance has been tremendous all season, but the two speeches he gives in this episode are the first where it’s felt like we really understand the character’s motivations. The idea of leaving out the backstory until the end is interesting, but it means a lot of expositional monologues. Dance is compelling enough as an actor to pull it off, and his spiel to Dalton offers a nicely unhinged narration to the tension underneath the city, but one wonders how the season might have been different if they had given us this information upfront. The show kept Knox a vague, undetermined force to keep things simple and allow episodic stories to remain the focus, and I see the logic in that: Knox’s ignominious death in the streets of Johannesburg is perhaps more immediately tragic when the stories about his father are fresh in our memory. I just also wonder whether the season could have been more dynamic if Knox’s side of the story—or even Matlock’s side of the story, which was given a similarly calculated U.N. peacekeeping component last week—were more important parts of the story from the beginning of the season.
Strike Back works because it’s capable of succeeding in spite of its reluctance to fully serialize its storytelling on a seasonal level. Scott’s relationship with Christy Bryant floated in and out of focus, never achieving enough leverage to make their “resolution” here wholly satisfying, but Sullivan Stapleton was strong in his big emotional moment recounting the child he killed while working for her. Dalton was never given a clear purpose working for Section 20, outside of providing initial tension, but her near death at the hands of Knox revealed that I nonetheless found her a good addition to the team (and will be disappointed if that ending suggests she’s moved on). And while it seemed random in last week the consistent recall back to the countdown discussion was a great bit of continuity that highlighted the duo at the heart of this show (and reminded us that a show with a whole lot of gunfire and explosions does ultimately have a heart).
That heart, according to this final installment of season two is definitely Stonebridge and Scott: It’s not a coincidence that the season once again ends with the two of them overlooking the city and chatting about their journey, nor was it simply incidental that there were two bombs that needed to be disarmed simultaneously. The season had numerous moments where one had to trust the other, a dynamic that shifted from Scott’s concern for Stonebridge toward Stonebridge’s concern for Scott at some point later in the season. While the show’s switch to a larger strike team—backing away from Scott and Stonebridge’s solo missions to involve at least another character in most scenarios—meant less time with just the two characters, their dynamic is well established and their trust serves as the backbone for the series. They can keep switching out commanders every season provided this relationship remains stable, which is why both men survive the events in Johannesburg and live to bomb and banter another day.
At the same time, though, the second season was much more interested in pairing Scott and Stonebridge’s side of the story with the other perspective, which differed considerably from how Latif was handled in the first season. In tonight’s episode, this added heft resulted in a much more satisfying conclusion, as even if Knox’s backstory about his father and the wealth of Apartheid was forced it nonetheless gave new meaning to actions throughout the season. However, during the season itself it could sometimes seem like a dead end, brief reminders that Knox exists but without enough meaning to realistically add to the episodic story. Additionally, having to tie every episodic story in with Knox created some leaps in logic, and a few too many close calls for it to seem like something other than the show delaying the inevitable. The show’s two-part episodic storytelling can create great suspense, but it was never fully compatible with the Knox story they wanted to tell.
That being said, let’s give Strike Back credit where it’s due. It would have been easy to just introduce another terrorist and have that character provide a loose endpoint for a season that otherwise moved from conflict to conflict telling isolated two-episode stories. Given its generic signature as a straight action series, I doubt anyone would have judged the show for sticking to the basics and delivering bombs and banter and little more. The decision to flesh out the other side of the conflict didn’t always work, but it was an additional point of interest that really added to the value of the finale. Whereas last season surprised with its level of skill and competence, delivering an attractive thrill ride with strong episodic resonance, this season recalibrated to try to tell a more complicated long-term story. Venturing into the territory of more “complex” drama series raised certain expectations that weren’t always met, but it was another sign that this is not a show willing to rest on its laurels, and another sign that Strike Back is more than simply a pretty, exploding face.
Episode grade: A-
Season grade: B+
- I definitely read the concluding scenes as suggesting this is Rhona Mitra’s final episode as a regular part of the series. The show left the door for her to return, and I would not be surprised to see her pop up during a two-parter next season, but it seems she sacrificed her own standing with British intelligence to save Section 20.
- The writers were smart to have Hanson shoot a resistant Matlock in the back, as it finally gave me a reason to want him dead (since I didn’t care enough about Stonebridge’s wife to find it all that tragic). Vincent Regan was a steady force on the other side of this conflict, giving a subtle performance that I liked accent aside, and while he suffered a tough death it was for a good cause.
- While not given any particular story arcs, I liked Richmond and Baxter’s more consistent role in the field. Even if they never played a considerable role, the sense of “presence” gives a valuable continuity to the week-to-week, and a stronger “team” dynamic. I wouldn’t mind seeing either character play a more prominent role next season.
- While commenting has generally been slow, I’ve appreciated those who have jumped in. It’s not a show that directly lends itself to in-depth conversation, but I continue to believe there’s more than meets the eye, and those who have agreed have made some great contributions to our discussion. Thanks for that.