There’s a moment in the second half of Strike Back’s second-season première where Damien Scott ribs Michael Stonebridge about his new career as a training instructor, a position abandoned to help rescue his old teammate and others kidnapped by a local mercenary in Somalia. In the first half of the première, we learn why Stonebridge bristles at the mention of his new job: One of his recruits, suffering from PTSD, fired on his fellow trainees, requiring Stonebridge to kill him to stop the carnage. After Scott picks up on Stonebridge's reluctance we leave the scene for a few moments to check in on other characters, and when we come back a few scenes later we find Stonebridge at the tail end of a conversation about it, reflecting on what he could have done differently to keep those events from transpiring.
This scene embodies the larger storytelling dynamic of Strike Back, a show that hasn’t changed since its first season last year but nonetheless feels as though it has evolved thanks to my growing attachment to its bombastic style and the characters involved. In this scene, we see the show reinforcing the psychology of Stonebridge’s character, calling back to a training tragedy that was visceral enough to resonate throughout the two episodes (making me convinced, in fact, that someone was going to die on his watch in the streets of Mogadishu). However, the show skips the meat of the conversation, signifying Stonebridge’s mental state without having to spend a considerable amount of time on it. Given its druthers, Strike Back will always go for momentum over mulling about, but there remains a commitment to stopping briefly to take stock on where each character stands within the fray.
That commitment was evident throughout both of these episodes, which should be considered a single unit given how Cinemax chose to air them. It’s a smart decision given that the network is best known for its film programming as opposed to its original series: If viewers were to flip to the channel looking for something to watch, they would find a largely standalone introduction to a weekly television version of many of the movies that Cinemax has considerable success with. Although Strike Back remains committed to offering the kind of action associated with those films, that doesn’t mean that’s the only goal of this two-part première. Between establishing a new commander, introducing three new antagonists, paying off an older adversary, and reintroducing the characters from last season, the fact that this still felt like a streamlined 90-minute action film is a testament to its pacing and a sign that the show is dialed in to begin the second season.
This is not to suggest that Strike Back has suddenly become more sophisticated. The show, better known for its action than its melodrama, still stumbles over Stonebridge’s domestic life, a rote and predictable struggle with his wife punctuated by unconvincing guilt trips, longing stares at ultrasounds (following a clumsily introduced miscarriage), and a sniper attack at episode’s end that feels convenient rather than tragic. Not only does it repeat the pattern from last season—when Stonebridge’s colleague and mistress was killed during a mission—but it also gives Stonebridge reason to return to Section 20 full-time whileestablishing an ongoing search for the shooter (who is one of three potential ongoing bad guys introduced in the episode, this one played by Shane Taylor, best knows as the medic from Band Of Brothers). The script isn’t confident enough to give Stonebridge’s relationship with his wife enough time to resonate, content to offer some cursory attention to engender sympathy at episode’s end. While I’ll reserve judgment on its broader impact until we see how it plays out in the rest of the season, it did nothing for me here.
Perhaps this is because the show often feels like it’s stopping dead in its tracks when it travels back to the U.K., whereas on the ground in Somalia things move too quickly for the show to get bogged down in it. There isn’t a great deal more complexity to the tale of Waabri, a Somali warlord who was raised in the U.K. before being deported, but the momentum of the story around him means there’s no time to stop and think about it. Instead, the character’s position within the story shifts as the plot thickens, his initial kidnap-and-ransom plot turning into a lucrative opportunity dealing with international interests and nuclear triggers. In a romantic liaison with his female companion in the second half of the première, we see how the potential payout might allow warlord to move onto a new stage in his life, but the plot proves too thick, and he ends up collateral damage in a case of global terrorism above his station, while his companion is murdered by the religious leader whose goals for the acquired triggers go beyond retirement. The episode breathlessly takes the character, crafts him into a legitimate one-off threat, and then moves beyond him to reveal an ongoing, serialized plot that will potentially extend into the rest of the season.
The show operates on a similar level on the protagonists’ side of the conflict, as Rhona Mitra’s Rachel Dalton is introduced as a generic kidnapping victim but eventually transforms into an agent and eventually into the commander of Section 20. The moment where Rachel searches frantically for the case, collecting weapons along the way, offers a great transformation for Mitra, who fills in for the departed Amanda Mealing—whose Eleanor Grant gets a brief mention but is largely left behind with the rest of the first Cinemax season—well as far as hard-nosed, no-nonsense female counter-terrorism figures go. The episode becomes a way to meet the character in one form, have that form subverted shortly after, and then get a preview of how she will come to clash with both Scott and Stonebridge in the future. It’s a strong introduction, in part because it’s all happening as they run-and-gun and take cover in the streets of Mogadishu—nothing establishes a character like the casual use of a rocket launcher in the middle of a firefight, allowing the character an early chance to be a part of the show’s fun, visceral action sequences.
There’s a degree of familiarity here, what with Mitra replacing Mealing, Stonebridge suffering another close personal loss, and Scott having yet another complicated piece of his past thrown into the fray by Dalton’s research (and when he has to call in a favor with the CIA to access a safe house that is immediately compromised). However, the more time we spend with these characters in this televisual universe, the more I come to enjoy the show’s formula, particularly when the execution is so strong. The idea of another monologue-heavy white dude with interests in global terrorism sounds awfully predictable until you realize it’s Game Of Thrones’ Charles Dance in the role. Of Strike Back’s rehashing elements of its second season, poaching from the Seven Kingdoms’ ranks—Liam Cunningham and Iain Glen both appeared last season—is among the most welcome. While the absence of Maisie Williams serving him his wine is unfortunate, the scene with Conrad Knox takes advantage of a beautiful location with some boilerplate, yet skillfully delivered, corporate villainy, and the notion of being able to see more from the character in the weeks ahead is promising.
Unfortunately, the end of this première is fairly anticlimactic: The tank attack to save the stranded heroes is explosive without having any real ties to character, while Dalton’s rise to the head of Section 20 is a clear setup move. However, it’s clear this premiere is intended as a training exercise of sorts: Not only was it designed to initiate new viewers (I almost typed “recruits”) into the stylized Strike Back universe, it’s also a dry run for the season's storylines, a temporary, episodic distraction while the real villains and the real threat slip away to fight—and be fought—another day. Exciting in its own right, and encouraging for the future, the première reinforces the strengths of last season not through serialized storytelling but through a reiteration of a productive formula. Strike Back isn’t interested in reinventing the wheel, but it’s committed to finding new ways to blow it up, and continues to tell stories around the explosions to maximize its B-movie-action potential within the framework of a weekly series.
- Tim Pigott-Smith doesn’t get a whole lot to do here, but the story of the lifelong civil servant who gives his life to Africa, loses his job due to budget cuts, and sacrifices himself to save two Somali children and spends his final moments with an old friend manage to fit a lot into a brief period. There’s some emotional manipulation with the crying kids, sure, but it works nicely as a condensed character arc.
- An interesting contrast between the two sex scenes here: While the second uses sex as a way to show Waabri and his lover reflecting on their planned future, the former is within the show’s “Let’s introduce an attractive female employee of the London consulate that exists solely to sex up Scott” wheelhouse. While I appreciated the “sympathy fuck” line as a bit of justification, the fact remains that the sexposition of the former is preferable to the soft-focus softcore of the latter.
- This is technically “season two” of Strike Back, but the weird status of the original British take on the material remains in contention: the DVD/Blu-Ray release of the first Cinemax season is, rather hilariously, labeled as “Cinemax Season One.”
- We’re picking up weekly coverage of Strike Back when it returns in two weeks. While this provides a space for us to discuss the show, it does create a weird scenario where I’ll be discussing half of a two-part episode in some reviews. My goal is to create separate evaluative criteria for a “Part One” and a “Part Two,” and I’ll be writing reviews of the former without watching the latter if I have screener access. Looking forward to the discussion!