I said last week that covering Strike Back week-to-week is going to be slightly different than with other shows, and “Episode Three” bears this out. Given the series’ two-part structure, in which every episode is either starting or finishing an isolated arc, there’s a certain set of expectations for each half of the equation.
“Episode Three” demonstrates these expectations, transitioning from the events of last week’s première into the explosive cliffhanger that leads into next week’s conclusion. On some level, this is the basic strategy of the first half of a Strike Back two-parter: remind the viewer what’s happening, and then build to something blowing up at episode’s end. However, the “in between” of tonight’s episode—which, part one or not, is still an episode of television—also involves a lot of action, a brief investigation into a nomadic culture, the intersection of five competing factions, and the obligatory sex scene(s). The combined impact of these scenes might not dramatically alter the episode’s basic function as a preview for next week’s “part two,” but their collective impact helps turn the explosion at episode’s end into a legitimate cliffhanger as opposed to an obligatory one.
What works particularly well is the emphasis on Section 20 being part of a larger global-intelligence racket. Sure, it’s convenient that the Americans would be bombing the same building where Scott and Stonebridge are trying to collect nuclear triggers (being sold by the religious leader we left off with at the end of last week’s première, providing the requisite continuity), and Scott having sex with his former CIA acquaintance Christy Bryant was as predictable as any other time an attractive woman walks into frame while Scott’s around, but it calls attention to the idea that Section 20 isn’t operating within a bubble. The presence of Conrad Knox’s team, who we met trying to collect the triggers in the première, is another part of this project, and it made this week’s episode feel much more unpredictable even if the triggers remain a fairly simple tool designed to keep Section 20 running around; that so many other groups are involved—which also includes both El Soldat and the Tuareg camp—helps keep it from seeming like a fetch quest. The more forces operating against an object, the less control you can obtain over that object, and that’s the kind of “chaos rules” scenario that Strike Back is well-suited to explore.
Strike Back is less suited for exploring the intricacies of the Tuareg people, although the writers use dialogue to give us the cliff-notes version that positions the Tuareg as a nomadic, matrilineal society (in which women hold positions of power and men wear veils), which research suggests is fairly representative. Whether the depiction of the tribal leader and her sexual tension with Scott is as carefully researched is a different question, but it’s also a question for a different show: Strike Back enjoys exploring the episodic ingénue, and it helps when said ingénue also happens to enjoy pulling knives on prisoners and shooting automatic weapons. The limited interest in characterization means that no one is going to applaud Strike Back for its deep female characters this time around, but Markunda benefits from some effective—if, due to the show’s pace, cursory—cultural context and a central place in the action of the episode.
More time is spent with Knox’s team, whom we’re coming to know independent of Conrad himself. The poolside scene between Knox hit man Karl Matlock and his companion Jessica Kohl is an interesting mash-up of the series’ signatures: some total male gaze as she emerges from the pool, some gun porn in the gift Matlock brings with him, and also some philosophical reflection on the nature of killing for hire (with Karl noting that he’s had enough of “blood and sunshine,” two of the show’s other signatures). It’s not a tremendous amount of depth for either character, but I liked the continuity from the première, and there’s value in following the other side of the conflict through characters with their own sense of agency independent of their employer. While Knox himself is currently being characterized by scenes best described as “Charles Dance chews some beautiful scenery,” his organization is gaining some depth through his employees, laying the groundwork for the ongoing—and for some time, I would imagine, indirect—battle between these two sides.
All of this serves to give the show’s general narrative strategies—the bombs, the boobs, the blood—purpose, which is also helped by the emphasis on Stonebridge’s return to Section 20 after his wife’s death. He returns because it’s the only thing he has left, and because he sees it as an outlet for the revenge he seeks (both in terms of providing a distraction and providing resources he can use to go after Craig Hanson himself). While it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Stonebridge is still struggling with the situation, the episode does an eloquent job emphasizing this through the psych evaluation that opens the episode and the series of mishaps and flashbacks he suffers over the course of the action. At every step in the episode, something happens to Stonebridge that sends him back to that moment, something that tests his readiness to be in the field and proves him to be wanting. While these range in effectiveness—thinking specifically of the random wrestling match at the Tuareg camp that turns homicidal—they give the procedural action purpose, tying into both last week’s première and our understanding of Stonebridge’s mental state heading into next week’s conclusion.
As a result of all of these factors, I had a smile on my face when the show cut to black right after a rocket exploded near the truck carrying our heroes. The abruptness of the cut was artfully done, and demonstrated that it’s nearly impossible to see this as a standalone unit considering it felt like it was cutting out mid-frame. There is still a lot to resolve here, and “Episode Four” of season two might make some of the obligatory parts of “Episode Three” more meaningful, or it might further point out the missed opportunities. As a provocation looking to lay the groundwork for next week’s conclusion, though, “Episode Three” does some strong work introducing new threads, tying into recent ones, and building to a final moment exciting enough to build excitement for next week—taken in light of the specific task in front of it, I’d call that a success.
- Let’s Overanalyze The Sex Scenes!: Like his sex with the photographer last season, Scott’s liaison with Bryant is devoid of the soft-core nudity we’ve come to expect from the show, which is what happens when he has sex with a character who actually registers as a character. To make up for it, of course, we get the sex in the manager’s room at the hotel and Jessica exiting the pool all sultry-like. And the writers even threw in Stonebridge’s shirtless wrestling match for good measure.
- I understand it as a function of the tension between Dalton and Sinclair—as the new and old commanding officers—but I still thought the drama around the courier being El Soldat’s brother is somewhat strange: Why is she trying to keep it a secret? And why is he so insistent it be broadcast to everyone? I’ll be interested to see if that pays off next week.
- While Shane Taylor’s Craig Hanson exists only in flashback this week, I think that plays to the show’s strength—distraction is a powerful tool, as evidenced with Stonebridge’s story here, and being able to play that thread out over time is likely in the show’s best interest (although there’s a point at which waiting too long will prove damaging).
- For those with access to Cinemax’s MaxGo—the network’s equivalent to HBOGo—I’m told you can watch next week’s conclusion early. If you do watch it, please try to avoid spoilers in the comments—we’ll be back to discuss it next week.