Series like Strike Back require an understanding between the writers and the audience that the narrative world of the series is necessarily small. The protagonists and antagonists that populate that world must necessarily run into each other at regular, episodic intervals, and so one has to accept that Section 20 is going to come head-to-head with Conrad Knox’s security forces within each of this season’s five two-part stories.
“Episode Five,” continuing a theme begun with the last two episodes, does a nice job of demonstrating the value of such an approach. Signaling the next step in Conrad Knox’s plan for world domination, a former nuclear scientist—Peter Evans—forced into hiding after the fall of apartheid flees to South Africa when his daughter and grandson are kidnapped, becoming a pawn in a much larger game and the person around whom an inter-agency battle between Knox’s security team, Section 20, and Mossad (which oversaw the decommissioning of the South African nuclear program and which is intent on not seeing the knowledge fall into the wrong hands to be potentially turned against Israel) develops. The ensuing conflict puts Scott front and center, giving him a personal connection with someone in both of the opposing forces, and relying on an increasingly intimate narrative space to bring the various stories together heading into “Episode Six.”
This season has largely been focused on Stonebridge, given that his wife was killed back in “Episode Two,” with Scott remaining a stable force within Section 20. This is, of course, the exact opposite situation from the beginning of last season, where Scott was still battling his demons and looking for a new way forward. That stability becomes a test here, as Scott is contrasted with two alternate versions of himself. Curtis, an ex-soldier working on Matlock’s team that Scott knows from his time in Delta Force, was injured in Iraq and needs money to pay his medical expenses. Curtis has enough of a conscience to avoid killing his former colleague when he gets a chance, but he’s not above extorting Section 20 in exchange for information to help rescue Evans’ family, nor is he unwilling to put his life over their own and will them into a trap that could well have killed them. At every stage before Curtis’ death, Scott wants to believe the best, and we do see evidence of Curtis actively wanting to help them in any way he could. However, he’s also willing to bargain with Matlock for his own life once he’s caught, suggesting a level of personal corruption that is less about Curtis as a character—whom, beyond an affection for brothels, we know very little about—and more about soldiering as a profession and the impact it can have on people (tying him in with both Scott and Craig Hanson).
Expanding on this theme, Scott’s interactions with Rebecca—a Mossad agent sent to kill Evans—offer another parallel for the character. While their sex scene is easily the most explicit so far this season, it’s explicit with a purpose, as Scott reads her abandon as a sign of her having become lost in some way. It’s an on-the-nose observation, given that he specifically cites how she reminds him of himself at one point in the past, but it adds another dimension to the gunfight that closes the episode (just as Scott’s relationship with Curtis adds dynamism to the approach to the stadium). Neither Rebecca nor Curtis are incredibly complex characters, but their position within the narrative successfully differentiates this action from the action we’ve seen to this point in the series. It’s a small world that Scott would meet such conveniently parallel characters within a single episode, but bringing the character to the center of the series gives Sullivan Stapleton a bit more to work with, and I appreciate the diversity, compared to the Stonebridge-heavy start to the season.
This is not to say that Stonebridge is absent in the episode, but his role certainly takes on a more supportive character until the very end. He’s simply doing his job, protecting Evans and eventually helping him escape from the compromised safe house, but then he sees Craig Hanson driving by and sees nothing but vengeance. It’s a striking image, Stonebridge running down the street like a madman, and the episode’s final shot of Stonebridge—not in a car—and Hanson—in a car—in a game of firearm-fueled chicken is a particularly thrilling end to an episode that had its share of thrills (what with the multi-stage run-and-gun-and-chase sequence that opened the episode, and the stadium shootout at its mid-point).
“Episode Five” builds to a traditional cliffhanger, not unlike “Episode Three,” but it also lays some groundwork for the season as a whole. The characters become very aware of how small their world is, piecing together details that to this point have been largely confined to the audience at home. Conrad Knox’s involvement is confirmed by Section 20, and in turn, we get a clearer picture of what precisely this means. While Knox’s motivations still position him as an opportunistic mastermind, a glimpse of his philanthropist daughter who runs his foundation gives us more detail on his duplicity (and the victims of it), while the introduction of South African politicians gives us a sense of his power and reach within the current locale. The various parties involved in the narrative have become more intimate, the “small world” becoming smaller as the nuclear missiles being slowly constructed episode-by-episode move closer to completion.
By balancing this larger task with some solid character work for Scott, “Episode Five” keeps from feeling like a load of exposition. We learn a lot of things we need to learn, and things move into place that needed to be moved into place, but in the process, I appreciated the glimpse into Scott’s relationship with people he sees playing out his past. The “small world” nature of the show’s narrative is certainly built on contrivance, but the efficiency gives them time to focus on some more nuanced developments outside of the plot itself, continuing to add depth to a narrative universe that could have easily been shallow.
- My favorite moment in the episode is when Matlock sees Scott at the loading dock and growls “Twenty” under his breath. It positions his battle with Section 20 as one of those never-ending wars between villainous sidekicks and our heroes. It seems unfair to make this comparison, but the first thing that came to mind was the constant battle between Shreeky and Beastly and the Care Bears. Except with, you know, death and blood and all that stuff.
- “He’s not gay; he’s British—easy mistake to make”: I appreciate a good bit of Scott/Stonebridge banter, but I wonder how that one would play across the pond versus how it plays on Cinemax.
- Some really great location shooting this week. The show fakes other countries in Africa so often that it’s a relief to get back to Cape Town and really focus in on the spectacular views from the safe house or the chilling site of the empty stadium.
- I find it difficult to believe that no one at Section 20 pieced together the dead security officer at the airport and Rebecca’s entrance into the control room, but it’s a necessary lapse in order to give Scott a chance to sleep with her, so I can see the writers’—still a bit pervy—logic.