It often feels weird to write about Strike Back, as it means stopping to evaluate a show that really doesn’t necessarily want you to stop and evaluate it. Now, this may seem dismissive of the show’s quality or complexity, but it’s not the evaluation that’s the problem. Instead, the very idea of stopping is counterintuitive with a show that strings together episodes and always seems to have one foot in the future to keep things steadily marching forward.
On some level, these reviews have been along for the ride, without the kind of large-scale analysis that one might use with shows more suited to introspection (which is partially a function of the series’ narrative, and partially a function of the show landing during the busy transition period between summer and fall). This eighth episode of season two seems like the first point when such introspection seems natural, as we see one aspect of the season’s storyline come to a clear end, with the narrative streamlining toward a final showdown in the two-part finale airing over the next two weeks. Conrad Knox’s master plan comes together just in time to unravel, and a tense showdown with Matlock and Knox’s forces provides some degree of closure while leaving enough loose ends to lead to an even tenser showdown in the finale.
It raises a question, though, of how to build suspense in a situation where all major resolution will be put off for another week. When Scott battles with Hanson in the basement of the hospital as he tries to escape with Lilian Lutulu, there’s no chance of Hanson dying in the altercation since it’s not Michael Stonebridge who’s fighting him. The entire season is built around Stonebridge’s revenge narrative, so who didn’t expect Hanson to be wearing a bulletproof vest when Scott put a few slugs into his chest? Similarly, what were the chances that Matlock would kill Stonebridge upon storming the police station, even if Stonebridge had killed Kohl after her attempt to murder Lutulu’s killer went sideways?
This isn’t to say that tonight’s episode doesn’t have its moments of excitement. During the “prisoner” exchange, the misdirection with the trigger is a nice bit of work. We’re given every indication it’s Matlock who’s ordering someone to set off an explosion, so that it was actually on our side was a nice little twist to add an exclamation mark to an otherwise functional scene (placing Lilian back in Knox’s camp, and getting Stonebridge back with Section 20).
Similarly, the closing sequence lacks any real suspense but delivers the kind of thrills the show has become known for. It’s clear to anyone who has watched a television show that Knox and Christy Bryant are probably at another location (which was foreshadowed if you spotted the people packing the last time we saw Knox’s camp in the episode), but the weapons tent still goes up in a huge explosion (beautifully captures from multiple angles, including the background of Scott and Stonebridge driving away), and the car chase still involves a temperamental, fiery gas tank. It highlights that the job of many Strike Back scenes is to provide immediate satisfaction to distract from the fact the princess is in another castle, offering the experience of climax without the narrative closure we might normally associate with it.
The one piece of closure we—potentially—get is the story of Lilian Lutulu, whose father dies a quick death at the hands of Knox associates as he’s being wheeled into the hospital. Like many female characters over the course of the show’s run, she’s introduced in part one and moves on with her life after part two, although the difference here is that she doesn’t sleep with Scott in the process. Wrapped up in Knox’s plans for Zimbabwe and Africa in general, Lilian proved a key piece in the puzzle. Not only was she central to Knox’s plan, the figure he believed could be molded into a puppet through whom he could wield power in Zimbabwe, but she also gives Scott his narrative purpose heading into the finale: While Stonebridge is on a collision course with the man who killed his wife, Scott is now single-handedly tasked with the mission of murdering Knox for Lilian.
While not the same as a season-long arc, the latter nonetheless gives Scott’s involvement in the finale a greater complexity, his every action caught between three separate motivations reinforced over the past two episodes: his desire to return to America (complicated by Bryant’s involvement with Knox), his orders from/sexual tension with Dalton (who wants Knox alive), and now his promise to Lilian (who wants him dead). Whereas Stonebridge is heading into the finale with a one track mind, they’ve taken some time the last two episodes to muddy up Scott’s involvement a bit more; it’s arbitrary, happening this late in the season, but it’s nonetheless appreciated.
What concerns me slightly about this episode is that it moves away from the complicated global politics of Knox’s initial plan in favor of a supervillain’s revenge. Knox’s plan to use Lutulu’s death to stoke political fervor in Zimbabwe and then use Lilian as his new pawn is complicated and interesting, but it’s undone because the show doesn’t seem willing to follow through with such a messy scenario for its finale. I’m not sure why Knox didn’t think Lilian could betray him (especially after Scott spent so much time with her), or why he’d allow her to hold a press conference without knowing what she intended on saying (or without a P.R. team on the ground to shut things down when she went off the rails). It makes dramatic sense for Lilian to reveal Conrad and undo his plan, as it sets the finale showdown into motion with Knox threatening to use his warheads as revenge after his foolproof plan is foiled. However, it makes Knox look like an idiot at a time when his intelligence would be valuable, resulting in the simplification of a conflict that to this point was moving in directions that focused on political issues beyond the dichotomy of good and evil.
It’s the difference between Michael’s shootout in last week’s episode and the final shootout here. Because Knox’s forces have been defined as “bad guys,” the show has no trouble mowing down dozens of them without any kind of empathy; this is satisfying on some level, but it’s less interesting than Stonebridge’s incapacitating of innocents when trying to extricate Lutulu’s killer. I’m hopeful that Matlock’s complicated moral position regarding his work for Knox could keep Knox’s forces from descending into complete villainy, but much of the moral complexity last week’s episode seemed set up was wiped off the board heading into the finale. This doesn’t mean that this week’s wasn’t satisfying or effective at establishing narrative stakes for the finale, but a few moments felt more like shortcuts that step back from some of the season’s more interesting questions.
- There was some talk in the comments about Hanson seeming almost superhuman, which jumped to mind when he just plain sat up after being shot in the chest. Showing absolutely no pain after getting hit in a bulletproof vest seems like a very purposeful performance choice, so I’m officially on board with the argument that the character is moving a bit off the rails in that respect (although the fistfight was visceral and enjoyable).
- It seems awfully convenient that Lilian wouldn’t tell Scott about Bryant’s involvement with Knox’s plan, but we see no evidence of this late in the episode.
- Moses joins the ranks of the show’s episodic support characters that get just the right amount of development to make their end meaningful. The attack on the police station was somewhat generic, but I appreciate the dynamic between Stonebridge, Moses, and their prisoner.
- Speaking of which, a moment of silence for Jessica Kohl, who meets an effectively unceremonious end. I thought they were setting up a showdown between Kohl and Richmond, so while I figured out she was posing as a cop pretty quickly, her quick death was a bit of a shock. Natalie Becker sold the character’s toughness even after the exploitative pool scene earlier in the season, and I’m sad to see the character go despite not seeing that much of her over the course of the season.