This season of Strike Back has been building to a final showdown between Michael Stonebridge and Craig Hanson, and so it was strange to see the two characters standing face-to-face on the outskirts of Johannesburg at the end of the penultimate episode as opposed to the finale. Although, it was less strange to see the scene turn into an anti-climax, the arrival of a police helicopter signaling one more near escape for Craig Hanson.
I’m honestly still unsure what this scene is signaling. On the one hand, this could be your typical tease: Hanson will escape from the authorities, Stonebridge will intercept, and we’ll get the cathartic vengeance we desire. However, on the other hand, this could be the end point itself. Stonebridge demonstrates he isn’t so blinded with rage that he’s willing to get himself killed (which would have happened if he had shot Hanson), while Hanson lives to scheme another day and pop up as a recurring villain (not unlike Nina on 24, if we want to draw a comparison and you don’t mind me spoiling a show that’s over a decade old).
Strike Back is officially returning for a third—Cinemax—season next year, so there’s every chance they’re planning ahead for the future. Shane Taylor brings a compelling energy to the character, and I like the idea of recurring villains popping up on occasion, so I see the logic behind potentially leaving Hanson in play. However, at the same time, this really did lack any of the sense of climax I would have expected from such a showdown. “Episode Nine” was largely focused on cleaning up loose ends and introducing new characters to vamp for time, and so the idea that this could also provide Stonebridge and Hanson with their proper resolution strikes me as counter-intuitive.
Of course, penultimate episodes always end up seeming at least a bit counter-intuitive, as writers are forced to hold off on actual resolution while still delivering a sense of finality and maintaining momentum. It’s why Game of Thrones, for example, has taken to treating the penultimate episode as its climax, and then using the final episode as a denouement. Unless that really was the resolution to Stonebridge’s battle with Hanson, “Episode Nine” chooses not to go in this direction, with Conrad Knox still on the loose and Scott off to track down the now rogue Christy Bryant as the episode comes to a close. Instead of bringing stories to an end, it’s focused on finding a way to provide an exciting 45 minutes of television where nothing of consequence happens.
“Episode Nine” demonstrates why Strike Back is in a good position to make a filler episode exciting, as it’s still capable of delivering strong action sequences. The opening car chase has some stunning long shots of the two vehicles driving through the town, and it was great to see some actual aftermath from the explosion of a nuclear warhead (as opposed to everyone just casually going on with their lives without being checked for radiation, etc.). Similarly, the final sequence was a nice case of misdirection: Whereas Conrad being at another camp last week was predictable, there was a chance they would catch Conrad this time around, making the switch with the shoe tracker more effective. I had forgotten about the homeless guy before he showed up in the elevator, and while no one we know died in the explosion it was still a nice bit of narrative trickery.
But is there anything to show for it? The introduction of a new character—terrorist lawyer Christian Lucas—at this late stage in the season seems pointless when you’re going to kill him forty minutes later, and Knox’s expansion into other countries—Nigera, Somalia, and Sudan—is exposition more than plot development. The introduction of the South African authorities to take over the investigation proves useful at the end of the episode, but the unceremonious way they’re introduced—with Dalton just stumbling upon the Special Task Force commander—only calls attention to the show’s need for some generic law enforcement types to be set on fire later on.
What’s strange is that Strike Back episodes rarely feel like filler, at least in the traditional sense. While I’ve talked in the past about how the first part of the two-part episodes can occasionally lack resolution, there’s a clear promise of resolution in the second part of the episode. Here, however, everything that’s introduced is removed by the end of the episode, existing purely to ensure that the show has something to do while it delays the climax until the finale. Rather than streamlining and simplifying, the show inelegantly tells Christian Lucas’ story in an expedited fashion, a decision that turns “Episode Nine” into a rare stand-alone segment of a show known for at least aspiring to two-part narratives.
Does this temper enthusiasm for the finale? Not necessarily: Charles Dance is still doing some great work as Knox, I still have an interest in how Matlock plays out this endgame given his morality struggle, and Cinemax’s unwillingness to announce casting for the third season means that everyone is in play as far as life and death is concerned. But instead of was adding to these circumstances, “Episode Nine” was more calling attention to them. Matlock cleaning his U.N. medal was too on-the-nose, while Knox’s plan was rehashed more than evolved (even if it was done in yet more beautiful locales, such as the vista that opened the episode). When you’ve been writing about the show every week, and when you go into the final episodes of the season expecting something close to a climax, it’s a bit of a buzzkill to discover that part one of the finale isn’t really part of the finale at all. As much as I appreciate the long shots and explosions that make the show distinctive, they can’t hide the fact a penultimate episode that plays largely as filler is a disappointment.
- I mention it above, but I appreciated the attention to detail in demonstrating what would happen if the nuke exploded in the way it did. It would have been really easy to skip over that, and they didn’t.
- I feel Charles Dance’s performance has successfully sold us Knox as someone who wants power and is willing to go to any lengths to get it, so why does Dalton have to keep telling us she “knows him” and that he will play every card he has? It’s a lot of “Tell, don’t show” logic, and it felt particularly obnoxious here.
- Knox and Matlock’s method for killing Lucas seemed incredibly dangerous to me. Like, couldn’t Matlock have lost a finger if Knox’s aim wasn’t perfect? Or if Lucas struggled in a particular direction?
- Scott on his love for Star Trek: “You gotta love a show where they keep asking Mr. Scott for more thrust.”
- I have to say that I really appreciated Cinemax’s decision to avoid mentioning any cast members for season three lest it spoil the finale. Do we think this is just a smokescreen and everyone makes it through alive? Or is it possible that Winchester or Stapleton are actually moving on? Or is it just a way to hide the more typical departure of Mitra after a season-long arc?