Strike Back has always shared a strong connection with video games in its storytelling. A typical episode of the Cinemax series has three types of scenes: extended action sequences with high body counts and a lot of run-and-gun choreography, exposition sequences constructed as Section 20 briefings or bedroom rendezvous, and usually some form of dialogue-heavy altercation with a central villain or a different villainous figure. In addition to thinking about each two-episode story—which we’ll be reviewing as cohesive units this season—as a movie, we could also consider each story as a revolving sequence of gameplay segments and cutscenes.
I raise this comparison for two reasons. The first is that “Episode One” and “Episode Two” were filled with ideas—randomly bumping into a past lover, teaming up with colorful local operatives, escorting a hostage through a firefight, cover-based shooting, multi-stage action sequences with various modes of transportation—that, in addition to being action movie clichés in their own right, also felt ripped out of the chapters of a series like Naughty Dog’s Uncharted (which I’d personally consider a compliment given my affection for that series). However, the other reason is that Strike Back isn’t going to change its patterns to introduce you to the overarching narrative of the season; instead, much as a video game prologue often has you playing through a sequence that functions largely to orient you to the world of a particular game, Strike Back is going to be exactly the kind of show it’s always been in these opening episodes while finding a way to tell you a story in the process.
These episodes tell the story of Section 20’s latest mission in Colombia, but the actual details of that mission are fairly irrelevant. The villains turn out to be the Gomez brothers, consisting of a rocket launcher-toting ex-police chief and a corrupt and overweight bureaucrat, but they function mostly as fodder so we can get to know a new cast of characters and gain perspective on a new central conflict. The country and its corruption provide a playground for the series to stage the reintroduction and death of Mossad agent Rebecca (who we last saw in the fifth and sixth episodes of last season); the introduction of new “Friend of Section 20” Martinez (Milauna Jackson); the complicated arrival of CIA double agent Kamali and his Bin Laden-esque leader Al-Zuhari; as well as the new oversight of Section 20’s new leader, Major Philip Locke (Robson Green). The result is a prologue which jumps quickly into the series’ signature action while simultaneously adding emotional stakes for Scott, diversifying the ranks of Section 20 in terms of both race and gender, establishing the season’s big bad, and setting up a bureaucratic challenge that could well carry through to future episodes.
There are points where the expediency of the two hours becomes overwhelming: By the end of “Episode Two,” Baxter’s death—which opened the season—feels like a long-ago memory, an initial shock to reintroduce the audience to the high stakes world of Strike Back that ceases to resonate as the burden of introducing the rest of the seasonal arc takes over. Additionally, the Dalton storyline in Lebanon—while a welcome way to transition Rhona Mitra into a more active, action-heavy role in the series—often registers as a diversion from the Colombian storyline, too thin to become a well-developed story as opposed to a venue for exposition; as evidence, look at the way the storyline uses and abuses the trope of the all-important source who is shot just as he’s about to prove more cooperative.
Those broad strokes are often what keeps Strike Back from being taken more seriously, but the show deserves credit for making the broad strokes work. Rebecca’s arc in the episode is riddled with clichés, whether it’s the coincidence that brings her back into Scott’s life, her miraculous recovery after nearly drowning in the boat, or her dramatic death in Scott’s arms as the gunfire around him somehow manages to miss him entirely. However, while each individual moment fits comfortably within a cliché, taken as a whole there is something refreshing about the show committing to her death after faking it, with the stringing together of various moments adding up to a memorable if efficient character arc that can realistically resonate with Scott during the season. The show rarely stops to develop characters in the same fashion as more traditional dramas, but it’s found ways to translate its action-heavy focus into character development, ways that when repeated week-after-week resemble the way video games peel back the layers of characters and narratives with each subsequent level over the course of a game.
I don’t think we need to talk about video games to talk about Strike Back: Just as The Wire isn’t a novel and Breaking Bad isn’t “like a long movie,” I don’t want to reduce Strike Back to its run-and-gun/cutscene aesthetic and strip it of its—admittedly weird two-part story structure—televisuality. But the whole point of Strike Back is that, while it will never entirely shed its run-and-gun/cutscene aesthetic, that doesn’t mean it isn’t evolving. Admittedly, in a two-part première like this one, the nuance isn’t all there yet: Al-Zuhari is as generic a terrorist threat as you can imagine, and the buffoon of a CIA deputy director introduced at episode’s end was too cartoonish by half. Compared to last season, when the series was dealing with Stonebridge’s reluctant return as well as the more complicated figure of Conrad Knox as the “big bad” of the season, this is definitely a season driven by a more straightforward choice to tell bigger stories, expand the cast of characters, and let them loose on a global terror threat—for now. How that could evolve in the future remains to be seen, and will continue to be done within—rather than outside of—the action series template on display here.
- We need to pour one out for poor Sgt. Liam Baxter, who I generally liked in previous seasons even if I still managed to forget his name until a character uttered it. That being said, I can’t complain about a greater influx of women within Section 20, so I like the switch to Martinez on paper.
- I was a less enamored with the quick succession from “Martinez and Richmond as Prostitutes” to “Martinez and Richmond Pretend to be Lesbians.” I think the show handled it fine, but it still feels a bit exploitative in a show so focused on appealing to male viewers (as evidenced by Scott’s two softcore sequences, with Rebecca and the waitress, in the episodes).
- There are a couple of throwaway lines asking whether Scott and Stonebridge were really ready to return to Section 20: The highway sequence is a fun entry point for the season, and their motorcycle tour reintroduces the characters for new viewers, but it’s suggested they might have liked more time off. Interested to see how—if at all—that manifests in the season.
- “I always was a little heavy on the gas”—with this line from Locke, it’s nice to see that Scott and Stonebridge aren’t the only ones who get to crack a joke on occasion.
- The reveal of the rocket launcher was a great beat in “Episode One,” but I also liked the shot of the guy hanging out of the car getting shot toward the end of “Episode Two.” I enjoy a good laugh in the midst of a tense action sequence, and both delivered in their absurdity (See also: the window washer who just keeps washing windows).
- We’ll be back in two weeks with thoughts on “Episode Three” and “Episode Four”—in the meantime, I’ll probably start a quick conversation in these comments next Friday if we want to talk about “Episode Three” before its conclusion.