“We’re all just pieces on a board. That’s all.”
Damien Scott says this just after he’s been turned into a pawn in Leo Kamali’s life as a double—or triple, or quintuple—agent working with Al-Zuhari, and just before Kamali risks his own life to stop Al-Zuhari’s planned biological attack. He’s forgiving Kamali for giving up his location to Ulyanov, but he’s also explaining the rationale under which the members of Section 20 can keep going after losing Baxter and Dalton in quick succession, and the rationale that could lead to him cashing out the stolen diamonds with Stonebridge to lead a different life.
This season has continually doubled back to Baxter’s death at the beginning of the season, even if the characters rarely mention him by name. For Kamali, it was a sacrifice that had to be made in order to ensure his cover; for Dalton, it was a death she had to watch happen and feel responsible for, even if there was little she could have done about it. For the viewer, meanwhile, it was a sign that every piece on the board was vulnerable, reinforced by Dalton’s death and reaffirmed in “Episode Eight” when Leo Kamali takes a bullet to the head.
It’s a central theme within this season’s narrative, although it’s one that’s tougher to accept on Scott’s terms when you consider Strike Back as a television series. Scott and Stonebridge may feel like they are just pieces on the board as Dalton and Locke place their lives in danger and Kamali sells them out to the Russian mafia. However, as far as Strike Back is concerned, it’s difficult to imagine the series without this pairing, making the stakes for Stonebridge’s neurotoxicity considerably lower than the stakes for a character like Kamali. As bad as things looked in “Episode 8” for Stonebridge, I never once thought for a moment that the Smallpox variant being weaponized for Al-Zuhari would murder one of our heroes as Kamali stood and watched.
That has rarely stood in the way of Strike Back being entertaining, and that goes for these episodes as well. Even if the stakes of Stonebridge’s illness were ultimately low, it still provided an additional dynamic to the series’ take on the prison infiltration and gave Philip Winchester the opportunity to play vulnerability beyond simply the emotional scars of his wife or lovers’ deaths in previous seasons. The buildup to his illness was never exactly subtle, but its impact on Stonebridge’s psyche was better handled, and as he sits in that hospital bed you can see him considering less his physical health—he’ll “be fine” according to Locke—and more the larger questions of whether this is how he wants to live his life. Strike Back remains adept at raising these questions in the midst of a storyline involving a cross-dressing Russian prison inmate inciting a riot and a remote human experimentation facility, never exactly slowing down to ruminate but nonetheless using the story to build key moments of conversation.
In “Episode Five” and “Episode Six,” the formula that allows the writers to achieve this grew stale and predictable. “Episode Seven” opens with such a moment, but it quickly evolves into a car chase, and then imprisonment, and then the ball starts rolling from there. There were still moments—in the cell before the riot, for example—where the show stopped to explore the characters’ perspective on their situation, but it felt contextual rather than transitional. Scott and Stonebridge reflect not because the story demands it of them, but rather because their situation—Stonebridge dying, both behind in bars and needing to escape—warrants such reflection.
Similarly, Richmond and Martinez build their own variation on the theme, but it’s through a cleverly designed sequence that pulls punches but nonetheless makes an impact. Although the writers back away from having Richmond and Martinez stand down and watch a child murdered in front of them, they nonetheless witness the death of an innocent woman. They did it to keep Scott and Stonebridge—and thus the mission, and thus their chance of stopping Al-Zuhari—alive, but Martinez later reflects on it with Richmond. It’s a great sequence because it acknowledges Martinez’s relatively recent introduction to Section 20’s code of ethics, allows Richmond to speak from a position of authority and experience (rather than simply serving as support for Scott and Stonebridge), and also summarizes the essence of the show. Martinez stops Richmond believing she’s simply going to explain that they live in a complicated world, but Richmond insists it’s the opposite: Maybe the world is simpler than they would like to admit.
Strike Back is about simple pleasures, like a man flying off a tower after being shot or Stonebridge, naked, fighting his way out of being burned alive and lighting a man on fire in the process. In its third season, the show has continued along these lines, but it also brought in Kamali as an element of chaos. Introduced as a double agent, Kamali never entirely showed his true colors, and along the way, the show laid hints he could still be working for Al-Zuhari. When he gives up Scott and Stonebridge, it’s easy to read that as a clear sign he’s been playing Section 20 all along as part of some sort of long con, but we eventually learn that it’s actually simple: He’s just trying to survive, thinking on his feet and accepting the consequences (or rather accepting the consequence he places onto others). Rather than a triple or quintuple agent, Leo Kamali was just a man in an impossibly difficult situation thinking in the heat of the moment, a simple explanation for complex behaviors.
“Episode Eight” ends with Kamali’s death, a victim of the simplicity of his situation and his heroic choice to risk his own live to save others. In many ways his death was inevitable, as his position was too tenuous to survive the uncertainties of their investigation. Locke’s inspirational speech invites discussion of sacrifice, suggesting that every price will be paid in order for them to stop Al-Zuhari. As always, it seems unfathomable to imagine a scenario in which Section 20 doesn’t stop the planned attack; however, more than in past seasons, it seems plausible that they will suffer greater casualties in order to attain this goal, and that the sacrifice already experienced is only the beginning. It’s an ominous but effective way to enter into the season’s final two episodes, laying the groundwork for a finale that may have a happy ending but nonetheless seems positioned to reinforce what one must sacrifice to achieve such a conclusion.
- Writing about two episodes often results in focus on plot, theme, and character over the episodes themselves—I realize this can be a bit reductive to a show that’s also full of action and comedy, but I figure that gives us more to talk about in the stray observations and the comments.
- “Who’s this?” “Pushkin!”—I had some issues with the way Pushkin was so quickly defined by his cross-dressing and then turned into a fount of exposition, but his response to Pirogova was a great laugh.
- Between the prison setting and the spoon to the eye, you could almost sense Strike Back taking some cues from Banshee in this hour.
- I almost admired the production’s inability to control their indulgence in prison riot cliché—the series never sold me on the danger of the riot (especially that scene of the Governor getting randomly mobbed), but the individual fight scenes were strong enough to make it work.
- “You owe me a beer.” “You wish.”—I appreciated this quick moment after Scott saved Richmond in the medical facility, an acknowledgment that she doesn’t suddenly lose her autonomy if she’s “saved” in battle.
- So I’m revising my prediction from “Scott adopts Kamali’s daughter as his own” to “Scott and Stonebridge give Kamali’s daughter the diamonds.”