Strike Back is built for climax.
We can take this as a joke about the series’ softcore interludes, but ultimately it’s a comment on its sense of narrative momentum. The series’ structure leaves little room for concentrated character development, shoving brief moments of exposition and conversation amidst what is otherwise primarily driven by action and reaction. Within a single episode, there is a limit on how much character development or serialization the series can handle, often creating a sense of going through the—explosive—motions.
In the third season, those limited character moments have been framed around two central ideas. The first is Scott and Stonebridge’s reluctant return to Section 20, and the idea of whether this is truly something they’ve wanted: as the series’ string of firefights and hostage situations unfolded, the characters became more and more reflective, pondering riding off into the sunset with a collection of uncut diamonds. The second thread, meanwhile, is the undercurrent of revenge narratives that threatened Scott and Stonebridge (for their murder of Ulyanov’s son), haunted Locke (who lost his son to an attack), and defined Pirogova (who spent the penultimate two-parter searching for vengeance against Ulyanov).
These ideas never manifested as particularly spectacular or brilliant in individual episodes, but they share one thing in common: they both emphasize consequence and accumulation. Scott and Stonebridge’s ambivalence to their future in Section 20 isn’t about one specific event, but rather the day-to-day drudgery of working this sometimes thankless job. Similarly, revenge narratives are all about how things in our past affect us, and how the time that has passed since those events has in most cases only made the pain stronger. Because of this, both themes fit comfortably within patterns of serialization: By definition, narratives of revenge and narratives of reflection are stronger as they accumulate on a week-to-week basis.
The final two episodes of the season often showcase Strike Back at its best, successfully raising the stakes from the rest of the season’s action sequences to deliver some of the series’ finest work in this area to date. The train sequence that anchors “Episode Nine” is a tremendous bit of stunt work, all the more impressive for coming immediately after an equally impressive grenade launcher attack on the training facility. The way the series strings together its action setpieces has always been one of its strongest suits, and the moment Locke told the pilot to chart an intercept course for the train I found myself with a giant smile on my face. The subsequent sequence was built on basic elements—like the couple separated by the virus who the camera fixates on beforehand and can use as a face for the tragedy afterwards—but those elements are perfectly calibrated to fit the high-stakes action around them. Even if it was inevitable neither Scott nor Stonebridge would die on that train, and even if the conveniently arriving Fertilizer truck is a contrivance and a half, the sequence is impressive in scale, execution, and general entertainment.
However, beyond the natural climax of derailing virus-infested locomotives and blowing up virus-infested aircraft (which followed in “Episode Ten”), these episodes also need to resolve Section 20’s ongoing battle with Al-Zuhari, who was the one behind these viral attacks. The choice for Al-Zuhari to be revealed as a back-from-the-dead Kamali—who had taken over Al-Zuhari’s identity following the terrorist leader’s death—is a practical one. In truth, the character’s allegiance shifted too many times for this last reveal to have any deeper meaning: I had my suspicions early in “Episode Nine” that he could have faked his death, and so I was not necessarily shocked to see him return, but he’s flip-flopped so many times it wouldn’t have had a huge impact regardless. As much as I’ve enjoyed Zubin Varla’s performance, there is no clear arc for Leo Kamali as a character, making this less about a clearly defined villain and more about giving us a recognizable face with which to associate the threat during the final showdown.
To the show’s credit, it works tremendously well in the moment. Ester’s role in the story often felt engineered to get Scott reflecting on the son he abandoned fifteen years earlier, but her presence gave the start of “Episode Nine” a sense of purpose and her relationship with her father added valuable dimension to the climax of “Episode Ten.” Amy-Leigh Hickman proved a valuable asset, pulling out the emotional side of Sullivan Stapleton while simultaneously humanizing the season’s villain. Even if we can’t chart a clean arc for Kamali, the character was human enough and memorable enough to use as a compelling foil. When “Episode Ten” ends with Kamali holding the last canister of the virus in a public space as Scott and Stonebridge threaten to shoot him, it didn’t feel like a random terrorist threat, which had been a possibility at the beginning of “Episode Nine” when Locke threw out a bunch of exposition about a global threat that seemed disconnected from our characters. It felt like a human drama, an important dimension in a series where it could easily be lost amid the action.
On the whole, the third season worked slightly better than its second. While Charles Dance’s Conrad Knox was perhaps a more memorable figure throughout the season, the year was better for the absence of a figure like Shane Taylor’s Craig Hanson who singularly focused the energies of a single character (in that case Stonebridge). The choice to highlight strong, clearly identifiable villains from the beginning resulted in a simpler sense of conflict, but terrorism is rarely as simple as that, and the third season better captured the chaos inherent to terrorist threats. The result was some messier episodes toward the middle of the season, but the mixture of characters and themes floating around coalesced better in the finale, which never lost track of personal stakes in the midst of viral outbreaks but also never made them so personal they felt contrived, overly simplistic.
The one issue with the season, frankly, is how all of this mess and chaos resolves itself so cleanly at episode’s end. Early in “Episode Ten,” Scott wonders how they never realized Kamali was playing them after he shot Baxter, retroactively understanding that Dalton had been the only person who had been adequately cynical regarding his motives. It’s a reminder that this was a season with a substantial body count, and so I was not necessarily shocked to see the season end without another major death (with Richmond rescued from Kamali’s plane and Martinez receiving the anti-virus in time to survive the airbase attack).
At the same time, though, the concluding montage is a bit too pat for a season that was so complicated. Scott plans to connect with his fifteen-year-old son Finn, and the series exaggerates existing sexual tension between Scott and Richmond to pull the two characters together (and giving us a rare case of two series regulars participating in a softcore sequence). Stonebridge visits Martinez at the hospital, with Martinez reaffirming her commitment to Section 20 and building on the characters’ friendship (or relationship). Pirogova and Locke exchange quick words to remind us of their similar revenge motives and leave the door open for the former to return. And Scott and Stonebridge, driving in a car to nowhere in particular, reaffirm their commitment to Section 20, turn over the diamonds to Locke, and set the table for another season of run-and-gun fun.
I like these characters enough to enjoy the happy tone of the concluding sequence, but it felt at odds with the season that came before—beyond Richmond questioning whether or not this counted as a “win,” the tone was primarily celebratory rather than reflective. Where was the coda for Ester, who lost her father and is left only with the solace that he gave up the cure before he died (and that he had kept it with her for safekeeping)? Where was the trip to Dalton and Baxter’s graves to pay respects for those lost in the interest of bringing down this threat? For a season that was all about accumulating emotional weight and reflecting on its impact on the characters’ future, it all disappeared the second Kamali died and the anti-virus as obtained. While climaxes may be Strike Back’s forte, it would appear that denouements are not necessarily within their capability, choosing instead to deliver a transitional epilogue promising a sunny future in opposition to a bleak season.
Ironically, that happy conclusion is the one sour note in an otherwise thrilling and exciting pair of episodes that despite a lack of clarity in its conflict nonetheless brought together the series’ disjointed patterns of character development and narrative into a meaningful statement for Scott, Stonebridge, the rest of Section 20, and Strike Back as a whole.
Episodes Grade: A-
Season Grade: B+
- I appreciated the fact that there wasn’t time to save the infected train car—we didn’t spend enough time there for their deaths to really resonate, but it helped give the conclusion at least some teeth.
- While not as flashy or as large-scale as the other action sequences, Scott and Stonebridge’s escape from the van transporting them to Ulyanov had some great stylistic touches (like the half-shrouded shots as they fight with their faces covered) and the wonderful moment of the one guy flying out of the van into the follow car. Really great stuff on a smaller scale.
- My favorite shot overall, though, has to be the shot of Scott and Stonebridge in the jeep on the runway as the two cars crash behind them—a great piece of timing.
- I enjoyed the running joke about Scott and Stonebridge being incapable of delivering a live body—I less enjoyed seeing such a matter-of-fact effective use of torture, but I suppose that’s part of the job.
- I may have seen Kamali being alive coming, but I nonetheless enjoyed the realization that Ester wasn’t being lied to when the enforcer offered to take her to see her father.
- Thanks to everyone who stuck it out in these two-week breaks, which enabled us to keep coverage of the show. I don’t know if the readership levels are enough that we'd be back for a likely fourth season, but in the interim it’s possible we might drop in on Strike Back: Origins—which debuts next week on U.S. television for the first time—in the TV Reviews section. I can make no promises.