Given Cinemax’s limited subscription base, and given the fact that the series hit its stride right when a mountain of new fall series were dominating most DVRs (for both viewers and the critics who might otherwise have alerted them to it), Strike Back has been flying under the radar. If you have been watching Strike Back, however, this likely seems impossible: The idea that a show this brash, and frankly a show this good, has gone unnoticed is kind of absurd. As it brings its first season to a close, I’m hopeful that the time is right for the word to go out, and that this review (which, I will warn newcomers, will contain extensive spoilers from this point forward) will help draw attention to a really fine piece of pure entertainment that's aiming for something more than its base appeal.
My favorite small detail within Strike Back might be the way it transitions between its opening scene and its opening title sequence. As “Episode Ten” begins, the villainous Latif has been captured, but a camera shot reveals that a pin he had been wearing is operating as a tracking device, and a group of his men are preparing to storm Section 20’s temporary headquarters. The music kicks in around this moment, escalating into a chaotic drum line just in time for the strains of The Heavy’s “Short Change Hero” to take over, and for the show’s highly stylized title sequence to usher us into the season finale.
For me, this is a microcosm of my engagement with the show at large. Strike Back has a real energy to it, maintaining a sense of momentum through its continuous transitions between escalation and resolution necessitated by the choice to tell the season as five two-part stories. It is a show that is constantly on the move, always starting or finishing one thing or another, and even the way it shifts into its credits at the end of each episode often feels like a seamless transition. While the show may be operating within a similar generic space to 24, the breakneck pace and constant turnover allows it to avoid the stasis that would often — frankly, always — cripple long form narratives on that Fox series.
I’m open to the argument that Strike Back isn’t taking on the same degree of difficulty of a show like 24, in that it isn’t as interested in intense serialization. While “Episode Ten” comes down to terrorist attacks threatening civilian lives and moles within Section 20, these elements have been a minor focus throughout the season, only occasionally mentioned while the characters have been dealing with mostly unrelated events. Instead, the stories have been smaller missions centered on people related to Latif, forming a season-long game of cat and mouse between Section 20 and the villain (who was actually stealthily working amongst them back in the premiere). The idea that they had been so close in the premiere without knowing it, and that they’ve been perpetually one step behind or one step removed as the season has progressed, provided a nice simmering tension that has been threatening to boil to the surface for the past few episodes. The same goes for Scott’s concern there was a mole in Section 20, or the circumstances surrounding Scott’s dishonorable discharge: It was there, perhaps, but things were always moving too quickly to dwell on the issue.
“Episode Ten” moves quickly, but it moves in a direction that adds considerable depth to the series in ways that finally, wholly transcend the generic shackles that have created limitations even as they have fueled the show’s visceral pleasures. I would never argue that Strike Back needs to cut out its intense violence, or its gratuitous nudity, because part of its charm is its B-Movie principles — there is something refreshing about its gratuity, a swagger that is central to its sense of momentum, and I don’t want the show to lose this as it moves forward. However, at the same time, the show needs to be willing to abandon some of its generic tropes — which do feel like a blatant effort to fit cultural perceptions of Cinemax vis-à-vis “Skinemax” — in moments that require it, moments where letting the characters carry the story should be more important than showing a little skin. In other words, while I have found the violence and nudity to be quite clearly embedded within the show’s appeal, it’s no coincidence that my favorite episode up to the finale was the one in which Scott’s cavorting was with an old flame who had some semblance of three-dimensionality and who never quite bared all.
“Episode Ten” goes by without a single sex scene, and its violence (although at times visceral) never feels as though it is designed purely to shock the viewer with its excessiveness. Instead, the season finale allows Amanda Mealing’s Colonel Scott an opportunity to rise to the forefront of the story, teasing out the mole narrative and positioning her as a far more interesting character than the rest of the season has suggested. While we have seen hints that the character was hiding something, and her occasional entries into the field have proven quite engaging, she definitely felt marginalized as Stonebridge emerged as the series’ lead. By revealing that she was central to the plot to plant chemical weapons in Iraq (known as 'Trojan Horse'), and that she has spent the entire season suppressing her guilt for what happened to Porter (and Mahmood, and Kate, and Scott), the finale fleshes out the character just in time for her to sacrifice herself in order to bring down Latif (in, of course, an enormous explosion).
At the risk of appearing as though I have been influenced by the video message someone at Cinemax had her record for me, Mealing was tremendous bringing Colonel Scott into her final moments, and I was quite impressed with how well the entire scenario came together. There is something very pure about this reveal, as it doesn’t depend on any red herrings and it resists actively turning one of the characters into a villain. Grant becomes a soldier who did what she thought was best, only to discover over time that her actions contributed to a series of events in which her actions have had disastrous consequences for the people she was supposed to protect. She wasn’t the one who sold out John Porter, but she might as well have been as far as she is concerned, and reading that psychological struggle over the rest of the season adds a nice layer of depth to things.
Now, the show rushed its way to this point in the past few episodes, and I’m not convinced that these seeds are all that present in earlier installments. However, in the moment, I didn’t particularly care: For me, so long as the information revealed does not directly contradict something we’ve already seen (which it didn’t, for me at least), then the show’s momentum is more than enough to let me just sit back and watch Mealing and the great Jimi Mistry (whose work as Latif reached its climax here) spar with one another. Since the show didn’t pretend its focus was on the conspiracy, willing to shift its focus elsewhere for the majority of the season, there was a lesser burden on the finale to deliver satisfying answers. That the writers managed to piece together something that landed with this much force, and which retroactively added complexity to the relationships between multiple characters, is the latest in a series of decisions which makes the show far better than it needs to be in order to satisfy the basic requirement of things exploding and breasts being exposed.
The way the show positioned Latif may be the best example of this, as the character could have easily been a moustache-twirling villain hell bent on global jihad. However, his extremist views were positioned as national rather than religious, tied to his desire for a stronger Pakistan which manifested in his plot to intercept and neutralize a threat to his militarized and radicalized Pakistan (as opposed to terrorizing the international delegates). While his operation is global in scale, and it represents a threat to numerous regions, the show established this not through increasing the scale of Latif’s attacks but rather by shifting the location of each scenario so as to gradually sketch out its breadth. Those locations, beautifully shot and compellingly integrated into the story (although I am unclear on what percentage of the finale was filmed on location in Hungary), were a huge asset to the series’ sense of scale, allowing the cameras to tell that part of the story instead of forcing worldwide danger in an effort to build up a villain whose agenda is best understood on more subtle terms.
I say all of this while acknowledging that Strike Back is still very much concerned about explosions, and gun fights, and the joys of softcore interludes. However, every one of those things means more now than it did when the show began, with even the sex taking on a slightly different tone after Scott turned down his more serious paramour in “Episode Eight” to continue on with his more casual fling. The gunfight at the Section 20 headquarters in the finale was simple but still had me on the edge of my seat, while the parallel climax shifting between Scott fighting with Latif’s head of security and Stonebridge disarming the gas bomb was suspense at its most basic and at its most successful. Both scenarios held meaning, whether it’s Stonebridge negotiating for a young girl’s life by explaining she is with child (thus referencing, albeit bluntly, his own struggle between his job and his wife back at home) or Scott unknowingly trying to save the woman who helped sell him out in the first place. When Colonel Grant’s video is playing on that screen in Section 20, and as her colleagues pour out a glass for her as the season comes to a close, it solidifies that those explosions and gun fights meant something. As much as the show could be dismissed for its gratuity, “Episode Ten” confidently demonstrated that there was a sum to these parts, a sum that provided an enormously satisfying finale that I hope will usher in a new era in which Strike Back is considered a great action drama first, and a vessel for excess second.
- I’m giving the finale an A, while the season as a whole would draw a solid A-. There were some weaker installments in there, but the season was sharply done overall considering its generic aims. This is definitely a case where low expectations helped the show, I'll readily admit, but I'd argue this is something they actively and purposefully cultivated and thus something which should be recognized.
- Philip Winchester had his strongest arc earlier in the season, but he remained stolid in the final episodes, and his rapport with Sullivan Stapleton has built a good foundation for the series. “Episode Nine” was really just the two characters out in the field shooting guns at people for forty-five minutes, but there was still a dynamism to their interactions, and that will be important for the show going forward.
- Speaking of which, the show is definitely coming back for a second season (news that was revealed a few weeks ago). It will be interesting to see who they bring in to replace Mealing, and whether they try to introduce a new Latif figure (or a new lightly deployed conspiracy). One also presumes that Stonebridge’s decision to become a family man will have to be reversed, but that’ll be easy enough.
- It wasn’t exactly rocket science, but the episode was still fast-paced enough that I had forgotten about the gas vial in Grant’s pocket, which made it a nice “pieces falling into place” moment as far as plotting goes. Mind you, I’m not sure why they wouldn’t search her for weapons (and thus discover it in her pocket), or how the video camera would survive that explosion (even being in his cargo pant pocket), but this isn’t the show with which to get caught up in those details.
- As strong as “Episode Ten” was, I still think “Episode Five”/”Episode Six” was the strongest two-parter — “Episode Nine” was a bit too much exposition, whereas “Five” and “Six” were nicely balanced and featured some great performances from Iain Glen and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (and, as noted, the most multi-dimensional female guest star the show managed).
- The show is unlikely to garner any major Emmy attention, but I have my fingers crossed for Opening Title Design and wouldn't be entirely shocked to see a nomination for the stunt work.