This season, Strike Back has been doubling down on one of its stylistic flourishes. Every time “Short Change Hero” kicks in to start the main credits, it does so with a meaningful transition from an onscreen action—this is, at least in part, to retain the structural purpose of the “teaser” that precedes the credits, which are particularly important to Strike Back. A teaser to an odd-numbered episode has to offer viewers a taste of the storyline to come while potentially connecting it back to the resolution of the previous two-parter; a teaser to an even-numbered episode, meanwhile, has to remind viewers where things left off in the previous episode’s cliffhanger, while reestablishing the momentum lost between episodes. In either case, the credits are the punctuation mark that either ignites or reignites the narrative following a brief tease.
It’s a punctuation mark that has felt more purposefully deployed this season. Sometimes this manifests as comedy, as it did when we cut to the credits on Rebecca calling Scott and Stonebridge “fuckwits” in “Episode Two.” In other cases, it’s been used to establish stakes, as it was when the credits cut in after Baxter’s death in “Episode One” or before Dalton began her interrogation of Al Zuhari’s wife in “Episode Four.” In “Episode Three,” meanwhile, Leatherby blowing up the garage and then inquiring about lunch combined the two approaches. The series has always used its credit sequence purposefully, often—as was the case in “Episode Three”—bringing in the song’s introduction as score to signal their imminence, but the effect has seemed heightened this year.
The teasers in “Episode Five” and “Episode Six” are thematically linked: the former cuts to credits with Richmond tossing dirt on Rachel Dalton’s coffin as Section 20’s representative at her funeral, while the latter uses Locke’s first dig into his own grave as the cue for “Short Change Hero” to begin. Both choices are functional, signaling the series moving past Dalton’s death in the first instance and clarifying the stakes of Locke’s capture in the second; we can also take the two choices as thematic, given that these episodes are interested in the notion of digging up the past and evaluating its relevance to the present. While effective simply as stylistic transitions into an already memorable credits sequence, these choices nonetheless contribute to the larger goals of Strike Back in its third season.
They do so more subtly than some of the series’ other narrative patterns, which are not always as capable of handling thematic parallels. As a basic narrative, these episodes nicely transition from McKenna’s murder of Dalton in “Episode Four,” tracing the “Real IRA” operative to Budapest and a daring mission to capture sensitive NATO operations data in preparation for an imminent attack. The action sequences are typically strong, with the show doing an especially nice job selling the Embassy attack without being able to rely on the practical effects work that makes other action sequences so successful. Catherine Walker, like Dougray Scott before her, only gets a few episodes to make her villain pop, but she managed to developed McKenna into a moderately compelling figure in the game of “Villain Tag” going on within Al Zuhari’s terror network. Once again using the Budapest locations—last seen in the season one finale—to tremendous effect, this was the latest in a line of entertaining episodes from the series.
However, these episodes were also marred with an overreliance on scenes designed solely to hit the nail on the thematic head. There are some instances where this can work well once integrated into a storyline, as was the case with Stonebridge’s inability to take a shot: spread over the two episodes, Stonebridge misses the weapons shipment with the rocket launcher, doesn’t take the shot to save Locke from getting kidnapped, and then finally takes the shot that saves Locke. It’s a storyline about his continuing issues with his left hand, issues we can trace back to his fall through the roof in “Episode Three,” but it also becomes a part of the narrative engine in predictable but nonetheless effective ways.
Where the series struggles more is when the writers aren’t able to tie character beats into action sequences, relying instead on flashbacks or exposition-heavy dialogue sequences. The season thus far has nailed home the effects of working on what Locke calls “the tip of the spear,” whether through Dalton’s son being left behind, Locke’s son being killed years earlier by the IRA, Stonebridge’s injury (and the memory of his own wife and mistress’ respective deaths), and Scott looking up an old girlfriend presumably either in the interest of starting a family or in the interest of searching out the family he has but has no connection with. The central purpose of these threads ties into how the season began, Scott and Stonebridge reluctantly being pulled back into duty and spending much of the season wondering if this isn’t the life they want to lead. The diamonds—worth millions—represent the escape hatch, a way to imagine a different life not being put in danger by your superiors or struggling with physical or mental ailments civilians wouldn’t have to deal with.
These themes work as a basic framework on which to hang the series’ action sequences, but they work less well when you watch two episodes back-to-back—as I did to write this review—and see the same patterns bleeding into scenes that don’t involved shooting. Scott and Stonebridge’s scene in the train car and Scott and Stonebridge’s scene while staking out the car dealer/Al Zuhari fixer are nearly identical: they’re waiting for a mission to start, they’ve got some time to talk about life and reflect on their jobs, and both end with anvil-like evocations of the diamonds, as though we’d forgotten about them. It’s a prescient reminder that although these function as 90-minute action films from a broad narrative perspective, they’re still built to be viewed a week apart, when such reminders may be necessary.
Even then, though, the way these themes are being echoed in every other storyline has made them overstated, and not helped by silly 80s facial hair in Locke’s flashbacks. It also overshadowed the actual substance of Locke and McKenna’s feud, which generated too much conveniently-relevant back story too quickly not to seem like an info dump designed to reinforce thematic elements, limiting its value to Locke’s character development. As much as I admire the series’ desire to push past escapism and develop ongoing storylines, and as much as I like these themes and the stakes they evoke in the abstract, the writers are having trouble integrating those elements while maintaining the series’ narrative efficiency. While the credits have become seamlessly integrated into the stylistic rhythms of the series, the season’s central themes are struggling to achieve similar integration in these two episodes.
- In context, McKenna’s trip to an upscale lesbian bar seemed like a trade-off for the straight dudes apparently angry about the gay male sex in the previous arc. I wish we could have learned more about McKenna through the sequence (as it was really just to foreshadow the attack on the embassy), but it was more plot-connected than most of the series’ sex scenes.
- Spot the Game of Thrones alum: Francis McGee wasn’t quite that Irish when he was in Westeros playing Yoren of the Night’s Watch.
- “Glad to see you finally getting some action”—Not sure that the Martinez and Stonebridge pairing is all that interesting, but I enjoyed the implicit acknowledgment Stonebridge has been left out of the series’ sex scenes for a while now.
- It’s foolhardy to think too hard about the logistics that allow for some of Strike Back’s plot points, but Richmond deserved to be chewed out by Dalton if she made mistakes like missing that key in the airport bathroom. Also, wouldn’t the city be in lockdown mode long before the embassy bombings if there had been a massive shootout at the airport with multiple casualties? Okay, I’ll stop now; this is a bad path to go down.
- I was hoping for a slightly more dramatic first altercation between Section 20 and the Russians, but the rear view mirror kill was inventive and their argument over who the Russians want to kill more charming, so I suppose it’s onto Russia with expectations for something with a bit more pathos.
- You can see some street footage of them filming part of the Embassy attack action sequence in this YouTube video.