At several points during the first few episodes of the final season of Cinemax’s Strike Back, the various criminal elements arrayed against British intelligence agency Section 20 scramble to pull together more resources, terrified of what harm the operatives heading their way might do. Those fears are justified, as over the course of the last few seasons Section 20 has proven itself the most resilient and efficient outfit on the planet. These are people who walk into the most dangerous environments in the world and come out in one piece, soldiers better trained than any terrorist or gangster they get in a gunfight with, capable of commandeering any vehicle and taking off in pursuit of their target—usually as everything behind them bursts into flames.
That efficiency and effectiveness is one that translates to Strike Back as a whole. Thanks to a combination of smart casting, international shooting, and a considerable effects budget, Strike Back has served as one of television’s most reliably entertaining shows for the past few years. It doesn’t have the narrative ambitions of its Cinemax siblings Banshee and The Knick, but it has that valuable gift of knowing exactly what it’s good at and continuing to deliver that on a weekly basis: the thrills of an action movie blockbuster on the small screen. Heading into its final season, the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality is on full display: Once again, Section 20’s top operatives Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) and Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) are thrown right back into a global conspiracy, and the only choice is to shoot, punch, and explode their way out of it.
Season four follows the tried and true approach to a Strike Back season, introducing a major arc at the beginning and exploring it via a series of two-parter episodes. (The first four episodes all take place in and around Bangkok, lending it more of a unified feel than prior years.) Called in to rescue a kidnapped ambassador’s daughter, Scott and Stonebridge find themselves tangling with Thai street gangs, yakuza, and representatives of a shadowy North Korean organization called Office 39. While the latter’s mission creates the spine of the season, Strike Back retains its refreshingly simple approach to matters of conspiracy by keeping the action and the characters’ minds on the mission in front of them. Those missions are standard Strike Back fare, with a mix of search and rescue, intelligence gathering, and racing against the clock to prevent some catastrophic series of events.
Calling them “standard” isn’t the same as boring, however. Within the first five minutes of the season premiere Scott and Stonebridge are leading a commando raid on a gang hideout, and the action goes in short order to Stonebridge sparring with a cleaver-wielding thug and Scott commandeering a jet ski for a chase through Bangkok rivers. Strike Back is a show that knows exactly the right pace of acceleration, and also how to construct its action set pieces in service of the narrative rather than the other way around, an important distinction when doing a show like this. It roars from night club close combat to alley shootouts to climbing up an abandoned high-rise, but you can always trace how they got from one point to the next and why they’ve found themselves in this latest confrontation.
And those action set pieces, helmed by Michael Bassett and Julian Holmes respectively, remain unimpeachable. When Strike Back gets into a groove, it’s as satisfying to witness as a perfectly timed Call Of Duty run, transitioning between gunplay and explosions and vehicle runs effortlessly. The shooting continues to take advantage of gorgeous locations, with the action taking place across a backdrop of jungles and oceans and removing any sense of artificiality to the events. And while Banshee has since surpassed Strike Back in terms of close combat ambitions, when Scott or Stonebridge get up close and personal it doesn’t shy away from depicting the wear and tear on each of the combatants. (Speaking of up close and personal, it’s a remarkably chaste by Cinemax standards season, with only one mildly explicit sex scene in the first four episodes.)
While the technical execution is what brings audiences into Strike Back, the show keeps them there by virtue of its characters, as it’s deceptively smart at introducing personalities you get invested in on both sides of the conflict. This season is no exception, with new members including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Michelle Yeoh as an ambassador’s wife who quickly turns out to be more interesting than her position suggests, Max Beesley as an expatriate British gangster with familial concerns, and Dustin Clare and Leo Gregory as a pair of mercenaries who serve as a dark mirror inversion of what Scott and Stonebridge could have become. Out of the returning players, Robson Green is wonderfully steely as ever as commanding officer Philip Locke—even more so as he’s given a personal stake in the mission early on—and Michelle Lukes and Milauna Jemai Jackson cut through the testosterone as their Sergeants Richmond and Martinez are in the thick of as many firefights as their male counterparts.
But above all of that, the rapport between Stonebridge and Scott remains the bedrock of the show, and that dynamic remains unshakeable going into their final mission. Winchester and Stapleton continue to be effortlessly charming together, men who’ve been through so many impossible situations that it’s second nature for them to crack wise in the middle of a scenario where survival is questionable. (That chemistry is so solid, in fact, that one hopes someone at NBC is smart enough to engineer as many crossovers between Blindspot and The Player as possible.) They also maintain the show’s established interest in exploring how these men function outside of combat, as Stonebridge weighs the question of taking Locke’s role one day and Scott juggles his relationships with Richmond and his newly discovered teenage son Finn. The latter is the weakest link in these early episodes, largely because time spent with him means Scott spends less time in the field busting balls.
Interestingly, the one question they don’t address in these early episodes is the one you’d expect in a final season: how long their luck can run out. Given that Strike Back has never shown any reticence about killing off main characters, and both Scott and Stonebridge have asked the question of their own mortality more than once, it stands to reason that this season might take on a more foreboding air. Yet none of that’s present here, and it turns out to be the smartest choice the writers could make. Strike Back is capable of being heavy when circumstances dictate, but it’s also a show that’s optimistic about its heroes’ ability to come through when it counts. If future episodes steer them into a Butch and Sundance-type last stand, the odds they’ll walk away from it remain higher than most.
At the start of the second episode, Scott offers his assessment of a situation. “You know what, Mikey? I predict this is gonna end in some big gunfight, a lot of bloodshed. You and me stuck in the middle. As always.” Stonebridge’s response—“Well, what are we waiting for?”—is one that’s entirely in keeping for both men, the ethos of the show, and the attitude of everyone who watches it. It’s a shame that Strike Back is leaving us with when it still feels capable of shouldering a few more world-ending crises, but it’s going into its ending with gas in the tank and its clips fully loaded.