Strike Back is the kind of show that doesn’t need to be eventful to be entertaining. The writers could easily tell a brief two-part throwaway story with no larger consequence, and the series could still deliver strong action setpieces and enjoyable character dynamics. With two episodes in which to tell its “episodic” stories, Strike Back has time to create satisfying mini-arcs that need not tie themselves to serialized storytelling to draw the audience’s interest. The central thread of the second two-parter of the season stems around two newly introduced characters who walk into an abandoned building to chat with a courier, blow it up, go out for lunch afterwards, and then begin a complex love story fraught with betrayal, one that could well have sustained the episodes on their own. While ostensibly tied to the ongoing search for Al-Zuhari and foreshadowed in the season opener, Leatherby and his lover Fahran become their own narrative hook over the course of these two episodes that begins, evolves, and concludes in a blaze of gunfire.
It’s the perfect example of the double-edged sword that is Strike Back’s storytelling structure. On the one hand, the story is too short: Dougray Scott is having so much fun with the scenery-chewing side of Leatherby that you wish there would be more time for him to be firing off one-liners while intermittently shooting at our heroes with a grenade launcher, while his relationship with Fahran expands the series’ softcore interests into the space of gay male relationships. Told over only two episodes, the psychosexual nature of Leatherby’s villainy is heightened for effect, his psychotic lows and romanticism played up in equal measure: We see him murder Fahran’s friend in a jealous rage, stab Fahran through his hand, save him from a burning car, give up key information to save his life, and then murder him when he realizes that Fahran had betrayed him to Section 20 in the previous episode. That’s a lot for two episodes to handle, and there were times when despite strong performances from Scott and Daniel Ben Zenou the show was working too hard to take us on their emotional rollercoaster: The swelling music to indicate his love as he gives over the address was way overdone, to the point where it pulled me out of a scene that had enough gravitas without it.
However, that level of excess is also what makes Strike Back’s overstuffed stories work. There’s never enough time to breathe in order to think through these concerns, especially if you watch the two parts as a whole. The Leatherby storyline may have been richer or more nuanced if it had been spread out over a larger portion of the season, but that it managed to deliver over just two episodes is a feat distinctive to this series and its narrative approach. It provides a rare example of a softcore scene focused exclusively on male bodies, and successfully co-opted Strike Back’s other narrative tools—explosions, gun battles, etc.—to tell a storyline distinct from those it has told in the past (and likely those it will tell in the future). From the moment Dougray Scott walked into frame with that moustache, the storyline moved with confidence and purpose, even if the most surface-level purpose was providing a close-ended story.
While the strength of this standalone tale may prove Strike Back doesn’t need to be eventful to be engaging, the episodes relish the opportunity to be eventful anyway. The death of Rachel Dalton didn’t precisely come as a surprise: The character’s uncertain fate at the end of last season gave an indication that Mitra might not return to the series, and the character’s arc this season has grown more self-destructive with each passing episode. The pivot between “Episode 3” and “Episode 4” is Dalton shoving what most suspect to be an innocent witness into the trunk of a car, and “Episode 3” is littered with examples of Dalton losing control of her moral compass. Her PTSD has transformed her into a loose cannon, and once Locke steps in the show is clearly laying the groundwork for him to take over Section 20; just look at the scene where he announces to his men that he plans to rescue Scott and Stonebridge, referring to him as “his boys” in much the way that fans of the show might affectionately refer to the two characters (if also marginalizing Richmond and Martinez). Even when it turns out that Dalton was right all along and the witness was Al-Zuhari’s wife, and she radios in to confirm her location and bring all of Section 20 into the loop, one still cannot imagine her returning in the same capacity she was before.
The simple fact that Strike Back chose to kill Rachel may not have surprised me, but the series did a great job of playing with that lack of surprise. When Amanda Mealing’s Eleanor Grant sacrificed herself, it was intended as a shocking moment that raised the stakes of the series at the conclusion of its first season. By comparison, Dalton was on an increasingly self-destructive path and was walking into a building where an IRA assassin was on the loose, leaving little question that a bullet could be waiting around the next corner. However, Kamali was making his way into the house to look for Dalton, while Section 20 were only a few moments away. If McKenna—described as “Real IRA”—had monologued for a while longer, one or both could have come to Dalton’s rescue, and my initial belief that Dalton was walking to her death was successfully challenged right up until the moment McKenna put a bullet through her head.
Like the Leatherby storyline, there’s a limit to how much story Strike Back could tell with Dalton in only four episodes this season. It was a storyline that relied on meaningful gazing into mirrors and hidden photos of the son we didn’t even know she had in order to bring her pain and suffering to the surface. The absence of subtext extends to Dalton’s actions, including an intense waterboarding sequence that might even go so far as to present an argument for the use of torture given that it finally gives Dalton the answer she’s been looking for. But Rhona Mitra ends her run on the series with a story that finally gave her the chance to explore the character’s action heroine potential while simultaneously plumbing the depths of her pain. Regardless of the cliché of the photo of her son being placed on her chest as the body bag is zipped up, Dalton’s death—positioned in the season similarly to Kate Marshall’s death back in season one—resonates as a cautionary tale and a casualty in a larger war that’s just getting started.
What impressed me most about these two episodes is the way they managed to craft a distinctive episodic story, give Dalton a sad and resonant swan song, and yet also manage to introduce so many recurring plot threads moving forward. This was not always elegant, as the haphazard team of Scott and Kamali’s daughter worked every “Gruff hero cares for child and better understands his paternal masculinity” trope in the book, but we got a clearer sense of the season’s purpose beyond Section 20’s ongoing goal of hunting down terrorists. Stonebridge’s wound—which comes with potential radiation damage—is the manifestation of his doubt over his role in Section 20, just as Scott’s paternal instincts offer insights into the life he never got to live (and the family he never got to have, a key thread between Scott and Dalton). The diamonds they lifted from Leatherby are their escape plan, while the Russian assassins hunting them down for murdering a mafia boss’ son inadvertently back in the premiere is their past coming back to bite them. All of this is weaved into the above, a feat without much subtlety but executed with impressive efficiency.
It seems difficult to imagine that Strike Back could deliver better episodes for this stage in its seasons (as its cleaner hours toward the end of seasons have the potential to rise above the chaos of these early hours). Although harried and clichéd at numerous moments, “Episode 3” and “Episode 4” carry their burdens with no signs of slowing down the series’ trademark pacing, jumping from setpiece to setpiece while trying to do way too many different things and succeeding out of a combination of sheer will and acquired skill. It sets up a season with high stakes and high aspirations, creating expectations one hopes subsequent hours will meet.
- I had initial concerns that Leatherby would tip into what TV Tropes categorizes as the “Depraved Homosexual” characterization, especially after he briefly tries to pick up Stonebridge, but I liked the way the show shifted to focusing on their shared military histories and ultimately presenting Leatherby not as a predator but as a cautionary tale of what happens when the system spits you out.
- The airfield sequence ended up playing a mostly procedural role in the story—bringing Sofia into the picture, revealing Kamali’s espionage, and injuring Stonebridge—but it was another fun setup with some great landmine humor worked in.
- Given how strong the show’s practical effects work normally is, it was hard not to notice the cheap-looking CGI explosion in front of Leatherby’s “castle”—my guess is they liked the location but couldn’t explode it, an understandable position, but it’s also possible the effects could be better in the non-screener version.
- “I always thought you were an overrated fucking dwarf, myself”—there were lots of fun Dougray Scott line readings as Leatherby, but this was my favorite.
- “Funny that, so was mine”—Scott, chatting with Kamali, recalling his time in the military and the backstory the show has more or less forgotten since the first season.
- Speaking of which, Cinemax is further complicating the awkward place of Chris Ryan’s Strike Back—the six-part British series that spun-off into what we now know as Cinemax’s Strike Back—by airing the series as “Strike Back: Origins” starting on October 25th. You can check out the first trailer here.