David Chute salutes Strike Back‘s commanding officer.
Amanda Mealing, the actress who plays Colonel Eleanor Grant, chief of the covert ops unit Section 20 on Strike Back, gets off the single best shot, the final one, in episode 4 of this quick-witted series. The coiled fury behind that head shot, the way it’s staged and played, even more than the extra-legal step that’s being taken, creates the kind of seismic moment on a show that changes our interpretation of everything we’ve seen, our sense of what’s at stake and the kind of people we’re dealing with.
This one was not as exciting overall as some of the earlier installments. Right up to the explosive death of a major character (we did warn you) it was mostly an efficient working out of the chain of events set in motion in Episode 3, by the languidly nihilistic ex-IRA fanatics Daniel Connolly (Liam Cunningham) and his long-stemmed partner Neve (Orla O’Rourke), bad guys who got turned on by their own viciousness.
The struggle for the computer code needed to open the vault containing a WMD was an effective stretch of suspense craftsmanship, but it felt too much like the sort of thing that more conventional, less-grounded shows have done, although not as well. It was a nice touch, though, that the technology took a backseat to the workings of the prodigious but buggy memory of Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton), his frustration both well-written and well-played.
Character development may seem antithetical to the fast pace dictated by suspense and action stories, but in the best genre films there are many examples to the contrary. One of the greatest modern action directors, Walter Hill (Southern Comfort), went so far as to insist that “character is action.” (“In my films,” Hill said, “when somebody puts a gun in your face, character is how many times you blink.”) The directing style established for Strike Back by Daniel Percival builds breakneck sequences out of sharply focused action-is-character moments. The third and fourth episodes were shaped by a different director, Bill Eagles, who carries on this approach. Amanda Mealing has an unusual quality that makes her perfect for this role: she’s most attractive when she’s angry. When Eleanor Grant raises her gun, the scene gets its power from her cold fury, the implacable quality of her hatred. We’re not sure yet whether an act that amounts to a summary execution has been sanctioned, but what matters at the moment of truth is the personal motivation.
That slight change of emphasis has immediate implications for Philip Winchester’s Michael Stonebridge, conceived as a more controlled personality than Scott. Winchester has managed to suggest strong currents running beneath the surface, especially in his scenes with the two women who have divided his attention, Alexandra Moen as the wife who represents a refuge from the conflict and Eva Birthistle as a colleague who shares the strains of the work and understands them.
Strike Back is more single-mindedly an action series than anything else on television, but it gives us characters whose emotional turmoil is generating almost as much suspense as the WMD conspiracy known as Project Dawn. Action is character and character is drama: a winning formula.