David Chute wants you to hoist a few in honor of Strike Back, and it’s not just an excuse to drink: this short-spoken Cinemax show actually has a lot to say.
The first question for the fans is: Does it add up? Did it make sense? And then: How do we feel about the way the surviving Section 20 team members responded? Lifting a glass to the departed in a case like this, I’d argue in the affirmative on all points, and would go a step further: Understanding why this ending works for Strike Back is to understand what the series, at heart, has always been about.
Strike Back is all about speed, some viewers would say, about pitching everything from violence to sex to interpersonal encounters at the highest possible energy level. Even some fans would say that, and they would not be wrong. The show has been a breathless weekly adrenaline fix, and it no doubt will be again, when it returns in 2012.
What’s really impressive, however, is that as the stalwarts of Section 20 have been racing along, hopping into Jeeps and helicopters and racing off to one hot spot after another, in India or South Africa or Eastern Europe, they’ve also been spit-balling bits of information at us. Very tiny bits, because they never had more than a line or two to spare for exposition.
And damned if it doesn’t all add up, by the end, into something that could almost be described as beautiful. (If one of the auteurs of Strike Back is the terrific action director Daniel Percival, the other has gotta be writer Frank Spotnitz, who learned his way around a tasty conspiracy as a mainstay on The X-Files.)
The underlying plot stitching the season together is a superbly engineered depiction of the vultures of espionage come home to roost. The weapons that are about to be used against the West by the self-styled Pakistani patriot Latif (Jimi Mistry) have in fact been repurposed. This is the very stockpile that was earmarked to be planted in Iraq, during the Second Gulf War, as part of Operation Trojan Horse, a deliberate attempt orchestrated at high levels (with the help of some compliant global arms dealers) to falsify evidence of WMDs. Latif savors the irony of turning the Allies’ non-existent weapons against them – and who could blame him?
At the heart of all this is the tense connection between one of our heroes, Delta Force Sergeant Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton), for whom a bogus dishonorable discharge was arranged when he was serving in the Gulf and got too close to Trojan Horse, and his commanding officer, Colonel Eleanor Grant (Amanda Mealing), who has been anguished ever since by her involvement in Trojan Horse.
Strike Back has a laconic narrative style. It lacks the flashy surface of a show that’s all about blood and thunder and bare skin, but it’s one of the few shows of its type that might bear re-watching in its entirety, even with all the “spoilers” in place, just to see how it was done. If you were to do that, paying close attention to the scenes between Grant and Scott, you’d see the crucial steps the show took en route to its explosive resolution.
In espionage terms, Grant’s offense can be seen almost as an excess of virtue – as her colleagues acknowledge when they raise their glasses to her. I thought of other instances in which undoubted patriots “went too far” in their pursuit of the only thinkable outcome: Watergate, Iran-Contra. Or the case of the man Grant enfolds in a fiery death grip at the conclusion, the terrorist who describes himself as a patriot. Is the difference only one of degree? And how many other slam-bang covert adventure dramas would bother even raising the question?