Writer: Tony Saint
Director: Bill Eagles
Previously on "Strike Back"
About sixteen minutes into the second season premiere of “Strike Back,” Sgt. Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) realizes that he has an hour to kill with the lovely woman who saved his life… so he happily has sex with her. Just in case you forgot that you’re watching a Cinemax original series.
But hey, sixteen minutes is restraint for this show. Part of the charm of “Strike Back” is that it can get away with an excess of nudity and violence. The rest of it relies on the bond between Scott and Sgt. Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester). Even after Stonebridge’s retirement from from the secret British paramilitary unit, Section 20; the opening moments make it clear that Scott and Stonebridge still keep in touch with each other.
When we catch up with Scott, he’s in Kenya and teasing or flirting with Rachel (Rhona Mitra), the beautiful Junior Attaché to a British diplomat named Patrick Burton (Tim Pigott-Smith). Their mission is to escort Keemal (Andy Lucas) — a Libyan defector — back to the United Kingdom. And it’s not long before Scott’s crew falls to an ambush and he is the only living member of the team who isn’t captured by forces loyal to the local warlord, Waarbri (Anthony Oseyemi).
Back on the homefront, Stonebridge has reinvented himself as a trainer for the SAS; although he has trouble getting through to Jake Hanson (Cerith Flinn), the younger brother of Stonebridge’s old friend, Craig (Shane Taylor). Stonebridge is even pressured by Craig to help his brother get through training, but Jake isn’t exactly SAS material and he soon cracks under the pressure… and possibly some post traumatic stress as well.
Well, “cracks” doesn’t quite cover it. Jake goes the Full Metal Jacket route and begins shooting at his fellow soldiers, forcing Stonebridge to kill him. Meanwhile, forces within the military seem more than happy to let the kidnapping stain Section 20’s reputation and possibly destroy the unit. So they don’t bother to provide meaningful backup for Scott and he is captured by Waarbri’s forces as well.
With Scott trapped and Section 20 powerless to officially rescue him, Stonebridge is quick to volunteer for the mission over the objections of his wife Kerry (Alexandra Moen). And we also learn that Kerry miscarried their baby, at least temporarily ending their attempts to start a family.
One immediate improvement over last season is that the Section 20 supporting players actually had something meaningful to do in these two episodes. Major Oliver SInclair (Rhashan Stone) defies the orders to essentially let Scott and the hostages die while Sgt. Julia Richmond (Michelle Lukes) gets to go on the rescue mission with Stonebridge.
But it’s when Scott and Stonebridge are finally reunited that “Strike Back” really comes back to life, especially when it becomes clear that Rachel isn’t who she says that she is. She soon re-introduces herself as Captain Rachel Dalton, a British military intelligence agent whose mission was to retrieve the nuclear triggers smuggled out of Libya by Keemal. And for now, the triggers are the MacGuffin for the season.
As made abundantly clear by the news coming into this season, Rachel ends up in charge of Section 20… and thus in charge of Scott, with whom she has a particularly contentious relationship. The introduction to Rachel was effective and I like how fierce she was when Waarbri tried to intimidate her. But if Section 20 is going to put a female operative in play, it should be Richmond; who made more of an impression in these two episodes than in the previous ten combined.
Apparently, one of the main adversaries this season will be portrayed by “Game of Thrones” actor, Charles Dance. That’s a really solid casting choice, even if we didn’t see much of his character, Conrad Knox. While it’s not clear what Knox wants the nuclear triggers for, we do get a feel for his top operative, Karl Matlock (Vincent Regan). Matlock is basically the opposite number to Scott and Stonebridge. Matlock even demonstrated some professional respect for his opponents late in the second episode when he traded Waarbri to Scott for the triggers… or at least he thought he did.
Among the guest cast, Pigott-Smith was a particular stand out as the aging diplomat, Burton. This was a man in love with Africa and its people. And he backed up that love with his actions. Burton went out of his way to save two child soldiers from being completely corrupted by Waarbri and he was even fairly useful in a fight before he was fatally injured. There was something touching about the way that Burton choose to be buried in his adopted homeland. But more than anything else, it was Pigott-Smith’s performance that made his character memorable.
Unsurprisingly, the action remains top notch on this show. I think that the image of Asmara (Melanie Liburd) pretending to be a fruit vendor before pulling out a huge gun may be one of the more iconic images of “Strike Back.” It’s a shame that she doesn’t quite make it out of the second episode. But getting back to the action, the threats to Scott and Stonebridge felt real despite their almost assured survival as the stars of this series. However, I do think there’s a possibility that one or both characters may not make it through the end of the season. Stapleton’s film career is taking off and the arc for Winchester’s character could potentially go in a very dark and possibly fatal direction.
Which brings us back to Kerry, who winds up dead in Stonebridge’s arms after a Craig shoots her with a sniper rifle in revenge for Stonebridge killing his brother. There had to be a way to get Stonebridge back with Section 20 full time and this may have been the most expedient way to cut his ties to his wife in order to reenlist. However, it was also the most obvious way to go and the whole Craig and Jake subplot felt pretty contrived.
Regardless of some minor flaws, it’s still good to have “Strike Back” back on Cinemax after almost a year away. I really missed this show and it’s still the best action series currently on TV. Nothing else comes close.