Writer: Tony Saint
Director: Bill Eagles
Previously on "Strike Back":
My apologies to all “Strike Back” fans out there. I meant to have this review up over the weekend, but I’ve been wrapped up in New York Comic Con coverage for the last few days.
However, I couldn’t let the second Cinemax season of “Strike Back” pass without comment. Especially when we finally get a chance to learn what drove Conrad Knox (Charles Dance) to pursue his nuclear endgame.
Dance is a terrific performer, but there’s really only so much he can do by himself. He is amazing on “Game of Thrones” as Tywin Lannister, yet Knox has never truly come to life. Knox just doesn’t have the presence or gravitas of Tywin despite sharing the same performer.
Episode 10 attempts to put some meat on Knox’s bones by establishing that his actions stem from a deep hatred of the Apartheid regime in South Africa and a long held resentment against his father for facilitating those few who held the power for so long. It’s almost as if Knox takes the colonization of Africa as a personal affront.
Unfortunately, it’s too little, too late to make us really care about Knox’s motivation. Maybe if it had been gradually revealed throughout the season it would have had greater impact. But shoving it down our throats in a single scene just didn’t work even if Dance is a great actor.
The one moment with Knox that really hit was when his new Nigerian allies laugh in his face as Knox claims he’s an African. Knox lived in South Africa and he was likely born there, but because he’s not descended from the indigenous people his words were met with scorn and derision. In their eyes, he could never be African.
Dance’s pained expression was a nice subtle touch as Knox reframed his argument by saying that an adopted son can love a mother just as strongly. And maybe Knox truly did love Africa. But by the end, he wanted only three things. Five million dollars, an assurance that the bombs would be detonated and three hours to get out of the blast range. That’s pretty far to fall for someone who once had wealth and power. But his dreams of Africa as world power always had a tint of madness to them. Maybe this was the inevitable ending for him.
Far too late, Karl Matlock (Vincent Regan) figures out that he’s tied to a sinking ship and tries to “resign” before Craig Hanson (Shane Taylor) shoots him in the back. “Strike Back” tried to develop Matlock as an opposing figure for Section 20. And there were times that it worked, including Matlock’s openly stated desire to retire and his admiration for Sgt. Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) and Sgt. Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) in the early episodes of the season.
Somewhere along the line, Matlock’s depiction flatted out and even the death of (his lover?) Jessica barely registered. On the other hand, I’ve wanted Hanson to die for weeks, but probably not in the way that the writers intended. I hated Hanson not because he was the man who killed Stonebridge’s wife. I hated Hanson because he became cartoonishly annoying. I’m all in favor of strong villains who aren’t incompetent. However, Hanson’s continued ability to avoid Stonebridge’s vengeance and even his escape from the police in this episode made him seem just like a plot obstacle to be occasionally trotted out throughout the season.
This season was called “Strike Back: Vengeance” internationally, but Stonebridge’s quest for revenge against Hanson wasn’t always engaging. I did enjoy their final battle in this episode, but it lacked a little of the power that it could have had if their showdown last week hadn’t happened. Later in the show, Stonebridge said that he “forgave” Hanson before he died, but it seemed more likely that he just said that to screw with Hanson in his last moments.
The entire Hanson arc was solely designed to get Stonebridge back in Section 20 with a reasonable excuse to keep him there. That’s it. It may have been a mistake to draw Hanson into the Knox storyline as he sometimes overshadowed that plotline.
For a show that’s not always big on character development, I do appreciate it when “Stike Back” occasionally delivers a human moment that works. Scott’s confession that he intended to kill renegade CIA agent, Christy Bryant (Stephanie Vogt) had some actual emotion from Stapleton’s performance. Likewise, Major Rachel Dalton (Rhona Mitra) seemed more likable when she confided with Stonebridge that she believes he makes Section 20 better just by being there.
A running gag the last few weeks has been the disagreement between Scott and Stonebridge on counting down to simultaneous actions and whether to include zero in the countdown. Surprisingly, it came up at a pivotal point in this episode when they conveniently had no other way to communicate. A little over-the-top? Sure. But I laughed anyway.
Knox’s final confrontation with Dalton had some tense moments, and for a while I thought that “Strike Back” was repeating itself with the fate of Section 20’s commanding officer. But this was worse than the show repeating itself. Dalton’s death would have given the episode a level of gravitas that it otherwise lacked. Instead, she survives and seemingly gives up her position in British Intelligence to keep Section 20 intact. If that’s the way that the writers are ushering Dalton (and Mitra) out of the series then it played pretty badly.
As for Knox, he gets a sad and pathetic exit. For all of his rhetoric about loving Africa, he was perfectly willing to let thousands of people die in a nuclear blast. And in the end, he dies on the streets as less than a shadow of his former self.
At some point, “Strike Back” may have to find a way to go on without Scott and Stonebridge if Stapleton or Winchester get bigger and better offers. Stapleton is already set to star in the sequel to 300. So if that takes off, I don’t know how long Scott would stick around in this series.
But for now, the duo are the show and the season ends with Scott and Stonebridge once again back together and bantering about the countdown and the concept of zero. These guys are just fun together and they are the reigning action kings of television.
Which doesn’t mean that their position is safe. “Strike Back” set the tone for Cinemax’s upcoming series, “Hunted” and “Banshee;” both of which will likely go after “Strike Back’s” crown. Starting next Friday, we’ll see how that works out for “Hunted.”