“Is this normal?” asks an appalled European Union hostage in Kosovo at the midpoint of Episode 7 of Strike Back. It's an obvious question, after the third or fourth wrenching plot reversal has turned everything upside down yet again; when everything is right on the verge of going irretrievably FUBAR. Section 20 operative Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton), in a grace-under-pressure, “come to think of it” sort of way, says, "well, yeah." For Scott and his comrade in arms, Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester), this life-threatening swirl of menace, this sense of being trapped inside a cyclone, is just another day at the office.
Dropped from the sky into chaotically corrupt and crime-ridden post-Serbian Kosovo, Stonebridge and Scott have been charged with the rescue of five EU officials who have been grabbed off an airport bus by Hasini (Mel Raido), a criminal thug with political clout whose influence has seeped into every corner of his tattered country. The list of his entrepreneurial ventures, when it’s read off, includes not only such global staples as weapons and drug smuggling but also the trendier horror of trafficking in human organs. Which places Hasini pretty close to the top of the list of the Ten Most Vile.
Mulling over the surreal amorality of what they will be facing on the ground, Stonebridge and Scott are frankly contemptuous of their handlers' fanciful insistence on a “clean and surgical operation.” The partners consult briefly: do they have any intention of honoring the elaborate protocols negotiated for exchanging the hostages for the carefully guarded prisoner they picked up in Austria, Hasini’s weasely cousin Rama (Zsolt Nag)? Are they actually going to march trustingly through a pre-arranged set of negotiated procedures, an approach that all but guarantees that some of the scummiest and least reliable men on the face of the earth, will gain exact information about their whereabouts? Glances are exchanged. Heads are shaken. “No fucking way.”
Some fans of Strike Back have complained that too many things get screwed up during the average episode. Prisoners escape; exchanges turn into betrayals; highly trained special-forces dudes get bushwhacked and clobbered with two-by-fours. The question is, should we on that basis doubt the competence of our heroes or celebrate their resourcefulness, their speedy resilience in responding to the unexpected? It’s seemed obvious to me from the start that the show is about men and women whose job it is to walk straight into the messiest and most uncontrollable situations on earth, and somehow survive and bring off a mission. To expect any plan, no matter how carefully worked, to go off without a hitch in this context seems ludicrous. A great deal of the believable rough texture of the show grows out of that harsh reality.
Precautions can be taken to mitigate the cock-ups endemic to missions in lawless war zones – such as, in this case, taking out the sniper positioned strategically over the exchange point (glurk, argh) and replacing him with one of your own. In a case like that, as in many others, what matters most is who the person is who’s watching your back, and whether you can trust them. It makes perfect sense that Episode 7 is also about the growing cohesion of the partnership of Stonebridge and Scott. They rubbed each other the wrong way in the early innings but now, more often than not, find material in their differences for the kind of cheerful insult humor that guys the world over use as a bonding mechanism. The key is that they’ve shared experiences of battling through chaos that not even their own commanders know first hand, bone deep, the way they do.
Glances exchanged. Heads shaken. “No fucking way.”
[Photo: Egon Endrenyi/Cinemax; Philip Winchester, David Haig, Dorian Lough, Adrian Rawlins, Gillian Hanna, Sullivan Stapleton and Annabelle Wallis in Episode 7 of Cinemax' Strike Back.]