South Africa plays itself, rather than standing in for India or Afghanistan, in the third episode of the excellent Strike Back. This dense and propulsive counter-terrorism action series (based on a novel by former SAS officer Chris Ryan), a Sky/Cinemax cross-pond co-production based in Johannesburg, location-jumps from inner city shanty towns that could be in Kingston or Mumbai, to red-earth desert landscapes that echo the Spanish scrub of the Sergio Leone westerns, but with a richer color palette. It makes a perfect, picturesque backdrop for the activities of covert operatives who have replaced the quaint old gentlemanly concept of a license to kill with the much more through and goal-oriented notion of the kill zone.
SA was for a time a leading exporter of bad guys to Hollywood. If Middle Easterners or Russians seemed a hackneyed choice, an Afrikaans accent was as good as a twirled moustache as a signifier of pure evil. But what if you’re in SA? If the underlying worldview of the show you’re making there is British, the answer isn’t hard to find.
In episode three, Section 20 sets up their impressively video-walled mobile command center in Cape Town, hunting for a known associate of Latif, the terrorist mastermind behind the New Delhi hotel hostage crisis depicted in episodes one and two. They are quickly drawn into the hunt for the perpetrators of an armored car robbery executed with brutal efficiency and a hint of perverse enjoyment by Liam Cunningham’s shark-eyed Daniel Connolly, who endangers small boys and coolly shoots witnesses in the head. “Hard core IRA,” says the program’s third central character, unit commander Eleanor Grant (Amanda Mealing) -- and Cunningham’s thickly Irish-accented growl seals the deal.
As they’ve been characterized so far, both Connelly and his sinuous female partner in mayhem Neve (Orla O’Rourke) are in it for more than the cause or even the money. There is something distinctly kinky in their relish for atrocity. Splattering several sets of brains across a backcountry road turns them on so much that they have to rush home to the hideout for an extended, bellowing sex encounter. That Neve uses her frequent toplessness to intimidate underlings and blackmail targets is a nice touch, a comparatively clever way of passing off the nudity as non-gratuitous. For these cold-eyed monsters sex, violence and coercion are seamlessly intermingled.
So far the show’s storytelling is a well-choreographed combination of episodic and serial elements. Writer-producer and X-Files vet Frank Spotnitz is a past master of this sort of fancy footwork. Ongoing subplots include the hunt for Latif and the deeper puzzle of the identity and motives of the plotters who engineered Scott’s dishonorable discharge when he was serving in Iraq. There are indications that Connolly’s target in the armored car robberies, an arms dealer named Bratton, may have been involved.
The final act has Scott attempting to infiltrate Connolly’s team, posing as a Yank computer whiz who is being airlifted in to replace the house hacker, who was killed during the robbery. This mission is so hazardous that even this blithe risk-taker seems to go all grim, a well-played mood-flip from Stapleton that gooses the suspense more effectively than an ominous music cue ever could. Allow us to doubt, however, despite explosive appearances in the last few seconds of the episode, that Scott is going to be called upon top make the ultimate sacrifice at the end of the third episode. We’ve watched a lot of TV in our day. We know how these things work. That the scene generates as much tension as it does, despite our too-cool meta-fictional assumptions, is a testament to how well the people behind Strike Back are carrying out their mission, which is putting our nerve endings through the ringer.