By David Chute | Thompson on Hollywood September 18, 2011 at 8:05AM
Wet work in the Sudan, writes David Chute, requires both a stubborn streak and a thick skull.
One odd aspect of Strike Back’s storytelling about elite special forces commandos is that noticeably often it’s hinged upon one or both of the two main characters screwing up, often at the cost of a life or two. Episode 5, for example, gets off to a impressively fast, bloody, compressed start, goosed along by some clever quick cutting and an interpolated mini-flashback -- but then in quick succession both of Section 20’s frontline covert operatives, Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) and Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton), are dry-gulched and clobbered during a cat-and-mouse shooting match at a container port.
The operatives do succeed in nabbing their immediate target, an arms dealer named Crawford (Iain Glenn, Game of Thrones’s Jorah Mormont), another known associate of the season’s ultimate target, super-terrorist Latif (Jimmy Mistry). But there turn out to be a few things these elite intelligence gatherers don’t yet know about him: For starters that he has a daughter, Clare (Laura Haddock), who is working working under an assumed name as an aid worker in the Sudan and has recently been kidnapped by charismatic and cold-blooded militia leader, Tahir, played with rumbling menace by Lost’s Mr. Eko, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Section 20 is startled to learn that the shipment of lethal weapons they've been looking at is intrnded Crawford as a ransom payment. Which makes it a "humanitarian" project, according to him; bad means harnessed to a good end. The kind of neat idea Oliver North might endorse.
“How did we miss this?” wonders an annoyed Eleanor Grant (Amanda Mealing), Section 20's soulful Commanding Officer, when the family connection is revealed, a connection that will turn out to be central to the way the episode develops. Clare has been walking into combat zones for years so it’s not really a surprise that she has enough sang froid to appreciate the irony of the situation: Everything she’s done with her life up to that point has been intended to repudiate her father’s activities; now his abhorrent blood money may be her only hope. The supposedly utterly ruthless Crawford, in turn, is wracked with guilt: he fears he may have set the kidnap plot in motion when he went through back-door channels to get his daughter’s visa revoked, so that she’d be expelled from the country for her own safety -- but in so doing he revealed her identity to the corrupt officials he was working with, who trotted right over to Tahir’s encampment to arrange the kidnapping.
Rather than simply “Go Guantanamo on his ass,” as Scott impishly suggests, Section 20 makes a deal with Crawford: they will charge in to secure Clare’s release in exchange for Latif’s whereabouts. A spell of sexy comic relief (and a couple of key clues) are donated by Scott’s latest fling, a resourcefully high-strung American “journo” (as the Brits say) played by Rachel Shelley, who is unlikely to be a familiar face for action fans, since her most memorable vehicles to date have been the The L Word and the Oscar-nominated Bollywood epic Lagaan. Not that it will be her face they're studying.
A series that is as well created as "Strike Back" but that nevertheless spends a fair amount of time spelling out all the awful things that can go wrong is pretty clearly doing this for a reason. Perhaps the agenda behind a lot of the messy foul-ups that decorate Strike Back is to demonstrate how unpredictable and even chaotic striking back often is. The fighters who win through in the end put their mistakes behind them and re-think the entire plan on the run. In this world, a gift for improvisation could be the one truly indispensible survival skill.
ALSO: I’ve been meaning to say an appreciative a word or two about Strike Back’s” surprisingly soulful and effective theme song. Turns out to be "Short Change Hero,” by British band The Heavy, which also had a tune in the season finale of “True Blood.”
Here’s the cool Strike Back title sequence followed by a well-recorded live performance.