David Chute finds surprising beauty in television's best action drama.
Director Daniel Percival has no need for 3-D. He can define a space with the parallax of a brief dolly shot. His staging of an incursion into a mammoth bunker complex under a forest in Chechnya adds a sweep of operatic grandeur to the penultimate ninth episode of Strike Back, the twisty action and drama series recently renewed by Cinemax. After a blast cuts off their escape, Section 20 comrades Scott and Stonebridge are forced go deeper and deeper into the earth, through claustrophobically narrowing staircases and oozing tunnels, until the complex opens out into a series of eerie vaulted caverns. The huge spaces have a menacing grandeur that’s appropriate to the way the stakes have been ramped up for the show’s two-part finale -- and to the scale of the biological horror plotted by global super-terrorist Latif (Jimi Mistry), as illustrated by the spreading circles of devastation on a computerized damage-estimate diagram.
Percival's brand of cinematic visual expressiveness is still comparatively rare even on post-HBO television, but it’s representative of the multi-layered style he established during the first two episodes of the British-born show’s second, mid-Atlantic season. It's the opposite of a matter of fact style. It allows the implications of crisis situations to bleed through. Suspense can be generated even by a muted conversation among the Section 20 operatives because they’re always keyed up, conscious of the dimensions of the threat that’s hovering over them – and over us, too, the show implies.
The psychological side-effects of living in a constant state of heightened alertness are the source of much of Strike Back's drama, from the seeming ultimatum delivered this week by Stonebridge’s wife, to the thinly veiled contempt Scott feels for officers stay safe while sending others into harms way (Rhashan Stone’s straight-laced Major Oliver Sinclair is viewed with increasing suspicion), to the confrontation we didn’t know we were waiting for, between Amanda Mealing’s increasingly frazzled Eleanor Grant and the honey trap operative, assigned to seduce and evaluate Scott, who gets in dutch with Grant by continuing to “consort with” him, boisterously, outside the parameters of the assignment. (“I [consort with] who I like,” she says.)
The bar for final episodes is set pretty high these days, notched up by triumphs like the flamboyant "face off" conclusion of Breaking Bad. Cinemax has been taking no chances with the Strike Back conclusion, safe guarding its impact by refusing to release a cast list for the 2012 season that would include plot spoilers. Now we learn that no press screeners will be issued in advance for next Friday’s concluding episode. Normally, with this much build up, we'd be fretting an anti-climax, but not with this show. We're prepared to be amazed.