Television Review: Strike Back, Season 2

Strike Back is a strange beast. Based on a series of novels by Chris Ryan, each season is ten episodes long, but it’s more like five 90-minute movies screened over the space of two and a half months. I was all in on Strike Back’s first season, mainly through my love of Damien Scott, which is why the start of the second season felt so cheap. By the end of the season however, I was all in. Strike Back is a show about men being soldiers and looking good while doing it, but it also touches on geopolitical issues, which the second season had. It didn’t have it in spades, because it’s not The Wire; it doesn’t seek to examine just how difficult it can be to change institutions, but it did base its conflicts on current and historical global affairs, which is one of the many things I like in my television. Also Charles Dance is just so good as a villain, which everyone knows from Game of Thrones.

I’m going to start with the things that weren’t done so well, so that we can move onto the things that were great in Strike Back‘s second season. Strike Back is about a lot of things, but the core relationship is between Michael Stonebridge and Damien Scott. At the end of season one, Stonebridge left Section 20 because his wife was pregnant. In the intervening time, she had a miscarriage. Stonebridge is now responsible for training soldiers for Special Forces. During a training exercise, one of his men went rogue and started shooting his comrades, so Stonebridge took him out – he couldn’t see any other way. There’s a hearing, and while the tribunal is coming to a decision, Damien is in trouble in Africa, and Michael goes off to save him. There’s some very forced exposition here, which is when we find out about the miscarriage. Anyway, the operation is successful, and Michael and his wife make up just before she’s killed by a sniper right in front of him. This sets up a semi-interesting arc for Michael throughout the season, but it’s also incredibly cheap. He left Section 20 for his wive, and now that she’s dead, he can go back. Being back also allows him to go after her killer, but her death also smacks of repetition after Michael’s mistress was killed during a mission in the first season.

Aside from this convoluted effort to get Michael back into Section 20, this was a great season of Strike Back. Major Dalton (Rhona Mitra) is a great replacement for Eleanor, and Charles Dance is fantastic as Conrad Knox, even if Maisie Williams isn’t there to pour him wine. The season long arc is about some nuclear triggers that were stolen, and Section 20’s efforts to get them back. The first step is determining whose hands the triggers are in, and of course they have been purchased by Conrad Knox, a philanthropist whose organisation focuses on bringing Africa out of poverty. The murky part of all of this are Knox’s motives, which aren’t entirely clear. He has a charity which has been very successful, but he also sees the only way for Africa to be taken seriously on the world stage as being a nuclear power – that way everyone will pay attention. Then it turns out he’s disgusted by his father’s map of Africa, divided into colonies by the Europeans, and he wants to blow up Johannesburg because a bank fired his father for giving loans to black people. That bank isn’t there any more, by the way, it’s now a playground. Just in case you weren’t sure whether or not Conrad Knox is a bad guy just yet, he put two nuclear weapons under a playground.

The political situation in Africa is incredibly complicated, and the European occupation of the Continent was only the beginning of its troubles. In the final chapters of the season, Conrad Knox is dealing with Nigerians, who have long been slave to oil companies but remain impoverished and wartorn in the areas with the greatest resource wealth. In the first semester of my Masters I took a class called Political Ecology, and I wrote my final essay for that class on how it’s resource wealth, rather than scarcity, that leads to conflict. That was three years ago now, but as soon as I heard “Nigeria”, my ears perked up and I started watching the episode from the beginning again. Resource wealth exacerbates the gap between the rich and the poor, and the so-called ‘trickle-down’ effect is non-existent. In the case of Nigeria, the oil-rich Niger Delta has been devastated by conflict, and its citizens are some of the most marginalised in the country, and the oil industry doesn’t provide much in the way of jobs the way mining would.

All of that aside (sometimes I just need to put my knowledge to use to exercise the brain), Conrad Knox and Section 20 don’t spend any time in Nigeria. It does spend time in Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. All of these countries have their own problems, and they share some, but we don’t spend enough time in each to really look at it closely. That’s not what Strike Back is about though, so I’m okay with it. In the end Conrad Knox is just another white man using Africa for his own personal gain/revenge (I’m not sure what he would gain, but he has a delusion that a nuclear explosion in Johannesburg would bring order to Africa). He says he wants to do things for Africa, but it’s really all about him. He kills a revolutionary leader in Zimbabwe to turn him into a martyr and install the daughter as the new party leader, but there’s no follow-through on where that was suppposed to lead. Matlock tells Hanson that when he was in the Congo, there was no peace, it was just the manipulations of rich men fuelling the conflict, which is exactly what Conrad is. This is why Matlock tries to get out, before Hanson shoots him. Knox says he wants better things for Africa, but is his vision for Africa the same as the rest of Africa’s? One of the most important things about development (which is an incredibly loaded word) is that the people have self-determination. In Strike Back, Conrad Knox is calling all the shots, believing that the ends justify the means, which is why he’s such a great bad guy.

The second season of Strike Back gave me a lot to think about in terms of geopolitics, but it’s also just great fun. It’s about Scott and Stonebridge, two soldiers who are good at their jobs, and also great friends. Their banter is adorable, and I had no idea (although I should have) that their argument about countdowns (do you go on one or zero?) would be so crucial to the climax of the season. Stonebridge got his revenge, but he also forgave him. Scott nearly killed his former CIA handler/lover, but instead he let her help them get Knox. I have no idea if Christy’s going to be back – I’d be annoyed if she does – but I’m looking forward to getting my hands on season 3.

Other thoughts:

  • After episode 8, my immediate reaction was “television characters are always surprised when they’re betrayed at press conferences, which means they mustn’t watch television”
  • The most ridiculous thing in the season was when Hanson escapes police custody and fatally shoots three policemen with his hands behind his back. At least the spectators enjoyed it.
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