‘Special Ops: Lioness’ review: Zoe Saldaña does strong and silent
By Mike Hale
The “politics” of writer and producer Taylor Sheridan’s television catalog — “Yellowstone,” “1883,” “Mayor of Kingstown,” “1923” and “Tulsa King” — are the subject of exhaustive discussion that isn’t always that pertinent to the series themselves. For something of more immediate artistic interest, how about the shows’ fascination with the violent deaths of women?
The number of men who die in Sheridan’s Westerns, neo-Westerns, Midwestern noirs and — with the July 23 premiere of “Special Ops: Lioness” on Paramount+ — terrorism dramas is much greater, but they tend to die in the usual anonymous, bullet-spraying manner. Women’s deaths are more baroque, and more elaborately presented. A tourist has her throat ripped out by a leopard and is dropped from a tree like an overripe piece of fruit; a nun is suffocated in her bed, her mouth stuffed with tissue and her face branded (both “1923”). A stoolie girlfriend is brutally strangled (“Tulsa King”). The entire season of “1883” is in effect a flashback framed by the gruesome death of its heroine, run through by an arrow.
This emphasis on female death doesn’t feel particularly lurid or sexualized; its importance is as a motif. It’s in the fabric of the shows, where dead mothers are as much of an accessory for the characters as cowboy hats and the woman at the center of “1883” narrates “1923” from beyond the grave. Its function is to reinforce a central theme of Sheridan’s oeuvre: the classic onus of male duty, an essential part of which is the protection of women, even though Sheridan, who likes to hedge his cultural bets, presents the women as fierce and capable in their own right.
And it’s a primary reason for the shows’ distinctiveness. Overheated melodrama and sentimentality and a canny, plausibly deniable appeal to conservative and libertarian values are the obvious parts of the package, but they get their particular flavor from an oddly literary, morbidly romantic strain of neo-Victorian kitsch.
(The literary and other allegiances in Sheridan’s writing — to Ernest Hemingway and John Ford in the Westerns, to Greek tragedy in “Mayor of Kingstown” — are inescapable. The most enjoyable of his shows is the least pretentious one, and the only dramedy: the Sylvester Stallone vehicle “Tulsa King,” which benefits from the involvement of the “Sopranos” veteran Terence Winter as Sheridan’s showrunner.)
“Special Ops: Lioness” differs from Sheridan’s other shows in several significant ways. It is a battlefield show, set among CIA agents and Marines carrying out counterterrorism operations in the Middle East. And it is entirely focused on women: Its major action figures are a CIA operative played by Zoe Saldana; a Marine, recruited for an undercover assignment, played by Laysla De Oliveira; and a gung-ho Marine team leader played by Jill Wagner.
Paramount+ provided only one episode for review, so judgments at this point are tentative if not superfluous. But the Sheridanness of the show is evident. It is noticeable, for instance, that the three central women embodying the values of endurance and violent capability that Sheridan fetishizes go by the unisex names of Joe, Cruz and Bobby.
More noticeable is the show’s premise, at least as it appears in the first episode, written by Sheridan and directed by John Hillcoat. The women, while presented as fully qualified for combat (in some cases in punishing detail), are not tasked with taking on terrorists directly. Their mission is to gain access by befriending women in the terrorists’ lives — to run a modified honey trap. You can see how this will provide plenty of opportunities for them to engage in brutal action, and perhaps the whole thing is a satirical starting point that eventually will be knocked down. But in the first episode the retrograde setup is presented entirely at face value.
(The operation Saldana’s character runs takes its name from Team Lioness, a more utilitarian real-life program in which female soldiers were added to combat teams in part because of religious prohibitions against the touching or searching of women by men.)
What can be said about “Special Ops” from its first 42 minutes is that it looks like an awful lot of other counterterrorism thrillers, with a visceral punch to its action and a ticky-tacky, backlot feel whenever it moves in close on its Middle Eastern settings. Saldana registers stoic magnetism, as usual, as the overseer of the operation, who shuttles between the field and meetings in Washington with her bosses, one of whom is played by Nicole Kidman. (Morgan Freeman will show up later as the secretary of state.) Other performers have trouble adding much to their characters’ stock, neo-“Dirty Dozen” personas. One of the few things we learn about De Oliveira’s Cruz: Her mother died.
There is one moment in the “Special Ops” premiere — just a fleeting reaction shot — that taps directly into the mythos Sheridan’s shows share. When a mission goes bad, Saldana’s Joe calls in a missile strike that kills her own undercover operative. Debriefed later, she explains that she did it for “the sanctity of our operation.” But having seen the look on Joe’s face as she listened to the woman screaming while being set upon by a group of angry Arab men, we know that she had a different sanctity in mind. Sometimes, the first imperative when it comes to women’s safety is preventing the fate worse than death.