Episode 1 -| Review Score – 4/5
Episode 2 -| Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 3 -| Review Score – 3/5
Episode 4 -| Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 5 -| Review Score – 4/5
Episode 6 -| Review Score – 2/5
Episode 7 -| Review Score – 2.5/5
Episode 8 -| Review Score – 4/5
Lately, everything that Taylor Sheridan has touched has turned into gold. His successful launches in the recent past include Tulsa King, Mayor of Kingstown, and the Yellowstone spinoffs. Paramount has been the single biggest beneficiary of Sheridan’s creative purple.
Naturally, expectations were high for Special Ops: Lioness, which starts very strongly. The first few episodes hint toward another edge-of-the-seat action romper. But somewhere after episode four, Special Ops gradually loses pace and becomes a convoluted mess that is only saved by stellar turns from Zoe Saldana and Laysla de Oliveira.
Special Ops: Lioness tells the story of a special activities division of the CIA led by Joe (Saldana). The “Lioness” team undertakes covert espionage operations to tactically eliminate important targets on the intelligence agency’s kill list. Being a Lioness is a zero-sum game, as we see with an operative at the start of the season. The job takes its toll on Joe, who struggles to maintain a functional personal life.
For their next assignment, the Lioness division faces one of its most important battles. The target this time is Asmar Amrohi, who is the CEO of Qudrah Petrol, one of the world’s leading oil producers. But the CIA want his head for bankrolling almost every single terrorist attack carried out in the Middle East and the US in the last decade.
To complete the mission, Joe goes against the tide and recruits a marine, Cruz Manuelos, who is a novice in the espionage trade. Her lack of training does not deter Joe, who even lays third-degree torture on Cruz to prepare her for the role. Cruz must befriend Amrohi’s daughter, Aaliyah, and find a way to face up with Amrohi, who has thus far remained elusive to the CIA.
One of the very first things I want to highlight about Lioness is its natural female portrayal. In a male-dominated world, operators like Joe, Cruz, Kaitlyn, and Bobby emerge as capable and efficient operators whose gender does not define their individuality. Sheridan and his room of writers do not try to paint them as better or differentiated from their male counterparts. They co-exist without the aforesaid banner that has inspired so many weaker portrayals in the recent past. Even though they are tough women, the creatives allow viewers to see their softer, more feminine side as well. Joe’s moments with her daughter after her accident are a testament to this characteristic.
These women do not shy away from asking for help or expressing their vulnerability either. Such well-rounded characters are a rarity in the television space and they should serve as the standard going forward for creators.
Sheridan is known for his simplistic approach to plot and writing, which is reflected in the setup in Lioness. The characters and their stories take up most of the screen time. They are the focus of the narrative and drive it forward. This choice generally proves to be a fruitful one in Sheridan’s works. But this time around, they sort of backfire on him.
Amrohi’s elimination was the bedrock on which this entire story was woven. Without him in the picture, Joe would not have recruited Cruz. But we only see him in the finale for a mere five minutes. Cruz’s undercover mission steadily turned into an unnecessary romantic entanglement with Aaliyah, to such an extent that by the end, their relationship became frustrating. Even though this choice for Cruz’s character makes her different from your typical military spy fodder, the amount of time devoted to developing this arc is not justified. Either it should have been brought out much sooner, or it should have been severed entirely from the teleplay.
The final two episodes extensively feature Aaliyah and Cruz candidly expressing their insecurities and perspectives about love for long stretches. It was not prudent for Sheridan and co to pair it with the business end of the series when viewers are expecting an explosive action-filled showdown. While the entanglement itself cannot be scrutinized too much, its timing certainly should be.
Errol and Kaitlyn’s equation is totally ambiguous. They talk so much in riddles and metaphors that it is nearly impossible to get anything. Joe and her family’s afflictions are the only compelling part of Special Ops. The acting, writing, and significance in the overall positioning of the show make it essential viewing.
Zoe Saldana is at her best when she balances being a mother and a CIA agent. Military personnel dovetailing their family commitments and professional tribulations find the perfect pitch in Joe’s character. I feel Laysla de Oliveira outperformed every single fellow cast member, perhaps with the exception of Saldana. All her attributes and showcasing – physical and emotional – made for a perfect character arc that does not find justice in the show’s script. She is definitely hard done by in terms of her character’s journey.
Ultimately, Special Ops is such a frustrating and yet briefly brilliant show. The experience of watching this story unfold suffers due to uneven execution in both halves of Season 1. All the urgency that should have defined the show’s tone is missing and cramped within its final episode.
Verdict - 6/10