It’s no secret that espionage programs are enjoying a moment, thanks to shows like The Night Agent and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. But, as these series try to establish a reputation for themselves, none would be feasible without Homeland’s shrewd, slow-burn appeal. Claire Danes’ renowned Carrie Mathison walked out of a filthy Russian jail so that others, such as Zoe Saldaa’s Joe in the new Paramount+ series Special Ops: Lioness, may run across the Syrian dunes.
But how far she runs in Taylor Sheridan’s series based on the real-life CIA task squad remains to be seen. The series, which stars an all-star ensemble led by Saldaa, provides the introspective comfort we all desire from the spy thriller genre while also balancing subtle roughness and challenging realism. Despite its strong intensity and focus, something feels off.
The series follows hardheaded Marine Joe (Saldaa), the leader of a female-focused, undercover CIA team tasked with befriending and flipping the loyalties of wives, mothers, girlfriends, and other women in close contact with male terrorist leaders. It is based on the real-life Lioness Programme, an all-female unit developed for the Army and Marine Corps. The Lioness Programme, led by Kaitlyn Meade (Nicole Kidman) and Donald Westfield (Michael Kelly), receives a big boost with the arrival of a recruit as Joe strives to set things right following a dramatic, edge-of-your-seat opener.
Cruz (Laysla De Oliveira), an aggressive Marine Raider, is recruited to go secretly with Joe. However, due to the significant personality contrasts between the two, the coupling creates a prickly dynamic, as Joe is level-headed and focused, whilst Cruz is ready to know everything without redaction. The narrative opens up some extremely rich, intricate levels of intrigue via individuals knee-deep in cynicism through these connective connections between Joe and Cruz, and their interactions outside of the assignment.
Saldaa is back on Earth and performing one of her grittiest and most challenging parts to date, no longer running missions throughout the galaxy with her motley crew in the Marvel franchise. While Joe appears to be pragmatic and takes judgments without hesitation at first, this is a trait that weighs heavily on her. Suffering from PTSD and feeling nervous when the Syria mission goes terribly wrong, Saldaa gives an engrossing portrayal that will make viewers want to know just as much about Joe as Cruz does, if not more.
In the pilot, “Contractual Soldiers,” viewers will witness Joe’s family, which includes a spouse, Neil (Dave Annable), and two children, one of whom dislikes when she returns. Her connection with her family is undoubtedly difficult, and it affects hundreds of genuine military personnel every day, which Sheridan has depicted most successfully through a deep, dramatic tale that coincides with the separation and withdrawal that occurs on both sides.
Cruz, meanwhile, is played by Canadian actress De Oliveira, who delivers a riveting and uncompromising performance. Cruz is a rough-around-the-edges character who is trapped in her trauma and grief, but De Oliveira portrays it with tremendous heart and a serious tenderness, even if her on-screen counterpart is emotionless.
Cruz might have taken a different path in life after years of abuse by her lover, living on her alone when her mother died, dropping out of college, and weeping herself to sleep, but it’s her perseverance after each setback that makes us cheer for her. It may appear cliché to create a persona like that in order to find meaning, but it works because De Oliveira helps Cruz demonstrate what it means to commit oneself to a higher goal. While Cruz may look aloof from others, her chats with Joe and her new unit give spectators the impression that she simply wants to join.
Kidman, who is always entertaining to watch and manages to create a lasting impression, joins De Oliveira and Saldaa. Though we don’t see much of her in the first episode, we can see how her character, Kaitlyn, is a strong ally to Joe. She has vast experience playing politics and handling the weight of being a woman in the intelligence sector as the CIA’s senior supervisor.
When you combine that dynamic with Kelly’s Donald, the Deputy Director, you have a firestorm of advisors striving to bring out the best in their section. Kelly may be visible for a bit less in the pilot than Kidman, but he is just as moving to see. As a guy who has to answer to higher-ups, Donald does what he feels is right, no matter the repercussions, and it’s performances like these from Kelly that make us want to learn more about him.
Audiences who have only seen the first episode of Special Ops: Lioness will not see Morgan Freeman just yet. According to the trailers, the veteran actor is portraying the President of the United States, which is certainly most appropriate for a figure like him. The show’s supporting ensemble is as absorbing as its protagonists, especially Annable, and the audience’s brief but engrossing interaction with Stephanie Nur as Aaliyah, the daughter of a high-ranking terrorist Cruz must infiltrate.
Special Ops: Lioness is a solid character study in a very complicated world of espionage, with characters developed with great ambition and skill. The show works best when it is bathed in a dark and gritty ambiance and is ready to toy with its actors through subtle ambiguity. Sheridan creates people that speak the tale and lead the way with a subtle resonance, which is unusual on television. The series handles some theatrical-level qualities with its locales and graphics, making it entertaining to follow with a decent pace and balance of action.
While Sheridan has been chastised in the past for the way he writes women, Special Ops: Lioness compensates in some respects by female empowerment leading the front on male-dominated operations. Cruz, as a woman of color who is abused and beaten by her boyfriend and confined to a life of domination, may be seen as yet another example of a female character constructed as an exploitative ploy. On the surface, she is a stereotyped figure who lives to be abused.
In fact, there is a scene in the premiere when Cruz is physically fleeing her violent partner and ends up in the doorway of a United States Marine Corps recruiting center. Cruz’s commanding officer is another woman of color, a station chief who calls the shots and shows us what it’s like to play in the war room at CIA headquarters with white superiors.
It appears strange on the surface, yet Sheridan has managed to produce a series based on the reality of the United States military’s makeup. Women currently make up 17% of the Armed Forces, explaining the scarcity of stories about female heroes in cinema and television. Add to that the structure of the Marine Corps, and statistics show that Hispanic men and women outnumber white recruits. So it all makes sense and connects the dots, right?
Not at all. Examining these female positions in Special Ops: Lioness is crucial because, while they defy gender stereotypes and advocate for gender equality, they also support hegemonic masculinity in our armed forces. Understanding Cruz and Joe allows us to recognize that they have personal flaws like any other character, but their vices frequently undermine their credibility and push male-dominated dominance through the adoration of American militarism.
Sheridan’s lone-wolf writing antics mischaracterize the two primary female parts, rendering them cold or aloof, mistreated and damaged, which, again, might be said as a manifestation of their PTSD. However, it is emblematic of a larger problem that exists outside of Sheridan’s writing room in that there is no place for diversity or women’s opinions, only one man’s interpretation of life, which is always steeped in patriarchal beliefs.
Are we to assume that a young Syrian woman is so enamored with the West that her first encounter with an American, who is also an undercover spy, will be her new best friend? So she’s meant to be gullible? This is American exceptionalism at its finest, as it continues to abuse women on both sides for a cis-heteropatriarchal goal. While just the debut episode was made available to the press, one may hope that Sheridan’s portrayal of religion is at least decorous and clear of clichés, yet it will not pass The Riz Test. This program should not be compared to others, but it might improve its portrayal of women by hiring female writers to nail that understanding and remark on their military experiences.
Why does a woman have to be mistreated to discover her purpose in Cruz, one of the most promising characters on the program owing to De Oliveira’s razor-sharp performance? Cruz has total control over her actions, but she would not have been convinced if she hadn’t fallen at the feet of the Marines. Whereas Wind River and Sicario portray their female leaders as ineffective and frequently undercut by their male counterparts, Special Ops: Lioness continues to write women in cultural contexts where males save the day via patriarchal institutions that dominate and control every choice. This is not to suggest that women cannot serve as warriors and contribute to the benefit of their nation by addressing very real threats that keep us up at night.
However, it raises the issue of the illusion of significant feminine roles in these systems when they are written by males. Joe is a tough-minded individual who takes her job seriously and does not hesitate to make a disastrous judgment at the start of the program. However, the emphasis on her flaws, particularly her difficult marriage and bad parent-child connection, supports the notion that women in male roles are sometimes hampered by their feminity.
Because Sheridan’s writing lacks diversity, there is no support for alternate conceptions of feminity that represent our current culture by depicting Joe and Cruz as clever women who are also very lonely and miserable. On the surface, the program represents gender equality, but it all serves as a front for American exceptionalism, which is steeped in male-fronted objectives.
Special Ops: Lioness will be a new favorite for fans this season, sandwiched between superb performances, interesting material, and some piercing direction that is timed effectively. While the action has yet to begin, it is an engrossing, slow-burn suspense thriller that embraces its pulpier elements to keep fans interested. The program never forgets to provide viewers depth and a draw into its characters while painting a nuanced portrayal of women in the military through subtleties that will be revealed this season. With the way the pilot sets up the season’s eight episodes, there will be plenty of twists and turns along the road, with the potential for a thrilling thriller that keeps us on the edge of our seats. However, there is still work to be done.