Special Ops: Lioness Season-Finale Recap: All We Changed Was Oil Prices

Special Ops: Lioness

Gone is the Illusion of Order
Season 1 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating 3 stars

Special Ops: Lioness

Gone is the Illusion of Order
Season 1 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating 3 stars
Photo: Luke Varley/Paramount+

We’ve got a real thing for victory here in America. So much so that we can’t help but come out the gate of every era of American military conflict with a junk-food meal of cheap actioners and taught thrillers to retcon our big battles while showing us a nasty, bloody good time along the way. Even our failures have to “smell like victory” somewhere, if only in our entertainment.

There’s a perverse have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too mythos guiding Lioness. On the one hand, you’ve got this portrait of the American empire as a diabolical global-capital, status-quo-chasing Moloch on autopilot, just specific enough in some parts and foggy enough in others to appeal to everyone’s sense of our institutional government as a decaying emperor with no clothes. On the other hand, you’ve got this Bondian supervillain in Amar Ali Amrohi (Bassem Youssef) — a mysterious Über-banker to Eastern terrorism who’s supposed to make up for a colossal 20-year failure once he’s taken off the map. An Ace of Spades upon which we can all hang our gun belts ’n’ spurs. For eight episodes, Taylor Sheridan’s been out here doing his best Tom Clancy and infusing the action with his own brand of Western heart-of-darkness bravado — Clear and Present Danger by way of Sicario. If them’s the vibes for this Special Op, its conclusion is decidedly on point.

Fresh off an eight-hour flight of forced exposure to terrorism footage or whatever, Cruz is making the sneaky switch from the team’s private jet at the FBO in Barcelona to a commercial flight to Mallorca for Aaliyah’s wedding. Kyle’s the only one running point on the ground, which basically just means boarding the same flight, in disguise with a babe on his arm — perfect last job of the season for our resident CIA fuckboy.

It’s hard to argue with Byron’s return line: If they didn’t want Amrohi killed, they should’ve taken his name off the kill list. The list, man. We’re hired killers, we move on it. End of story. In the meantime, their Lioness will be holed up in that mansion on the peninsula, surrounded by all manner of security. No getting her out now. Either she succeeds or she fails. We choose not to intervene; she looks like a lone wolf.

Here’s where Hollar instigates a little sidebar with Byron. Amrohi is a precious target, but he’s also been “useful.” Killing this piece of shit may be good for the region’s stability (if there’s one thing we love to do, it’s destabilize regions), but this guy’s a billionaire because he moves oil to Russia and China. What happens to oil prices when 10 percent of production returns to the open market? “It’s a calamity for our strategic partners,” Hollar says. Now is not the time for change. “We keep the devil we know for now because the world doesn’t have the leaders to navigate the devil we don’t know.”

Cut to the airport, Palma de Mallorca, Spain. Cruz comes out of the airport with real 007 swag — decked out in a beautiful beigey-tan suit and chic khimar. The rest of the crew is getting set up with their yacht, complete with tactical gear and weapons behind every inconspicuous drawer. Our situation room Greek chorus sets the stakes as Cruz arrives to the early hustle and bustle of caterers and wedding attendants, passes through security and whatnot. Cruz has limited options and no weapon. “The environment’s a weapon. She’ll find one.” Byron says. If the opportunity presents itself, the Lioness will “neutralize the target herself.” The other option is to mark Amrohi with a tracker and launch a strike on him once he moves to a better location. In the meantime, everyone in that room except Byron is still trying to find a way to nix this mission before it really starts.

Once through security, Cruz is brought to Ehsan first thing. The vibes are immediately off, and we all know why. What’s up with all the tearful late-night comings and goings from Aaliyah’s hotel room the other night? Cruz delivers the well-rehearsed lie about Aaliyah just having pre-wedding jitters and Cruz being scared of her life changing too fast, and Ehsan doesn’t buy it for a second. He deals her a backhand and tells her tonight is good-bye for her and Aaliyah. “And if you tell her we spoke, I’ll throw you in the fucking sea.”

Ooof, that’s going to be a bridge too far right there, bucko. “I’d like to see you try,” Cruz retorts with an assassin’s conviction. “I suggest you bring tons of fun if you do ‘cause I could wipe the floor with your boney ass.” Man, how awesome is it that the last thing this man will experience is her doing just that?

But I’m jumping ahead. Let’s take things back to our last great dialogue scene with Cruz and Aaliyah — a real Michael Mann–esque piece of melodrama complete with a romantic ambient score and slow-burning sunset. “This is the calm before the storm,” Aaliyah says as they look over the preparations. As she explains the flow of events the next day, she confirms that her father will be at the wedding.

“Everywhere is a danger for him,” she adds with an air of regret. “It always has.” But why, asks Cruz. Plenty of people in the oil business don’t get killed for it. “You think the president of Chevron or Exxon don’t have armed guards and bulletproof cars?” They call her father a terrorist who funds armies and does “all these things,” but he doesn’t play the political games of nations. He’ll sell oil to whoever will buy it. Here’s where we get the proper genre thing of the villain kind of being right, or at least being less morally tainted than the institutions behind the hero. Besides, our man Amrohi’s time is running out anyway, and he knows it. Perhaps that’s why he chose Ehsan for his daughter, Aaliyah speculates. “Very smart investor, very respected. And maybe our children don’t have to play with oil. They just … play with money.”

“Ehsan knows about us.” Aaliyah shifts gears real quick. Time is tight, and it’s only winding down. “In two days, all I will know of love is what I can imagine and what I can remember.” Props to Stephanie Nur for carrying these epic monologues throughout the season and to Laysla De Oliveira for being such a convincing, simmering scene partner. I’m still not sure how necessary the budding romance aspect of these two really was, but the actors performing it are undeniably making it work. The emotional pull is real and palpable to her.

Back at the White House, satellite imagery picks up Amrohi on a balcony, confirming his presence and igniting yet another “LET’S SHUT THIS SHIT DOWN” argument. The situation hasn’t changed: They can’t get Cruz out without a gunfight. Might as well hold out. Just to be safe, though, they will go ahead and get the president on the first Air Force One out of Paris. Meanwhile, back on the yacht, the team’s gearing up and figuring out what they will and won’t take on their swim to shore, too heavy for a bulletproof vest and all that, real Inglourious Basterds–type shit. Except for Joe, who’s just had to screen another ill-conceived family emergency call to calm Kate’s post-traumatic nightmares. Seriously, Neil, I feel like you could’ve handled this one on your own under the circumstances.

Things are quiet at the mansion. Ehsan is at his laptop running a bot on Cruz’s passport photo to place matches on the internet. Sure enough, he finds some article about “Winning State” from her junior high days and a cadet graduation photo or some bullshit from a fake TV show Facebook app called #myfriends. (It’s WITH the HASHTAG.)

Things are quiet in Cruz’s room, too, until Aaliyah barges in to twist the knife of their tragic love story one last time. But these final moments of heartbreaking bliss in each other’s arms are not that for Cruz, who’s too close to the moment of truth to take in any more of Aaliyah. Aaliyah can’t spice things up without Cruz pulling away until she finally heads to the kitchen for some “water.”

“I have seen many things, but I’ve never seen a woman talk to a freezer.” God, what a killer transition to our final confrontation with the big baddie — it really sneaks up on you and puts you in a precarious position as a viewer from then on. A disembodied voice breaks the silence, its smooth, ominous source obscured by the freezer door Cruz has just been mumbling behind. “Focus, focus, focus on the mission,” she’d just said. Has she already been made?

If Amrohi heard what Cruz was saying, he doesn’t let on. He just turns up the charm, and the tension in the room gets more nerve-racking with every passing second of seemingly frivolous exchange. Don’t mind me, Cruz is trying to say with every fiber of her being, just an innocent girl out here looking for water. “You’re Aaliyah’s friend. From the states. The student. Well, you seem smart enough to know that water is not in the freezer.” Oh shit … actually, not oh shit, for now, this guy’s trying to impress with a sample of the best Gelato outside of Itlay, then Ehsan barges in to blow up her spot in the dumbest way possible. This guy just walks right up to her yelling, “MARINE!” and that’s when the immovable object fucking decimates the, uh, once-unstoppable force. Lucky the “environment” Cruz was to “make a weapon of” happened to be a kitchen, giving her the chance to slice and dice her target before you could say “Gelaaati del Marco.”

Ding ding. Cruz sets off the beacon, and it’s extraction time. Gunshots and ricochets abound as Cruz zig and zags through the grounds. Just as the firefight gets too close and Cruz is pinned, her team emerges from the darkness — a symphony of suppressed machine-gun fire, and it’s back to the boat, safe and sound. “Geronimo.” The Ace of Spades is dead.

“Look at what you did to me!” Cruz tells Joe at the end of their impromptu fistfight out on the deck. “Look what you made of me. He was an old man, and I killed him in his fucking underwear.” On the brink of personal collapse and in the face of everything saying otherwise, Joe digs her heels in on the cause being legit. “What you did was eliminate one of the worst fucking perpetrators of violence in the past 20 years. What you did saved lives.” Cruz just changed history, but who’d she change it for? Who’s ringing this bell (as Errol will put it to Kaitlyn later)?

“All we changed was oil prices,” Cruz says. Sure, the bigwigs back at the Situation Room are freaking out about “setting relations with the Middle East back 40 years” and “trying to ween the nation off fossil fuels” and whatnot, but this righteous indignation bit isn’t going to wipe the slate clean. Inevitably, these games will go on, and so will the bloodshed.

The Debrief

• Watching this goddamned stacked cast go ballistic on this material week after week would be well worth another season of this show, man. Literally everyone is great, from the regulars of the Lioness team (I’m a real Bobby head, myself) to the supporting big guns like Morgan Freeman. Everyone rocks, even if they’re ultimately underutilized.

• Underutilized is the last thing you could say about our two leads. For whatever else this show has lacked in or succeeded at, it’s got real staying power in the one-two punch of Saldana and De Oliveira. The season closes on a heartbreaking moment with Joe, having just returned home from battle, spiritually depleted but, in direct contrast to her return home in the pilot, ready to feel real feelings about it. This show begins and ends with a harrowing, liminal emotion of grief, exhaustion, and dizzying numbness emanating from Saldana’s eyes. Gripping stuff.

• It’s been a genuine blast rolling through these Special Ops with y’all! Hopefully we’ve laughed (at humor both intentional and unintentional), cried, winced, WTF’d, and yeehaw’d together plenty along the way.

Special Ops: Lioness Season-Finale Recap