The “politics” of writer-producer Taylor Sheridan’s television catalogs Yellowstone, 1883, Mayor of Kingstown, 1923, and Tulsa King have been the subject of intense debate, not necessarily so much to the series itself. Speaking of more direct artistic concerns, what about the show’s fascination with the violent deaths of women?
Far more men die in Sheridan westerns, neo-westerns, Midwest noir, and the terror drama Special Operations: The Lioness, which premieres on Sunday at Paramount Plus, but they tend to die anonymously and in bullet splatter as usual. Female death is more baroque and more elaborate. Leopards rip tourists’ throats and drop them from trees like overripe fruit. A nun is suffocated in her bed, her mouth stuffed with tissues, and her face branded (both “1923”). A disgruntled girlfriend is brutally strangled (“Tulsa King”). The entire “1883” season is effectively a flashback made up of the heroine’s tragic death, impaled by an arrow.
The piece, which emphasizes the death of a woman, does not feel particularly eerie or sexual. Its importance is as a motif. It’s in the fabric of the show, with the dead mother as an accessory to the characters as a cowboy hat, and the woman at the center of “1883” narrating “1923” from beyond her grave. Its role is to reinforce the classical theme of male duty that is central to Sheridan’s work, an important part of which is the protection of women, but Sheridan, who prefers to avoid cultural stakes, portrays women as fierce and capable in their own right.
And that’s the main reason for the show’s characterization. Overheated melodrama and sentimentality, and a strange, plausible and potentially deniable appeal to conservative libertarian values, are obvious parts of the package, but they get their special flavor from the strangely literary, morbid and romantic strains of Neo-Victorian kitsch.
(The literary and other allegiances contained in Sheridan’s writings, such as the Hemingway and John Ford westerns and the Greek tragedy of Mayor of Kingstown, are inescapable. The most enjoyable of his shows is his most unpretentious, and his only drama: Sylvester Stallone’s ride “Tulsa King,” which involves “The Sopranos” veteran Terrence Winter as Sheridan’s showrunner.)
“Special Ops: Lioness” differs from Sheridan’s other shows in several important ways. This is a battlefield show set between CIA agents and Marines conducting counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East. And this work is completely focused on women. The main action character is a CIA operative played by Zoe Saldana. Plays Raisla de Oliveira, a Marine recruited for an undercover mission. And the leader of the GungHo Marine Corps team played by Jill Wagner.
Paramount+ only provided one episode for review, so judgments at this point are tentative, if not unnecessary. But the Sheridanness of the show is evident. For example, it’s worth noting that the three central women who embody the values of Sheridan’s fetishes of endurance and violent capacity are called by the unisex names Joe, Cruz, and Bobby.
Even more remarkable is the show’s premise, written by Sheridan and directed by John Hillcoat, as shown in at least the first episode. The women are shown to be well-qualified for combat (and in some cases detailed punishment), but they are not tasked with directly fighting terrorists. Their mission is to gain access by befriending women involved in the lives of terrorists and execute modified honey traps. We see how this provides them with plenty of opportunities to engage in brutal acts, and perhaps all are satirical starting points that are ultimately defeated. But in the first episode, the retrograde setting is shown completely at face value.
(The operations carried out by Saldana’s characters are named after Team Lioness, a more practical, real-life program in which female soldiers were added to combat teams due to religious prohibitions against men touching or searching women.)
What can be said about the first 42 minutes of “Special Ops” is that there’s an instinctive punch to the action, a tingling and sticky backlot vibe every time you approach the Middle Eastern setting, and it’s very much like any other counter-terrorism thriller. Saldana displays her usual stoic charm as the overseer of the operation, shuttled between the field and meetings with her superiors in Washington, one of which is played by Nicole Kidman. (Morgan Freeman later appears as Secretary of State.) Other cast members struggle to add much to the character’s stock neo “Dirty Dozen” persona. One of the few things we know about De Oliveira’s Cruz is that her mother passed away.
There’s a moment in the “Special Ops” premiere that draws directly on the mythology common to Sheridan’s shows, and it’s just a fleeting reaction shot. When her mission fails, Saldana’s Joe calls in a missile strike, killing her own undercover agent. Debriefed later, she explained that she had done so “because of the sanctity of our operation.” But the look on Jo’s face as she heard a woman screaming while being attacked by a group of angry Arab men shows that she had a different holiness in mind. In some cases, preventing a fate worse than death can be a top priority when it comes to a woman’s safety.