Between The Night Agent and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, it’s no secret spy shows are having a moment. But as these shows attempt to make a name for themselves, none would be possible without the astute, slow-burn charm of Homeland. As a series centered around a female protagonist challenging gender stereotypes, Claire Danes’ iconic Carrie Mathison walked out of a filthy Russian prison so that others, like Zoe Saldaña’s Joe in the new Paramount+ series Special Ops: Lioness, could run in the deserts of Syria. But how far she runs is yet to be seen in the Taylor Sheridan series based on the real-life CIA task force. Featuring an all-star cast led by Saldaña, the series serves up that introspective comfort we all crave from the espionage thriller genre balanced with nuanced grit and thorny realism. Yet, despite its high energy and direction, something feels amiss.
Based on the real-life Lioness Program, an all-female unit developed for the Army and Marine Corps, the series follows hardheaded Marine, Joe (Saldaña), 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. As Joe attempts to make things right following a shocking, edge-of-your-seat opening, the Lioness Program, spearheaded by Kaitlyn Meade (Nicole Kidman) and Donald Westfield (Michael Kelly) gets a major upgrade through the addition of a recruit. The two enlist aggressive Marine Raider, Cruz (Laysla De Oliveira) to operate undercover alongside Joe. But with vast personality differences between the two, the pairing makes for a prickly dynamic as Joe is level-headed and focused, while Cruz is eager to know it all sans redaction. It’s in these connective dynamics between Joe and Cruz, and their interactions outside the task that we see the series open up some very rich, complex layers of intrigue through characters knee-deep in cynicism.
Zoe Saldaña Steps Into New Shoes in ‘Special Ops: Lioness’
No longer running tasks in the galaxy with her motley crew in the Marvel franchise, Saldaña is back on earth and playing what is one of her grittiest and most complicated roles to date. While Joe initially appears to be pragmatic and makes decisions without a second thought, it’s a characteristic that weighs heavy on her. Suffering a significant bout of PTSD and feeling skittish after the Syria mission goes tragically wrong, Saldaña offers an absorbing performance that will leave viewers wanting to know just as much about Joe as Cruz hopes to, maybe even more. In the pilot, “Contractual Soldiers,” audiences will get a chance to see Joe’s home life, which includes a husband, Neil (Dave Annable), and two daughters — one of whom dislikes when she’s back. Her relationship with her family is no doubt strained and one that impacts thousands of real military members every day, something Sheridan has most effectively captured through a rich, impactful narrative that aligns with the detachment and withdrawal that occurs on both sides.
As for Cruz, the Canadian actress De Oliveira offers a powerhouse performance that is equally gripping and uncompromising. Playing a rough-around-the-edges character like Cruz is not easy as she is entangled in her trauma and pain, but De Oliveira plays it with immense heart and a sober vulnerability, even if her on-screen counterpart is devoid of any emotion. Though Cruz could have gone another way in life following years of abuse by her boyfriend, being on her own after her mother died, dropping out of college, and crying herself to sleep, it’s this prowess after every battle that makes us root for her. It might seem cliché in formulating a character like that just to find meaning, but it works as De Oliveira helps Cruz prove what it means to devote yourself to a greater purpose. While Cruz might appear as though she is detached from others, she gives audiences a sense of just wanting to belong as we see in her communications with Joe and her new unit.
Joining De Oliveira and Saldaña is Kidman, who is always enjoyable to watch and manages to leave a sharp impression. Though we don’t see much of her in the premiere, we understand how her character, Kaitlyn is a forceful ally to Joe. As the CIA’s senior supervisor, she has an extensive career of playing politics and juggling the weight of being a woman in the intelligence community. Mix that dynamic with Kelly’s Donald, the Deputy Director, and you have a fireball of advisors looking to bring out their unit’s best. Kelly might be seen for a little less than Kidman in the pilot, but he is just as affecting to watch. As a man who has to answer to the higher-ups, Donald does what he believes is right, no matter the consequences and it’s this kind of performance from Kelly that compels us to want to know more about him.
‘Special Ops: Lioness’ Has a Strong Character But a Flawed Story
Having only watched the first episode of Special Ops: Lioness, audiences will not be seeing Morgan Freeman just yet. As the trailers have shown, it appears the veteran actor is playing the President of the United States, which is probably most fitting for a star like him. The show’s supporting cast is just as captivating as its leads are, particularly Annable and the audience’s brief, yet engrossing meeting with Stephanie Nur as Aaliyah, the daughter of a high-ranking terrorist Cruz must infiltrate.
Special Ops: Lioness is a strong character study in a very complex world of espionage, with personalities that are written most ambitiously and skillfully. The show is best when it bathes in a mood that is dark and gritty, and willing to play with its actors through a nuanced ambiguity. Television is usually so plot-driven, but Sheridan manages to create characters that tell the story and lead the way with an understated resonance. With a healthy pace and balance of action, the series also manages some theatrical-level elements with its locations and graphics, which makes it engaging to follow.
But while Sheridan has come under scrutiny in the past for how he writes women, Special Ops: Lioness makes up for that in some ways through female empowerment leading the charge on male-dominated missions. One might argue Cruz is just another example of a female character written as an exploitative device as she is a woman of color, abused and beaten by her partner and subjected to a life of control. On the surface, she is a character born of stereotypes and simply lives to be mistreated. In fact, there is a point in the premiere where Cruz is literally running from her abusive boyfriend and miraculously falls at the doorstep of a U.S. Marines 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 superiors that are not people of color.
It looks a little peculiar on the surface, but Sheridan has managed to pick up from the facts of the U.S. military’s makeup to create a series that plays to realism. As it stands today, women make up 17 percent of the Armed Forces, hence the lack of storytelling in film and TV about these female heroes. Add into that reality the structure of the Marine Corps and studies cite Hispanic men and women overrepresent among recruits. So, it all makes sense and ties things together, right?
Taylor Sheridan Still Struggles With Writing Women
Not really. Examining these female roles in Special Ops: Lioness is important because while they challenge gender stereotypes and appeal to gender equality, they still reinforce hegemonic masculinity often at the forefront of our armed forces. In understanding who Cruz and Joe are, we can see these two have personal weaknesses like any other character, but many times their vices diminish their credibility and advance male-dominated primacy through the idolatry of American militarism. Sheridan’s lone-wolf writing antics in many ways mischaracterize the two lead female roles leading them into stereotypes, making them cold or distant, abused and hurt, which again, one can argue is a demonstration of their PTSD. But it is symptomatic of a greater issue outside Sheridan’s writing room in that there is no room for diversity or women’s voices, just the sole understanding of life through one man’s perspective, continually rooted in patriarchal values.
Are we supposed to believe a young Syrian woman is so enamored by the West that upon her first meeting with an American, who is also an undercover agent, is going to be her new best friend? So, she’s supposed to be naive? This is American exceptionalism at its finest, as it continues to exploit women on both sides for an agenda entrenched in cis-heteropatriarchy. While only the premiere episode was made available for the press, one can hope the depiction of religion is at least conveyed decorously by Sheridan and is free of stereotypes, though it will not pass The Riz Test. This show shouldn’t be compared to others, but it could do better in its representation of women by employing female writers to nail that understanding and comment on their military experiences.
When it comes to Cruz, one of the most promising characters on the show thanks to De Oliveira’s razor-sharp performance, why does a woman have to be abused to find her purpose? Cruz has complete autonomy in her decisions, but wouldn’t have been persuaded without her falling at the feet of the Marines. Where Wind River and Sicario display their female leads as inept and often undermined by their male counterparts, Special Ops: Lioness continues to write women in cultural contexts where men save the day through patriarchal systems that govern the control of every decision. This is not to say that women cannot be soldiers and work toward the betterment of their country, tackling very real threats that keep us awake at night.
‘Special Ops: Lioness’ Has an American Exceptionalism Problem
But it begs the question about the deception of powerful feminine roles in these systems when they are written by men. Joe is a hard-nosed individual who takes her job very seriously and does not hesitate in the opening of the show to make a very damaging decision. But the focus on these weaknesses, especially her strained marriage, and poor parent-child relationship, support the assertion that women with masculine roles are often impaired because of their feminity. By showing Joe and Cruz as intelligent women who are also incredibly lonely and unhappy, there is no support for alternative models of feminity that reflect our modern society and that is because of the lack of diversity in Sheridan’s writing. The show models gender equality on the surface, but it all serves as a front to American exceptionalism, rooted in male-fronted agendas.
Sandwiched between outstanding performances, engaging writing, and some piercing direction that is paced effectively, Special Ops: Lioness will be a new favorite for audiences this season. While the action is yet to unfold, it is an enthralling, slow-burn suspense drama that embraces its pulpier bits to keep audiences tuned in. Painting a nuanced portrait of women in the military through complexities that will unravel this season, the show never forgets to offer viewers depth and a pull into its characters. With how the premiere is setting up the season across its eight episodes, there will be plenty of twists and turns along the way with potential room for a riveting thriller that keeps us at the edge of our seats. But as it stands now, more work needs to be done.
Special Ops: Lioness premieres July 23 on Paramount+.