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Special Ops: Lioness Needs a Season 2 to Do Right by Its Female Lead

Season 2 is more than just a chance to address lingering questions — it's an opportunity to introduce a Lioness with real depth.
  • Laysla De Oliveira in Special Ops: Lioness (Photo: Luke Varley/Paramount+)
    Laysla De Oliveira in Special Ops: Lioness (Photo: Luke Varley/Paramount+)

    Special Ops: Lioness agent Cruz Manuelos (Laysla De Oliveira) may have successfully neutralized her "Ace of Spades," but Taylor Sheridan's season finale offers little catharsis. "Gone Is the Illusion of Order," an episode title that reflects the can of worms opened up by the mission, introduces a major problem for Lioness leader Joe (Zoe Saldaña) and her bosses at the CIA, Kaitlyn Meade (Nicole Kidman) and Byron Westfield (Michael Kelly): It turns out the White House didn't want billionaire terrorist Asmar Ali Amrohi (Bassem Youssef) dead, after all. The revelation leaves the team at odds with American leadership, who reap the benefits of instability in the Middle East, setting the stage for a clandestine political showdown that will play out in the months ahead.

    Other storylines remain unresolved by the time the finale fades to black. Before heading to Mallorca, Joe tells her husband Neil (Dave Annable) that this is her final field mission, as she plans to request a desk job in order to be closer to their daughters. Their tearful embrace in the closing minutes emphasizes just how much the Amrohi operation has taken out of her, but Joe has yet to tell Kaitlyn she's leaving the team, and even if she does, she faces an uphill battle to repair her marriage and her relationship with her sullen teenage daughter Kate (Hannah Love Lanier). Kaitlyn's marriage to financial trader Errol (Martin Donovan) also makes for a loose end. It seems as if their careers and ideals exist in opposition to one another, though it's still unclear what, exactly, he does — or whether it's legal.

    And though Cruz's story appears to come to an end with her confrontation with Joe — "I quit. I'm out. I'm f*cking done with this, and I'm f*cking done with you!" she proclaims — her departure opens the door for a new Lioness to emerge. There will always be other high-value targets to pursue (the debate over the White House's "kill list" confirms as much) and assets to work, especially if the Amrohi mission really does "set Mid East relations back 40 years," as Chief of Staff Mason (Jennifer Ehle) tells Byron in the war room. The only question is who will be leading the team when it's time to execute the next special op.

    With so many threads left dangling, Special Ops: Lioness is practically begging for a second season on Paramount+, which seems likely after the series debuted to record viewership in July. But a renewal is more than just a chance to continue these stories; it's also an opportunity for Sheridan to fix the show's most glaring issue: Cruz's total lack of interiority.

    When Cruz is first introduced, viewers learn she was abused for much of her life and joined the Marines to escape domestic violence — in the premiere's least subtle moment, she runs from her brute of a boyfriend and ends up in a military recruitment office. Sheridan portrays Cruz as "a fighter" and illustrates that point by placing her in increasingly horrific situations, as when she's drugged and nearly raped, but afterward, it's as if nothing happened; the show just moves on, without any acknowledgment of the lasting impact of these moments or the questions that naturally emerge in their wake.

    What does Cruz want out of her life, beyond her military career? How does she feel about the Lioness team's objective, or is "terrorists are bad" enough of a motivating factor? She remains impenetrable for so much of the season that her moral stand in the final few episodes rings hollow. As she grows closer to her mark, Amrohi's daughter Aaliyah (Stephanie Nur), Cruz comes to believe that Joe's tactics are unethical. "I'm not like you. I'm not a f*cking liar," she tells her boss in the finale. "My heart isn't a weapon, and my body isn't a tool. I don't sleep at night because of you." But Sheridan has offered little else to suggest that this Marine, who has been defined thus far solely by her mental and physical fortitude and has devoted her life to special ops, would suddenly flip on her superiors, rendering Cruz and Joe's fight scene toothless despite capable performances from De Oliveira and Saldaña.

    Cruz's lack of depth makes it equally difficult to buy into her friendship (turned romance) with Aaliyah. In "Zara Adid," Cruz's alias, Aaliyah thinks she's found someone around whom she can drop her mask and express her concerns about the life waiting for her after her impending wedding. (Though it's worth noting that those anxieties are filtered through a distinctly Western fear of the Islamic world.) But even after their relationship becomes sexual, Cruz is so taciturn and emotionally distant that it's hard to believe someone as vibrant as Aaliyah would keep her around, regardless of whether she's truly in love, or just sees Cruz as a "last hurrah before she assumes the role of baby maker and baby raiser," as Joe says in the penultimate episode.

    Though Lioness has a gaping hole where a fully developed lead should be, it delivers elsewhere. Saldaña brings gravitas to the familiar (and traditionally male) trope of a leader who sacrifices their home life for the good of the nation, and Kidman chews the scenery as the uncompromising CIA agent keeping Joe, and any powerful men standing in her way, in check. And despite Sheridan's overtly pro-military perspective, Lioness succeeds in ratcheting up the tension as Cruz gets closer to the target, making the team's "hot extraction," with its water rescue and silent assassination sequence, all the more thrilling. Renewing Special Ops: Lioness for Season 2 gives Sheridan a chance to address the show's central deficiency while continuing to advance the stories that did work. Whether he takes that opportunity is a different matter entirely, but in an ideal world, the WGA will win a fair contract with the AMPTP and he'll have some additional voices in the writers room — women included — to force his hand.

    Special Ops: Lioness is streaming on Paramount+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Special Ops: Lioness, Paramount+, Dave Annable, Laysla De Oliveira, Martin Donovan, Michael Kelly, Nicole Kidman, Stephanie Nur, Taylor Sheridan, Zoe Saldana