In the fourth episode of Special Ops: Lioness entitled ‘The Choice of Failure’, Taylor Sheridan puts an unforeseen amount of pressure onto his main characters. By the time the credits roll this week, our favourite Lionesses have both failed pretty gravely. Cruz (Laysla De Oliveira) lets her guard down and almost compromises the entire mission while Joe (Zoe Saldana) fails to be an active, attentive and loving member of her family. Sheridan, a creator who publicly voices his preference in writing projects through a character-driven model rather than using story, expertly uses his characters to bring the larger themes and questions of the series to light. The conflict Joe faces in failing to juggle both her family and career accelerates this episode, leading her towards a hefty choice by the season’s end. It’s evident she’ll have to make a choice between raising her family as the mother her children deserve, or remaining absent in order to continue working for the CIA.
Similarly, Cruz will have a difficult choice to make by the season’s end in respect to her relationship with Aaliyah (Stephanie Nur) and her future as a Lioness. This episode, Cruz takes a bite of the forbidden fruit, getting too comfortable in Aaliyah’s world and nearly paying an unspeakable price. It’s evident the lines for her are beginning to blur and soon enough, she’ll also have a choice to make. Will she dive deeper into delusion and hope Aaliyah’s glamorous life can also be hers? Or will she snap back to reality and remember her mission, which could possibly include killing Aaliyah herself? It seems like Kate won’t be the only one faced with an impossible decision in the episodes to come.
– SPOILER DISCUSSION –
This article contains spoilers for Special Ops: Lioness – Episode 4 – “The Choice of Failure”
Despite the drama surrounding the show’s leading ladies, the best performance in the episode comes from Dave Annable’s Neal, who plays Joe’s husband, Kate’s father and curates the emotion in “The Choice of Failure”. The realism that comes from Annable’s performance (and jaw dropping camera work by the episode’s cinematographer Eric Koretz) allows it to leap from entertaining to gripping. His performance is commanding and elicits a flurry of deep, retrospective emotions. This episode was Annable’s moment to shine… and he lit up the room. One of the best parts of Special Ops: Lioness is seeing how talented the performances are from cast members we don’t necessarily know as well as the other titans, like Saldana and Kidman.
Now, let’s talk about how Sheridan weaved three different storylines together within these forty minutes yet somehow managed to make “The Choice of Failure” feel cohesive. But how does this episode of Lioness blend genres so seamlessly? Because conflict and action is always born from Sheridan’s characters. The series often isn’t story driven, which is how we end up with one of the most intense scenes in the show so far. We’re treated to a jarring ten minute hospital drama that really does well in shaking you up because, well, it’s realistic. Emergencies often come out of nowhere, just like this one did. It almost feels too divergent until the episode wraps up and you realize the purpose of everything that happened and what it means for Joe’s character, as well as her uncertain future. It can feel like Lioness becomes something else for a good chunk of its runtime in Episode 4 but, as always, Sheridan ties it all together by the end in a beautifully metaphorical and honorable way. Seeing how Joe deals with Cruz’s almost-abuser and how she experiences this fervent catharsis is the perfect way to actualize how her character deals with family trauma. It’s especially fascinating since Joe’s constantly so reserved when it comes to her loved ones, almost as if she’s compartmentalizing every moment she has with them professionally. She doesn’t even react to news of her daughter almost dying in a car accident or being pregnant. Yet, when Cruz is seconds from being assaulted, Joe is fighting, stomping on groins and basically growling at her abuser. So who does she feel more protective over? Her real daughter… or her latest prodigy at work?
During the episode, it can sometimes feel like things get a bit too close to be realistic. For example, sending Joe into the club to monitor Cruz. Although it does end up making sense when considering the bigger themes of this episode; the fact Joe’s character is constantly struggling between family and work… between being a mother to her kids and being a mother to the latest Lioness. There’s a very interesting layer deep within her character and how Saldana personifies Sheridan’s writing of Joe is fascinating to watch on screen. It’s as if Joe is constantly fighting an internal battle … she might not feel purpose or fulfillment as a mother or wife, but she feels both working for the CIA and Lioness program.
This is also an interesting development in Cruz’s character; she temporarily lets her guard down and ends up being hurt. As a viewer, I interpreted this as a huge first step or indicator of how she’ll eventually struggle with her identity as this undercover mission goes on. I do wish they spent more time on the moment she makes the choice to dance (or to fail, if you will). I wish it was a little clearer that Cruz is beginning to lose herself within the fake world she’s in. I wanted to see more of that and I know De Oliveira is skilled enough to play it, so I hope Sheridan fleshes that aspect out more in the episodes to come since it’s the most intriguing part of the story. I want to see how Cruz struggles with her morality and identity, losing herself in Aaliyah’s world and even becoming a bit distracted and delusional, believing she can have all of this for real… when the reality is she’s an undercover agent and if she’s ordered to kill Aaliyah, she’s going to have to. This is the big choice I suppose we’re bubbling towards in the season finale.
As for Cruz’s assailant, it’s hard to believe it was as random as it was seemingly set up to be. Paul, played by Daniel Reece, mentioned he was at the bar with a work associate. There could potentially be more to his character. He could’ve been sent in to neutralize Cruz if anybody had an idea she’s undercover. He might’ve been tasked with drugging her and getting her away from Aaliyah, and then just took things too far. Sheridan is leaning heavily on themes of gender-based imbalances of power, patriarchy, hyper-masculinity and misogyny. Multiple men in the series have tried to take advantage of Cruz or have been sexually suggestive toward other characters without their consent, including Joe and Bobby (Jill Wagner). It seems Sheridan really wants it to be clear that most of the men we see on screen can’t be trusted, which puts a tender spotlight on the bond that’s forming between the Lioness operatives, Cruz and Joe. I hope we can see more of their relationship blossom on a mother-daughter level, but perhaps that’ll come as the season continues.
Stream the fourth episode of Special Ops: Lioness on Paramount+ now!
[Interview by guest blogger Jurgen Sosa]