Taylor Sheridan’s latest puts the limits of his craft on full display.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the tv series being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Taylor Sheridan believes in a very particular strain of the badass woman archetype—steely-eyed, whiskey-drinking, stoic badasses who refuse to be seen as anything other than the HBIC. There’s a poetry to their confidence, a mystery to their vulnerabilities. They have no time for feminine pursuits and will be the first to tell you their Myers-Briggs type (ENTJ, obviously). The world might implode if Yellowstone’s Beth Dutton ever picked up an Avon Paperback Romance.
The Sheridanian woman is, in other words, exhausting. The flawed but hyper-competent type-A archetype is an awfully cramped box to stuff an entire gender into, particularly when that is the only kind of woman given any weight, agency, or screen time. Any attempt at depth or vulnerability becomes some tragic flaw.
Emily Blunt’s Agent Kate Mercer—arguably the main character of Sicario—is ultimately merely a tool for her male counterpart’s revenge. The aforementioned Beth Dutton is a quasi-high functioning alcoholic embracing her sex addiction in the name of badassery. It’s a good reminder that misery should not be mistaken for depth. Characters like Mad Men’s Peggy Olson or Stella Gibson in The Fall can navigate a man’s world with the same flinty, take-no-prisoners attitude without turning into a tedious weekly rehash of the same tiresome trope.
Zoe Saldaña heads up the Paramount+ version of an “all-star” cast as Joe (because of course), the leader of the Lioness unit, the one who has to make the tough calls. Joe is the quintessential leader, firm but not cruel, keeping her underlings and family alike at arm’s length, and quick to defend her team’s actions while taking her licks when things go south. And go south, they do. In the first few minutes, we are “treated” to a montage in which Joe decides whether to burn an operative before information can be beaten out of her. It sets a grim tone for the rest of the episode.
Having lost a valuable asset, the powers that be (Nicole Kidman’s frozen visage, shown only from side angles) instruct Joe to find a replacement and not get too attached to this one. Enter Cruz Manuelos (Laysla De Oliveira), a relatively new Marine who earns her place at the top of the class through pull-ups and blandly delivered zingers. We see how Cruz came to join the Corps in a sequence that plays out like USMC fan fiction. A battered woman who prefers slinging burgers to “shaking her ass” for money, seeking shelter from her abuser, stumbles into a recruitment office. If you hope for any nuance, you have come to the wrong place.
Joe and Cruz are both valued in this world because of their un-feminity. Their foibles–Joe’s rejection of her family life and Cruz’s broken history–would have made for more interesting viewing than watching Cruz work her way to a massive hangover in an attempt to be “just one of the guys.” The message here is clear: you either assimilate into a man’s world or are not worthy of it. For Lioness, anything soft or built from feminine/femme virtues is worthless.
While Saldaña and De Oliveira are committed to their roles and the background story is more or less competent, it isn’t enough story to wash away the blatant jingoism and obnoxious posturing.
Special Ops: Lioness is now streaming on Paramount Plus.