Taylor Sheridan’s “Special Ops: Lioness” Makes the Case for Queer Writers Rooms

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors who are currently on strike, series like Special Ops: Lioness would not be possible, and Autostraddle is grateful for the artists who do this work. The following review of Special Ops: Lioness contains spoilers.


Admittedly, when I first heard about Special Ops: Lioness, I was intrigued. Zoë Saldaña, Nicole Kidman, and Morgan Freeman on a television show? Yes, please. Early descriptions I had me excited about whole team of Sydney Bristows. But that is not exactly what Special Ops: Lioness is.

There’s one Lioness and, while there’s a support team behind her, she’s mostly on her own, tasked with getting close to the wife/daughter/girlfriend of a high-value terrorism target. Her job is, almost certainly, a suicide mission. If her true identity is uncovered, the Lioness will likely be killed: either by those that she’s betrayed or by her team, hoping to preserve their secrecy (and to save the Lioness from torture).

Cruz stands, looking to her right, with her backpack slug over her right shoulder.

Enter Cruz Manuelos (Laysla De Oliveira). Life has not been kind to Cruz. Most of her family is gone — a father who was never in the picture, a mother and brother who have died, another brother whose prison sentence makes him a virtual stranger — and the scars on her body are a roadmap of the abuse she’s suffered. But after another run-in with her abusive boyfriend, Cruz decides she’s had enough.

She packs her stuff and tries to sneak out but is thwarted by her boyfriend. A physical confrontation ensues and Cruz subdues him long enough to escape. She runs and runs…banging on doors, begging for help, with her boyfriend close behind threatening to kill her. She finally finds an open door and gets inside but her boyfriend grabs her leg and starts to drag her out. Miraculously, though, the open door Cruz found? A Marines recruitment center. And, perhaps for the first time in her life, there’s someone there to save her. The encounter makes an indelible impression on Cruz and, eventually, she decides to enlist.

In the Marines, Cruz excels. She’s brought to the attention of Joe (Saldaña), the head of the Lioness team. Having lost her last asset, Joe puts Cruz through a rigorous test (read: she has Cruz tortured) to see how far Cruz will bend before she breaks. The scenes are gratuitous and hard to watch. In fact, so much of the violence on Lioness feels gratuitous — as if, to legitimize the presence of women in this space, they need to be made to suffer.

After a night of passion leaves them with more questions than answers, Aaliyah (on the left, in a hotel robe) holds hands with Cruz (on the right in a leather jacket and hoodie) and they plot a way forward.

A “chance” meet-cute with Aaliyah Amrohi (Stephanie Nur), the daughter of a suspected terrorism financier, at the Louis Vuitton store in Kuwait, sets the mission in motion. Aaliyah welcomes Cruz into her circle. The admission feels a bit too easy — particularly for someone flanked by security at all times — but it’s clear that Aaliyah craves an authentic connection. The “friends” she has are superficial, at best, her fiancé is not one of her choosing. Aaliyah wants something that’s hers, she wants someone she can save. That Cruz shows up at Aaliyah’s Chesapeake home, battered and bruised from a “car accident,” only strengthens that desire.

“She’s rescued another stray,” Aaliyah’s friend, Zara, notes upon Cruz’s arrival.

Aaliyah invites Cruz into her lavish life and, above all, treats her with unrelenting kindness. It’s the kindness — not the fancy dinners, cars, or private flights — that draws Cruz closer. It’s the Marine Recruitment Center all over again. Someone finally cares, someone finally stands up for her, and Cruz can’t resist giving into that, mission be damned. There’s not nearly enough build-up given to the couple or attention paid to the implications of Aaliyah giving into her desires, but when the two finally kiss and later give into their passion, it feels organic.

Special Ops: Lioness is the latest work from Taylor Sheridan, creator of “real American”™ fare like Yellowstone, 1883 and 1923. It’s his first female-fronted project.

Though I have my misgivings about Sheridan’s work, I must also confess being intrigued by it. Back in December, Yellowstonethe most watched show on television — featured a kiss between two cowgirls. It wasn’t a significant plot point, certainly nothing like what’s in Lioness, but it was there and the shows fans, who considered Yellowstone a refuge for Real Americans™ lost their ever-loving minds. How dare Taylor Sheridan remind them that gay people exist?! What kind of woke nonsense is this?! But in the wake of that reaction, Sheridan returns with Lioness and doubles down, making the queerness central to the story. It’s as if he takes pleasure at confounding expectations, no matter who’s setting them.

Sheridan has been producing work at a ferocious clip and doing it largely by himself. Echoing the sentiments of Tyler Perry, Sheridan claims that writers’ rooms haven’t worked for him. Showrunners aren’t able to see his vision and writers have tried to supplant his vision of the characters with their own so he’s content to go it alone.

“When I quit acting, I decided that I am going to tell my stories my way, period,” Sheridan told The Hollywood Reporter back in June, “If you don’t want me to tell them, fine. Give them back and I’ll find someone who does — or I won’t, and then I’ll read them in some freaking dinner theater. But I won’t compromise. There is no compromising.”

The belief that a creator can go it alone has always been a specious one. It often says more about the shortcomings of the creator than any writers who would’ve populated that room. But while Sheridan has coasted, creating and re-creating male archetypes across Yellowstone and its various spin-offs, the moment that he’s truly exposed — where the absence of a writers’ room becomes a real shortcoming — is when Sheridan tries to pen a female character. The women are either insufferable (see Beth Dutton on Yellowstone) or inconsequential (pretty much everybody else).

But what happens on a show where women are in the leads? And, more specifically, what happens when the women characters covet relationships with other women? The result is a mixed (and frustrating) bag. That Lioness works at all, it is on the backs of its stars who are engaging enough to watch, even as the story fails them.

Joe and Bobby discuss an impromptu mission

Zoe Saldana’s Joe is imbued with all the characteristics (and the name) of male protagonist but with the bonus of being a wife and mother. Do I buy that someone as driven as Joe would have a husband or kids? Not particularly but how else would Sheridan assert Joe’s femininity if he didn’t guilt her into caring about her husband and kids by subjecting them to trauma? It’s a real mystery.

Nicole Kidman’s Kaitlyn Meade isn’t given nearly enough to do but it’s the absence of Jill Wagner’s Bobby that grates the most. At one point, Bobby’s on the beach, watching the Lioness, when she’s approached by a would-be suitor. She quickly sidesteps his advances by announcing that she’s a lesbian. The show never comes back to that, never addresses whether it’s actually true, never gives Bobby much of an identity at all. It’s particularly frustrating because if it were true and Sheridan was sincere in telling character driven stories, it would’ve been Bobby, not Joe, who counseled Cruz after her night with Aaliyah. Bobby would’ve understood the feelings Cruz was having, both as a queer woman and a Marine. But, instead, the pep talk is left to Joe and Bobby is consigned to be just another one of Sheridan’s inconsequential women.

Even though the show is, ostensibly, about the Lioness program, at times, it feels like Sheridan is telling the story begrudgingly. He pulls the team — just the men, natch — away from the mission and sends them off to the border for an ill-conceived rescue. That trip goes horribly awry and Joe experiences a lot of blowback from her superiors because of it…but I kept wondering what the point was? The time could’ve been better spent flashing back to Joe’s relationship with the previous Lioness or building the tension between Aaliyah and Cruz or showcasing more of Aaliyah’s perspective.

In his interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Sheridan wonders how a writers’ room — with people who didn’t grow up in the ranching world or who aren’t history buffs — could contribute to his shows. But, of course, he doesn’t extend that same thinking to Lioness. If he had, he would’ve invited a female writer or a female queer writer to pen this show. If he had, maybe Lioness would be a better show.


Special Ops: Lioness is available to stream on Paramount+.

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Natalie

A black biracial, bisexual girl raised in the South, working hard to restore North Carolina's good name. Lover of sports, politics, good TV and Sonia Sotomayor. You can follow her latest rants on Twitter.

Natalie has written 401 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. I really appreciated reading this review! I’ve avoided Yellowstone because the “real america” crowd is so into it, and so it’s really interesting to read such a smart take on the creator and his other works. Thank you for sharing!

    • I literally just finished watching this and I am so confused. Lol

      Joe should have been f*cking the over confident bearded guy who owed her a favor. I don’t know his name all the bearded white guys started running together.

      This is type of show is why I hope limited series go away. This was a movie not a show. Cut out Joe’s family. Cut out the back and forth with the local PD and Morgan Freeman and crew. You got an 1:45 lean mean movie.

  2. I’m glad that Laysla De Oliveira is getting work. Her role in Locke & Key’s first season was amazing. But then she got shafted in seasons two and three, so it’s nice to see her get something more worth her time.

  3. I hadn’t seen any other shows of Taylor Sheridan, so had no particular expectation.

    Either way, I was pleasantly surprised how well the dynamic between Cruz and Aaliyah plays out – due to the acting not so much the writing, and as doomed as it may be.

    I didn’t quite like the other twisted relationships on the show. Very cardboard-y, shallow.

    So agree that the show probably would have benefitted from more diverse input.

  4. I basically watch this show with my eyes closed until Cruz is on the screen. The blonde surfer dude is so annoying and Joe’s husband is literally the worst father of all time.

  5. This creator dude absolutely sounds like he’s going to do the most tropey, textbook Bury Your Lesbians ever and then go on a press tour about how it’s not BYL like everybody else did BYL because he’s a special auteur who imparted special meaning or some shit.

    Stray bullets or hit by a car?

    • Pretty sure Cruz will make it out. Joe couldn’t save her last Lioness, so she’s going to make sure she saves this one. Not expecting Aaliyah to get out alive though, and I think we’d be lucky if a stray bullet or a car kills her. The punishments shown on this show so far have been much more violent (think sexual assault, being set on fire, beheading, etc.). I’m definitely waiting to spoil myself before I decide whether or not to watch the final episode.

      In general, while the love story has been surprisingly good, the rest of this show is shallow propaganda. I don’t expect much from the ending.

  6. I hadn’t looked into the production of the show and didn’t know who created it or that there wasn’t a writers room, only the one person. I like the show but the stronger arcs are the side stories, which sadly as mentioned, does not include the two main women we are expected to believe are the most important. Now I know why.

    It’s annoying how men seem to think they’re going to get a pat on the back for women centered stories let alone a wlw storyline. I like to tweet as I watch a show but haven’t tweeted much on this one or the relationship between Cruz and Aaliyah as I wasn’t sure where exactly they were going at first. I saw the sparks early on but was it going to be queerbaiting with a let down or just poorly done. I think the cultural implications of Aaliyah’s sexuality would be so interesting to explore but again now that I know it’s a one man writing crew how authentic would it be. When I thought it *was* a full writers room I wasn’t even sure how affectively it would be done.

    I agree I’d like to learn more about the past Lionesses. How did Joe get to where she’s at? As a child of a military parent – and my families overall military history – that was part of what hooked me. Other shows with female soldier leads have been cancelled so I sadly I don’t see this getting a season 2. It’s disapointing actually as women see more combat now but still are over looked on military shows or they only depict the abuse women are subjected to as a side plot for a fellow dude soldier to save them or avenge them.

    I really did expect Bobby was going to have a talk with Cruz when Joe told her they were leaving in the hanger. I was disappointed that didn’t happen even though I did like the scene between Joe and Cruz.

    I don’t feel it’s out of the realm of possibility Joe would have her job and still be a wife and mother. I suppose at least it’s better that she and her husband are both absentee parents than the “stay at home husband” “good ole boy” thing (which I hate and find less realistic even if it does happen). It truly are the actors carrying the series though.

  7. For what it’s worth two of the movies Sheridan has written are women-fronted – Sicario with Emily Blunt and Wind River with Elizabeth Olsen.

    I find Sheridan’s work very fascinating, a lot of it deals with the inherent violence of America in ways that I think few other mainstream writers/filmakers are engaging with. The problem for me is that his stated apoliticsm (of course apoliticsm is never any such thing) means that his work can both read as an indictment and critique of that violence to someone like me, as well as a glorification and promotion of a dog eat dog world to someone of a different political orientation. He tries to have it both ways and his writing is weaker for it.

    But that’s a tangent – having watched both of his women-led film I think your comments still stand – they’re both women written as the naive newcomer to a world of male violence, and who have to become “strong women” (read: act like the men) in order to survive.

    Thanks for the review – I agree there are some interesting threads in his writing and perhaps working with other writers might bring out some different aspects of his work in a richer way.

  8. The lesbian storyline is not needed. It’s not rooted cub reality for this magnitude of a mission. The Cruz character is now compromised and appears weak and has jeopardized the team. I love the strength of the women up until they started creating the romantic scenes between these two women.

  9. What in the world show were you watching? Loved every single character. And the dialogue is brilliant. Aaliyah and Cruz’s storyline, that’s utterly forbidden and soul crushing till the end. With neither of these ladies dying. I hope there is a season 2 and that these actors return.

  10. Thanks did your thoughtful review. I actually just discovered Lioness this weekend and binged the whole thing in an evening. I agree with your points on the Mexico storyline (boring) and Joe’s family story (can’t her moral dilema be rooted in something less predicament ?). That said I did enjoy the Cruz storyline very much. I disagree with that one. I found her story of abuse, empowerment and brief healing gripping. Her story with Aaliyah was moving. I wish it had a bit more depth on Aaliyah‘s as well but that might have given away where their relationship was going and answered too many questions about her intentions. I feel like spy thrillers don’t normally invest too much time in unveiling the depth of secondary characters. Their purpose is to assist o provide an obstacle for the heroin to achieve their goal. In a way it’s understandable that they didn’t giver her story more unless they intended to keep her. The thing is I think Aaliyah might have stolen our hearts and intrigued us more than expected too. Like what other girls did she pick up and try to save before Cruz? What was her emotional relationship with her father? Did she experience sorrow and loss as a result of his death, or relief. Was she really just how she presented herself to Cruz: a woman trying to truly experience love and the connection? Or was there more complexity? At the end, I was expecting some sort of twist that didn’t come. As for Cruz, her story felt so painful and her brief healing was heartbreaking at the same time. To be honest, I love spy thrillers, and this one hooked me for a bit. My complaint is really that I wish there had been a twist at the end and that the political intrigue/ political interest part had been delivered in a more exciting way. Joe’s moral dilemma could have been anchored in questioning her ideals, duty and service to her country — vs: the reality of power and what she does for work in the name of these ideals in a less stereotypical way. It’s didn’t all have to be about motherhood and women who work not being at home enough. Surprise for the writer of Lioness: Turns out that what we believe is morally right and wrong as women and men doesn’t necessarily depend on whether we have kids or not and how much time we dedicate to family. I think there’s more to Joe and I hope we can see more.

    I’m confess I’m rooting for season two.

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