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).
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.
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, Yellowstone — the 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.
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+.