Taylor Sheridan’s Special Ops: Lioness paints several pictures in its premiere but doesn’t allow viewers to settle into any of them.
This, it seems, is by design. Things are meant to move quickly in Special Ops: Lioness Season 1 Episode 1, “Sacrificial Soldiers.” There is never enough time to truly stop and reflect, both within and outside the confines of war.
Joe, played by a shaken but confident Zoe Saldaña, is the leader of a CIA special task force, Lioness. This task force is meant to take down high-value targets in the middle east by using those targets’ wives, girlfriends, and daughters.
While Joe has lost an asset at the top of the series, the premiere episode focuses on her newest operative, a Marine named Cruz Manuelos.
Cruz, played by Netflix’s Locke & Key star Laysla De Oliveira, hasn’t had an easy start to life. Shown in flashback, Cruz comes to the Marines from an abusive relationship and manages to out-rank some of the strongest in her co-ed training group.
The premiere focuses on Cruz and her journey to becoming Joe’s next asset, but the episode shines brightest when De Oliveira and Saldaña are on screen together. The two are already building a dynamic of quiet complexity, one with an overt roughness begging to be explored.
Cruz’s journey to the military is difficult to watch, though De Oliveira moves through portraying an impoverished, abused woman who understands her strength with ease. Between the scuffle she faces with her abusive boyfriend and her decision to join the Marines, it’s clear that Cruz isn’t looking for a cushion in life.
Still, grasping just how powerful Cruz is takes time. It isn’t until Joe finally meets Cruz that the viewer sees her at her full potential.
Watching the small, slight woman take down a man twice her size is exhilarating, especially since it doesn’t surprise her. Cruz knows her power, a choice we rarely see on television.
Joe, similarly, is aware of how strong she is. The parallels between the women in personality and force are strong, even at such different phases of their lives. Joe is a wife and a mother but seems to have her family on a back burner while she works to keep her country safe.
Joe’s position is difficult from the jump. After losing a team member due to an omission of information, Joe feels out of sorts in a situation she’d typically have control of.
Understanding that she’s at fault, Joe retreats from her mission and finds herself unwelcome at the CIA Headquarters and home. The family dynamics between Joe, her husband Neil (Dave Annabelle), and their daughters are immediately complex.
While Neil is open to her being around their children and cares about his wife, there’s a thread that doesn’t get pulled on running through their scenes.
She has an entire life that doesn’t involve her family, one where Neil and their daughters exist and one where they don’t. Their marriage, for both, can be superficial.
Special Ops: Lioness Season 1 may not explore their dynamic much further, but it wants the viewer to understand that Joe has ties at home while Cruz doesn’t.
When Joe and Cruz finally meet, Joe doesn’t realize how badly she needs the successful Marine in her unit. She’s working from a place of fear after losing an operative and wants to save herself from further criticism.
Cruz seems up for any challenge and is quickly excited about joining Lioness.
Joe isn’t sold, and in a scene that grounds both characters, Joe locks the barracks doors where she’s interviewing Cruz and asks her to strip. While neither knows it, both characters’ personalities are fully displayed in the scene.
Standing naked in front of Joe as the superior scans her for tattoos, Cruz shows off her true nature while giving a run-down of her scars. Saldaña makes it clear as Joe quietly investigates, taking the information in, that her character understands Cruz at her core before making a final decision.
Joe and Cruz form an understanding in a moment that seems pivotal for both women. The series itself will likely hinge on this understanding, a revolving power balance that neither has managed to define yet.
While Joe is Cruz’s superior, it’s clear that the subordinate has experience and expertise that Joe can learn from. In turn, Cruz is getting the experience of a lifetime and will expand her knowledge and work in a more specialized area.
The performances from both women, once they’re in a scene together, are electric and show that the strong suit of Special Ops: Lioness will be the moments that the two can bounce off one another’s performances.
The group dynamic is quickly established when Cruz and Joe make it to Kuwait, where the rest of the Lioness task force awaits them.
The group’s “work hard, play hard” mentality seems familiar, and Cruz quickly adapts. The group’s work begins at the drop of a hat, and the intensity of the episode picks up again in the last ten minutes when the task force finds its mark.
Having only seen a photo of her mark, a hungover Cruz plunges headfirst into an undercover situation. Joe explains it quickly and carefully to reassure the nervous new blood.
Working quickly and efficiently, the episode rounds out with Cruz succeeding in befriending Aaliyah Amrohi (Stephanie Nur) and Joe watching from afar.
Much like the events that unfold, the episode ebbs and flows in terms of tension. The pacing is interesting, working well for the narrative to create a sense of suspense the viewer likely isn’t aware they’re feeling.
While the stakes are high, it’s clear that the Lioness task force knows what they’re doing. As professionals, they work hard and know how to succeed.
After their initial loss, the confidence that Lioness has in itself may be false, but it still feels natural. With expert Joe at the helm, it seems the rest of the group feels safe in their abilities.
Cruz, alternately, is riddled with nerves. The dichotomy between the dynamics is exciting and will no doubt converge moving forward, especially with the addition of other characters, like Morgan Freeman’s Edwin Mullins.
While Special Ops: Lioness gives viewers a lot of information in the premiere episode, it provides the context necessary to understand where we’re headed.
The map has been laid out, the plans explained, and the season’s mission seems clear. Some moments could use more care and will hopefully be expanded upon in the coming episodes.
As the relationship between Joe and Cruz continues, the season will likely try to push the characters in different directions. Joe may open up more to Cruz, despite typically leaving her personal life at the door.
Cruz, in turn, could easily wind up in some dangerous situation that neither Joe nor the Lioness team cannot save her from. Regardless of where the audience feels the season is headed, it’s clear that Special Ops: Lioness knows precisely where it’s going.
Cher Thompson is a staff writer for TV Fanatic, who you can follow on Twitter.