Say what you will about Taylor Sheridan, but the guy is a bonafide hit-maker. Yellowstone and its spinoffs single-handedly revived westerns on television. He’s since courted Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Renner, and Sylvester Stallone to his cadre of Paramount+ original series, and the runaway train is showing no signs of stopping. Sheridan is a one-man army—which makes the writer’s new series, Special Ops: Lioness, his latest war.
Lioness focuses on a special CIA program that sends undercover female operatives into (what certainly seems like) one of the most dangerous situations on Earth. Essentially, the women are tasked with befriending the wives/girlfriends of known terrorists and the CIA’s most-watched targets. Next, they secretly infiltrate their ranks and pass information back to U.S. intelligence. Presumably, the government then goes in for the kill.
The series sports a different tone from what audiences may usually expect from Sheridan. Life in Special Ops is pure hell. This isn’t an all-Beth Dutton army with kick-ass one-liners. (Could you imagine?) Lioness is a dark portrayal of how people wield power—and the violent ends are often women getting battered, bruised, tortured, or all of the above combined. Because of that, it’s often hard to know who the audience should be cheering on in Lioness—if we should be rooting for anyone at all.
Cruz Manuelos (Laysla De Oliveira), the main character and rookie Lioness operator, has one of the most tragic stories I’ve ever seen on television. Cruz’s origin story: Running away from an abusive boyfriend, she’s literally chased into a U.S. Marine recruitment office for safety. “Well, you came to the right place,” the recruitment officer tells her. She then passes her Marine fitness test “with a 99, on the men’s scale.” The next day, Cruz wails on a guy in the Marine fighting pits—and she’s immediately recruited to the Lioness program. It’s a job that I thought would require more cunning than it does punching, but what do I know? I’d never find myself here in a million lifetimes.
Lioness’s second episode, “The Beating,” is an incredibly tough watch.
In an incredibly hard-to-watch second episode, Cruz is unknowingly tortured by her own handler, Joe (Zoe Saldaña). The “teaching moment” is supposed to help Manuelos find her breaking point and push past it, before she finds herself in this position for real. A full episode of a woman being tortured, however, is a difficult watch—and borders on certain scenes from Game of Thrones, which were unforgivable in their treatment of women.
In one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sentence, Joe tells us about us about Manuelos’s target, explaining that he’s the leader of an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq. What does he want? What is he threatening to do? These are questions, I guess, we don’t need answers to. We’re America, and they’re the Middle East. The series rivals Top Gun: Maverick with its faceless, flagless foreign enemies. Joe’s manager, Kaitlyn (Nicole Kidman) even seems to have secret ties in the Saudi Oil market—suggesting that there’s potentially some get-rich agenda behind this entire operation.
Episode Three makes sure the audience trusts no one.
But Manuelos’s first meeting with her mark’s daughter, Aaliyah (Stephanie Nur), goes off without a hitch. In a jewelry store, they become new friends—and Manuelos is invited to her Chesapeake mansion vacation. Immediately, the group questions her outfit choices: thick sunglasses and a black one-piece bathing suit. She’s trying to hide that her body is covered in bruises from the beating the CIA gave her—which is now looking even more like an incredibly ill-timed violence lesson. She brushes it off as a car accident. Aaliyah has an on-site doctor look at her, and he recognizes that these are clearly bruises from what Episode Two called “The Beating.” She tells the doctor she was abused by an ex-boyfriend. She’s just trying to have a good time with her friends here. He buys it.
When she comes back, Aaliyah finally opens up. “I would choke on the sand and all their rules,” she tells her, outlining her dislike for life in the Middle East. OK. Maybe, she’ll eventually tell Manuelos why we should be so afraid of her father. Is he hoarding weapons? Is he planning an attack on U.S. soil? Who knows? Until then, there’s a private jet set to take them somewhere else the following morning. Manuelos leaks the plane’s tail number back to Joe, and we’re off. But to where? And for what purpose? Knowing exactly what the CIA is working toward would be fantastic.
But something tells me it’s not going to be good. If Lioness continues to depict violence against women—or the nerve-racking possibility that Manuelos could be brutally harmed at any second—as the central drama element, Sheridan will tread in dangerous waters. Hopefully, we can get a success story somewhere in here. It would be nice if Manuelos was actually able to pull off a secret mission that saved innocent lives. All of this pain and suffering must be worth something, right?
Josh Rosenberg is an Assistant Editor at Esquire, keeping a steady diet of one movie a day. His past work can be found at Spin, CBR, and on his personal blog at Roseandblog.com.