Special Ops: Lioness review: Taylor Sheridan's latest Paramount+ series gets off to a strong start

The Sicario writer returns to familiar territory for his latest TV thriller

Joe (Zoe Saldana) in Special Ops: Lioness (Paramount+)
Joe (Zoe Saldana) in Special Ops: Lioness (Paramount+)
  • 📺 Where to watch Special Ops: Lioness: Paramount+ from 23 July

  • ⭐️ Our rating: 4/5

  • 🍿 Watch it if you liked: Zero Dark Thirty, Green Zone, Sicario

  • 🎭 Who's in it?: Zoe Saldaña, Laysla De Oliveira, Nicole Kidman, David Kelly and Morgan Freeman

  • How long is it? 8 x 45 minute episodes

  • 📖 What’s it about? Joe attempts to balance her personal and professional life as the tip of the spear in the CIA's war on terror. She enlists Cruz, a marine raider, as an undercover operative in the Lioness programme.

New Paramount+ series Special Ops: Lioness opens in Syria on a forward area, baked solid by the unforgiving sun, populated by American operatives. With tensions hanging on a hair trigger and bone-dry dust clouds obscuring visibility, Joe (Zoe Saldaña) is forced to make a life or death decision.

In the aftermath of her choices, Oscar-nominated writer-director Taylor Sheridan (Yellowstone/Mayor of Kingstown/Tulsa King) introduces audiences to US Marine Cruz Manuelos (Laysla De Oliveira), employing an effective flashback and brutal circumstances to bring these two together.

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Tasked with recruiting another asset to infiltrate a Middle Eastern family, snippets of Joe’s fractured family life are unpacked alongside crucial character moments for Cruz, which provide essential context and motivation.

In an opening episode directed by John Hillcoat (The Proposition/The Road), there is a sense that Taylor Sheridan is making his intentions clear.

Cruz Manuelos (Laysla De Oliveira) in Special Ops: Lioness. (Paramount+)
Cruz Manuelos (Laysla De Oliveira) in Special Ops: Lioness. (Paramount+)

On every level Special Ops: Lioness feels like a very human story, whether those characters are CIA operatives looking out on Syria, or vice versa as the story slowly unfolds.

However, beyond the inherent culture clash of occupying forces trying to gather information through subterfuge, it is clear that Laysla De Oliveira (Locke & Key) dominates from the outset. She embodies her character with such reckless abandon that Cruz leaves scorched earth wherever she goes.

David Kelly (Donald Westfield) and Nicole Kidman (Kaitlyn Meade) may be the marquee names alongside Zoe Saldana and Morgan Freeman in this ensemble – but none of them chew scenery in quite the same way.

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Standing toe to toe alongside Joe in that initial meeting, Cruz is bullishly brash and coolly confrontational, forever defining their dynamic before they land on Syrian soil.

Kaitlyn Meade (Nicole Kidman) in Special Ops: Lioness. (Paramount+)
Kaitlyn Meade (Nicole Kidman) in Special Ops: Lioness. (Paramount+)

Elsewhere in this ensemble, Cruz proves to be the ultimate rough diamond amongst her team of CIA roughnecks who are barely afforded time to cement themselves as veterans in the field. However, this rag tag band of renegades was always destined to play second fiddle, as her deployment undercover soon morphs into the main event.

As with every Taylor Sheridan project, audiences need to prepare themselves for the long haul as Special Ops: Lioness prepares to dig deep into its characters over eight episodes.

The opening episode concisely sets the scene, and characters are economically introduced while narrative foundations are poured preparing audiences for the inevitable rigours of a drama destined to deliver.

Special Ops: Lioness premieres on Sunday, 30 July on Paramount+ with two episodes, and new episodes weekly thereafter.

Watch a trailer below