With Strike Back at an end, you have to look at Jamie Bamber in a way you never have before. And because of Jamie Bamber’s impeccable performance in Strike Back, we can also look at the show in a way we didn’t get to before.
SPOILER ALERT: This feature contains details of the Strike Back series finale.
Friday’s series finale marked the end of our time with Bamber’s character Colonel Alexander Coltrane, the stalwart commanding officer of Section 20. But it wasn’t the end of the road for him. Coltrane managed to survive his team’s final stand, making him the only Strike Back commander to live through his tenure – a hell of an accomplishment on a show that kills people, particularly authority figures, with considerable regularity. And one has to feel that he earned that distinction for a reason.
After all, the story that Bamber got to tell with Coltrane was completely different (and refreshingly so) from any Section 20 commanding officer before. He inhabited the role differently than any of his predecessors and inherently challenged what we’d come to expect from that part, and you could tell that helped to create a wonderful story arc for his character.
A quick primer for those who may not be Strike Back experts: Section 20’s bosses do not survive. Usually it’s after the viewers find out they’ve been involved in wrongdoings (Hugh Collinson, Eleanor Grant, Adeena Donovan) but sometimes they’re just casualties of war (Rachel Dalton, Phillip Locke). Getting killed is pretty much part of the job description, and as such, it’s not an easy role to play.
Sometimes the CO’s get great material; Robson Green was fantastic as Locke, and Amanda Mealing particularly set the tone as Grant when the show arrived on Cinemax. But sometimes they don’t get that same development that the other main characters do, because they’re either caught up in something or standing around delivering orders and/or exposition. And because they don’t develop in the same way, the audience doesn’t always connect with them on the same level.
That wasn’t the case with Coltrane. Even given the fact that Jamie Bamber had one less season than his colleagues – he joined Strike Back at the start of season 6 – he got to take a full journey, one that was emotional and frustrating at times, and he was a character that we genuinely wanted to stand behind.
It all started at the beginning, where Jack Lothian introduced us to Alexander Coltrane on the level. He wasn’t introduced as another boss; he was presented as someone who, like his new subordinates, was on his last chance. He was already flawed. We were not meant to be looking up at him, and McAllister, Novin and Wyatt didn’t spend a lot of time doing that either. Right away, that set the precedent of looking at Coltrane as part of the team, not the guy calling the shots.
And besides, when you’ve got Jamie Bamber on your team, who wants to waste his talent keeping him behind a proverbial desk?
No, if you’re going to have someone of his caliber, you’d better change the way you operate. And to their credit, that’s exactly what Lothian and his writers did. They gave Coltrane not only a good backstory, but one that meshed perfectly with what Novin, Wyatt and Mac were going through.
Coltrane didn’t want to be assigned to Section 20; he got thrown into the position after a disastrous incident in his past, which we finally learned the full extent of this season, as we saw flashbacks to his service during the Balkan War. He arrived at 20 after a breakdown and a battle with alcoholism, initially looking at the job as merely a means with which to salvage his career. Instead, what was supposed to be temporary became permanent, and life-changing in its own way.
He’s the only Section 20 commander who not only had an impact on his team, but they had an impact on him as well. While Coltrane functioned as a sort of cautionary tale for his new subordinates (particularly Novin as she sought to avenge Will Jensen’s death), they also helped him get to a place of redemption, self-acceptance and closure. Wyatt, Mac, Novin and Chetri were people he could rely on, and who would also challenge him when necessary (in Wyatt’s case, with the most awkward not-really-fistfight ever), while Coltrane would push them and teach them to learn from their mistakes.
His past came calling during Strike Back season 7 in the person of Sir James Spencer (John Michie), who wasn’t only the team’s latest Whitehall bureaucrat but another part of Section 20 history and Coltrane’s godfather. The personal relationship certainly influenced the professional one, as Coltrane didn’t push back against orders as early as his predecessors would have, but for him they weren’t just orders. He was having to defy someone he couldn’t possibly have trusted more, to choose between somebody he’d known his whole life and the thing he feared and loathed most: failing his team again.
It was an agonizing catch-22, especially when Coltrane and the team realized the full extent of Spencer’s involvement and his real motives. But it was a turning point, and also so much more of a satisfying arc than Coltrane being the one on the hook.
When it came time to dispatch Arianna Demachi (Ivana Milicevic) in the series finale, it was Coltrane who got to pull the trigger. That was a critical scene, getting retribution for the deaths of both Mac and Chetri, and it could have just as easily gone to either Wyatt or Novin. But for Coltrane to be the one spoke volumes. It was him taking responsibility as the team leader to finish the mission. And it was him avenging his losses in a way he had not been able to before.
By successfully leading Section 20, even though by the end they were no longer an official unit, Coltrane proved he could be an effective commander – and more importantly, an effective teammate – again.
So it wasn’t much of a surprise when he wasn’t seriously proposing that the trio jump back into action in the show’s final scene. Yes, it was an option but a needless one, for them anyway; Coltrane certainly didn’t have anything left to make up for or anything left to prove. He got the redemption that he wanted, even if it wasn’t in the way that he wanted, and more than a little perspective on his life and career.
All of this would be a great role for any actor, but it was something out of the box for Jamie Bamber. We’ve seen him in positions of authority before (most notably Battlestar Galactica), we’ve seen him play military characters before (including but not limited to Band of Brothers), and we’ve certainly seen him be a badass before. But no other acting role ever compares to Strike Back. In every respect, this show demands more from the people who join Section 20.
He stepped up his game for this. He was already incredibly good at what he does, and one of those actors who elevates any series that he’s on, but watching these seasons you can see that he pushed himself to another level beyond that. And there’s an arc for him, too; in season 7, ironically as Coltrane kind of falls apart a bit, you can see Jamie more confident in his character’s skin and even more effortless in how he commands a scene, no pun intended.
A particular highlight was the dynamic that he and Varada Sethu built between Coltrane and Chetri; so often TV viewers see computer expert-type characters relegated to the same limited function that bosses are. But with Strike Back having fleshed both of the characters out with better writing, we saw Chetri looking up at Coltrane – and how her wide-eyed, well-intentioned idealism played off his battle-hardened cynicism.
Chetri was almost like Coltrane’s conscience, and it was heartbreaking to watch the moment where Coltrane (and the rest of Section 20) realized that Chetri had betrayed their trust and sold them out to Spencer. As painful as Mac’s death in Episode 6 was, Chetri’s betrayal and her subsequently abandoning the team in Episode 7 was almost as hurtful and Coltrane without her was never the same.
But remember that Chetri went on the run because she no longer trusted Coltrane. He influenced that decision – the one that would ultimately cost Chetri her life. Jamie Bamber got to play a team leader who, technically speaking, wouldn’t be considered much of a team leader. He took his team rogue, and did it without being entirely forthcoming. If their records hadn’t been restored in the finale, they could have been in a world of hurt.
Despite that (or perhaps because of it), Coltrane was an incredible team leader in all the ways that mattered – emotionally and in the realities of actually fighting in the trenches with his team. He was a partner, a mentor, a friend and sometimes a pain in the ass. We saw so many different sides of Jamie in this one role, and he really dug in and wasn’t afraid to show us Coltrane’s flaws or his foibles or just the fact that being this guy was really damn difficult.
It was electric, it was heartbreaking, it was frustrating, it was also inspiring and it could be funny. It was an incredible performance on a series where the bar is set incredibly high, and just like he has always done, Jamie Bamber made Strike Back better by being on it. He proved that commanding officers don’t have to die and they don’t just give out orders; they can be just as compelling and complicated as the officers under their command.
The complete series of Strike Back is now available through MAX GO, Amazon Video, and iTunes.
Article content is (c)2020 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr.