It’s a third of the way through David Fincher’s Zodiac. Robert Graysmith picks up the phone. His wife, Melanie, sits with him in the kitchen. Everything is a shade of sable brown or butter yellow to match the times.
The voice on the other end of the line has called because Robert’s name is in the paper, news that he’s shopping a book on the Zodiac. Melanie Graysmith hangs her head and sinks in defeat. She is terrified of what it might mean for an active serial killer to know her husband is writing about him.
The last thing she said to Robert before he picked up the call was a nagging reminder: they know the Zodiac reads The Chronicle.
Crime movies and television are full of tropes. Redemption detectives and dirty cops. Bad narrators and femme fatales. Tropes keep us coming back. We press play because there is an unspoken contract laid plain before us—a body and an investigation, one that not only reveals a killer or some kind of terrorist mastermind, but also something about our protagonist. Payable on complete.
Yet, there is one trope that lingers, archaic in its views, that has, for decades, threatened the genre as it stands: the trope of the nagging spouse. And thankfully—finally—in 2023, Special Ops: Lioness from Paramount Plus had the nerve to subvert it.
Lioness opens to reveal Joe (Zoe Saldana), a career-crushing operative who runs the CIA-backed program from which the show derives its name—a program in which agents undercover are embedded with the wives and daughters of high-level targets from the Middle East.
Before the credit sequence even rolls, Joe is faced with an impossible question: risk the lives of a rescue team for an agent who blew her cover, or simply drone strike the compound where the agent is to prevent her inevitable and brutal torture? Joe calls the drones. It’s jarring when one of the next scenes finds her at home—a wife to Neil (Dave Annable) and the mother of two teenage girls.
From the rip, it’s not entirely clear that Joe and Neil are going to be different, aside from the fact that their roles are reversed from what is considered “traditional”.
As Neil cooks for his daughters, he bristles at the prospect of Joe’s unplanned return—making it clear that her relationship with her girls is strained.
But what happens next sets the tone, raises a flag that maybe there’s more than meets the eye with this duo. Neil explains he only wishes she called so that he could have made her landing smoother.
There is something subtle, but tangibly modern about their parenting styles, especially Neil’s, and it’s established—he’s the one with a line cast out to the girls.
After dinner, the pair dunk their feet in their pool, drinking wine together. Neil warms up, and Joe softens. They activate something in each other.
Despite the name, Joe isn’t simply a female actor thrust into the role of male. What’s established next is that Neil is not only the primary parent, but an oncologist with a busy career of his own.
Both partners are being yanked in opposite directions and yet running hard toward one another at the same time. It’s a novel dynamic that electrifies their relationship with tension—and that’s saying something, considering their arc is only a subplot.
And oh, how refreshing it is for the primary parent to have a character motivation outside of frowning and bouncing a screaming baby on their hip.
Joe is called back to the field, and Neil is rocked with an awful case at work. Meanwhile, their eldest, Kate (Hannah Love Lanier), starts acting out in response—fistfights at soccer practice and heavy-petting on the family couch
The couple has a clear agreement. When Joe is home, she handles things. Her career isn’t an excuse to parent from the side-lines, and unlike so many acclaimed portrayals of law enforcement and investigators (think True Detective’s Marty Hart), she has no delusions that home is a place that can be curated around her need to emotionally check out.
Joe’s actions indicate that she understands Neil’s sacrifice, who, meanwhile, is in the yard, logged into a laptop, advising a surgery on Zoom. They are chaos, but something about them is great.
It all helps that the pair has excellent chemistry. One of the best scenes in the show is when they’re having sex and each of their cellphones ring: Neil’s needed for surgery, and Joe’s mark is on the move.
Neither of them are made to choose; they find a way to make it work. Sometimes that means their daughters make the sacrifice. Is that fair? Who’s to say?
But the truth stands: when Joe is out in the field, we want to see her make it home. It’s not that we want to see her domesticated—in fact, most of her time at home is a great big fumble.
We want to see her there because home is where she fails. It’s a stark contrast to her work life where she’s sharp as a knife— sometimes, even cruel. Despite her failures, home is what keeps her good. Home is where we see her humanity.
Watching Joe and Neil fight for balance and fight for each other, all the while fucking it up, is so much more interesting than making Joe’s character flaw the overdone and resentful resolution to blame her nagging spouse.
And the writers certainly don’t make their fight easy.
Almost every time Joe returns home, something new is thrown her way. The worst is when Kate is in a car wreck with her friends, her life left hanging in the balance. Just as Joe’s mark is ready to make a move, we see the vehicle flip, the ambulance carting Kate off. Neck stabilizers and shattered glass.
Neil demands that Joe be home for their daughter to wake up from surgery, which is so refreshingly presented as a reasonable request, and Joe finds a way to make it work. Her boss, Kaitlyn (Nicole Kidman), gets toted to the waiting room so the two of them can strategize on the rideover. Joe accepts all of her life’s responsibilities, and in turn, it’s this that keeps Neil going.
“Don’t give up on her, Neil,” Kaitlyn says when Joe is off at Kate’s bedside.
“I wish I could.” Neil frowns. There’s no sugarcoating it. It isn’t easy. “But when she walks in a room it still takes my breath away.”
Special Ops: Lioness is proof. The nagging spouse is not the only way.