Warning: This contains spoilers for the end of Shooter Season 2. Still catching up? Read our spoiler-free review here.
Shooter remains one of modern TV’s more unexpected offerings: a series based on a little-remembered Mark Wahlberg thriller about a gun-toting hero, at a time when gun violence is more prolific, political and polarising than ever. Ryan Philippe, though, made the unlikely premise entertaining in Season 1, fighting against a convoluted script and a lot of padding to sell the tale of a father trying to protect his family. A strong finale reinforced what worked about the series and what didn’t – and Season 2 builds upon those lessons with surprising precision.
With Bob Lee Swagger (Philippe) having cleared his name, after his old chief officer Isaac Johnson (Omar Epps) framed him for an assassination attempt, Season 2 picks up with Bob Lee Swagger reuniting with Marines Unit 8113 to pay tribute to one of their number – only for things to go violently wrong. Ambushed by mysterious attackers, Bob Lee takes it upon himself to find out who’s hunting down his crew. Another play upon hunter and hunted? Shooter Season 2 might sound like more of the same, but the scale is already much bigger, jumping from the USA to Germany to Bangkok in its opening episodes. That pays off handsomely, giving the show’s universe much more substance, not to mention more screen-time to the two strongest supporting characters: Epps’ Johnson and Cynthia Addai-Robinson’s FBI agent, Nadine Memphis.
The conspiracy behind 8113’s hunters is, perhaps inevitably, traceable up the US chain of command, as a stash of drugs found by the squad in Afghanistan comes back to bite them all in the proverbial, but our immediate threat takes the shape of – you guessed it – a sharp shooter. That’s Solotov, a Chechen sniper, who’s played with fantastically chilling composure by Josh Stewart. Turning up at crucial moments with an eye down his sight, he’s a formidable opponent – and the show is smart enough to follow him as well as Bob Lee, so when our hero’s heading into an ambush, we already know it.
Unlike Season 1, which struggled to find a coherent through-line, Season 2 keeps its focus primarily restricted to the head-to-head showdown that’s inevitably in the offing. And so each episode sees Solotov strike again, removing another of Swagger’s colleagues and moving one step closer to Bob Lee himself. It’s a situation that hardly unfamiliar to Bob Lee’s family, and the show’s strongest moments come when The Flash’s Shantel VanSanten as Bob Lee’s wife, Julie, conveys the lingering trauma violence can have, even upon those who aren’t in the field. Scenes between her and her daughter, Mary, are as well observed and sweet as ever, as she tries to stay strong and supportive for her scared child.
A lesser show would only touch upon those issues, and it’s to Shooter’s credit that we spend time with both women when Swagger isn’t home – and that means when danger does turn domestic, they don’t feel like mere pawns to be places in peril for dramatic effect. It helps that Julie is strong in her own right – when Bo Winnick tries to creep on her down at the local firing range, she not only puts him in his place but also fires her weapon when he doesn’t have his headphones on, giving him an earache.
Equally struggling with the aftermath of Season 1 is Isaac Johnson, who can’t win Bob Lee’s trust after he set him up. Complicating matters is the fact that he’s approached by Atlas, the sinister organisation that hired Solotov to wipe out the trail connecting the CIA to the drugs that 8113 found and burned. Senator Addison Hayes (Harry Hamlin) emerges as the head of that particular snake, and by the end of the season, he’s done exactly the same thing with Johnson: hired the military veteran to become Atlas’ new operative, with a single task of wiping out Solotov.
“I’m not tying up loose ends, I’m burning the rope,” the sinister sniper warns Swagger during one heated phone exchange, and it’s testament to how good Josh Stewart is that even when Solotov ends up a victim of the same philosophy, he still carries a threat. That’s thanks to Stewart’s ability to blend in using a variety of disguises, his voice changing from the stereotypical Evil Assassin Accent to a clipped doctor’s voice when undercover in Swagger’s own unit, and then a relaxed Texas drawl, as he befriends Julie at the local shooting range under the identity of “Travis”.
His chameleonic talents mark him out as a rival worth fearing, and helps Shooter to draw the line between the good guys and bad guys. It’s not always successful, though, given that the show’s inherent premise involves the use of guns in everyday situations – at a time when gun violence is taking the lives of innocents on a tragically regular basis, the idea of presenting guns as a solution doesn’t always sit easy. Shooter fares best when focused on army skirmishes, or situations far removed from the day-to-day – tensions within a controlled gun range and shootouts in the field. By the time the finale has Johnson opening fire in the streets to take down Solotov, the writers take care to have Swagger shouting at him to stop, making it clear that Johnson’s behaviour is irrational, irresponsible and potentially fatal for bystanders. When the show also has Swagger “save the day” in a hostage situation earlier in the season, though, with a diner sequence that goes into slow-motion, you suspect the programme sometimes wants to have its cake and eat it.
The cast, however, help to raise the show above the uneven tone and message, with every scene featuring Mary and Julie keeping the focus on more emotionally gripping matters. And so, as Mary has her first communion, Swagger takes a bullet in the stomach outside to stop Johnson’s fire hitting Solotov/Travis, who’s wearing a bomb – and the Chechen promptly takes Bob Lee in his van and drives off, keeping him alive, just. After tracking down the paper trail leading to the CIA’s drug stash, and stealing the ledger belonging to Atlas’ corrupt banker, Solotov has one requirement: get him his money back, not just the stuff that’s owed him, but all of Atlas’ funds.
It’s a journey that has taken us from a war zone to a showdown with a Mexican cartel, and even a stint in jail – a brief bit of downtime that gives the imprisoned Johnson and Swagger a chance to bring some much-needed character development to the table. At the same time, the series balances the slowdown in pace by switching attention to Memphis, who is doing her own detective work to uncover the Atlas conspiracy. After working to gain the trust of Swagger’s former teammate, Tio (Jaina Lee Ortiz), the marine ends up taken out by an Atlas agent, with a sneaky syringe of poison doing its job. Tio, though, spills the beans on Hayes just in time, leaving Memphis storming into his office to find out what’s going on.
The finale cuts off at exactly that point, with everything still in the air – the result of Philippe’s injury while filming, which caused production to stop prematurely. With one more episode still to go, the result is a season that feels unsatisfyingly unfinished, but also leaves you waiting to find out what happens next – perhaps, given the occasionally awkward nature of the show’s theme and content, that’s just the distraction Shooter needed.
Shooter Season 2 is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription, with new episodes in Season 3 arriving every Friday, within 24 hours of their US broadcast.