Nuance isn’t something you’d expect in a series about the exploits of America’s elite Seal Team Six. They’re the much-mythologised men at the sharp end of the never-ending war on terror, and so it’s difficult to talk about shades of grey when the focus is on men putting their lives repeatedly on the line. When a Seal Team commander executes a surrendering foe in cold blood early in the first episode of Six, it creates a moment of tension rarely seen in mainstream drama. Is this meant to be something we cheer? Is this how the good guys act in 2017?
This tension only lasts for an instant – the rest of the unit is clearly horrified – but it’s a sign Six is willing to go beyond the norm when it comes to humanising the men at the heart of this series. It doesn’t hurt that Walton Goggins is playing the Seal Team member who pulls the trigger, either. With his work in The Shield, Justified, The Hateful Eight and current HBO comedy Vice Principals, he’s become the go-to good ol’ boy for keeping morally dubious characters on just the right side of likability.
Most of Six takes place two years later, with Goggins’ character, Rip, out of the military and into a job as a freelance security contractor (read: mercenary) in a part of Africa where terrorist group Boko Harum is a real threat. Across the span of the series, we learn his reasons for leaving the military aren’t quite as black and white as they first seem. Likewise, while Rip seems an obvious burnout when we first see him in Africa, once he’s taken hostage alongside schoolteacher Na’omi (Nondumiso Tembe) and her girls’ school students by Boko Harum, it gradually becomes clear there’s still something left of the man he once was.
Over eight episodes, Six shifts between Rip and the hostages as they try to stay alive, the high-tech machinations of next-gen terrorist Nasry (Dominic Adams) – who does his plotting and recruiting via online gaming, and has his own personal (non-gaming) reasons for wanting to get his hands on Rip – and the men of Seal Team Six. Once they learn Rip’s been taken hostage, getting him back becomes the number one priority for his ex-comrades Bear (Barry Sloane), Alex (Kyle Schmid), and Buddha (Juan-Pablo Raba).
At least, it's their main focus outside the dramas in their personal lives. Just because you know how to blow a door silently off its hinges doesn’t mean you’re an expert when it comes to keeping a marriage together. Since the days of Army Wives and David Mamet’s similarly themed The Unit, these kinds of television series have tended to humanise military men through the women in their lives. These guys are so well trained that having them consistently mess up on the job just isn’t plausible (or something they could walk away alive from), so the real tension comes when the guns are put away and they have to deal with their families.
Buddha’s fighting with his wife, Jackie (Nadine Velazquez), over money (even elite troops don’t make elite money); Alex is trying to connect with his estranged daughter; and Bear and his wife, Lena (Brianne Davis), are having difficulties falling pregnant. It all adds some much-needed shading to characters that might otherwise come across as smoothly professional killbots. It’s a lot easier to emphasise with a man skilfully gunning down a shipful of terrorists if you’ve seen him clumsily fumble over VCR porn at a fertility clinic.
This sets up the kind of personal/professional divide that’s standard for this kind of series, with slick high-stakes missions and home-front family dramas kept firmly separate. And at first, the handful of ways the personal and professional do mix – getting Rip back is personal for Seal Team Six; getting hold of Rip is personal for Nasry – seem like fairly traditional plot developments, too.
But when it comes to the actual core of the show – the action scenes where characters live or die – time and time again we’re shown that letting things get personal is the way mistakes get made. When people take it personal, they take it too far. In Rip’s case, it’s what destroys his military career. Yet as we see in the scene where Rip kills a surrendered foe, it’s not their killing skills but their humanity that makes the men of Seal Team Six worthwhile human beings – and that’s the one thing they have to leave behind if they’re to succeed at their job.
There are plenty of shoot-outs, explosions and go-getting military types barking orders here, but it’s the nuance Six brings to examining what violence does to the men whose job it is to skilfully deploy it that makes it more than just another well-made action series. Well, that and another first-class performance from Goggins. If you’re looking for someone to embody the toll a violent lifestyle takes on your humanity, there’s currently no better actor around.
Watch Six streaming on SBS On Demand from 6 October: