Strange as it seems, genuine on-screen friendships have become a rarity for television dramas in recent years. Sure, you can still find a few on network procedurals if you squint hard enough, but the rise of the anti-hero and sprawling ensemble casts has rendered Starsky & Hutch-style pairings practically extinct. Over the course of its four seasons, Strike Back—which aired its series finale Friday night on Cinemax—has proven a notable exception.
When Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) and Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) were first thrown together in the series’ pilot, they were—in keeping with the trope of genre—as different as two people holding the same job possibly could be. Scott was the swaggering American soldier who never met a rule he didn’t see fit to break or a woman he didn’t want to take to bed (or the nearest flat surface). Stonebridge was the by-the-book British operative who would have had “COMPANY MAN” tattooed on his forehead if it didn’t violate protocol.
Give or take a few details—most confusingly, that Stapleton is actually Australian and Winchester is actually American—the pair aren’t entirely dissimilar from the characters they plan on Strike Back. “I liked how natural he was and I liked how off the cuff he was. I liked how it seemed like he didn't care,” Winchester says of their first meeting. “I remember being really taken by how it was so easy for him. And it kind of pissed me off because I'm like, ‘I have to work my ass off.’ So I think that fed the lives of the two characters that we ended up creating.”
“Me and Phil, we’re both very different boys,” Stapleton says,” just in the way we do things and approached work, but we always supported each other and had each other’s backs the whole time.” The two also took different approaches for their accent work. Stapleton would easily switch over to American during takes, but Winchester would stay with the British accent he uses on the show throughout the entirety of filming.
On a lesser show, Scott and Stonebridge would have remained within the comfortable confines of their familiar character tropes. But Strike Back has always proven itself loathe to take the easy way out. It quickly becomes clear that Scott’s unflinching cocksureness is as much about the heartbreak he’s endured during his short life as it is his predilection for rebellion. And as much as Stonebridge
appears to be a proper British soldier through-and-through, we learn in the pilot that he’s having an affair with his commanding officer.
Those nuances helped to explain how two men so different could become such fast friends. Even though Scott and Stonebridge were outwardly polar opposites, they both ultimately wanted the same thing: to kill bad guys and save the world. Who else in the world had seen what they’d seen or could do what they do? Just as crucial was the banter between the two characters—particularly thanks to the lax rules on Cinemax. “I don't think that swearing or gratuitous violence or sex make a show better, I just think there are natural rhythms to a human being in these situations.
and what happens in these situations that cable allows is a natural reaction,” Winchester says. “Sully was wonderful at that. We would have moments when we would just crack up. There was something in Season 1 where I think Section Twenty was like, ‘What's your position? And I think Sully just threw out, ‘Our position is we are f—ed.’ And we looked at each other and we were pissing ourselves in the middle of this massive firefight in the Chechen mountains or something. I was like, ‘Man, that's never going to happen on a network show.’” (Both Stapleton and Winchester are now on NBC dramas—the former in Blindspot and the latter in The Player.)
Further distinguishing itself from its procedural counterparts, Strike Back’s lead characters evolved in later seasons. As is often the case with real-life friends and co-workers who spend entirely too much time with each other (the pair even vacationed together in Season 3), certain characteristics
once independently held soon became shared. Winchester attributes that evolution in part to the fact that the relationship between the two characters began right when the show did: “ As Sully and I were figuring out Scott and Stonebridge, Scott and Stonebridge were figuring out who each other was. So was the audience.”
Though the show has officially ended, neither Winchester nor Stapleton is ruling out some sort of revival. “I think a Strike Back film would be a great move, not just because I’d have another job,” Stapleton says. Both he and Winchester spoke about the possibility of making it a globe-trotting and time-lapsing affair, bringing in characters killed off in earlier seasons. Of course, there’s
always the possibility that the two could arrange a reunion outside of the Strike Back universe thanks to their new shows being conveniently located on the same network. “I think that's some of the first conversations that I've had with the producers,” Winchester says. “We're both NBC. We've got to crossover.”
For now, however, the on-screen relationship between Stapleton and Winchester ends with the airing of Strike Back’s season finale. “I miss Sully. I miss that mad Australian,” Winchester says. “I miss our Special Forces men and women and talking to them about what it was like. And I miss rocking up and seeing our camera guys and just literally walking on the set and going, ‘Are we going to do this today?’ And the looks in people's faces. We were all ten-year-old boys kind of going, ‘Are you serious?’ It was a hell of a ride.”