Spooks: 1.1 to 1.3 Re-View
What’s a ‘Re-View‘? For starters it is either a horrible pun or a horrible abbreviation. For us it means we’re watching old shows or films and reviewing them. We’re ‘re-viewing’ them, or viewing them for the first time and reviewing them. Or even ‘retroactively-viewing’ them if that’s better for your pun hating soul.
The Internet is home to many contemporary reviews for contemporary shows and films. However older properties have not been given this treatment as often as perhaps they deserve. I say perhaps because we’ll see exactly what they deserve in the process. Enjoy.
1.1 – Thou Shalt Not Kill
When the first episode of Spooks hit my screen I was aghast. The episode seemed to have terrible framing, a lot of grain and was in 16:9. I rushed to Wikipedia to see if this was one of those shows from the early 2000s that’s been horribly ‘upgraded’ from 4:3 to 16:9. Unfortunately it was not, it was filmed in 16:9 and just happens to look like shite. I can only imagine the contemporary genre fans looking forward to Britain’s answer to 24 and then being a little taken aback.
However Britain has a proud history of offering cheap and endearing alternatives to the States’ big shows. When they had Star Trek we had Doctor Who, America has Boardwalk Empire but we have Peaky Blinders and so on. So I reassessed my mental approach to the show and tried to be more forgiving. By and large this paid off. The plotting and tone is largely down-to-Earth with realistic stories. It’s not clear how our group of protagonists relate to the larger body of MI5, but that’s not important with the small scale of the ‘cases’ (so far). There is the occasional piece of realism and scale whiplash, but this is the stage of the show still experiencing its ‘early instalment weirdness’.
For the first twenty minutes I was a little worried by the lack of character work. It was all very serious fast talking people being serious. However the writing, although often on the nose, is going for a more minimalist approach: It’s how they handle a particular sentence or smaller reactions to each other that betrays sensibilities. Every character gets along professionally with each other, but they have individual varying and appropriate levels of personal interactions relative to their respective ranks.
The acting is a little over the top though. Just as the show hasn’t found a sense of consistency yet, neither have the actors found the appropriate style of acting yet. As to the actors…retroactive watching actually benefits this show! The main cast have the likes of Matthew Macfadyen, David Oyelowo, Keeley Hawes and Jenny Agutter. Macfadyen’s ‘Tom Quinn’ is competent as the second-in-command who is a decent and fair leader, but he’s getting old enough to realise he’s going to have to either commit to his trying profession entirely, or quit to pursue his personal life. However he’s also young enough to not know exactly when the point of no return is.
The story deals with an American terrorist who is driven by her firm opposition to abortion. She murders surgeons that perform abortions with the aid of British locals. None of them seem aware of the irony of being ‘pro-life’ then committing murder, even when it’s pointed out to them. If this seems like a fairly easy group of villains to contain, that’s because they are. However the show is aware of this. The real obstacle is dealing with the terrorists whilst the CIA and US government are trying to shove extradition orders down MI5’s busy throats. Ultimately the capture of the antagonist is only problematic due to a brief malfunction in the spook’s mobile jamming equipment. Whilst this might seem a cheap way to give a tension-free situation more weight, I feel it matches the Britain-does-what-it-can-with-what-it-has-ness of the show itself.
One of the staples of the spy genre is when protagonists take ethical short-cuts to achieve their goals, especially in the post-9/11 era. Gladly Spooks has these ethical short-cuts be limited to lying to captured suspects, picking which devil to work with and lying to whatever bureaucratic body controls your case. Rather than torture and espousing the idea that torture works. Whilst I presume it will eventually come into the show, I admire the fact the show hasn’t even implied it to be a constant option. In this regard Spooks is a very welcome alternative to 24.
1.2 – Looking After Our Own
Spooks is relatively well known for killing off characters. In the second episode the first significant death occurs. After some research I discovered this episode was planned to be the season finale, but the BBC found the script ratings-baiting enough to bump up to second place. Thus a recurring actress lost four episodes worth of pay and portfolio building. One can see why the BBC wanted this episode in the front half of the season. The character that’s killed off is first captured, and then has her arm then head put into a deep fat fryer, before being executed by a bullet to the head. At the time of airing the BBC received around a hundred and fifty complaints. This is probably the effect the BBC wanted. The frying however takes place off screen and is implied by foley work and the screams of the actress. So it was hardly exploitative. The deceased character’s own mistakes contributed to her torture and death, and the show plays it as a tragedy for her rather than for any male characters. So it wasn’t exploitative in the manner of women in refrigerators either.
Now the basic ‘controversy’ of the episode is out the way, let’s discuss the actual episode in itself. The most depressing thing about the plot is despite it airing in 2002, it could just as easily be happening in real life in 2016. A far-right MP is utilising (and causing) racial tension and the politics of immigration to promote his fascist brand. This is also notable for taking a stance that is very different to that of 24 in another positive way. Specifically, Muslims and Asian aren’t terrorists and violent conspiracies often come from white racists. However as the plot throws in a few twists, it requires a few dollops of salt. The MP is part of the above conspiracy, which aims to open up more immigration to encourage hate of immigration, to prevent further immigration. This is another example of Spooks having what I am calling ‘realism whiplash’.
As for the characters, like many second episodes, the personal B-stories are pretty much repeats of the first episode. Tom Quinn is divided and so on. However David Oyelowo’s Danny Hunter is further fleshed out. He’s revealed to be less experienced as he lets on, an opinion his superiors certainly hold and his approach to solving financial problems is idiotic to say the least.
Overall I approved of the gang’s approach to dealing with the MP and his cabal: have Quinn and a MI5 secretary (called Helen Flynn) pose as a couple running a IT course than the MP’s abused wife attends. However, Helen Flynn is only put in as Keeley Hawes’ character is unavailable and they have no one else that can go undercover. Apparently they can’t transfer someone from another MI5 department (still no given context for how it’s organised) to do this mission, or ask the police for a cop with undercover experience temporarily. As stated previously, they send a secretary instead.
Another gripe I have is the writing and casting of the abused wife. When first asked if her husband hits her she immediately admits to it and doesn’t deny it or defend him, like one with even passing experience of abuse stories would expect. When Quinn reveals his true purpose to her she easily slips back into the role of loving wife without revealing the ruse through either nervousness or misplaced loyalty to her husband. Later she aids Quinn in a cunning escape with some quick thinking that doesn’t match the character of the dishevelled wreck we’re given up to this point. If her husband reprimands her or not after this is swept under the rug. Essentially you wonder why a woman this cogent hasn’t removed herself from this harmful situation years ago when she’s competent enough to handle basic espionage, even when her saviours seem to be lost. Oh, and the actress is wank too, she undersells the few lines she doesn’t oversell.
It would have been nice for some nuance in the general characterisation of the villains too. In real life racist bastards aren’t all violent scum. Many are perfectly affable people, even when amongst those they hate and aren’t aggressive at all. Then again, this was part of a by-gone era where racism was common, but the idea of a political party like UKIP being acceptable in the mainstream was a nightmarish joke. In summary I’d say I appreciated what the show was trying to do and some of how it did it, but not as much as I would have liked.
1.3 – One Last Dance
It’s a spy show dealing with terrorism made in 2002, I should have expected some depiction of Middle Eastern terrorism eventually I suppose. It would be somewhat dishonest to avoid the topic entirely. In this episode Spooks walks the line with surprising maturity for what the show has been so far and for 2002.
The main perspectives of this episode are split between the two female leads: Tessa Phillips (Agutter) and Zoe Reynolds (Hawes). Reynolds is undercover posing as the close friend/date of a Turkish travel agent (he’s not aware of the ruse) at a formal event in the Turkish Consulate. When trouble inevitably arrives in the form of Kurdish terrorists taking hostages, Phillips realises they’re in league with her supposedly dead former lover. If that second plotline has you worried about clichéd moments of a female spy deciding to not turn in her ex-lover and experiencing divided loyalties, don’t worry. Phillips immediately goes to her superiors with her suspicions and is without doubts that her ex is now her opponent to be captured or killed. If anything this plot functions as a possible window in the future of Macfayden’s outlook. Phillips is clear in her convictions and only regretful about her past in functional ways. This plot also helps display the grey areas that exist in ones mindset as a spy at different times in one’s life. Phillips may have clear morals now, but dialogue later in the episode reveals she could have taken a different road.
Reynold’s half of the plot is a big part of the show walking its fine line with the topic of Kurdish terrorism. Reynolds expresses an understanding of the hostage-takers motives, but condemns their choice of action, primarily due to it not functioning how they want it to. In addition to this giving the episode some balance, it also reveals Reynolds as practically minded both in politics and when being a hostage. At first Reynolds doesn’t reveal herself to be an MI5 agent. When her hidden camera is found she doesn’t immediately reveal her identity until the last moment before another hostage is executed. She does first allow the two men with guns put to their heads to be terrified before she steps up. Reynold’s actions give a unique insight into the usefulness of understanding ones enemies has in the espionage business. To be a good agent you need to understand your enemies to predict their actions or to infiltrate their ranks. Although that same understanding is what makes many agents susceptible to defection. This nuance is appreciated in a genre riddled with either the heroes of imperialism (sorry Bauer/Bond) or defectors who only defect for the money.
All that being said there are once again a few plot quibbles. It is eventually revealed that some former British spies are running the Kurdish terrorists as a distraction for them to steal computer files detailing every MI5 and MI6 undercover agent. (The idea of those names being stored in one location seems ridiculous until you remember how often civil servants leave USB sticks with large doses of critical information on trains.) The bank in which these files are housed is attached to the Turkish consulate. I can accept that, but I can’t accept when the thieves access the bank by running across the roof from the consulate. This plan entirely relies on existing in a world where hostage situations aren’t constantly observed by patrolling helicopters.
In the end the ringleader is caught by Phillips who exploits her past relationship with him. The villain gives into ‘the feels’. Even though in the same scene he describes how he faked his death by putting his similar looking brother into an exploding car. This clearly unsentimental man is swayed by his uptight (from his perspective) ex into giving back the computer files, because after he ‘died’ she had a miscarriage. I like to think this doesn’t mean that Phillips chose to stay at MI5 because she lost a lover and a child, but because of developing convictions. However Spooks doesn’t frame any insight into this possibility either way. One could imagine she invented the miscarriage as a ploy, but the show frames the conversation so neutrally it has to be taken at face value.
This episode gets the broad strokes right and only some of the details wrong. I’d seriously like some context to how our protagonists relate to the larger MI5 at this point though. Before the impression was that this was one team handling small ‘cases’, but the Turkish consulate being captured is politically giant, so a look at the larger works (or a reference) would have been good.