Spooks: 2.1 to 2.4 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.
2.1 – Legitimate Targets
When coming to review this one I couldn’t actually think of much to say. I then realised that’s because there’s not much of an episode here. That’s because the episode resolves its cliff-hanger from the previous season by pulling the ‘aborted arc’ trope. This is when what is clearly a planned long-term story line is instead nipped in the bud.
In the opening of the episode the bomb doesn’t go off. It is instead revealed to be a fake bomb designed to scare MI5 (as it was assumed to be going there) whilst the real bomb went off elsewhere. This reframes the previous episode in nonsensical ways. Quinn is alerted to the bomb by McCann, who is then killed by the IRA for collaboration. So if he wasn’t supposed to have told Quinn how would MI5 ever know there was a bomb to be distracted by? Also being blown up is a damn good distraction.
Notice how I mentioned that McCann is killed off? Yeah, I guess the obviously planned intention to have him as a recurring frenemy with a friendship with Quinn, but a rivalry with Harry, is now scrapped.
Then somehow this is all revealed to be instead tied to a Serbian war criminal who has just entered Britain. At this point this is no longer plotting, but throwing shit at a wall and assuming no one will notice if you edit in enough scene transitions. Now with a lot of the run time gone the show has to establish a new plot and resolve it satisfactorily. The Serbian war criminal has a nephew (Radovan), Zoe goes uncover as a video store clerk to flirt with him. This is amusing because between the two seasons she’s managed to acquire a tan and she still uses her cut glass accent as the clerk. Her cover is so flimsy the show turns Radovan’s dialogue into flirtatious banter that hints he may or may not see through her. Then when it turns out he buys into her act this just means his choice of phrases barely makes sense. So Zoe easily sneaks some info that leads to a mole that amusingly enough is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. If this episode has done anything right it’s that it gave Cumberbatch the amount of screen time to match his acting range (less than five minutes). The Serbians then go to shoot some high-ranking officials, but MI5 troops are on the scene and shoot them first. The Serbians actually break into this darkened house and don’t see the MI5 troops, even though they’re wearing night vision goggles.
Oh and Ellie leaves Tom. Which isn’t surprising really. He has probably given her PTSD and her daughter too. It also doesn’t help that straight after they’re ‘rescued’ from the non-bomb he forcibly takes them to MI5. I guess this counts as another aborted arc doesn’t it? Just one I don’t mind being aborted. Although it would have been nice if the horny nurse that hits on Tom had appeared after the break up, rather than twenty minutes before as to not sign post it coming. Then again, I am expecting too much from an episode whose plot was: “It’s not a bomb! McCann’s dead I guess…sudden Serbians appear! How often does this guy go get videos then? Horny nurse! Dead Serbians who hate seeing their targets! The end.”
I also burst into laughter several times at the shows attempt to rebrand itself a little bit in the season opener. A clear directive for ‘more energy’ is made obvious by FOUR walk-and-talks done with po-faced sincerity to early 2000s cheap incidental music. Fucking comedy gold.
2.2 – Nest of Angels
I remembered a more innocent time when Spooks seemed like an intelligent alternative to loud American spy shows. Wherein the scale is small, personal and realistic. I still hope for Spooks to hit that mark, but this episode is not that time. Nest of Angels is Spooks first proper in-depth attempt at the Islamic terror topic. After watching this clusterfuck I decided to look up if there was a controversy at all surrounding it and if the writers took any steps to prevent one. I discovered there were many complaints about Islamaphobia at the time, but that the writers also decided to take their time to do research. So what went wrong? Was the research bad? Were the complaints from those mythical politically correct bastards?
Neither. It appears the research was mainly into cultural practices of Muslims. Which all worked as fine as I could tell, no one was praying in the wrong direction. (I admit my research is hardly in depth, but at least I don’t make spy stories that make sweeping statements about Muslims and terrorism.) The problem is that regardless of how you depict day-to-day cultural practices, your attempt at authenticity rings false when the majority of the on-screen Muslims (with speaking roles anyway) are terrorists.
I had a brief moment of hope when Doctor Bashir from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine turned up to play Muhammad Rachid, a Gary Stu of a Muslim spy. His family were killed, but he’s not given up. The writers even admitted the point of the episode was to have a Muslim hero fight Islamic terrorist groups. The intention of this is to clearly show two things. 1. Not all Muslims are terrorists. 2. Muslims condemn terrorism. In real life the terrorists are a beyond tiny fraction of a huge religion going across many different cultures and countries. So maybe don’t have the majority of the speaking Muslims in the episode be terrorists. Yes the MI5 gang refer to the Birmingham Mosque they’re investigating being mostly populated by normal non-violent people, but we don’t really see any of them. We think we do in the form of the Mosque leader and his daughter, however she then turns out to be working with the terrorists.
The climax of the episode is a child bomber attempting to blow himself and a playground of other children up. This is an offensively thick climax to an already dreadful mess. If Spooks is supposed to be a show about the modern MI5 dealing with modern threats, could it at least do it intelligently? Maybe deal with some of the actual issues even basic research would cover? How about how it’s difficult to investigate religious communities that are experiencing persecution? That’s a situation that there is no easy way to do without hurting a lot of people. Maybe some commentary on how it’s difficult for those within those communities to reach out without being branded as a risk due to the same persecution? You could even deal with the double standard of racist Britons expecting every single Muslim to denounce every single Muslim terrorist as though they’re actually connected in any significant way. Or you could not do any of that. Instead you portray a child who is way too easily swayed into a terrorist act without any obvious signs of brain-washing or abuse. Are they terrible writers? Or they genuinely trying to imply that Mosques are full of children that are that dumb and gullible?
The episode ends with Rachid dying heroically as he delays the child bomber long enough for others to escape, before the kid blows them both up. Up to this point there are various undercover spy moments that leads the characters down this trail. They’re not good enough to cancel out the badness of the rest of the story, thus not really worth going into any detail with. If you think I am moaning because I am offended by the characterisation of Muslims in the story, look at it this way: Do any of the characters in this episode run up against any obstacles? Or does everyone do everything perfectly? Rachid turns up out of the blue with info. He then heroically helps. Then goes undercover flawlessly and even when he dies it is heroic. The story fails as a balanced view of terrorism and culture and it even fails as a basic exercise in narrative driven by conflict.
Tessa turned up again and was unhelpful. I believe this may be her last appearance (Editing Note: I was wrong). Sorry Jenny Agutter, you were completely wasted in a terrible role. Also Tom Quinn fucks the horny nurse. It may seem insulting that I call her ‘the horny nurse’. Especially as this episode gave her ONE WHOLE EXTRA EMOTION. She’s now chirpy too. In fact she’s chirpy as Quinn gives a thousand yard stare, before and after coitus. She just starts chatting to herself whilst Quinn looks like he wants to blow his brains out. I didn’t realise Matthew MacFadyen was so handsome as to bed women whilst looking like he’s in the middle of a Vietnam war flashback. There were also no Birmingham accents. Some Southern actors doing terrible Brummie accents might have livened the proceedings up a bit.
I thought I was done moaning, but before I started my conclusion I reread the Wiki page for this episode and discovered the cast and crew reacted to the controversy. Their defences included saying that the audience didn’t understand the context and this episode had real truths that are hard to swallow. There are no swear words aggressive enough to respond to that level of repugnant and condescending horseshit. You made a story where the majority of good and normal people were literally voiceless extras. I understand that narrative flow requires everyone with speaking roles to be relevant to the plot, but that just means you give the plot more ambiguity. Who is bad? Who is good? How do we find out without destroying lives? Why is it that those staples of espionage plots only gets thrown out the window with plots dealing with Islam?
3/10 (Two of those are awarded solely to Alexander Siddig and Matthew MacFadyen for making terrible writing watchable in this episode. The other one point is awarded for it being technically competent. It wasn’t vomited into existence, it just feels that way.)
2.3 – Spiders
Now this is a step up. Spiders is an episode that hints at the possible greatness Spooks could achieve if the writers wanted. The plot is reasonably straight-forward and the execution is fairly decent. There are only a couple of groan-worthy moments. And the episode has some interesting thoughts.
The episode opens with Danny and his back up rushing into a building during some sort of emergency. A laptop is hacking MI5! Now when I read the word ‘hacking’ and ‘hackers’ in the episode description I was a little scared. Film and TV has a terrible track record when it comes to the depiction of hacking. I think you know what I mean. However Spiders acquitted itself well. It kept things simple and didn’t use any false jargon. To prevent the hacking Danny unplugged the laptop’s Ethernet cable. Why didn’t they just do this at MI5’s end? Because the laptop may have been rigged with a bomb. This is simple and clear. This ‘keep it simple stupid’ rule with the portrayal of hacking continues throughout.
When the story begins proper it’s revealed that nearby to the laptop is a suspected violent anarchist who is also a teacher. Zoe is then sent undercover as an English teacher to investigate and so on. Her instincts tell her that the teacher is not the culprit. However Harry and Tom do not trust her instincts. A thread running throughout the episode is that Zoe is tired of the amount of undercover personas being simultaneously forced on her. She worries that she’ll lose herself in the mess. Tom then condescends her a little and sends her into her new assignment. She then starts to care for the students, particularly a young boy (Noah) who is bullied. Tom then berates Zoe for getting too attached to her role. This creates an interesting dynamic of Zoe being expected to assume a role convincingly, yet remain unattached, yet provide insight that may be ignored anyway. This nuanced view of the hypocrisy within espionage is taken further by the revelation of the antagonist.
The teacher is innocent and his life is uprooted by the investigation. It turns out that Noah is the hacker. His father was an MI5 agent going undercover into the real anarchists who was captured alongside Noah. The latter then witnessed his father being tortured and murdered by the anarchists. Thus he holds a grudge towards both MI5 and the anarchists. I am willing to forgive the sloppy and convenient plotting of the child Zoe cares for being the villain due to the overall execution.
This is a nice story with interesting ideas. MI5 and the anarchists both fight for their better world in their own ways, whilst sometimes forgetting the whole point is to create a better world for the next generation. The plot would have been more easily resolved if those caring for the next generation, Zoe and the teacher, were listened to. Through the assumption of guilt that MI5 made towards the man (they followed fabricated evidence) they made a mistake, but one that is made easily as a practical reality of espionage. Danny has a small subplot where he goes undercover at a socialist magazine to follow a trail to the hacker. Obviously this turns out to be a false trail. Having more than one red herring is a nice touch, especially as following flimsy leads is part of the job. There is also an amusing scene where Danny’s identity is rumbled because someone thinks his earring is a bug. It isn’t a bug, but I imagine real spies have been rumbled by the paranoid over meaningless items.
However there are a few annoyances that prevent the show reaching potential new heights. At the close of the story Tom and Zoe start directly discussing the themes with prosaic language that no human being would use to describe the situation. New girl Ruth (Nicola Walker) uses her knowledge of Greek myth to read into the OTT language the hacker uses alongside his crimes. The Greek myths concern fathers and such. This obvious thematic thread is a burden on the episode and her dialogue. Finally whilst I appreciated the plot of Noah and his father, it was a bit much that Noah was driven by commanding hallucinations of his father.
That being said one of my biggest complaints about Spooks has been addressed in this episode. Spiders revels in showing how even the best espionage is just educated guesses that ruins lives when it goes wrong, which often happens even when everyone does their job right.
2.4 – Blood and Money
Finally, we have a truly great episode of Spooks. Here we have a story that feeds into the personal lives of various characters naturally. The plot concerns international politics, British politics, legal and illegal economies and the Russian mob. There is also a very satisfying exploration of the personal cost of being a spy. As well as the episode managing to balance many ongoing story threads in general.
Blood and Money has a slightly clunky opening with Russia portrayed with an unnecessary filter designed to give the frame a very grainy quality. However a gruesome torture and murder was enough to distract from this and properly set the tone. $20 billion of the American government’s aid wallet has gone missing. It has been stolen by the Russian mob who want a big British stockbrokers to launder the money, unfortunately the stockbrokers also have British government ties. Later it is revealed that the cabinet want to steal the money back off the Russians, but have no intention of returning it to the Americans. All of this is also framed in the backdrop of events having the potential to cause an economic recession. This sense of foresight by Spooks would seem coincidental if much of the action of the episode happened within the lives of stockbrokers who act as if The Wolf of Wall Street had some more, but not much, restraint. In fact the backstabbing and sociopathic world of stockbrokers isn’t only a good match for the tone of a spy show, but it also allows Spooks too often overwrought dialogue to ring as genuine, because everyone in this world already sounds so fake.
Who gets sent in as a stockbroker undercover? Why it’s the man with money troubles: Danny. Once again Spooks is wisely playing with the idea that people’s vices are often useful insights into dangerous worlds. Danny is gleeful at his assignment, clearly taking to it like a giddy fish to shark infested waters. He revels in the status, the adrenaline of the trade room floor and the lifestyle that goes with it. When he discovers MI5 have converted his flat to match his high-life cover, he’s overjoyed rather than feeling violated like Zoe. (We’ll get to her various violations by MI5 soon.) Danny flirts with the blatant femme fatale (Maxim) that was sleeping with a stock broker murdered by the Russian mob. He’s clearly having fun there too. Danny is clearly not aware of the fact that he is playing with his own personal fire. Even at the end of the episode after escaping torture by the Russian mob, Danny seems none the wiser. One of the lovely touches about this mission is that Harry clearly hates encouraging Danny’s recklessness with money and takes every chance he can to glibly prevent Danny having too much fun. Although Danny is certainly experiencing the best parts of a cover story.
Zoe however, is having no fun with her cover story. She’s assigned as Danny’s backup, but in the guise of a cleaner, which is a nice piece of contrast. Her fun pal from the pub Carlo, is discovered to have ties to the Russian mob, a fact she only discovers after she’s recorded sleeping with him by MI5 in a hotel room leased to said mob. London is a city of millions and it is a little ridiculous that Zoe’s random romantic partner happens to have relevance to an international incidence. However this ridiculousness is completely forgivable when the moment turns into great character work for Zoe. It turns out she never performed a background check on Carlo as she wanted at least something in her life to not be tied to MI5, a great continuation of her overheating frustrations so far this season.
Harry also has a subplot that is his endearing connection to the head banker of the stockbrokers, who cannot physically cope with the stress of playing spies with the Russian mob. Meanwhile new girl Ruth is revealed to be a mole for Downing Street, however Tom only puts her on probation so she can be a double agent. It’s lovely that this show is employing the cynicism of MI5 spying on their own bosses and vice versa. Speaking of Tom, since his break up with Ellie his has turned his easy-going friendly nature with his staff into being too much of a dick. He’s condescending to the engineers and unsympathetic to the unglamorous expectations he keeps putting on Zoe.
The climax of the whole thing has the same ring of truth as the rest of the story. Danny’s cover is blown when seducing Maxim and so she leads him back to a Russian safe house/flat/hole. Whilst Danny is clearly a little worried about coming to harm, the writers don’t force unnecessary tension into the proceedings and he’s swiftly rescued by a SWAT team due to a bug he’d logically have on his person.
As for guest stars this week is quite strong. The episode contains the likes of Sophie Okonedo, Julie Cox and Oliver Ford Davies. The head of the Russian mafia is played by Rade Šerbedžija. This is the least surprising casting of the entire piece. Especially if you’ve seen his evil Russian (or thereabouts) characters in the likes of Mission Impossible II, 24, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, X-Men: First Class, Taken 2 and a few more TV guest roles whose description also seems to match the trend. I suppose there is nothing wrong with hiring a character actor though.
A joyful watch. Blood and Money has all the trappings of a modern spy thriller. It’s not about nations on a map, but unbridled capitalists and their mobster friends and their friends in high office. Spying ruins lives. Love is impossible within the service. People are dicks. Great well conveyed stuff!