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I started watching this show because I tend to enjoy British TV (the shorter seasons generally make for a higher quality per episode product) and because it came recommended by some sources I trust.  I also tend to like spy stuff.

I think the conceit is that it's about domestic spies in England with a focus on how difficult it is to live a normal personal life when you are in the business of deceit.

Overall, I think the pluses of the show are the great acting, and surprisingly high production values for a British series, and the willingness to kill of any main character at anytime, which lends a sense of urgency.  There are some characters that I particularly like, such as the Tom Quinn character.  It was almost a science experiment of things they could put him through the see if he would eventually break down.  Other characters, like Zaf, are just poorly drawn shells of humans.

My biggest beef with the show, however, is the sheer carelessness with which some episodes are written.  It's painfully easy to tell at times that the writer was in a corner and had to throw in a convenient mechanism to get out of it.  For instance, there is one episode where the protagonists had no leads until a government official attempted to sneak out of a meeting with several files, and subsequently admitted treason within ten seconds of suspicion being placed on her.

There also another episode where one of the protagonists was framed by another branch of the security services.  This was done by a recording from a subway ("tube") security camera showing her standing next to a guy that eventually jumped in front of a train, framing her for his murder.  At the exact moment of him jumping, the "security footage" cut to a closeup of two hands pushing someone.  The spooks were nonplussed as to how to disprove this damning evidence.  I have an idea: Maybe tell the authorities there is no security camera in the world that zooms in at random times.

I'm currently on season six (of ten seasons) and feel as if I should see it through.

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I'm about halfway through season six now.  It has gotten a lot better.

At this point I can say that seasons 1-5, with a couple of exceptions that I won't get into now, were simply not good TV.  They aren't worth your time.  As I mentioned above, it was largely procedural, poorly drawn characters, confounding motivations, and huge plot holes.  I suspect it only got that far because it was almost certainly impressive as being the British-made of its time with the highest production values.  I think it's also noteworthy that prior to season six the show produced precisely zero breakout stars.  Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield from Peter Jackson's The Hobbit) is introduced at some point later in the series and I'm greatly looking forward to that.

Season six has been a remarkable improvement on previous seasons.  The primary difference is the show has gone from one-offs (and really, there can only be so many terrorist bomb scares before it gets redundant), to a serialized format.  Episodes build on each other with a series of loose threads that actually pay off.  At the point I'm at there is at least one mole in the team, one agent in the wind, and one agent a hostage to a terrorist group.

I'm still not a fan of the Adam Carter character, who was always too much of a boy scout for me to find interesting.

I think it's also interesting to note that six is the season that saw Neil Cross (who would go on to create Luther) take the lion's share of the writing duties, penning four of season six's ten episodes (up from just one in season five).  There are many similarities between Spooks and Luther - his magnum opus.  Primarily, they are both exceedingly unoriginal shows executed with extreme technical precision.  Luther is a carefully constructed stew consisting of very specific portions of Silence of the Lambs, The Shield, and Sherlock.  The difference, I suppose, is that Luther features a transcendent talent in Idris Elba, while Spooks was never able to find that star.

Still, I'm excited about seeing how this all ends.

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Spoiler Alert

I just finished season 6 episode 6 "The Courier."  This episode was penned by George Tiffin, the only writing credit of note on his IMDB page.

It's a continuation of the season long plot about Iran attempting to become a nuclear power.  It's convoluted as hell and sometimes I can't follow it.  But I think the idea was that the Americans arranged a sale of a fake nuclear trigger in order to create a justification to invade Iran.

Actually, now that I think about it, this whole plot line started in season 6 episode 1, in which the Spooks detonated a train in order to prevent an Iranian terrorist from entering the UK.  But it turns out that he was carrying a virus that was released because of the explosion and caused a great deal of damage in Iran.  There are suspicions that the British were indeed behind this, but I don't think it was ever proven.

This is somehow related to the nuclear trigger issue, but I'm not sure how.  Regardless, the Iranians were onto the fake trigger ploy and arranged to buy a working trigger (if it's this easy to get working triggers, one wonders how preventing  this one deal would really help in the long run).  The spooks worked this out and attempted to stop the eponymous courier from reaching Tehran with the working trigger.  Agent Adam Carter was on the plane working with two main restrictions.

(1) He didn't know which of the 85 passengers was the courier.

(2) He couldn't act because the Iranians had rigged the UK water supply with a poison that would be released if the British tried to stop the plane.

The resolution reminded me a lot of episodes in the earlier seasons in which the spooks completely botched the job.  The poison was stopped from reaching the water supply by a matter of seconds.  The plane was forced to land just before leaving European airspace.  Unfortunately, when disembarking, the courier was able to slip the plans to man who drove off before the spooks could stop him (Adam Carter's efforts were frustrated by some Syrian soldiers).

This was really just a confounding episode.  The spooks were completely reckless in stopping the poison to the point that their bumbling efforts nearly killed millions.  The British government managed to stop the plane and arranged to have all the passengers detained.  Still, they weren't told not to arrest Adam Carter and to make sure a hand off didn't happen, which it clearly did.

I should also say that some agents from a different branch were sent in to sweep the Spooks' HQ for bugs, because of some worry about a mole.  Indeed, Ros (one of the main characters), recently turned double agent for a secretive group of Anti-American British.  She had some bugs set up but in a moment of GROSS OVERSIGHT failed to disable them all before the sweepers came despite being warned about them.

Well it turned out at the the end, in a "twist", that the sweepers were part of the shadow organization themselves and thus Ros was off the hook.  One wonders, of course, that if these agents were working for the shadow organization, why they needed Ros to plant these to begin with.

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"The Broadcast"

Writer: David Farr

Season 6; Episode 7

Grade: B

After a really weak sixth episode, this David Farr-written episode marked a return to the status quo.  The plot was, of course, convoluted, but I think I have a general grasp on what is going on.

This was a classic bottle episode, taking place primarily in a BBC studio, where delegates from Iran, the US and the UK were doing a townhall to announce their new peace accord.  The peace accord was engineered by the Americans and British in reaction to Iran gaining nuclear capabilities.  They realized that Iran was now a player, the time for aggression was over, and it was time to appease them.

Much to my chagrin, I'm now drawing a blank on why this deal had to be announced publicly at a townhall meeting.  I think it was meant to send a message that this was strictly a peaceful accord, so no suspicions would be raised.  They managed to convince the Iranian special counsel to do it because they had custody of his wife and promised to put her into hiding in Vancouver BC.

Well, things went terribly, terribly wrong (natch).  It turns out that a the underground movement called Yalta had more or less engineered all of the season up until this point.  They got the nuclear triggers to Iran because they felt that a check was needed on the Americans, just what this agreement would achieve.  In fact, they knew everything about what the Spooks were up to even before they turned Ros.

What they didn't expect was that one of their own moles within MI-5 would go rogue and attempt to uncover the whole plot.  He hired some racist group to infiltrate the BBC broadcast and force the officials to tell the truth.  Fortunately, the Spooks had put Adam Carter and Ros in the audience.  A journalist ally of theirs was also there for reasons I never really grasped (he hooked up with Jo earlier in the season).  They defused the situation.  But of course Yalta had bugged Ros so they went to kill the Special Consul's wife at the end (who Adam was led to believe was already dead, because he loves her?).  They managed to save her and she went on to beautiful Vancouver.

At the end Ros and Adam went in for the kiss.

As far as a Spooks episode goes, this episode was more-or-less straightforward.  I can't say I have a strong idea of what is going on at this point, but it was certainly exciting.

I'm less of a fan of the burgeoning relationship between Adam and Ros.  They hooked up at the end of the last season, but that inexplicably stopped.  Then Adam banged the special consul's wife and may or may not have gotten her pregnant.  Ros was CLEARLY upset about this but couched it in terms of Adam losing his perspective and not being trustworthy anymore.  Now that she's out of the picture, Adam wasted no time in getting on top of Ros again.  After losing his wife a couple of seasons ago (and his son apparently getting written off the show), I can see how he might have lost his moorings.  But this is exactly what they did with Tom as he lost everything held dear and eventually went off the rails.  Perhaps because it's been done before, or perhaps because Adam is more a of a classic action hero hunk, it lacks the gravitas it did when it happened with Tom.

Maybe I just never liked this character.

Why am I writing about this?

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Writer: Atrick Riley

Season 8: Episode 5

Grade: B-

I got behind on writing these up and it's a shame because Season 7 is when things finally got good.  Of course, when a TV show only gets good by season 7, you probably aren't watching a good show.

Seven was really the turning point as it became much less episodic, calling back minor characters that you thought were one-offs, showing a bit more of foresight.  It was also nice that Adam Carter finally died, giving way to a new male lead in Lucas North (played by Richard Armitage).  Armitage is probably only the legitimate star the show's had and it was clear that things got better when he signed on.  He's just really handsome and has the magnetism of a movie star.

Season seven also gave a character a real arc: Ros Myers, the badass agent cum section lead.  We saw her go from a potential turncoat to perhaps the most valuable member of the team.  It was an interesting arc, and I found myself liking her despite thinking she was a bit robotic to begin with.

This episode we are talking about here is the follow-up to a big reveal that North's new GF (CIA agent Sarah Caufield, played by Irish actress Genevieve O'Reilly) is not who she seems to be.

Now, I have to talk about this actress for a moment.  She's a perfectly fine actress, and she's got a banging body (English TV allows nudity).  But she's an Irish actress trying to do an American accent and it absolutely shows.  It's puzzling.  She dips from a generic American accent, to a deep southern drawl, to Brooklyn accent within the same sentence.  It's highly distracting.

I was happy to see it's not just me who noticed it.  If you type in Sarah Caufield into google, it adds "accent" to the end of the search.  See:


Anyhow, this was a fine episode.  It was easy to follow, logically plotted and there was a fine amount of intrigue.  The major plot hole (there's always one) is that the spooks are supposed to have a really good scanner for anyone entering HQ, yet somehow some chip that emitted a wireless signal wasn't picked up.  And this thing has picked up way more stealthy devices.

Whatever.  I think I'm going to take a break from this show and check out True Detective.

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Writer: Dennis Kelly

Season 8: Episode 6

Grade: C+

This was sort of a strange episode.  90% of it was about dealing with some sort of plot device where the Spooks had to uncover some fraudulent bank activity so the government could seize assets and use that money to not default on its own debt.  There was a two minute scene where this was all explained, its ramifications (economic crisis) outlined and all that.  It couldn't help feeling like a completely one-off though.  Then, Sarah Caufield came clean with Lucas and just when we thought she would kill him, killed her self.  This little move has been pulled A LOT on this show and its getting stale.

While I'm happy to be done with the Sarah character and her awful accent, this show is getting quite tedious.  The writers are clearly having trouble coming up with a crisis of the week (this was a nadir for that phenomenon) and what with (spoiler alert) Jo getting killed off a few episodes earlier, the show is running out of sympathetic characters (unless you are shipping Harry and Ruth - I'm not).

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Writer: James Dormer

Season 8: Episode 7

Grade: B

A return to form for Spooks!  So, I was way off above.  Sarah is not dead!  In fact, she apparently just discharged her firearm and scampered off while Lucas had his eyes closed, waiting for the dark angel of death.  I don't know if she'll ever been onscreen again, but her presence sure loomed over this episode, like the can of pringles I consumed while watching it (once you pop, you simply cannot stop).

You might have thought this would be a by the books case of Hindu terror cells threatening Muslim targets in London, with Lucas North running a reluctant informant within one of those cells.  But you'd be wrong because it turns out the global intelligence group "Nightingale", of which Sarah is a member, was pulling all the strings.  And you also got a nice little jolt of morality at the end with the informant telling Lucas (i.e., "liarman") that he (Lucas) is no different than a terrorist sitting in the back, getting others to do his bidding.

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Writer: Ben Richards

Season 8: Episode 8

Grade: B

This was a bit of a sloppy episode, but an eventful one.  It wrapped up the overarching plot of season 8, with the "Nightingale" scheme uncovered as a group of important world intelligence officers conspiring to bring Pakistan and India to war for reasons that were entirely clear.  The hand-waving seemed to be that it was better to create a war one could control than allow a war to happen on its own.  I don't really get the distinction.

The other major annoyance was how they dealt with the Sarah (bad accent actress) character.  After capturing her, they held her in a hospital room with one guard, despite knowing that the Nightingale group had overcome much greater security many times in the past.  Why not bring her into headquarters?  Or leave more guards?  Regardless, she was killed (for real this time), and so was Ros at the end when she died trying to save the home secretary.  I thought Ros' death was well done as she died for someone that seemed rather incompetent and unimportant.  But it was her duty to save him, showing just how far she had come.

I'll miss Tobias Menzies who played the home secretary with aplomb.  You may know him as Edmure Tully from Game of Thrones, where he does a similar dance of feigned authority and incompetence.

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Writer: Jonathan Brackley & Sam Vincent

Season 9: Episode 1

Grade: B-

The season premier of season nine begins with Ros' funeral and quickly transitions into some of the more lousy story-telling you've seen on TV recently.  Lucas North reports in to HQ about the missions he's on (an assassination of a terrorist on a cargo ship) by explaining the entire conceit of his mission to the operator, who surely knows this already as it's a long-planned mission.  This is an example of thinly veiled exposition that is enough to take the viewer out of the episode.

The rest proceeds as pretty much every Spooks episode does, with a terror plot narrowly averted.  The (sorta) complexity is that Harry had tried to resign earlier in the episode, realized he was needed and ended up not resigning.  He also proposed to Ruth earlier in the episode and she declined.

I suppose the best scene was the one at the end where Ruth explains why she could not marry Harry.  She tells him that it wouldn't be real - they'd have to pretend.  The only truth they know is their daily life-saving work, and they don't need to be married for that.  Peter Firth does some genuine acting in that scene.  A for that performance.  B- for the episode.

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Writer: David Farr

Season 9: Episode 2

Grade: A-

This episode had everything working against it - a writer with little experience with the show and a dreadful beginning, but turned out to be one of the better Spooks episodes I've seen.

The beginning was another terrible bit of exposition.  The team had a hotel lobby staked out for a potential assassin, and in one of the very first bits of dialogue we here Lucas North tell his team: "Five of them may work in the Surrey Hills and work in the oil industry, but one of them is a trained assassin."  I'm pretty sure with this team all over the hotel lobby, they had worked this out already.

But I'm glad I gave this episode a chance because it truly did redeem itself.  Farr's episode was cleverly plotted.  This was the first full episode with Beth as part of the team (the private contractor from the last episode that helped Lucas out), and it turned out her past came back to haunt her, and she had to lie about it to remain a government spooks.  Of course she was found out, repented, saved the day, and was allowed to stay.  But the way it played out was quite interesting, with the same set of events being shown from three different points of view.  This is the first time Spooks has played with non-linear plotting and it worked well.

There is also a new enduring mystery with a recent reveal that Lucas North may not be who he says he is.  He apparently switched identities with a man long ago who now wants it back.

This allowed for a nice parallel between his and Beth's situation throughout the episode, giving it something of a first for Spooks - a coherent theme!

Of course, it does raise the question of why the British government is so bad about vetting the backgrounds of their spies.

You can't win them all.

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Writer: Richard McBrien

Season 9: Episode 3

Grade: B

The Spooks' mission in this third episode of season 9 centered around a Kazakhstani plot to obtain a dangerous virus to use against the Russians.  At the start of the episode, we see the Spooks assisting the Russians to defuse this plot by incinerating the last batch of this virus.  The Russians, however, take this chance to also kill off nearly the entire band of Kazakhstani terrorists, much to the chagrin of the Spooks.

In an act of mercy, Harry Pearce, despite seeing one more terrorist on the radar screen, fails to report this to the team on the ground, thus assuring the man gets away and is not brutally murdered by the Russians.  This turns out to be something of a mistake, as the desperate man learns of another batch of this virus, and they spend most of the episode tracking him down.

This episode features a good deal of tension between Harry and the new home secretary, who orders the Spooks to continue collaborating with the FSB to catch the escaped terrorist.  Harry still doesn't trust the Russians, and is of course vindicated later in the episode.

The action in this episode is fast paced and there are a couple of cool points where the villain switches from the Kazakhstani terrorists to the Russians.  There is also a bit more development in North's past life coming to haunt him (it's also fun that this happens in the form of Iain Glen who plays Jorah Mormont on Game of Thrones).  Not a spectacular one, but a fine one.

I should also say that it's interesting that writers and producers chose the show's great romance to be between two older characters (late 40s at least).  This is quite uncommon for TV and a bold move.  I guess the problem is the actors really aren't given much to sink their teeth into.  I'm always a bit unclear about exactly why Ruth is holding back - her reasons are terrible, unless at the end of the day she's just not that into Harry.

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Writer: Jonathan Brackley & Sam Vincent

Season 9: Episode 4

Grade: D

This is the review in which I express my displeasure in the way this season is going.  The grade D reflects the notion that this entire episode (of which many parts were fine) was ruined by inexcusably lazy writing.

The main conflict in this episode was a plot by the Chinese (an underused villain in Spooks, in my opinion) to kidnap a Chinese scientist in England who was pioneering a technique to desalinate seawater.

That was all fine, and in particular the performance by the actor playing the Chinese agent the spooks turned was flawless.

My beef is in how the writers have chosen to write Richard Armitage's Lucas North character of the show.  They did something similar with Tom Quinn (the original male lead) was written off, but here is just much more clumsy, and frankly intellectually dishonest.  When Tom was written off, there was an arc of episodes in which he slowly got disenchanted with the work he was doing.  This was very much in keeping with his character an early episodes in which he lost pretty much everyone close to him.

Lucas North's exit from the show is very different.  The writers have apparently decided to have him betray the country by leaking a file to a third party. I originally thought (see previous reviews) that this was just work on his backstory, with North having a false identity.  In fact, it's something very different.  What happened was a man from North's past (Jorah Mormont) came seeking access to a MI-5 file, threatening to reveal North's past with his bosses.  North dismissed him, but was seemingly reminded of something and went to see an old flame who he tried to rekindle things with.  This didn't make a lot of sense because North was living with an apparently in love with a Russian woman before he was put in a Russian prison and tortured for eight years.

Anyhow, I guess he realized he loved this woman and started pursuing her again, telling her things would be different.  This is a big detail to add out of the blue.

North then told Jorah Mormont to go ahead and tell Harry Pearce, he wouldn't believe Mormont.  Mormont then came over the top and threatened then new/old girl.  And guess what, North decided to go ahead with the treason, stealing the file and placing the blame on some dupe.

The writers know this is completely out of character for North.  This is a guy who was tortured for eight years for Harry Pearce and England and refused to turn traitor.  So that's why they added this girl, but it's just a completely transparent attempt to explain this treason (and reason to write the character off, as the actor had grown beyond the show).  This girl was never mentioned prior to this arc and in fact North had multiple love interests during that time to which he was quite torn up about losing.  Why did he decide to seek her out now?

There are several credible ways to write a character off a show.  This is  not one of them and is simply a slap to face of anyone who hoped the writers might be at least mildly considerate in the way they treat the characters they created.

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Writer: Jonathan Brackley & Sam Vincent & Oliver Brown

Season 9: Episode 5

Grade: B-

This episode is about a plot to assassinate the U.S. President who was in London to mediate a historic agreement between Israel and Palestine.  The spooks were assigned to making sure the negotiations went off smoothly, and when the assassination plot was revealed, to thwart that scheme.  There have been other episodes about the Spooks installed in a hotel making sure negotiations go well, so this was a bit of a rehash with the President scheme grafted over it.  The action beats were pretty good, and there is a nice about of intrigue as the assassin(s) seem one step ahead all time, suggesting a leak among the Spooks.  This is a always fun stuff.

The "reveal" at the end is that Lucas North's new girlfriend (who he sold MI-5 data for; which was also probably the source of the leak) is still seeing her old  boyfriend (who may of been alluded to before, although not clearly, and so this whole reveal fell a bit flat).  Lucas walks in on them and it turns out to be Jorah Mormont!  And he's not crippled after all!  So it appears Lucas has been played this whole time (although not in a particularly interesting way).  I think the only thing I'm consistently surprised at is how handsome Richard Armitage is.

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Writer: Jonathan Brackley & Sam Vincent

Season 9: Episode 6

Grade: B

This could have easily been an excellent episode (an A by my scale) if not marred by the character issues I describe (ad nauseum) above.

The deal is that it comes to light that the Spooks' HQ ("The Grid") has been completely and utterly bugged and hacked, with the Chinese and Russians (working together) having access to all of their systems and full knowledge of everything going on.  Their goal is to get access to a new joint MI-5-CIA computer system that's due to be installed any minute by sort of a alternative cute girl reformed computer hacker in the employ of the CIA.  Fortunately, Tariq figures this out and thus the Spooks have to pretend that they don't know they are being surveilled (because apparently the hackers can just go ahead and take all of their confidential information, which they are not doing now because that would involve revealing themselves) while simultaneously trying to figure out who the hackers are.  During all of this Lucas is escorting the alt. American hacker.  During this process he hears from Jorah Mormont who needs him to get the Albany file ASAP or he's going to kill the girl.  There's a lot of fat in the fryer and it makes for some pretty good action and suspense.  The only real misfire (other than what I'll discuss below) is that these writers really don't know how to write these American characters.  I think they are going for some sort of culture clash/unlikely friendship between Lucas the the hacker, but she comes of as some caricature of an American hipster.  She's also just wildly annoying.

This is also the episode where Lucas goes completely off the rails.  It's baffling how someone who was completely loyal and sympathetic would completely throw all of that away for a character that was introduced a few episodes ago.  It's awful and was clearly done because the actor wanted to leave the show.  Long story short, Lucas ends up murdering the hacker for this new love interest (she finds out about his recent extracurricular interests).  It marred an otherwise good episode.

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Writer: Anthony Neilson

Season 9: Episode 7

Grade: C

This penultimate episode of the season is largely focused on the the Spooks' discovery of North's recent activities and their efforts to either thwart or help him.  With the last episode depicting North murdering a civilian in order to give himself a chance to complete his mission to help Jorah Mormont and thus ensure the safety of his new girlfriend, it's impossible to root for him anymore.  I found myself just hoping this whole sordid affair would be over soon.

The B plot involves Ruth investigating a concerned municipal worker's (and failed MI-5 applicant) fortuitous discovery of top French assassin on UK soil.  This bit is fairly well done, and served to callback her feelings about the life she left behind in Greece and the toll the job takes on the Spooks.

Concerning what is almost certainly the second to last time we'll see Richard Armitage on the show, North finally "comes clean" with Harry, explaining the nature of his dealings with Jorah Mormont.  It seems that before he joined MI-5 and thus before he was a Russian captive for eight years, he had worked in Dakar at a casino with the real Lucas North, a man who had been accepted to work at MI-5.  The man we know as Lucas had fallen in with Jorah Mormont, doing various shady tasks, the final being a delivering a bomb to the British embassy, which killed 8 people.  To escape, either he or Mormont killed the real North, stole his passport, and assumed his identity.  The rest is history.

This reveal is interesting, and you might understand how North might do what he did to protect his history.  However, show makes it clear that for him it's all about this new girl, which still makes no sense to me.  Later in the episode we learn that the file Lucas stole for Mormont wasn't the real thing and he tries desperately to find it to save his lady's life.  In the course of this he convinces Harry to let him go deal with Mormont, which he does (killing him).  The next episode surely resolves this whole fiasco.

Can Lucas be saved?

Will he get the Albany file?

What is the Albany file?

Postscript: I should have noted that the prior episode depicted the return of Malcom (who had apparently been entrusted by Harry with a decoy copy of the Albany file)!

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Writer: Jonathan Brackley & Sam Vincent

Season 9: Episode 8 (season 9 finale)

Grade: B-

Season 9's merciful finale was a rather straightforward (and rather predictable) culmination of the overarching plot of Lucas North's eventual betrayal of the Spooks in order to secure a life with his new/old paramour and hide his secret identity.

The episode begins with a masterful deke.  Lucas calls in saying he wants to give himself up.  This rightfully sets off some alarm bells with the Spooks, but they feel they can't take the chance he's serious, so they send a team to get him.  It is, of course, a deke, and he manages to kidnap Ruth while they are following the decoy.  Lucas then, rather despicably, offers up Ruth as a trade for the Albany file (which he plans to give the Chinese in exchange for a new life).  Lucas knows that Ruth is Harry's soft spot, but Harry plays this down saying Lucas it taking a chance but his plan must be to find the other people who know about Albany and find their soft spots.  After all, Lucas knows Harry is impenetrable.   Here we learn what Albany is -  a genetically codable pathogen capable of making genocide quite easy.

The rest of the episode unfolds in typical Spooks fashion.  It turns out Harry is weak and eventually gives up Albany when Lucas threatens to kill Ruth (he's completely gone at this point, not at all the character we once knew; in fact, they throw in the fact that Lucas actually knowingly went along with the bomb plot in Dachar).  The final confrontation involves Lucas and Harry with Lucas committing suicide.

The first male lead of the show - Tom Quinn - was written off really well.  Over time we saw him lose the people important to him, until he completely broke down.  Writing off Lucas North was completely different.  We saw his history completely (and hastily) rewritten to get the actor off the show.  The only good thing I can say about season 9 is that it sets up an interesting final season with Harry on trial for allowing for a state secret to be leaked to a foreign government on account of his personal relationship with an employee.

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Writer: Jonathan Brackley & Sam Vincent

Season 10: Episode 1

Grade: C+

Brackley and Vincent, who were responsible for much of the ninth season, more or less run this final season of Spooks.  Given that I felt season nine was a big letdown, I'm not entirely optimistic about how the tenth and final season of this remarkably long-running, sometimes quite good, often quite bad, series will end. Brackley and Vincent, if last season is any indication, seem to be happy to take a middle ground, steering this show into one that is half spy procedural and half serialized.  In other words, it's somewhere in between a Law and Order with spies and the new wave of fully serialized TV (e.g., Orange is the New Black, Game of Thrones, House of Cards).  It's a shame they are conservative in this regard, because they have proven quite aggressive in other areas of story-telling (i.e., killing off main characters with reckless abandon).

This episode was more of the same (but no one was killed off).  Harry is still reeling from the aftershocks of the season nine finale.  He's been ousted from the spooks while he is on trial for his decision to favor an agent (he has romantic feelings for) over state secrets.  There's actually quite a good bit in a trial scene where he goes over the agent's (Ruth) abilities and track record, demonstrating she's no mere personal relationships but an asset herself, one rivaling the secret he lost.

The trial is adjourned as it comes to light Harry's expertise is needed (and fast).  He rejoins the spooks who are now helmed by the beautiful Lara Pulver ("Her" from BBC's Sherlock).  She's quickly demoted down to section chief (Lucas North's old position) as Harry takes over again.

The crisis is that a Russian diplomat, whose wife happens to be an old (and longest-running) Cold War era MI-5 asset, is in town for secret meetings to negotiate a new "very special relationship."  The explanation given is that the US has too many enemies and Britain wants to get in bed with a less contentious ally with connections in the Middle East.  Seems implausible.  The Spooks have found a plot against diplomat (and ostensibly his wife) and try to protect him.  There are also a bunch of FSB agents running around trying to do the same, one being the asset's son.

The ending is rather predictable with the Spooks saving the day and the heavily foreshadowed and not-at-all surprising reveal that the FSB agent's father is Harry.  This was played up at the end as big deal and a cliff-hanger, but the audience doesn't have enough invested in these relationships to really care.

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Writer: Jonathan Brackley & Sam Vincent

Season 10: Episode 2

Grade: A-


There are times when the last season of a television show is its best.  This is usually the case when the writers know the show is going to end and no longer have to worry about stringing out a story line over future seasons and can move the lives of the characters forward without holding anything back.

Is it possible that's what's happening in this final season of Spooks?  Because, this may have been the best episode I've seen.

To catch you up on the plot, the episode before had seen a high-ranking Russian official and his wife come to town to broker a new era of cooperation between England and Russia.  The problem was that the wife is (and has since the Cold War) been an MI-5 asset run by Harry Pearce himself.  And she seemed to think she was being sent instructions by him but was rather being run by someone with all of Harry's passwords.  To make matters worst her and Harry's son (who to all else is her son with her Russian husband) is a FSB agent and knows about her treason.

The present episode contains two plot lines that are probably connected.

The B plot concerns the Russian wife.  She and Harry finally meet in person so that he can explain to her she's being run by someone else and is probably in a great deal of danger.  The son follows and learns that another FSB agent is also onto his mom, necessitating he kill this dude to protect his mom.  There's a rather well-shot scene as he kills this guy whose only crime is being good at his job.  It's set to instrumental music as Harry and the mom are meeting at a ballet recital and the killing occurs backstage.  It's a beautifully filmed sequence with the elegant music juxtaposing against a brutal murder.  And it's only slightly offset by the contrivance of Harry and the mom meeting in an empty ballet with a single dancer and no director, stagehands, and no one backstage to witness the crime.  This is the main reason I dinged this episode down to a A-.

The existence of Harry's son also helps out the Harry-Ruth will they won't they by giving them a reason for tension between them, beyond previous nonsense about them being "too close."

The A plot is a classic Spooks.  In the opening scene they lose a laptop with the identities of high-level assets.  The thief begins decrypting these names and releasing them online.  One of them (Margaret) is part of a Russian organization and thus they have to leave her in while she gathers some last second intel.  She manages to make it out at the last second.  It turns out however, that despite all her help and loyalty the Spooks have to end up burning her, essentially throwing her to the wolves.  It's a pretty moving scene as the new section chief (Erin) explains this to her, while Margaret begs for her life.

The episode ends with Tariq going through security footage at home, finally finding a lead about the thief of the suitcase (who probably is also the person secretly running the Russian wife as both seem to have unfiltered access to everything the Spooks are doing).  As he finds this his computer begins to shutdown.  He finds a bug in his router, calls Harry, leaves a message and then runs out for a cab.  As he's getting in the cab, a guy runs into him, who it turns out injected him with some poison.  Tariq dies.  RIP Tariq.

This was a shockingly compelling episode.  Most of the action sequences were right on.  Tariq - who they did some emergency character development on earlier in the episode having him get angry with a more privileged spook because Tariq fought his way up from the bottom - was always a loyal and unassuming dude so his death hurt.  And finally, the conceit of Spooks has always been about the personal toll the job takes on the agents.  The show got back to that here, and not just with Tariq paying the ultimate price.  We see Erin dealing with the emotional turmoil of burning an asset by shutting down.  She has an emotionless whiskey with Harry before going back to her husband and kids.  She seems to have figured out what no Spook so far has - how to have a vibrant personal life and successful professional one. She might also be a sociopath.  We also see Ruth and Harry's fledgling relationship take another hit.  And finally we see the ultimate mix of business and pleasure as Harry's illegitimate son has to kill to keep his mother (Harry's paramour) safe.  Style and substance?  I didn't think you had it in you, Spooks.

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Writer: Jonathan Brackley & Sam Vincent

Season 10: Episode 3

Grade: C+

Damn it!  Just when I started to have a little faith that this show might find some sustained greatness, it does this to me.  As you might recall, things were heating up in the last episode of the series with a main character murdered as he got closer to a dark secret linking the overarching plot of the season (who is running Harry's old lover?) to the plot of that episode (a stolen laptop).  Tariq's murder was indeed highly suspicious as he called in a code red to Harry moments before dying.

Yet somehow his death was largely glossed over in this episode.  There was even some breaking of the fourth wall as early in the episode Harry tells a subordinate that something more important had come up (a terrorist threat) and that the subordinate would have to work on Tariq's death on the side, if he had anytime.  Rarely do you see a A/B plot distinction drawn more distinctly than that on your TV set.

And the A plot was an overt job of treading water as the writers slowly wind the serious down.  At one point, the terrorist, who was terminally ill with cancer was somehow talked into letting his target go to engage in a one-on-one with a spook.  It didn't make any sense.  Neither did this episode.

The side work on the mystery of Tariq's death suggests CIA involvement and moreover a high-ranking CIA official may be the one running Harry's ex-lover and the one trying to sabotage UK-Russian relations.

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Writer: Sean Cook

Season 10: Episode 4

Grade: D

Well, that was uncomfortable.  In never thought I'd say it, but this episode left me missing Brackley and Vincent, who while certainly not great writers, manage to put together competent episodes of TV.  This one was just awful from top to bottom.

This episode grafted something like the tenth Islamic terrorist bombing story onto the already streched thin overarching CIA/Russia plot line.  With regard to the latter, we are now pretty confident that the CIA is involved in killing an MI-5 agent, attempting to kill a Russian diplomat and his MI-5 asset wife, and generally betraying a personal trust with Harry that's lasted decades.  That last bit is a minor annoyance of mine, as we've seen over and over that old allies and enemies of Harry's pop up from time to time.  This is generally consistent with his character as you'd expect an old school spy to have met a lot of people over the years.  But when these people are dropped into the middle of a TV season, it feels like a contrivance.  I much prefer shows like Breaking Bad which called back characters that had been established earlier in the series.  But really, that's just the tip of the iceberg with this season.

This episode felt like an operation in amateurish TV writing.  The first scene featured Erin spending a perfect moment with her family.  As it ended I muttered to myself, "well, she's dying in this episode."  And I wasn't far off.  The cookie-cutter terrorist bombing plot was just like so many other - there was a bombing planned that MI-5 was trying to stop by using an Al Qaeda mole.  In return for his help, the spooks promised to help his daughter immigrate to England.  Once again, it just felt like a distraction from the Russia plot.  And worse, everything in this episode was sloppy.  Besides the aforementioned overt foreshadowing, the pacing was confounding.  For instance, Harry hatched a plan to see if the CIA was really involved that should have taken days to work, yet the very next scene was the resolution of this plan.  A bad guy walked through a warehouse and two (John Woo) white doves flew off.  I rolled my eyes.  Two characters spoke on a park bench at at the peak of the conversation a group of pigeons blasted off around them.  I rolled my eyes again.

Fortunately there are only two episodes left.

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MI-5 - Season One 

1. "Thou Shalt Not Kill" - May 13, 2002: Mary_Kane.jpg

[Notes: Written by David Wolstencroft, directed by Bharat Nalluri. The introduction to MI-5, or "Spooks" (btw, James Bond's division in real life is MI-6) comes at the viewer fast and furious, with not much time to get to know the characters. You need to be elevated on caffeine to be watching this show, as if you miss just a few seconds at the wrong time, you'll miss a lot. It's interesting that for the very first episode, they chose to write about a Southern-American abortion clinic bomber, the fanatical Mary Kane (played by Lisa Eichhorn) - you'll love the part at the end when she's taped having sex and confronted with it; also when she's tossed the Florida brochure. This is a fast-paced, slick, action-thriller that - although I can't imagine watching the entire series - is a welcome and fun change of pace from what I've been tormenting myself with. Thanks to Jasonc (Member #114!) for introducing me to it - I'd never even heard of it before.]

2. "Looking After Our Own" - May 20, 2002: mi5_s01e02_pic7.jpg

[Notes: Written by David Wolstencroft (2), directed by Bharat Nalluri (2). One thing I'm having problems with watching MI-5 is the rapid-fire dialog which forces me to rewind - often. I'll often skip back 10 seconds multiple times, and still not be able to understand a sentence - it's very frustrating. Yet, I'm really enjoying the action-packed episodes I'm watching (as opposed to the series that I've been going through - most recently, "Night Gallery" which is slow, morbid, and low-budget in comparison. Boy, Robert Osbourne (played by Keith McNalley) is a ruthless bastard who will not hesitate to second-guess, suspect, torture, or even kill anyone who gets in his way - I've never seen any "racist-based" program or movie where the racist is this powerful in terms of having high-tech access. The killing of Helen  (played by Lisa Faulkner) was extremely violent, but mostly by implication - I really appreciate that, as I abhore graphic violence for its own sake: It serves no purpose other than to sicken the viewers. Helen's demise was clearly meant to instill into the audiences' heads that "anything goes," similar to what Alfred Hitchcock did (partially) in "Psycho" by killing the star off in the first twenty minutes.]

3. "One Last Dance" - May 27, 2002: MIFI_103_Thumb.jpg

[Notes: Written by Simon Mirren (Helen Mirren's nephew), directed by Rob Bailey. I decided to watch the first three episodes twice - I figured if I was to have a chance of "getting into" this fast-paced, rapid-fire series - which I now am - I needed a solid base, and watching each episode twice *really* helped make my life easier. So far, in England, we have three domestic issues of incredible importance: 1) abortion 2) racism and 3) ethnic warfare, all three involving nationwide crises that are life-or-death situations - the type of situations that make the world news. I wonder, in real life, how many of these types of things England - a country the size of Mississippi - sees per decade, much less per season. This is something I'm just going to have to accept and suspend reality with; otherwise, the cynic in me will never be able to digest MI-5. Nevertheless, England (and the UK) is of incredible historical importance worldwide, and I'm learning about things (especially in this episode) that are driving me to Google, and having great personal benefit. I might gripe about this once or twice more, but I won't become bogged down with it despite it being a sore thumb. Compared with the other two "things" I'm traversing right now with any degree of seriousness: "Night Gallery" and "the Ingmar Bergman chronology," this is modern, slick, fun, fast-paced, and keeps me on my toes. Nothing at all against the other two, but this is very, very different in nature, and in a good way for me right now - Night Gallery is cheap, mindless escapism; Bergman is intellect (or will be); and this is action-packed *fun* that's also teaching me about other cultures and geography (England and, in this case, Kurdistan).]

4. "Traitor's Gate" - Jun 4, 2002: 298277.jpg

[Notes: Written by Howard Brenton, directed by Rob Bailey (2). A good deal harder to follow than the first three episodes, doubtless due to the writing of Howard Brenton. A plot to assassinate George W. Bush barely caused a ripple (or did it?), where as "The Interview" has North Korea crawling all over itself (and everybody else). With several sub-plots going on simultaneously, the one in Wales not at all easy to follow, this was a tough hour, and called for multiple rewinds and, I might advise, a second viewing. The final sub-plot in which legendary, old-time M-5 agent Peter Salter (pictured, played by Anthony Head) actually goes in and changed air-traffic topography seems so ridiculous that it's unbelievable, and for him to hang himself in front of his friend even more so. I'd love for someone with a good grasp of this episode to tell me what the heck happened and why I should like it because as of right now, I don't really know, and I don't.]

5. "The Rose Bed Memoirs" - Jun 10, 2002: 114868.jpg

[Notes: Written by Howard Brenton (2), directed by Andy Wilson. Memoirs - written in prison, hidden, and stolen - are causing underwear stains throughout MI-5, not just for sex scandals, but also for illegal arms deals. The plots from previous episodes are starting to intertwine (not the major plots, but the sub-plots), and this is the first episode that becomes somewhat soap-opera-ish in terms of interpersonal dramas. The two fresh antagonists, Hampton Wilder (played by Tim Pigott Smith) and Richard Maynard (played by Nicholas Farrell) are linked in with Jools Silviter (played by Hugh Laurie), who made his first appearance in "Traitor's Gate." (Click on the first name and last name of each actor to get their biographies and pictures, respectively.) There is clearly inter-episodic character development here, with sub-plots that have nothing to do with the main plot in order to develop relationships - this is most likely imperative in order to develop the series for the long term, and (e.g. in the case with Danny and his two women) is often hilarious - the first truly humorous (borderline laugh-out-loud) scenes in any MI-5 episodes. This is clearly the first MI-5 episode that cannot stand alone (and it's not the worse for it).]

6. "Lesser Of Two Evils" - Jun 17, 2002:

[Notes: Written by David Wolstencraft (3) and Howard Brenton (3), directed by Andy Wilson (2).

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I've never seen 24 - but that certainly sounds plausible if not probable (especially given Spooks started a year later).

And I was using the definition "an organizing theme or concept" when using conceit.  I try not to use the least likely definition of a word, but Michael Pollan, who I read frequently, loves to use conceit this way and it rubbed off. 


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Writer: Brackley & Vincent (with Anthony Neilson joining for the fifth episode)

Season 10: Episode 5 & 6

Grade: B

I did it!  I finished Spooks.  It's been an interesting journey.  I started this in the midst of the worst winter Toronto has seen in years and a bit of a dark period personally. Now it's 80 degrees and humid outside and I'm feeling pretty good about life.  As I enter my mid-30s I'm starting to realize that hurts last a lot longer than they used to.

Anyhow, back to Spooks.  I'll take these together since the last two are one story, focusing on the Russia/CIA plot.

The story:  So as we left off, the Spooks had determined that the CIA was secretly running the Russian's wife, trying to derail the talks between the UK and Russia.  At the beginning of episode five, Harry decides to kidnap the top CIA guy in London (a deputy director, if that means anything to you - IT SHOULD!)

Under some enhanced interrogation techniques, the CIA agent refuses to give anything up.  Ruth, who is now working directly for the Home Secretary, gives up the location of the interrogation and some CIA agents come to get their man back and chastise the Spooks.  Well they cart off the old deputy director and not long after the REAL CIA shows up and everyone freaks out because Mr. CIA has been kidnapped and it seems like he was just a red herring.  Well they manage to get him back but he dies telling them to find his laptop.

Harry is given over to the CIA because he unlawfully kidnapped one of their men.  In the meantime, the Spooks hatch a plan to get the laptop using Ruth's new diplomatic access, and to rescue Harry.  They manage to do both and find out the FSB agent isn't actually Harry's son.

None of that really matters because the Russian woman calls them up and says there's a bomb going off in London soon and she needs their help to stop it.  You see, she's actually been behind this whole thing as plot of a shadowy old KGB sect that does not want to see the new regime ally with the UK.  But this bomb is too far and now the woman wants to help.  She does, but is killed by her husband (she betrayed him too).  The son is distraught and kills Ruth for reasons I didn't quite grasp.  Harry is distraught because the love of his life is dead.

The series ends with Harry back at his job as the machine keeps on turning.

The analysis: What to say?  This was perfectly competent storytelling if not elevated story-telling.  In theory, going up against a shadowy KGB cabal and the friggin American government is a pretty cool way to go out, but in never really came together.  Extracting Harry from the CIA and stealing the laptop was shockingly easy. I expected more of a Mission Impossible-like scheme. Like I said about the beginning (as Rocks recently reminded me), it's fine.  The production values are high.  The acting is competent.  The pacing and dialogue are effective.  It's just not great and I guess during the television renaissance of the past decade, I have pretty high standards.

My biggest beef of the episode was the Tom Quinn cameo.  I was looking forward to this for the past seven seasons since he was written off the show.  While he was on, he was my favorite character.  Something about this handsome, sensitive guy who wanted to do right so badly but was beat down so many times just called to me.  And when he seemingly exited the show I googled him and saw he made a cameo in the final episode.  To be honest, it kind of kept me going to the end.  It turns out it was a cameo and nothing more than that.  At the end we hear that Harry has dispatched private contractor to kill the KGB cabal.  We see someone ring their door, pan up and it's Tom Quinn.  And that's it.

I guess the message is that even when you are out, the service has still changed you.  Tom Quinn lost that battle.  He left for ideological reasons and still became what he despised - a cold blooded killer for hire.  We've seen MI-5 ruin its agents lives, but maybe it's not the service but the people that get into it.

There are a lot of messages we could glean from this final scene.

But it just reminded me of the show's greatest failing.  It's a show that never shied from killing off main characters.  Listen, Joss Whedon is one of my favorite writers.  Not TV writers, but writers.  He's a genius.  One of his classic characteristics is killing off main characters.  The writers were surely drawing upon Whedon in episode 1 of season 1 in which a character we thought would be one of the main cast was killed.  Whedon did this in episode 1 of Buffy, even intending to put that character in the opening credits to really fuck with the audience.

But with Spooks, with only a few exceptions, we never really give a shit when a main character dies because we don't really know them.  Zaf and Tariq died in recent episodes and it felt like a formality.

You know, maybe that's the point.  MI-5 is a machine no one can escape, even when you think you're out.  Maybe I'm overthinking it.

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I just finished watching Season 1, Episode 2: "Looking After Our Own," and enjoyed it just as much as Episode 1, maybe even a little more because of added complexity. One other thing common with "24" - they don't hesitate to use a bit of torture in this series.

Season one was probably my favorite cast they rolled out.  This was before they started becoming interchangeable.

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Season one was probably my favorite cast they rolled out.  This was before they started becoming interchangeable. 

I just finished Season 1, Episode 3: "The Last Dance." After the first three episodes, I'm starting to get the feel of this series, and am developing some big problems with it.

From my layman's eyes, thousands of miles across the pond, espionage is - or should be - 99.99% tedium, boredom, data collection, surveillance, and other non-exciting, mundane, day-to-day activities; capped off with .01% heart-pounding, nut-shriveling, panic-inducing events. However, in MI-5 (I like that name more than "Spooks"), we've had 3 episodes comprising:

1) A pro-life fanatic smuggling 20 lethal weapons into England - enough to cause nationwide terror for abortion-related facilities and professionals

2) A racist fanatic with enough influence and firepower to incite a nationwide race war against illegal immigrants, but in an extremely sophisticated, non-obvious way

3) Kurdish rebels who commandeer the Turkish consulate, kidnapping and holding hostage a good twenty people at a diplomatic function, and nearly killing the Turkish consul - this, coupled with an incredibly well-coordinated plan to access the bank (and records) paying all MI-5 agents.

How often do things of this magnitude happen on this tiny little island of England? My impression, in real life, is: "not very"; yet, the show - after three episodes - makes it seem like they're going to be weekly occurrences.

Every episode, so far, has been of the magnitude of "Diehard" (the Bruce Willis movie), with dire consequences riding on every move of MI-5. Character development has existed, but has taken very much of a back seat to the action plots.

Finishing up Star Trek TNG, they have the same sort of ship-threatening incidents of such magnitude that each episode is incredible; yet, I am able to cut it some space (no pun intended - honest!) since they have to travel light years between incidents (often literally having to go seek them out); here on MI-5, they seem like normal occurrences in this tiny little country of dwindling significance, and I'm having a lot of trouble buying into this premise.

If this continues every single episode, with the plot having global consequences every single time, and the character development stunted as it seems to be, I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to continue watching the series. It's extremely well-done, but is the antithesis of why I love great drama, suspense, and action in general. If each episode was a single film (a la "James Bond"), I could understand it, but I fear this is just going to be sensory and reality overload for the sake of providing unrealistic, spine-tingling thrills.

Jason, tell me I'm wrong because I do enjoy what I've seen. Do I keep going, or do I throw in the towel?

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