Spooks Revisited: A Look Back at Series Five

Spooks Revisited: A Look Back at Series Five

This is the latest instalment in The Digital Fix’s retrospective article series looking back at Spooks.

  • Check out our take on series one here
  • Check out our take on series two here
  • Check out our take on series three here
  • Check out our take on series four here

Easy, isn’t it? To throw your whole life away. I wonder how I’ll be remembered…

What distinguishes the fifth series of Spooks from those before? For starters, everyone on the Grid has a new haircut, and Paul Leonard-Morgan takes over composing duties from Jennie Muskett; but with serialised story arcs only kicking in from the sixth series onwards, and a reduced episode count being instituted in the seventh, there is otherwise not much to differentiate this series in terms of plot or structure.

The only major arcs are character-oriented; so, as previously, let’s take a character-based analysis of series five of Spooks. Of the ensemble cast, Harry, Ruth, Adam and new team member Ros are the ones with the best treatment this year, whereas Jo and Zaf in particular are not progressed forward significantly.

Nicola Walker – who at this stage has become the second longest serving lead cast member after Peter Firth, having been around since episode two of series two – departs the show in the fifth episode, The Message. As ever, Walker is the standout performer in the cast. The relationship between Ruth and Harry, so deliciously alluded to and hinted at in prior to this point, buds and flowers, shifting to centre stage during the first five episodes and upping the quality of the entire product.

It gives Firth in particular more to do, and although their burgeoning relationship never being the primary focus of any given episode, the pair’s interplay provides a tenderness and human heart to the action-drama story lines. Following Ruth’s departure, we’re left with the feeling that she was gone too soon – her arc with Harry could have been spread across an entire series, for instance – but perhaps this is for the best. In any case, the point is moot; fan-favourite Ruth returns to the show a few years down the track.

Ros Myers, played by Hermione Norris, is a big new character, one with a wry turn of phrase and a more jaded outlook than previous leads. Complex, snarky and impulsive, Ros’ level for empathy is ever so slightly a notch lower than her team members’, and she is willing to make sacrifices for the bigger picture. She’s also extremely on the ball and shows a streak of ingenuity – the speed with which she fashions a makeshift weapon from a sharpener and some Blu tack in Hostage Takers (Part 2) is a scary but efficient way of setting Ros up to be a big player.

Ros’ introduction brings a dynamic shift for Adam, who is left off-balance and unsettled in her company. This comes at a generally inopportune time for Adam, still struggling to cope with survivor’s guilt after Fiona’s death even more intensely than he was in the latter stages of series four. His anxiety, tendency for angry outbursts and increasing erraticism come to the fore in an ongoing story arc, impeding upon missions and the trust between him and his team. An arc such as this actually goes a long way to humanising Adam beyond the strictures of the spying profession, and prevents his very anguished (and very human) reaction to the death of his wife from being brushed over in the space of a few episodes – which the latter half of series four threatened to do.

In another departure, technician Colin is brutally hanged halfway through the first episode Gas and Oil (Part 1). It’s an unexpected moment that shows where his talents really lie – behind a computer screen or dealing with technology rather than out in the field evading antagonists – and has a lasting effect on the team, primarily best friend Malcolm. In Spooks, death really can come for anyone.

How much more do we get to know Jo and Zaf? Not to any noteworthy extent. They’re both competent agents – smart and able to defend themselves in a fight – but they aren’t portrayed as having detailed lives beyond the job, bearing comparison with Danny and Zoe in series one – except even they were given romantic interests and more scenes in a domestic setting.

Episode three, The Cell, risks straying into Nest of Angels territory – the controversial series two episode that lacked any positive representation of Islam to balance out the extremist group plot line. When it comes to The Cell, on the one hand the writer provides extra nuance and emotion for the troubled youth at the centre of the episode, the one who experiences a crisis of faith and is pushed by hardliners to consider a violent terrorist act.

On the other, a cynic might still be critical of the show’s portrayal of majority-white MI5 not only protecting Britain from mostly non-white terrorists but also being the ones to solve the problems of large portions of the Middle East and Africa. This problematic trope is perhaps less specific to Spooks in 2006 and more endemic to the cultural and political landscape broadly.

Series Five's Best Episode: World Trade (5.04)

World Trade shows MI5 at the top of their game when conducting surveillance and maintaining close team collaboration, while at the same time shining a light on British arrogance on a global scale and the West’s apathy for the plight of African countries. There are questions of morality and ethics, covert deals, ingenuity and teamwork; the US Secretary of State is up to no good; a country’s president is planning a genocide against his own people; and the team works to ensure each person’s respective skill set is put to good use.

Series Five's Most On-the-Nose Writing: Agenda (5.08)

Any Spooks episode, by necessity, is heavy on exposition and explanatory dialogue – the intricate plots and murky allegiances demand it – but Agenda takes it to the next level. Julian Simpson’s writing is characterised by line after line of exposition, characters philosophising to themselves or the empty room, and minimal action before the final act. The writing would suit a play more than an episode of an action-oriented show like Spooks.

Series Five's Most Emotional Moment: Ruth and Harry part ways (5.05)

You wouldn’t expect a show about British spies to bring tears to your eyes, but Ruth’s farewell to Harry at the end of The Message accomplishes the seemingly impossible. Their dinner date in episode three was delightfully sweet, but it’s the moment Ruth is forced to flee the country, and say goodbye to Harry in the process, that becomes the most memorable and emotional moment of all five series of Spooks so far. Having decided to take the fall and disappear to expose corruption within the British services and allow Harry to continue working at MI5, Ruth shares a farewell kiss with Harry in lieu of an admission of love. Her return in 2009 couldn’t arrive soon enough.

What are your thoughts on the fifth series of Spooks? Let us know in the comments below...

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