Spooks Revisited: A Look Back at Series Four
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
Series four is a fresh iteration of the Spooks brand. The Grid’s set design may have been updated and all of the original main cast have now been replaced apart from Harry, but in spite of all the changes it never feels like a different show. The style (slick direction, emotional character turmoil) and substance (engaging spy and anti-terrorism plots) remain constant, and although some characters are served better than others, the show remains solidly engaging.
It would be a mistake to go much further in this retrospective article series without remarking on the title sequence. It’s cool, snappy, full of emotive reaction shots, and does all you ask of TV show titles: succinctly set the tone for the drama that follows. Witnessing its evolution from series to series – and sometimes within series – as characters join and depart, is fun too.
There is the distinct impression that the suite of directors has stepped up their game, with a noticeable variation in directing styles: Antonia Bird’s close-ups and immersive long shots in The Special, for example, or Alrick Riley’s use of a bird’s eye lens and sweeping pans in the second block.
The show’s topicality remains sturdy, with series four examining overpopulation, relations between the UK and nations including Syria and Algeria, tensions between Iran and the US, and a particularly hard-hitting episode about the far-right. Rupert Graves, as the populist MP William Sampson in Divided They Fall, is a contender for most repulsive antagonist in the entire series, spewing racist and Islamophobic rhetoric that pales in comparison with much of what is still thrown about in 2020. As a character notes in that same episode, “the bar on loathsome politicians has been lowered considerably of late” – and it seems the situation has only worsened in the intervening fifteen years.
Three new major characters keep the tone fresh. Raza Jaffrey joins as the talented young field officer Zafar Younis, and not coincidentally is introduced in the episode where Danny meets his end. Jaffrey has a more overt charm and cheekiness that offers something different from Oyelowo’s boyishness and wry turn of phrase. Like Danny before him, however, Zafar seems to be the only prominent non-white employee at Section D – who appears in a co-starring role, at any rate. Surely the corridors of British intelligence, even in 2005, were more diverse than what is shown onscreen here. One is better than none, but one is also an incredibly low standard almost undeserving of recognition.
Anna Chancellor has a recurring role as Juliet Shaw, the National Security Coordinator with questionable morals, who mostly serves to throw a spanner in the works and interfere with Harry’s plans on multiple occasions. And junior field officer Jo Portman (Miranda Raison) is introduced in episode five, The Book, as an aspiring investigative journalist who is unwittingly drawn into an operation, one where she quickly proves her mettle to assist solving the case and leads her to soon brought into the MI5 fold.
Disappointingly, Shauna Macdonald’s Sam vanishes completely between series three and four, warranting not even a passing mention by any of the characters. Sam’s characterisation was admittedly limited – rarely straying outside being immediately attracted to any new young male character who stepped onto the Grid – and although being a good friend of Ruth’s, viewers had little idea of who she was as a person or outside her work at MI5 and will likely barely register her exit.
Olga Sosnovska departs three quarters of the way through the series. Her character, Fiona, is killed off in an episode that delves into her past life and marriage to an unfaithful and abusive Syrian husband. In classic scorned misogynist style, he returns to wreak vengeance upon Fiona for fleeing the marriage. This is big storyline for Fiona, but she just hasn’t been around for long enough, or had enough Fiona-centric episodes, for audiences to care too deeply for her. Her relationship with Adam has been the main ongoing romantic thread across the past two series, and so it’s a shame she is not around after this to build on the growth that occurs in Syria. Still, Sosnovska is suitably charming and elegant that viewers do feel the sorrow when she dies in Adam’s arms at the end of the episode.
Series four gives further hints and glimpses at a romantic connection between Harry – who gets some of the best lines – and Ruth – who is frequently underestimated. Theirs is a sweet mixture of tenderness and awkwardness. The latter, up until now seen almost exclusively within the Grid – always the last of the team to go home – now participates in a larger capacity, making excursions into the field and at various points being in direct physical danger (see episodes one, three, five, ten). Ruth begins to become not simply an intelligent supporting member of the team but an intrinsic part of the show itself.
Structurally, Spooks is frequently a delight; often it feels like an episode is already pushing past halfway to the climax, but in terms of run time it may only be the end of the first act. The occasional unorthodox episode – think I Spy Apocalypse (2.05) or Diana (4.10) – is always a boon, proving better than the run-of-the-mill, find-the-terrorist-before-the-bomb-explodes plots – as thrilling as such stories can be.
With clever and complex plots in the case-of-the-week style, plus multiple standout episodes – The Special, Divided They Fall, Syria, Diana – series four of Spooks kicks off in style, hits multiple highs and, critically, does not taper out towards the end. The close and cooperative team dynamic – which in previous series had not yet quite developed – is on full show in this solid fourth series.
Series Four's Best Episode: Diana (4.10)
Diana bears similarities with series two’s I Spy Apocalypse – with a contained cast and the Grid in lockdown – but takes it up a notch with the threat this time proving very real for the team, and the ruthless and intimidating antagonist being in the room with them. The sequence where Zaf breaks down the supposed MI5 plot to assassinate Princess Diana in that infamous Paris tunnel in 1997 is a little silly, but otherwise the episode is marvellously tense, gripping and engaging with twists and turns galore, and goes right up to the wire. Scenes between powerhouses Nicola Walker and Lindsay Duncan are superb and some of the best scenes in all Spooks until this point.
Series Four's Best Guest Performance: Lindsay Duncan (4.10)
Lindsay Duncan gives a powerful and commanding performance in Diana as Angela Wells, a lauded ex-service agent out for revenge after the suicide of her would-be husband. The episode is great for how it ties into real-life events, namely the death of Princess Diana, which Angela is convinced was an assassination carried out by the British security services in “the greatest scandal of the age”. Angela instantly commands the room, bringing a bomb onto the Grid and holding the team hostage, and it’s all rests squarely on Duncan’s shoulders.
Series Four's Most Impactful Sequence: The team tracks down Fiona (4.07)
Although other episodes had better individual scenes, the final fifteen minutes of Syria – as the team races to track down Fiona, who has been kidnapped by her ex-husband – constitute the best sequence of events. The episode’s final act is extremely tense; everyone springs into action either on the Grid or in pursuit of Fiona, but the sense of foreboding is too strong for viewers to feel anything other than dread in the fear that something deadly serious is about to occur. Events culminate in a tragic and emotional ending as Fiona is shot by her ex-husband – the epitome of misogynistic male rage and power – and dies in Adam’s arms.
What are your thoughts on the fourth series of Spooks? Let us know in the comments below...