Spooks Revisited: A Look Back at Series Six
A new serialised format keeps things fresh as Spooks passes the halfway point with its sixth series. Read more Spooks Revisited here.
At the start of series six of Spooks, we’re halfway through the show’s entire run – and that means things are at risk of becoming stale if the formula doesn’t get a shake-up. Spooks has grown over the years as characters join and depart, exploring a range of themes and plots (plus its fair share of controversial moments!), and the sixth series introduces something new again: a serialised story arc.
Whereas the first five series consisted of standalone episodes with a smattering of two-parters, this is the first to be serialised. The writing team makes the right decision to introduce the arc now rather than wait another year – any later and this series would have felt too rote and unoriginal to be engaging television. David Wolstencroft, Howard Brenton, Ben Richards and Raymond Khoury have been the big names in the Spooks writing room up until this point, but it is Neil Cross and Ben Richards who share the bulk of duties on series six and seven.
Their choice of arc – British-Iranian relations, Iran’s nuclear capability and a disruptive American influence – is topical and refreshing. After a rocky start, the pace picks up across a string of strong middle episodes, but latter stories falter as the writing side-lines the Iran arc to tie up a variety of ongoing subplots. It’s almost as if the show is a little unsure of itself at the beginning, with the first few episodes proving unnoteworthy as the show scrambles to set up character arcs and subplots. (That being said, the opening two-parter, which deals with a contagious virus spreading through the streets of London, makes for an uncomfortably scary watch in light of the current global pandemic.)
Once we hit the start of the second act, however, the rising tension and scale of events make for gripping viewing. Episodes four through seven play to the show’s strengths in presenting an MI5 that’s on the back foot and needing to rely on their team’s ingenuity to solve problems: preventing an assassination attempt on the Iranian special consul (The Extremist); preventing Iran from obtaining blueprints for nuclear missile firing triggers (The Deal); tracking those blueprints as they are couriered out of the country (The Courier); and handling a life-threatening hostage situation during a live BBC broadcast (The Broadcast). It’s a tense sequence of events across four high-quality episodes.
When the team eventually succeeds and war with Iran is averted, it’s a mixed victory – Zaf has been killed, most of the team believes Ros to be dead, and Adam’s motives and actions have been called into question on more than one occasion. It’s a shame, therefore, that the final three episodes, although not by any means badly made, seem more interested in tying up lingering subplots (Ros’ involvement in the shadow organisation Yalta, the true allegiances of CIA Agent Bob Hogan) or, bafflingly, introducing completely new stories (a plot to assassinate the Venezuelan president, an old MI5 agent coming back for revenge against Harry) with only tangential connection to Iran, than in providing a proper resolution to the main plot.
Adam and Ros are again the key players this year and are given the meatiest material of the main cast. Adam has a key role as the main liaison with the Iranian embassy, most particularly with Ana, the wife of the special consul, with whom he also ‘liaises’ romantically. The impact of the psychological rollercoaster Adam embarked on last year is still felt as subtext: he’s grown more volatile and quicker to anger over time.
Ros is recruited by an anti-American shadow organisation called Yalta to do some ‘on the side’ spying from within MI5. It’s a decent arc for her character, who from the beginning has been shown to have murky tendencies. (It’s also a much better executed ‘shady deals’ storyline than Tessa’s running of phantom agents in series one.) Ros departs temporarily in episode eight, Infiltration, as her duplicitous involvement in Yalta blows her position at MI5, reinforcing how Spooks is not a show where characters get off easily – they either die, are forced to leave the country, or have their entire lives destroyed – and the latter is certainly true for Ros.
One of the weaknesses of the past few series was a lack of development for Jo and Zaf, which is partly rectified here. Jo is written as a good girl gone bad, cropping her hair short and wearing dark eyeliner – a far cry from the long curls and cute smile of her introduction – and has increased screentime this year. The writing of her character seems a mixed bag, though: on the one hand, it’s good to see her doing more work out in the field – and she certainly looks the part of a cool young agent saving the world – but sometimes she is overly sexualised by circumstance or dialogue.
Zaf is last seen in episode one being abducted by hostiles and dying from a virus, and we later learn he endures a horrific end: tortured, sent to Pakistan, tortured further, then killed. But we only learn of his definite fate in episode ten, The School, so for the bulk of the series we’re left frustratingly in the dark as to his fate. It also seems a shame we never got to know Zaf as a person, beyond his job as a spook – there were hints at something between him and Jo, but that didn’t go anywhere, and although Jaffrey brought his natural charm to the character, who was he, really, beneath the charm and spy action?
A number of new supporting characters recur. Alex Lanipekun appears as journalist Ben Kaplan in half a dozen episodes, sometimes helping and sometimes hindering MI5 before eventually being recruited to join the team at Section D. Gemma Jones joins the cast as Senior Analyst Connie James, a retired spook brought back by Harry for a second chance; multilingual and mostly Grid-bound, Connie acts as a replacement for Ruth. CIA agent Bob Hogan (Matthew Marsh) epitomises the smarmy ally among the Americans with his brash arrogance and staunch patriotism. Simon Abkarian recurs as Iranian Special Consul Dariush Bakhshi, and as Bakhsh’s wife Ana (having a hard time, being used by MI5 for information, almost killed and forced to flee overseas) is Agni Scott, who is very good in the role; it’s a shame her character is sidelined for the second half of the series.
Overall, series six of Spooks is missing the vitalising romantic arc of the previous series, and as well-developed as the character of Adam is, it might be time for Rupert Penry-Jones to move on from the program and keep the character line-up fresh. Ten episodes is a few too many – but it seems the production team was cognisant of this, as the following series sees a reduction by two episodes. The Iran arc was promising and mostly kept to that promise, and the new serialised format keeps the storytelling from becoming stale.
Series Six’s Best Writer: David Farr (6.04, 6.07)
David Farr’s writing on Spooks has been among the best – think The Innocent (4.6), World Trade (5.4) – and he continues that good form with two episodes that showcase the best of the show: high tension, furtive action and intricate yet accessible plot. The Extremist, which charts MI5’s attempts to foil an assassination attempt on the Iranian special consul, links to the series arc but most importantly tells a good story, while also giving Agni Scott some big emotional scenes as Ana. The Broadcast features Mark Bazeley as a terrorist taking hostages during a live television broadcast, and with its vitalising non-linear structure and damning depiction of white extremism, is an excellent template for socially minded thriller television.
Series Six’s Worst Episode: The Kidnap (6.03)
This Charles Beeson-directed third episode employs formulaic dialogue, excessively underlit sets pieces, and a rote plot that functions as a re-hash of The Virus – which might be excusable if that story wasn’t immediately prior to The Kidnap. Thankfully, the next four episodes more than make up for this downturn in quality.
Series Six’s Best Sequence: Harry and the team confronts Davie King (6.09)
In this distinctly different penultimate episode, the team is left stranded with no backup or resources from the Grid and facing off against Irish Republican splinter fighter Davie King (John Lynch). With a car bomb threatening inner-city London, cooperation to distract a sniper and defuse the bomb at (literally) the last second, and a team ready to nobly lay down their lives in service of their country, this key moment sees Section D on top form.
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