Spooks Revisited: A Look Back at Series Three

The third series of Spooks consolidates the best of the first and second: character drama intertwined with spy action, thematically rich episodes and a mix of strong ideas.

This is the third instalment in a new article series from The Digital Fix that looks back at the spy drama Spooks.

Check out our take on series one here and series two here.

Another series of Spooks brings another round of espionage, undercover missions, lies and cover stories. If series one laid down the Spooks scaffold, and series two fleshed out character dynamics and plot possibilities, then series three adds extra dimension to ethical tensions and discourse – with permanent consequences.

Tom is decommissioned after a change of heart over the coercion of a reluctant sleeper agent; Danny battles PTSD after the murder of an innocent man he was tasked with protecting, and afterwards is ordered to carry out an unsavoury assassination himself; Zoe’s trust in her civilian fiancée is tested when she fears the greatest hurt of all – betrayal – and both Harry and Ruth on various occasions encounter moral grey areas relating to the sourcing or dissemination of sensitive information. There are aspects to character that were not on show as prominently in preceding series, but receive highlighted attention here, and Spooks is all the better for it.

Series three brings significant change to the character line-up. The show’s three original stars – Matthew Macfayden, Keeley Hawes and David Oyelowo – depart in episodes two, six and ten, respectively. Tom is decommissioned after experiencing a crisis of conscience in The Sleeper; Harry sacks him after Tom realises the emotional wringer through which MI5 were putting the titular sleeper agent during a flytrap operation. Seeing Tom fall so low and hopelessly plead with Harry, Zoe and Danny is quite a sad moment – as is seeing him leave the Grid for good, no longer as a spook but a regular citizen, one who won’t ever see his colleagues again.

Zoe is written out in a courtroom drama, charged with conspiracy to murder after an operation goes awry in Persephone. This is after she forms another, more serious, relationship, becoming engaged to photographer Will North, who appears in half a dozen episodes. It’s another tautly emotional ending for the second of the three original leads as Zoe is forced to disappear to Chile in order to avoid a lengthy prison sentence.

Danny, by contrast, is killed off without warning in the finale, The Suffering of Strangers. He receives some increased focus in episodes such as Who Guards the Guards? – where he is the team’s lead in the field, and deals with PTSD after witnessing a man being shot in the head directly beside him – and Love and Death – where he tasked with killing a man himself in cold blood. What is regrettable is how little Danny is given to say during the finale; for the majority of the runtime, he sits, wordlessly, tied to a chair. His final moments – where a short speech in defiance against those who have taken him hostage – are noble enough, but overall this proves something of a letdown given the character work that was done across the preceding twenty-five episodes.

Tom’s departure heralds the first ‘leading man’ replacement, with Rupert Penry-Jones introduced as Adam Carter, whom Harry drafts in from MI6. Adam initially appears to bring a refreshingly different energy: Tom was the stoic leader who took his job seriously, whereas Adam is introduced as more irreverent – a “loose cannon” – but confident too, taking charge from the start and showing himself to be highly talented.

Penry-Jones certainly brings a different charisma from Macfayden, but Adam quickly develops the solemnity and stoicism Tom always had, leaving slim distinction between the two. Still, Penry-Jones is more of a conventionally charming leading man, and his personal life appears less tumultuous than Tom’s; his wife Fiona (Olga Sosnovska), also a fellow seconded MI6 officer, appears in a handful of episodes and replaces Zoe after Hawes’ exit.

Nicola Walker gives probably the most nuanced, human performance of the entire cast and deserves no less than full praise for her ability to emote with a single expression. Episodes five, Love and Death, and seven, Outsiders, in particular give welcome extra dimension to her personality and love life. The romantic connection that develops between Harry and Ruth has not reared its head just yet, but it is no secret they soon develop romantic feelings for each other – and so there is a strong dramatic irony watching the pair interact without any inkling of the romance that eventuates.

Like the previous series, there are a few areas where the show falls down. Considering how frequently the show addresses Middle East topics, there just aren’t enough people of colour at the centre of the action; instead, we’re presented with a group of mainly white people go around solving the problems of all British citizens irrespective of ethnic background. It takes until episode four of series three for a same-sex relationship to be referenced or depicted in the entire show. And perplexingly, certain scenes appear to consist entirely of ADR – this would be wholly understandable for sequences that are filmed outdoors or in loud public locations, but when successive lines of dialogue from individuals gathered in, say, a meeting room are dubbed over, the technique draws needless attention to itself.

The third series of Spooks consolidates the best of the first and second: character drama intertwined with spy action, thematically rich episodes (murder, love and death), a mix of ideas (torture, assassination, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks), and another strong pair of middle episodes to prevent mid-series blues. Watch out for guest spots from Ian McDiarmid, Arabella Weir, Jan Chappell, Andy Serkis, Ian McNeice, and Barnaby Kay – Nicola Walker’s real-life husband – as Ruth’s romantic interest in Love and Death.


Series Three’s Best Guest Performance: Ian McDiarmid (3.02)


Ian McDiarmid guest stars in The Sleeper as Nobel Prize-winning university professor Frederick Roberts, a sleeper agent from decades previous who, once activated, is reluctant to help MI5, having grown accustomed to his normal life. In a story that exposes the extent to which MI5 will destroy someone’s life in order to get their way, McDiarmid gives a heartbreakingly relatable, fish-out-of-water performance whose marriage and life are ruined in the course of mere days.


Series Three’s Best Sequence: Adam evades MI6 agents in central London (3.03)


At a key moment in Who Guards the Guards?, the team attempts to assist Adam lose his tail ahead of a meeting with an anonymous contact. Watching Adam weave a pre-rehearsed trail through central London, assisted by both the team back at the Grid and agents undercover in the field – all while evading the grip of MI6’s Oliver Mace (Tim McInnerny), whose own agents are in pursuit – makes for a highly riveting sequence.


Series Three’s Most Tonally Incongruous Episode: Celebrity (3.08)


Episode eight, Celebrity, is a peculiar change of tone – it’s more light-hearted, with Andy Serkis’s off-beat appearance as drug-fuelled rock star Riff, and the team is completely out of their depth dealing with this “cuddly” case. The story does soon take a Spooks-ian turn with the abduction of Riff’s daughter and a climactic murder-suicide (!), but the first act stands out for its tonal incongruousness. Celebrity is not necessarily bad or the “worst” episode of the series, but it would be the first episode to go if the episode count were reduced.


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


Updated: Oct 08, 2020

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