Spooks Revisited: A Look Back at Series Two

Series two of the spy drama Spooks builds on the success of series one, but certain elements fare better than others in retrospect.

This is the second instalment in a new article series from The Digital Fix that looks back at the spy drama Spooks, originally broadcast from 2002 to 2011.

Check out our revisit of series one here.

The first series of Spooks, an intelligent and compelling drama that blends the personal lives of its protagonists together with case-of-the-week spy action, was released to high acclaim in 2002. The following year saw series two build on that success by continuing to pull high ratings and good critical reviews. Let’s take a look back at that second series and see how it holds up today; as explored below, certain elements fare better in retrospect than others.

Bharat Nalluri, the director of the first two episodes the previous year, is back for the first block of the new series, and his directorial confidence that was conveyed so adeptly then is on show again here. The energy and pace are kept high across the two episodes, getting things off to a solid start, and that’s down to Nalluri’s competent hand on the wheel of the Spooks vehicle.

The series continues to mix spy action with the turmoil of personal lives, and not solely, this time, for Tom. After the traumatic experiences of the first series finale, Ellie leaves him; the failure of their relationship simply serves as a reminder of the volatility of the spying life. In response, he seeks out multiple new romances. The work being done with the character is decent, and so it is a shame that Macfayden’s performance is limited, showing little emotion and often making him appear unsympathetic and cold. Admittedly, this is in line with Tom’s characterisation as the staunch, work-focused team leader, and also plays into the atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty in the finale, Smoke and Mirrors, where it is unclear if Tom has gone rogue and plans to flee the country, or is being set up by the enemy.

There is improved development for Zoe, with longer sequences addressing her own private life, from an old school friend interfering in an undercover operation in Legitimate Targets, to going for a drink at the pub with a new relationship – although this, like Tom’s, is destined to fail when her work gets in the way. Zoe’s struggle to juggle double – and sometimes triple – lives also becomes prominent. Danny’s arc in the previous series – heavy credit card spending – was a pretty flimsy excuse for character development, and so it is good to see that somewhat rectified here. David Oyelowo is a good actor and performs well – you can see why he came to make such a spirited performance as Martin Luther King in the 2014 film Selma, for example.

In a further boost for narrative arc and character continuity, Tessa Phillips (Jenny Agutter), the senior case officer who was stood down at the end of series one for corruption, returns to wreak revenge upon Harry in episode nine. There is an unpleasantness to her determination to get her way, but Agutter’s performance is sufficiently enigmatic to prevent viewers from hating her outright – indeed, there are still hints at a human morality beneath the varnished exterior, aided by Agutter’s beguiling charm.

Coupled with the return of Tessa is the introduction of two new recurring characters to fill the gap left after her departure. Sam Buxton (Shauna Macdonald) is the new administrative officer, who in many ways takes on the supporting role Zoe and Danny held in series one. Nicola Walker makes her introduction as the intelligence analyst Ruth Evershed, seconded to MI5 from GCHQ, who, after a rocky start – being caught passing MI5 intelligence back to GCHQ under Harry’s nose – shows herself to be the brilliant analyst she is by making piquant breakthroughs and bringing a strong moral commitment to the organisation’s goals.

Harry Pearce receives increased attention this year. In addition to Peter Firth possessing a tremendous demeanour of droll condemnation, Harry displays an occasional sense of humour that was not on show previously; as the series progresses, we see more sides to his personality, from anger to delight (Ruth even manages to induce a laugh – a laugh! – from him). It is great to increasingly see Harry out from behind his desk, the Grid and a suit.

As analysts Malcolm Wynn-Jones and Colin Wells, Hugh Simon and Rory MacGregor still appear only in supporting capacities, but they add moments of levity (such as the former’s selection from a box of chocolates with idiosyncratic flair, or admiration of the chlorine bonding in a chemical formula) during serious moments. Also brought back is a character who made only a brief appearance in series one: Christine Dale (Megan Dodds), a CIA agent who works with Section D on relevant cases and who ultimately becomes romantically entangled with Tom.

The nature of bringing a contemporary lens to an eighteen-year old series necessitates something of a re-examination of its plotlines and the ramifications from how it represents parts of the British – and global – community. The second episode, Nest of Angels, proves particularly problematic when it comes to its questionable portrayal of Islam and Muslims. The episode charts the planning and execution of a suicide bombing in residential Birmingham, where the imam of a mosque is revealed to have extremist views on the inferiority of the UK and America, and the need for violent action to reclaim the UK as the “house of Islam”.

Although it is stated within the drama that the terrorist group is not representative of the wider Muslim community – and despite Alexander Siddig’s character being presented as the “Muslim hero” of the piece – limited space is afforded to Muslims outside of the extremist group; indeed, the focus is on MI5’s foiling of the plot, in classic white saviour fashion. This simply does not help public perception of Muslims, who are portrayed as violent, aggressive and exhibiting ideas antithetical to modern life. Although the show’s creative team was clearly aiming for verisimilitude of current affairs considering the world political climate at the time of production – so soon after 9/11 – the core of the issue is the need for more positive representation of Muslims in television, and Nest of Angels is a significant step backwards.

The writing of women is also sometimes uninspiring. At times of high emotional crisis Zoe and Sam are the ones seen to break into tears and seek comfort in the arms of dry-eyed Danny, for instance. At one point, Harry, out of character, calls Sam “a traitorous little bitch”. And Tom seems to enter a string of relationships – Ellie, Vicki, Christine – where his partner becomes emotionally dependent on him, regardless of the agency afforded to the characters of Vicki and Christine in episodes prior to becoming involved with Tom. Vicki in particular, despite being introduced as a feisty doctor who flirts with Tom, becomes exceptionally clingy and badly written.

Spy drama might not be to everyone’s liking, but Spooks makes for a fascinating watch simply to spot guest appearances in 2003 from names both established – Robert Hardy, Oliver Ford Davies – who elevate the quality of the show immensely, and emerging – Benedict Cumberbatch, Sophie Okonedo – who have gone on to become established names themselves. Real-life spying may not be as exciting as the elevated reality of Spooks, but as a work of entertaining television drama, the series is highly rewarding for those willing to invest.


Series Two’s Best Episode: I Spy Apocalypse (2.05)


In I Spy Apocalypse, the Grid goes into lockdown for a scheduled Extreme Emergency Response Exercise, one that the team assumes is simply a dummy exercise, not reality. But when – deliciously, chillingly – the news breaks that the situation is indeed real – when a dirty bomb apparently has gone off in the middle of London – the stakes skyrocket. With direction, snappy dialogue and a claustrophobic atmosphere (the episode plays out almost entirely within the Grid), I Spy Apocalypse gives every major character a part to play, and some – like Colin and Malcolm – more airtime than they had been afforded previously. The entire team is tested, friendships fracture and storylines intertwine. The climactic revelation that it was indeed all a test, although predictable by about halfway through (the show could never kill off one million Londoners including members of Parliament and the Royal family), does not detract from the quality of the episode in the slightest.


Series Two’s Worst Episode: Nest of Angels (2.02)


Nest of Angels is not badly made or badly intentioned, but ultimately it does more harm than good. The need for positive representation of Muslims in the years following 9/11 becomes especially pertinent considering how the unfavourable depiction of people of colour in the media and on television has still not been fully rectified, even today.


Series Two’s Most Controversial Moment: Attempted suicide bombing (2.02)


In an already controversial story about extremism and suicide bombers, you simply cannot end such an episode by having a sixteen-year-old boy blow himself up in a residential playground – but unfortunately that’s exactly what happens at the end of Nest of Angels.


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


Updated: Sep 24, 2020

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