“This is about Elena Gavrik and you know it. You’re still in love with her, and it’s clouding your judgement.”
Now that was a good Spooks episode! After the a run of episodes that seemed like weak rehashes of things the show has done before, this week was thankfully all about the Big Plot, as the show ramps up the twisty-turny action for what will, hopefully, be a great final end.
There was so much action and intrigue this week that it’s hard to know where to begin looking at it. As I’d suspected for a while, the fact that the finger of suspicion was pointing so squarely at CIA honcho Jim Coaver meant that this was nothing more than a red herring (as if in tribute to this much-used device in the show, one shot even showed the Home Secretary’s car driving past a pub clearly named the Red Herring!). Having served his purpose as a misleading plot device, Coaver was duly dispatched when a group of phoney CIA agents turned up to ‘rescue’ him from Harry’s clutches, then shoved him out of the back of a van after a pretty exciting car chase.
Coaver’s other function, of course, was as a link to Harry’s murky Cold War past, a past that’s informed most of this year’s Big Plot. So we learned in flashback that Harry had been all set to extract Elena and Sasha from East Berlin in the 80s, but Coaver stopped him at gunpoint: “We lie to people all the time. That’s how we recruit assets. Falling in love with them… that’s the cardinal sin.” William Hope did a good job of making this other Cold Warrior believable and even sympathetic as he professed both his innocence and his friendship to Harry. Of course, as soon as he told Harry that they’d find out who was behind it all “together”, you knew he was toast. So he got a dramatic death scene as he coughed up his last blood on the road, while apologising to Harry and revealing with his last breath (of course) that his laptop held the key to everything that was happening.
This led to two new directions for the plot: the CIA hold Harry responsible for Coaver’s death, and our heroes have to get hold of that laptop to learn the truth. But as it’s looking more and more like Harry’s coming totally unglued, Erin balks at the only logical option – nicking the laptop from inside the American embassy. So despite having left to take up the Home Secretary’s job offer (without even a leaving do, as the Grid’s a bit busy for that), it’s time for Ruth to do Harry one last favour. As Security Advisor to the Home Secretary, only she can get into the embassy and, with Calum’s hi-tech help, get the evidence our heroes need.
This was a genuinely tense sequence, as Ruth’s feigned illness and need for paracetamol led a convenient secretary away from her desk so that Ruth could plug in one of the Grid’s ubiquitous USB spying devices. Mind you, given that the Home Secretary and a top bod from the Foreign Office were standing not six feet away from her at the time, you had to marvel at their lack of observational skills. And Ruth’s sheer chutzpah.
Nicola Walker was very much to the forefront as Ruth this week, as the script showed plenty of soul searching from every side. She got another great scene with Harry as they met clandestinely in his Range Rover in an underground car park (another classic Spooks trope). Harry confessed that he couldn’t even trust himself, much as Elena had told Ruth before, but that he didn’t still love Elena: “It was guilt. That can look a lot like love.” Played pitch-perfect as usual by Walker and Peter Firth, this was an example of why it could actually be rather a shame that the show’s coming to an end. Granted, it seems to be running out of ideas. But at its best, it can give us characters and performances that are superb, and the Ruth/Harry ‘romance-type-thing’ has been terrific throughout.
As has new Home Secretary William Towers, who also got a lot of the action this week. When Spooks began, it had some vague pretence to be happening in the real world; one episode featured a plot to assassinate George Bush and Tony Blair. The showrunners soon realised, however, that if they were going to have government figures involved in the action, it would be best to divorce itself from the real world, in which shady conspiracies to change the global balance of power don’t happen every year (that we know of). So the previous Home Secretary in the show, Nicholas Blake, was introduced, played as a cynical political opportunist by Robert Glenister.
Blake lasted for several years (despite numerous reshuffles in the real world), but as the show still wants to have some vague acknowledgement of real political events, the change of government meant that he had to go. This being Spooks, of course, he couldn’t retire gracefully; no, he had to be a key player in one of those shady conspiracies, and got murdered by Harry for his pains. If Harry offers to pour you some scotch but never takes off his black leather gloves, better watch out!
And afterward, the show got a new Coalition Home Secretary in William Towers. Perhaps wisely, scripts have never spelled out which party he’s from, though the fact that the Conservatives hold all the really important posts is probably a giveaway. For two series now, Towers has been played by the marvellous Simon Russell Beale, who brings a lovely world-weariness to the role of a man who’s every bit as cynical as his predecessor, just more avuncular. It helps that he gets some of the best lines; this week he complained that “a CIA foetus has been on the phone threatening to ‘get medieval’ on my backside, whatever that means.”
As a key architect in the new ‘special relationship’ with the Russians, Towers has been much more involved in the episodes this year than the last, and Ruth’s defection to his office meant that this week he was pretty prominent. I’m still wondering whether he’s somehow involved in the overall plot to destabilise the arrangement and/or kill Minister Gavrik and/or destroy Harry’s reputation.
However, following Coaver’s revelations, it’s now looking more like the finger of suspicion should be pointing at Gavrik himself. With another twisty-turny episode to go, I think this is probably yet another red herring; but the script played nicely with the uncertainty as Harry’s old Cold War enemy paid him a home visit, bottle of vodka in hand.
I’ve not yet mentioned how good Jonathan Hyde is as Ilya Gavrik (in fact, the only other thing I recall seeing him in is Titanic, where he played White Star Line owner Bruce Ismay as a truly slimy piece of work). But he’s been great as the sly former KGB man turned politician, and this two handed scene between him and Harry was yet another highlight of a better than average episode. Recalling similar scenes in many Cold War spy thrillers, this was the inevitable moment when the British spymaster meets his opposite number in neutral circumstances, and they have a good old chinwag.
Hyde got some brilliant dialogue as he revealed that he not only knew about Elena’s betrayal and her affair with Harry, but he actually used his pull with the KGB to get her off despite knowing she was guilty. As he chatted, he forced Harry to reflect on the failure he’d made of his private life by not moving on, living a solitary life in a well-appointed but lonely home. By contrast, Gavrik had a wife, a son and a tortoise in the garden: “He looks like you, Harry.” Ostensibly referring to the tortoise, you had to wonder whether Gavrik was actually referring to his son – one thing he didn’t come clean on was whether he also knew that Sasha’s father is actually Harry. Hyde played Gavrik as keeping his cards very close to his chest, a slyly genial figure who may yet turn out to be the real baddie. While a lot of the show is indeed very far-fetched and cartoonlike, John le Carre might want to check out scenes like this before dismissing the whole thing as “crap”!
Unfortunately, he might have been justified in levelling that accusation at the similar scene between Harry and Elena. Alice Krige is a very good actress, but even she can’t sobbingly deliver a line like “Kiss me! It’s the least you can do!” without coming across as comically melodramatic. Peter Firth got rather better lines as Harry struggled to apologise for his abandoning her to the KGB, delivered with his traditional repressed emotion and stiff upper lip, but overall this scene came across as ham fisted when it could have been so much better.
With all this going on, the rest of the regulars took something of a back seat this week, and in all honesty I can’t say that I missed them. Much. After waving guns around in the abduction of Jim Coaver and subsequent car chase, Dimitri, Erin and Calum spent pretty much the rest of the episode staring at monitors back at the Grid, in an attempt to identify the three mercenaries who had kidnapped Coaver and later tried to blow up the Home Secretary with a Ford Transit filled with explosives. Having been the voice of reason when Harry was Clearly Going Too Far, Erin still couldn’t resist pitching in with the US embassy raid, while Calum got to be all snidely superior when the others failed to check a key database. Deprived of the opportunity to thump anyone or defuse anything, Dimitri came across as rather a spare part; though he did at least spring to Tariq’s defence when Coaver sneeringly referred to him as an office boy: “No offence.” “Some taken.”
It all came to a head as Harry, seemingly accepting that he’d Clearly Gone Too Far, was given a heads up by the Home Secretary to put his affairs in order, as he was about to be handed to the Americans for his part in Coaver’s death. Cue much doomy music as Harry fastidiously went through his house sorting out those final domestic chores like pouring away the milk and burning the top secret files he keeps buried in his garden. Finally, he wound up on a gloomy beach by the Thames, CIA goons hovering in the background, as a tearful Ruth bade him farewell: “I can’t believe this is the end.” Harry, as usual, had the final word: “Then pretend it’s not.” Hmmm.
So, one episode to go, and Harry’s in trouble yet again. Held in the US embassy, he’s being thumped by aggravated Marines: “My father served with Jim Coaver in the 82nd Airborne. You’ve suffered a fall. Please let us know if you need medical attention.” But Harry’s been set up, and so was Coaver. By whom? The leader of the dodgy mercenaries with an insatiable desire for unmarked vans turns out to be a former bodyguard of Gavrik’s. But that seems too obvious. Who else would want to torpedo the detente if not the Americans or the Russians? Well, that really only leaves the British. Could Towers be behind the whole thing? If so, he’d better watch out; noticeably, the last things Harry took before closing up his house were his black murdering gloves. And will he be sprung from captivity? Perhaps Sasha can help, as after purloining the already stolen laptop from Ruth, he now knows that Harry’s his father. Is that liable to make him more or less annoyed? (Actually it’s hard to imagine him any more annoyed than his usual state.)
In one sense, I can’t wait for next week’s episode; as my friend Paul commented last week, he’s already seen it and it’s apparently an excellent conclusion to the series’ ten years. In another sense, I kind of wish the show could go on longer. We’ve seen a lot of recycled stuff this year, but at its worst it’s never been less than watchable, and occasionally, as this week, it’s been excellent. I’d like to think there’s a happy ending waiting for Harry and Ruth, but given the show’s usual style, I’m more expecting that Harry will finally go out in a blaze of glory. Since he’s basically been spending the whole series with the weary resignation of a man who knows it’s all coming to an end (much like Matt Smith’s Doctor this year), that would be the obvious. But Spooks delights in pulling the rug out from under you, so maybe the ultimate twist will be that, this time, somebody really will live happily ever after.