Spooks: Series 10, Episode 6

“I left because I always thought there’d be too many secrets between us. Stupid really, because, you and I… we’re made of secrets.”

SpooksHarryRuth

It’s the saddest day ever in Thames House, because it’s the end. The very end. And in keeping with the style of the show we’ve come to know and love over the last ten years, it’s not a happy one.

In contrast to last week’s high octane, action-filled episode, this was a season finale that was, basically, a bunch of people in a few rooms talking. But rarely has such talking been so tense and hyperdramatic, as all the secrets about the Big Plot, stretching back over more than thirty years, were gradually uncovered while all those concerned still tried to deceive and manipulate each other. As our heroes got together with the Gavrik family in an abandoned nuclear bunker to chew over events recent and old, the tension was palpable, based on knowledge of the stakes being played for.

But first, there did have to be some actual action, as the drama couldn’t proceed with Harry still in the custody of the vengeful CIA. After taking something of a back seat last week, Erin and Dimitri were properly back in the fray as Elena Gavrik suddenly and unexpectedly revealed that she knew everything, but the only person she’d talk to was Harry. Thus, Erin and Dimitri hatched a plan that was worthy of Harry’s disrespect for official channels – they were going to spring him from CIA custody as he was transported to a secret flight out of the country, presumably for a bit of rendition.

The CIA, it seems, transport their prisoners ‘inconspicuously’ in convoys of giant black SUVs, as obviously a giant Hummer with blacked out windows blends perfectly into the British countryside. Knocking out the electrical systems of the Hummer’s equally inconspicuous escorts (two giant Chevy Blazers), Dimitri fearlessly stood in the Hummer’s path until taking a shot at the very last moment to blow out its front tyre just as it was about to hit him. A nicely choreographed moment, to be sure, though I had to wonder why the vehicle didn’t have bulletproof tyres, or why it was so easy for Dimitri to just pull open the door and point guns at the occupying agents – surely the CIA would have made the Hummer as secure as a Group 4 van? Nonetheless, Harry was revealed to be locked in the trunk, as Dimitri perhaps unwisely pulled off his balaclava to reveal to him (and, presumably, the CIA) his true identity. As Harry commented, “this will probably come up in your next pay review.”

With Harry free, he was taken to an old MOD nuclear shelter handily equipped with police style lockable interview rooms (why the post-nuclear wasteland would require these was not explained). And it was here that, as the episode progressed, the important characters in the Big Plot gradually gathered. First to arrive were Ruth and Calum, bringing the now very dubious looking Elena, who’d ditched her husband’s security retinue with the surprisingly mundane cover of an interview for the Women’s Institute. Also along for the ride was Sasha, now in possession (he thought) of the true facts about his relationship to Harry Pearce, and just as eager to catch up with him as Elena was. And of course, he’d brought his gun, which seemed somehow to be the only one in circulation at this meeting of top security professionals.

And so the revelations began, while a sinister bald man started getting up to nasty things on a flight from Moscow to London. This was apparently “Plan B” for the shady group of Russian conspirators glimpsed occasionally as the story progressed. I must confess, as it was now clear that Elena was working directly for them, I wasn’t too sure exactly what Plan A had been. Elena obviously didn’t really intend to get either herself or her husband killed (or did she?), so the original plan must logically have been to sow seeds of discord between Britain and the US by framing the CIA as being behind all the attacks and subterfuge. Except, surely by driving a wedge between the US and the UK, they’d only push the UK closer to the very alliance with Russia they were trying to prevent? Still, it’s often the case in spy stories that motives are murky and methodologies unclear – at least that’s the excuse I’m using in case I missed something in the flood of revelations that subsequently occurred

I commented last week that Elena’s tearful conversation with Harry seemed implausible and melodramatic, but here we saw why it rang so false; because it was. Alice Krige was masterful in her performance of an apparently genteel Russian lady with a hitherto unsuspected core of steel and a rabid fanaticism about her nation. So, it transpired that she’d been lying to Harry from the moment she met him. Recruited by a black ops group within the KGB to pretend to be an asset and work as a double agent, she knew that Harry’s story about her parents being tortured by the KGB was a lie to recruit her. She did confess that she had real feelings for Harry, and had hoped he wouldn’t use the lie; but he did, and the die was cast.

And so she spent decades acting as an asset, all the while manoeuvring herself closer to Harry for some unspecified future masterplan. Again, what that was was unclear; I doubt that, at the height of the Cold War, the Russian conspirators foresaw the still rather implausible alliance between Russia and the UK. Still, they had something in mind, and apparently hoped one day to turn Harry. This indicates they didn’t do their research very well, as everything in Harry’s psychological makeup argues against that even being possible. But still, a disillusioned Harry had to give her credit for such successful duplicity: “You’re ten times the spy I ever was.”

But why come out with all these revelations now? Apparently, “Plan B” involved an attack that would kill hundreds, and “we all have a line won’t cross”. Plans within plans, as our heroes were led to a middleman who lay dead by a shredder containing a jammed photo of the sinister bald man. Calum’s usual lightning checks revealed him to be a former Spetsnaz agent currently on a flight into Heathrow – a flight which hadn’t been answering calls from Air Traffic Control. Jumping to the inevitable conclusion that a 9/11 style attack was in the works, Harry was straight on the phone to the frantic Home Secretary, and jets were scrambled to shoot down the suspect airliner with its payload of 312 passengers.

Of course, it was all a lie, too convenient to be true; the real plan was to force the UK into shooting down a Russian passenger jet and torpedo the nascent alliance. Typically, it was Ruth, with her talent for empathy, who was clever enough to figure this out. Elena had been prepared to defect to the West with her son, and have him brought up as British despite her nationalist ideals. That level of dedication smacked of fanaticism, and fanatics very rarely have lines they won’t cross. Sasha discovered this too as Harry threatened to shoot him if Elena didn’t come clean, and she still stuck to her lie.

But the very fact that Elena wouldn’t tell Harry what he wanted to hear (even if it was a lie) when her son’s life was at stake was enough to convince him, and he was straight on the phone to the Home Secretary (now in a rather low-rent recreation of the COBRA meeting room) to call off the jets. Obviously, the Spetsnaz agent was jamming the plane’s signals to engender the necessary suspicion, and the plane should be allowed to land normally. But the Home Secretary didn’t believe him, and the jets were only a couple of minutes away from their target.

Step up then, Ilya Gavrik, who had turned up at the bunker in time to witness his wife’s confession to decades of deception. He’s put the weight of his government behind the plea to call off the fighters – but only if he could have the key to the interview room where Elena was detained. Obvious alarm bells were going off in our heroes’ (and the viewers’) minds, but really, what choice was there? So there followed a genuinely tense sequence as the Eurofighters got closer… and closer… then pulled away with less than five seconds to go. And so the Big Plot was done, the crisis averted, and all that remained was to pick up the pieces of the human wreckage.

The most obvious wreckage being to the Gavriks, now revealed as possibly the most dysfunctional family the Cold War ever produced. After last week’s excellent summit between Harry and Ilya, Jonathan Hyde again gave a chillingly believable performance, reminding us that, whatever Ilya is now, he used to be a KGB man. He knows how to kill. So, inevitably, he locked the door of the room before our heroes could get at him, and got on with the job of exacting vengeance by strangling his wife in front of their son.

Which went down about as well as could be expected. Tom Weston-Jones has been broodingly handsome as Sasha throughout, but now we saw some real acting chops as he showed us quite how a young man who’s just had his whole world overturned would react. He’s found out, in short order, that Harry was his dad; then that his mother was a secret agent first for one side then the other; then that Harry wasn’t his dad after all; then that his mother was prepared to let him die in order to carry out a mass murder. And to cap it all, he then got to see his actual father strangling his mother. This is not going to make anyone feel well-adjusted, and it came as no surprise when he surreptitiously pocketed a handy shard of broken glass. The only question was, who was he going to use it on?

I’ve been saying since the beginning of this year’s series that, on prior evidence, there would be no happy ending for Harry and Ruth. The only question was, which one wouldn’t make it? I’d been tending towards it being Harry, going down in a blaze of glory as he saved the country single handed. But with the immediate crisis averted, that looked unlikely. Obviously Sasha and his broken glass were on the way, to deal retribution to whoever he thought responsible for the situation. Harry had engineered the whole thing, but Ruth had been the one who gave Ilya the key to the room where Elena was held. All bets were off.

But it was only fitting that, before the inevitable heartbreak, Harry and Ruth got one last scene to resolve their on-off relationship from the last few years. Theirs has been one of the most touching romances in recent TV drama; entirely chaste, fraught with the potential of future happiness continually thwarted, with two very likeable people seemingly resigned to the fact that their happy ending was never going to come. In Peter Firth and Nicola Walker, this has been conveyed with such quiet dignity, such unspoken British repression of feeling, that it’s been irresistible viewing.

As they began what turned out to be their final conversation, it looked – for a moment – like there might be a happy ending after all. Ruth continued her theme of this year about hating the secrecy so necessary in their profession: “I’ve always thought, the longer we keep secrets, the more our true selves got buried. That one day, I’d go looking and I wouldn’t be there any more.” But there’s an out; she’s leaving the service, and buying that nice house by the seaside. And Harry could go with her. “Leave the service. With me.”

Like, I’m guessing, a lot of viewers, I was silently wishing that the show’s writers would, just this once, let these two most likeable of characters have a deserved happy ending. But this is Spooks, and those are pretty rare here. So, with Wagnerian inevitability, Sasha approached with his lethal shard of glass, and both Harry and Ruth tried to take the fall for each other. But it was, surprisingly (to me, anyway), Ruth who caught the stab wound as she tried to push Sasha away from Harry.

Sasha was quickly taken out of the action by a handy pistol shot from Erin, and we got one of the more painful death scenes I’ve seen – not painful in a physical sense, but emotionally. It was hard to keep from tearing up as Ruth coughed her last, knowing full well that the show she’s been in for years doesn’t allow for happy endings: “We’re not meant to have those things.” And then, finally, Harry’s face cracked into heartbreaking tears as Peter Firth finally allowed himself to show the emotions his character was feeling.

All else was – literally – post mortem. Another quietly devastating scene followed as Harry went to inspect the house Ruth almost bought, and left, unable to stand it. For a moment, we wondered if he really had taken Ruth’s suggestion of quitting the service. As he drove away, the Home Secretary told him on the phone, “Nobody expects you to come back to work. Ever.”

But this is Harry Pearce, and his quiet nobility and devotion to duty are one of the show’s eternal mainstays. So it should have come as no surprise that, whatever his current reputation, his next stop was the Grid, and back to work. But before heading to his office, we got an emotional sendoff to the series as a whole, as he popped down to the previously unseen MI5 memorial wall to the fallen to pay his respects to “R. Evershed”. And she was the last name on a long list that, touchingly reminded us of all those characters we’ve seen die in the last ten years: Tariq, Ros Myers, Adam Carter, Jo Portman, Zafar Younis, even timid little Colin Wells from the tech section. And as if to emphasise the show’s past, its very first hero Tom Quinn (Matthew MacFadyen) put in a (widely rumoured) quick appearance, privately hired by Harry to take out the head of the Russian conspiracy.

It was a sweet capstone to a show that’s been (however frequently implausible) one of the most enjoyable British dramas of the last decade. And as Harry settled back down in his office, it was a comfort to know that, however unhappy, we’ve got this team of four people carrying on defending our land. Asked to sum up the day’s reports, Calum put it best: “Bad people want to kill us.” As good a summary of the situation as I ever heard, and as Harry, after a masterful pause, picked up the phone to hear what the next crisis would be, it felt like closure. No happy endings, to be sure. Just the safe and certain knowledge that we’re secure in these people’s hands. It may not be realistic, it may be wildly improbable, and they may only have four people against hordes of the nation’s enemies. But it’s good to know that, even if we don’t see it any more, life on the Grid goes on.

Spooks: Series 10, Episode 5

“This is about Elena Gavrik and you know it. You’re still in love with her, and it’s clouding your judgement.”

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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.

Spooks: Series 10, Episode 3

“All over the world, men are lying to women to get them into bed. Don’t overthink it.”

SpooksDimitri

Life must go on, even in Section D of MI5. So it was this week, that after a couple of minutes mourning for the murdered Tariq, it was back to business as usual when a random sweep of airport baggage trolleys with a Geiger counter revealed trace amounts of radiation. Someone, it seemed, wanted to make a dirty bomb, and had brought some nasty radioactive stuff into the general vicinity of London.

Ever the professional, Harry decided that this was probably rather more urgent than the investigation into the death of their colleague (“Our friend,” as he touchingly referred to Tariq). So once again, the heroes that defend our realm with a team of about five people put aside their personal feelings to concentrate on the task at hand. Fortunately, Ruth was as efficient as ever in scanning the CCTV and finding the suspect within minutes, thereby saving the viewer from having to watch all that tedious investigation stuff that’s so much less exciting than surveillance, undercover work and shooting things.

Called upon to go undercover, in a plot I’m sure I’ve seen the show do before, was new action man Dimitri – deep undercover of the target’s sister’s bedclothes, as it turned out. Since the demise of Lucas North, Dimitri is obviously being shaped into the new central hero figure the show’s always had. When Spooks began, this figure, in the shape of Matthew MacFadyen’s Tom Quinn, was the central character of the show; later it became more of an ensemble piece, as the writers realised the rest of Section D was at least as interesting, if not more so, than Tom was. Nevertheless, there’s always been a central figure who does the James Bond stuff. Probably the most memorable and long-running was Rupert Penry-Jones as Adam Carter, though Richard Armitage was broodingly charismatic as the ever more improbable Lucas North.

Now, it seems, the task has fallen to the monumental talent that is Max Brown, and this was really the first episode where the handsome if wooden ex-Hollyoaks star was thrust into the limelight. Stirred from his usual role of defusing bombs or turning up with a gun at the last minute, Dimitri was required to get close to the target’s sister by means of internet dating – a rather sadder way to pick up women than James Bond usually needs. Still, Dimitri was clearly the obvious choice – he now seems to be one of only two field agents the Grid has, and since the other one is Erin, he was the one most likely to tempt a heterosexual woman. They could have tried Calum I suppose, but his social skills would probably have resulted in him leaving the first date alone and covered in red wine.

Dimitri was uncomfortable at the thought of having to go in so deep that he’d need a condom; but Erin effectively told him to belt up, and so Natalie Grier – sister of notorious anarchist Johnny Grier – was soon swayed by his charms and took him into her bed. Then, inevitably, her anarchist brother turned up and hit him. After making a show of being somewhat put out that must have taxed his acting talents to the max, Dimitri managed to convince Johnny that he was in fact an estate agent. Since Max Brown would be rather more believable as an estate agent than as a super spy, Johnny seemed taken in, and the op was on. Cue much trailing in cars, long distance photography, and hovering drones from which Ruth worked her usual magic of identifying the suspect.

While this plot was all perfectly well-executed – with the usual tense split-screen sequences as the search team rushed to finish their job while the suspect headed ever closer to home – I have to say there was a real feeling of having been here before. Johnny’s plan, it turned out after much twisty-turniness, was to irradiate the nasty CEO of a financial speculation company, who’d made a killing in yen after the recent Japanese earthquake. Harry and Erin made no secret of their distaste for this, but the CEO was more than happy to forget the insult when Dimitri turned up in the nick of time to try and talk Johnny down from breaking open a strangely fragile glass tube containing radium 226.

Johnny, it turned out, had cancer, and wanted to make a last grand anti-capitalist gesture. Dimitri, in the standard plot trope of all stories about undercover agents, had come to like him and understand his argument; but he’s a Security Professional who knows about The Harsh Realities of the Job, and he can’t let Johnny do it. “It’s not worth it,” he emotes, Max Brown’s acting muscles working overtime in an attempt to convey inner turmoil, “nobody’s watching any more.” But of course, Dimitri’s the one who’s watching now, and he’s come to care about Johnny – at least I think that’s what Max Brown’s face was trying to show. So Johnny pours the radium all over himself, and Max is called on portray angst and guilt on his handsome but immobile face as he tries to live with the consequences of having deceived a woman into thinking he loved her. Fortunately for him, Erin has drafted “the best Dear John letter ever written… the one I’d want to receive if someone was breaking up with me”. So that’s all right then.

As I said, this was all done competently enough, but it had the feel of very, very familiar ground as far as Spooks is concerned. What with this and last week’s mostly uninspiring stolen laptop plot, it may be a good thing, if a little sad, that the show’s finally coming to an end. Nobody likes watching a once-great show retreading old ground in an overextended lifespan – that’s what made The X Files often painful to watch during its last few seasons. If Spooks really has run out of ideas, it’s best that it goes out while still on a modest high.

The modest high – and it may get better than that – is this year’s Big Plot about detente with the Russians, Harry’s old flame/asset Elena Gavrik, and the seemingly duplicitous CIA. While shoved very much to the back burner this week, the Big Plot is miles more interesting than the overfamiliar runarounds taking up the bulk of the last two episodes. Thus, this week, Harry’s women got to have a tete-a-tete, as Ruth was sent in to retrieve the mysterious fake communiques from Elena. In keeping with the general attempt to mine every Cold War cliche in the book, they met at an art gallery, where their words seemed to echo rather more loudly round the room than would be entirely advisable for a secret meeting.

It was more than an exchange of intelligence though; Elena has twigged about Ruth and Harry. “I saw the way you looked at him at the reception… you love him, don’t you?” Ruth did that nonplussed look that Nicola Walker is so good at; a sort of very British mild discomfiture at the thought of openly discussing emotion: “I don’t know how to answer that.” But Elena knows Harry as well as Ruth, and has words of advice for her: “You can never expect the full confidence of a man like Harry Pearce. He can’t even give that to himself.”

Again, we’re in the fun territory of writing that vaguely recalls bits of John le Carre (whose opinion of this show is “crap”, incidentally). But the half-recalled Cold War tropes are a bit of fun nostalgia, enlivening the twisty plot about Harry’s past. Later, he meets up with his unsuspecting son Sasha, to let him know the results of their investigation, and Sasha is curious as to why Harry came himself. Cue a masterly angst-ridden pause from Peter Firth as Harry eventually blurted sadly, “no reason”. With his repressed emotion every bit a match for Ruth’s, it’s clear these two were made for each other.

And Ruth was getting flirted with herself this week, from a very unexpected quarter. Shifty Home Secretary Towers (the mighty Simon Russell Beale) invited her to dinner! He wants to promote her, for reasons that are unclear and very probably highly suspicious. His excuse is that he hates to see “wasted potential” – but you can’t help thinking he wants to split up the highly effective, romantically charged team of Harry and Ruth. But to what end, I wonder? Still, the whole thing served to get Ruth to express – cryptically, of course – the doubts she’s been having about Harry: “I’m sick of secrets. You never really get to know people. It just ends up with everybody feeling alone.”

Meanwhile, a contrite Calum is getting inevitably more likeable as he pursues a quiet investigation into Tariq’s death. He’s managed to retrieve the CCTV footage that Tariq was killed for having seen, and found that the courier for the stolen laptop was “from a little outfit called the Central Intelligence Agency”. What with the fake communiques to Elena containing info known only to Harry, Elena, and CIA honcho Jim Coaver, it’s clear that the CIA are behind it all. But this is Spooks, and the season’s only halfway through; expect this to be a total red herring. Mind you, the Big Plot will lose points with me if it turns out to be yet another shadowy international conspiracy bent on changing the global balance of power – Spooks has already had at least three of those, and you wonder how they managed to work their long term shady plans without ever noticing each other.

So, yet again this week, we had a very standard Spooks runaround that, while exciting enough, was nothing we hadn’t seen before. The bits involving the Big Plot were far more interesting, and it’s notable that, despite being a fairly small part of the episode, I’ve spent far more time dwelling on those than the overly familiar main plot. Last week at least had the shock death of Tariq to lift it a bit higher than being routine, but this week we only had the character moments of Harry, Ruth, Elena and Sasha. Here’s hoping for something a bit less familiar next week…

Spooks: Series 10, Episode 1

“We all have to be diplomats in the new age, Harry.”

HarryPearce

As the ‘intelligence professionals’ of Torchwood shuffle shamefacedly off our screens, it’s time to welcome back the real pros. Yes, Spooks is back for its tenth and final (sob!) series. Often touted as the UK’s answer to 24, this is a show that started out with the intention of showing the agents of MI5 as real people, but soon realised that this was far less fun than an increasingly improbable succession of conspiracies, technobabble and illogical action shown in split screen. In other words, by now it is pretty close to 24, but has the advantage of being informed by a pseudo-John le Carre approach developed by someone who once saw an episode of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Over they years, this has made for an enjoyably bonkers show that’s never less than compellingly watchable.

Section Chief Harry Pearce is one of the reasons why the show has always been so watchable. Incarnated with pursed-lipped earnestness and a wit as dry as the Sahara by Peter Firth, he’s now the only one of the original cast left standing. Given that leaving Section D of MI5 usually results in death, madness or lifelong exile, he is perhaps wise to have stayed in his post. He has a murky Cold War past that the show has frequently delved into, but this year, fittingly, it looks like the plot is all about him. The pre-credits flashback shows us a succession of things he got up to recently as if to prove this.

As we enter the plot proper, it becomes clear that Harry has been suspended as head of Section D. The logical assumption is that this is a result of him having spent years working with Lucas North and not having figured out that he was actually another man who just happened to look like Lucas North. A bit. But no, it turns out that the powers that be are displeased that, last series, he traded the top secret Albany files for a hostage – his longtime flirtee Ruth Evershed, with whom he surely must get it on in this final series.

Standing up to enquiry chairperson Josette Simon (who enviably seems not to have aged since I last saw her in Blake’s 7 in 1981), Harry conclusively proves that his potential girlfriend is a more valuable national asset than the Albany project – true love justified in select committee. “Can I see what you wrote about me?” Ruth enquires, to which Harry growls, “Over my dead body”. Hmm. Hints about the ending, I wonder?

Nevertheless, Harry’s soon back on the Grid, and it’s time for us to see the team Section D is fielding this year. Gone from last year’s team is newbie Beth Bailey; ostensibly she’s been let go because of all those dubious connections that were somehow no problem last year, but in actuality I suspect actress Penelope Myles had other things on. Never mind, last year’s other new recruit Dimitri is still there, played as ever by that towering talent of Hollyoaks Max Brown. Tariq is still running the techie branch – I was disappointed to see that Shazad Latif has had a haircut as I loved his floppy hair – and has been joined by an intentionally irritating wanker called Calum Reed. Incarnated by Geoffrey Streatfield, Calum’s purpose is wind up everyone else. Going on a raid with Dimitri, he doesn’t have the experience to know that a conveniently left-behind laptop is probably booby-trapped; if there’s one thing we established Dimitri knows last year, it’s bombs. He may regret having pulled Calum clear of the resulting explosion. “Did you kill anyone in the SBS?” Calum later enquires. “Sometimes,” says Dimitri, looking pointedly at him. “I miss it.”

The most important newbie, however, is Lara Pulver playing tough but fair single mum Erin Watts, who apparently can’t get government childcare for her daughter and has to leave her at home with gran. Erin’s been standing in for Harry since his suspension, and if the show wasn’t ending would be the obvious candidate to replace him. In this first episode, she shows herself to be every bit as capable as Harry, chairing meetings, bollocking Calum, and infiltrating a formal dinner for a Russian minister posing as Dimitri’s date.

With this first episode setting the store for this year’s plotline, it looks like the shorter six week run will mean fewer standalone stories and more of a serial approach – hopefully one that will work better than Torchwood did. The plot seems to centre on Harry’s Cold War relationship with the wife of Russian finance Minister Gavrik, who’s over in England to cement a new ‘special relationship’ with Russia. In the usual improbable extrapolation of real world geopolitical factors common to the show, it seems that the UK is going to ditch the old relationship with the US and form a new one with Russia. A slew of topical reasons is given to justify this that, as usual, don’t really bear close scrutiny.

All of this is explained to Harry by returning Home Secretary William Towers, played as last year by the marvellous Simon Russell Beale. Whatever’s going on, Towers is mixed up in it up to his ministerial eyebrows; he smuggled Gavrik into the UK without Harry’s knowledge for the negotiations, and like everyone in the show gives the impression that he knows far more than he is saying. Given that Harry personally murdered the last Home Secretary, he should tread carefully – particularly if Harry pays him a home visit wearing his black murdering gloves.

Given that there’s a Russian minister in town, naturally someone will want to assassinate him. And so it proves. Raiding his shabby basement flat – apparently the assassin couldn’t get the usual deserted high rise office with big windows – leads our heroes to the conclusion that an attempt will be made at the formal dinner. And so in they go with dinner suits, and in Ruth’s case, a false name which lasts about five minutes until the Home Secretary turns up and recognises her. The assassin is posing as a wine waiter, but for some reason hasn’t considered the obvious tactic of poisoning the minister’s wine. No, instead, he puts everyone on alert by murdering one of the staff, then changes his clothes and walks toward the minister while pulling a gun. This not being the most covert of approaches, he is swiftly taken down by Erin with a sharp shot – oddly, he’s neglected to wear the same body armour that Dimitri discreetly has on under his dinner jacket.

Harry has other things to worry about though. Gavrik’s wife Elena (Alice Krige, an actress so prolific I’m only amazed she’s never been in the show before) used to be his best Russian asset during the Cold War. Now, it seems like someone’s pretending to be Harry to reactivate her. This bothers Harry, and his frown becomes more intense than usual – particularly when paid a visit by Elena’s son Sasha (the rather sexy Tom Weston-Jones). Sasha’s working for the FSB now, but understandably doesn’t want to tell anybody that his mum was Russia’s biggest traitor during the 80s.

It comes as no particular surprise to anyone (except perhaps Ruth) that, back in the day, Elena was more than Harry’s top asset, she was his lover – as hinted at in a series of soft focus flashbacks throughout the ep. Even more predictably, Harry’s not willing to ‘neutralise’ Sasha, because, gasp, Sasha is actually his son. Nicola Walker reacts to this with the usual subtlety with which she imbues her performance as Ruth – the mildest of facial tics on her pinched frown display the inner turmoil she’s presumably feeling.

So, business as usual for Britain’s most improbable spies, but sadly for the last time. We’re on familiar technobabble territory as Tariq traces the assassin on CCTV using ‘motion recognition’ software – apparently,  “the way you walk is as unique as a fingerprint”. Harry’s grumble that Erin has undone the ten years of work he put into getting his chair just right is met with a rejoinder from Ruth about getting Q Branch on it – if only Desmond Llewellyn was still with us, it’s be great to see him fiddling around with Harry’s recliner settings. It’s all bonkers fun and comfortably familiar, and I’m looking forward to spending the next five weeks saying goodbye to a show that, despite its flaming insanity, I’ve come to love over the years.