Spooks: Series 10, Episode 2

“We all ruin the lives of people we care about. It’s part of what we do.”

SpooksTariq

And another one bites the dust! In keeping with the grand Spooks tradition that any main character can be killed off at any time (not just in a dramatic season finale), tonight’s otherwise fairly routine episode was suddenly enlivened at the end by the not entirely unexpected demise of loveable tech geek Tariq.

I say not unexpected because this twist was telegraphed so heavily, the only way it could have been more obvious would have been if Tariq had spent the episode wearing a T-shirt saying ‘dead soon’. Firstly, we had Sasha and his FSB pal Anatoly horseplaying around with an umbrella. “You’re dead,” japed Sasha, “poison umbrella.” Obviously this was a callout to the infamous assassination of Georgi Markov in 1978, when Bulgarian secret police stabbed the famous dissident with a ricin pellet from an umbrella tip, while waiting at a bus stop on Waterloo Bridge.

As with the old ‘Chekhov’s gun’ rule – if you show a gun in the first act of your play, someone will have been shot with it by the final act – this was a pretty obvious bit of foreshadowing. The only question was, who would be the victim? Step up Tariq, ‘unusually’ thrust into the limelight rather than his usual background technobabble function.

First he had a go at snide git Calum, who, let’s face it, was undoubtedly more rubbish for having a laptop full of top secret information nicked from him by mugging. Calum was mocking Tariq for his surprisingly crap file encryption (though if the encryption had been up to his usual standard, the plot couldn’t have taken place). This caused Tariq to deliver an unusually impassioned speech about how he had to work hard to get where he was, and he worked so hard because he “gave a shit”.

Not content with the usual device of building him up into a bit of a hero before killing him, the script then had him commit the fatal error of trying to bury the hatchet with a bit of socialising. As he turned down Calum’s offer of a pint with a promise that they would have one “soon”, he basically put himself in the place of every soldier in a war movie who tells his pal they’ll get together soon, just after this last assault on The Bridge at Remagen. And thus, his fate was sealed. As soon as the power went off just after his mysterious revelation on the CCTV footage, you knew he’d be dead in minutes; it was thus no surprise when a passer by ‘accidentally’ bumped into him and he discovered a spreading lump on his stomach just before he lurched out of his taxi to die outside Thames House.

However well signposted, it’s still a bit of a wrench to see Tariq go. Shazad Latif did a surprisingly good job of making him as likeable as previous Section D tech bod Malcolm – thus far the only member of the team who’s managed to retire without dying, going mad or being sent into exile. But this was clearly one of those episodes about The Harsh Realities of the Job, and presumably Tariq knew what he was getting into when he saw the list of previous casualties from the Grid – not least Colin, a previous tech support bod whose first venture into the field resulted in him being hanged by terrorist fanatics. Tariq will be missed, not least because it’s now clear that the unlikeable Calum was pre-emptively brought in to replace him.

Also learning about The Harsh Realities of the Job this week was the impossibly glamourous Erin – something of a surprise, as her previous role as stand-in for Harry rather implied she was a seasoned veteran. As the mysterious leaks from the stolen laptop spread across the internet, it became clear that one of her assets, an analyst at a Russian oil firm called Martha Ford, was about to be compromised. Trying her best to be ruthless like Harry, Erin commanded Martha to extract all the files relating to this year’s baddie Ilya Gavrik before getting the hell out of there, all the while reassuring her that the stolen laptop didn’t include her details, really it didn’t.

Martha thus dutifully downloaded all the files onto the usual conveniently hi tech USB stick before running (well, walking briskly) like hell out of the oil firm’s offices, which were the usual modernist hi tech building of big glass walls favoured by every corporation in the Spooks world. Imagine then her surprise as she saw a giant TV monitor at reception outing her as a spy, which somehow nobody else in the building was paying attention to.

Clearly Martha’s cover was blown, and Erin secreted her in one of MI5’s inappropriately named safe houses (these things are usually as safe as a swimming pool full of sharks and razor wire in Spooks-world). Cue much crying as Martha realised that ‘Karen’, as Erin was known to her, had lied to her all along and cared little about her safety beyond her usefulness. This caused Erin to get teary as well, though at no point did it – or anything else – cause any disturbance to her immaculately coiffured hair.

Grappling with her conscience, Erin reported to Harry, who thankfully doesn’t have that much hair to be worried about. Harry then dutifully gave her one of his trademark speeches about The Harsh Realities of the Job: “First, we have to be prepared to give everything. Second, and far harder, we have to be prepared to ask others to give everything.” Erin bit her lip and accepted that these were indeed The Harsh Realities of the Job, which thus far haven’t impacted on her responsibilities as an impossibly glamourous single mum juggling the defence of the realm with childcare and haircare. Surely it can only be a matter of time, as families are always an obvious weak point for the agents of Section D.

Families were also much on the minds of Harry and Ruth, as this week’s runaround involving intel details leaked to the internet from a stolen laptop intersected with this season’s Big Plot. Not only was Russian minister Gavrik involved in the oddly named oil firm ‘KaspGaz’ (some reference to Garry Kasparov perhaps?) in which Martha was embedded, it seems that the laptop was stolen by somebody involved in the Big Plot and then leaked to a former Spook with a grudge. Said ex-Spook made the foolish mistake of staring straight into the nicked laptop’s webcam as Tariq pulled off his final feat of techno-magic – turning on the webcam after having failed to track IP addresses and email links seems so obvious you wonder why they didn’t try it first. The laptop duly recovered, Harry is now curious about the link.

He’s also still curious about who’s reactivated his former asset and lover Elena Gavrik. In order to seek more information, he flipped open his book of Cold War cliches and arranged to meet her at a ballet rehearsal. This had the effect of recalling all those Cold War spy thrillers which climax with backstage shenanigans during a performance of the Bolshoi (though the only one that leaps to mind is 1965 Morecambe and Wise ‘classic’ The Intelligence Men). But times have moved on and budgets are limited, so instead of the expected full auditorium watching a sumptuously mounted production of Tchaikovsky, we got a lone ballerina practising to Beethoven. The only people watching in the whole theatre were Harry and Elena, which surely made them stand out rather more than they’d like while having a clandestine meeting.

Unfortunately for them, two people did clock them, and they both work for Russian secret service the FSB. Rather more fortunately, one of them is Harry’s long lost son Sasha, who’s spent the episode trying to conceal his mum’s treachery from FSB comrade Anatoly, a man so aggressively Russian with his piercing blue eyes and bushy black goatee that he appears to be constantly auditioning for the role of Rasputin. Obviously it’s pretty impossible to explain away his mum having a secret meeting with a senior agent of MI5, so Sasha is obliged to do Anatoly in, in a fight tastefully intercut with the ballerina bouncing around to Moonlight Sonata. Having finished filling Elena – and the viewers – in on what’s going on, Harry is confronted again by Sasha, and between scenes helps to remove the body in a way that is not disclosed.

Back at the Grid, Harry has deduced that the only likely suspect to impersonate him in reactivating Elena is top level CIA spook Jim Coaver, played by William Hope who will forever be known as the ineffectual Lt Gorman out of Aliens. In the twisty turny world of Spooks, the CIA are always about as trustworthy as the Russians, so this comes as no particular surprise. Thus, Ruth is tasked with investigating Coaver while Harry meets with him in his usual unofficial office – That Bench on the Embankment that has a nice view of the Houses of Parliament. Meanwhile, we discover that Ruth has doubts – she’s not only looking into Coaver, but she’s checking up on Harry too. Nicola Walker’s pinched frown is virtually causing her face to implode with guilt – but she’s going to feel even worse when she finds out the result of having sent the hardworking Tariq home for the night.

The usual Spooks runaround then, but fun nonetheless. The stolen laptop plot felt like the sort of thing the show used to do in its sleep, but its link to the Big Plot, and the death of Tariq, give it a bit more significance than just a filler. Next week, expect accusations and guilt to fly around the Grid like paper darts made from Eyes Only files, and we’ll continue to wait with bated breath for the inevitable moment when Sasha discovers that nasty old Harry is actually his dad. My money’s on him finding out just after he’s shot Harry…

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.