Written in the very best tradition of British drama that drives both plot and character with equal intensity, the seventh series of Spooks brings the gritty, doomsday atmosphere of the conventional spy thriller into a highly polished and almost loving backdrop of 21st century London. The characters are raw, fresh and genuinely interesting and the classic themes of nuclear war, terrorism and ‘the mole at the top’ are portrayed with surprising originality.
The formidable psychology of the show is kept at a constantly high pitch that is conveyed to us by spectacular and powerful acting from the entire cast after Rupert Penry-Jones’ seven year reign as Adam Carter ends in a blaze of car bomb glory. Ros (Hermione Norris) is, of course, possessed by an almost demoniac cocktail of rage and grief that soon freezes over and sinks into every pore of her skin, turning her into a kind of machine that runs on revenge and almost nothing else, though we do occasionally get glimpses of the frightened, and lonely person behind the mask.
Meanwhile, following the rape she suffered while in captivity in series 6, Jo (Miranda Raison) has developed an obsessive compulsive desire to run constantly until her feet are bloody. Adam’s death prompts her to return to MI5, where she continues to suffer from severe PTSD that jeopardises several missions before Ros is forced to take her in hand in a rare and moving display of tenderness for the condition of the female MI5 agent that is a true testament to the complexity of her character: ‘the work you and I do is always going to be tough. Much tougher than Harry or Lucas can ever know. This is why you and I have to be much tougher than them to do it.’
Peter Firth’s Harry gets some dazzling scenes this season that don’t involve his usual gig of fighting with the Home Secretary, and it is perhaps significant that when it comes to avenging Adam’s death, it is he, rather than Ros, who pulls the trigger.
And finally, we come to filling the huge gap that Adam has left behind. Richard Armitage joins the cast as Lucas North, an agent who is repatriated to Britain after spending eight years being tortured in Russia. Painfully thin, malnourished and covered in Blakean tattoos (a gift from his captors), Lucas is allowed back onto the grid in the middle of a crisis by a reluctant Harry, where he adjusts with surprising but believable ease. He has a short-lived but intense bromance with Adam that makes the first episode a true pleasure to watch, Penry-Jones and Armitage both being exceptional on their own, but together forming a charismatic duo that I hope the BBC will exploit in the future. As we get to know Lucas, he becomes progressively more interesting. Also suffering from PTSD, he is sometimes struck by vivid flashbacks that cripple him completely (for instance being caught in the rain reawakens harrowing memories of seventeen consecutive days of waterboarding). He speaks fluent Russian, has a Russian ex-wife called Elizaveta that he may or may not still be in love with, and runs from all these ghosts with a good-natured friendliness and likeability.
Spooks is beautifully and convincingly acted with the utmost dedication and with awe-inspiring mastery of voice, body language and facial expression from the entire cast. All the characters suffer from intense psychological and personal problems, often both, but come to work day after day, paying tribute to Adam’s belief that it’s work rather than therapy that will help them to deal with those problems. In many cases, particularly Jo’s, this way of thinking is a double-edged sword.
While the plot of each episode features the usual suspects of Al-Qaeda bombers and Russian nuclear explosives threatening to wipe the UK off the face of the planet, this is done with stunning originality and narrative poise: no outcome is in the least bit predictable, and since this has been the season to blow up Adam Carter, you’re frequently left worrying whether the producers may have decided to let any of our other favourite characters join him at the Pearly Gates. With Russian and American characters in particular, we often find ourselves lapsing into stereotype territory, especially as concerns the former, that risks our failing to take certain events seriously, but we’re somehow saved from this. I’m still not sure why, or if this has anything to do with the spectacular handling of the mole at the top of MI5. This theme runs vividly through the entire series, and, with Tinker Tailor-like brilliance, leaves us almost screaming in disbelief when we find out who it is.
Powerfully gripping from start to finish and overloaded with powerful characterisation and brilliant plot, Spooks is unquestionably one of the finest British dramas out there.