BBC's MI5 TV Series: A Review

MI5 aka SPOOKS cast on BBC



            We watched the first episode and went "hmmm, pretty good.  Let's watch another one."
            The next episode was even better.  Here was a BBC television series whose characters behaved like real adults.  The job of MI-5 is roughly analogous to that of the FBI.  They deal with dangers within the United Kingdom while sister agency MI-6 handles the chores overseas.
            The early first season episodes are plot-driven.  The characters are not overly fleshed out.  The characters are credible and mostly likeable.  Lead actor Matthew MacFadyen has a flinty and determined mien.  Though he may look like a slightly collegiate tough guy with little pink lips he quickly establishes the fact that he is not someone to fuck with.  His eyes hold their target; they don't move around with indecision.
            Third episode.  Holy shit.  This is good stuff.  What makes it far more compelling than "24" is that it is held in a container where people and events may be fictional but they are credible enough that the imagination can buy into it.  Yeah, this could happen.  These could be the kind of people working for MI-5.  If we're lucky.  They're smart, talented, and committed.
            Little by little, the lives of the characters creep into view.  They try to live normal lives with normal relationships but that isn't really possible.  First, they can't discuss their work.  Not with their spouses or sweethearts, not with anyone but their colleagues.  Tom is trying to build a little family with a single mom and her child but it isn't working.  She doesn't even know his real name.  She doesn't feel trusted.  She doesn't understand.  This dilemma of Insiders and Outsiders haunts every MI-5 agent. 
            Season Three introduces the married pair of operatives, Adam and Fiona Carter.  Fiona worked overseas on dangerous missions for MI-6.  Now she's transferred to MI-5 where she is working literally side by side with her husband.
Together, they have a child.  How does a mom and dad team of intelligence agents raise a five year old boy?  They try their best.  They want to be good parents.  The occasional domestic tableau is almost a shock.  Mommy's just been doused with kerosene and almost set on fire, but she'll get home in time to tuck in little Wes.
Maybe spooks should be like priests, celibate and isolate.  The job doesn't leave much scope for a normal life. 
            One feature of MI-5's dramatic container is the level of jeopardy in which the characters operate.  The series producers make it very clear that they can, and they will, kill off or "vanish" major characters.  We as viewers are forced to discard that glib background assurance that everything will be okay, that the characters we love are always going to win their battles. 
            Sometimes they don't.  Sometimes we get a violent shock when without warning and in just a few seconds a major character is killed.  This raises the emotional stakes a thousandfold.  This takes MI-5 into its own category of thriller.
It's realistic.  The characters are extremely skilled and powerful but they're not invulnerable.  One bad decision, a moment of bad luck, and BAM!  A character who's taken four years to develop is gone.  Irrevocably.
            MI-5 explores the same topical questions that 24 explores.  How far must they go?  Do they use torture?  What kind of torture?  How much torture?  What if they're holding a suspect who may have key information about an attack that could take out thousands of people?
            Someone has to deliver the inevitable line:  "If we use torture, we become just like THEM."  The enemy.  Then another actor must respond.  "We have no choice.  There are thousands, maybe millions of lives at stake."
            MI-5 doesn't give us any pat answers.  The closest the show can come to solving this moral crisis is to compare the interior worlds of the antagonists.  And even then, the lines aren't clear.  Does the terrorist or MI-5 agent enjoy torturing and killing?  Is the terrorist"cause" or the State's authority just an excuse to vent rage?  Are they using their cause as a screen behind which to hide their personal failures?  Isn't this the nature of evil, to transfer one's own pain onto others?  In this televised fiction the villains are seldom rug-chewing sadists with twirly moustaches.  They're usually distasteful for having crossed a line into total indifference to human life.  Sometimes they're sympathetic.  Sometimes we can agree with their ideas, if not with their methods.
            Then how are terrorists different than The State?
            They aren't.  It comes on a case-by-case basis.  It's clear, as the stakes ratchet up, season after season, that use of torture techniques causes the MI-5 agents immense personal anguish.  They don't want to torture anyone.  They HAVE TO.  At least that is their perception of the real world.  It isn't fun to cause agony to another human being.  It hurts.  A lot.  Adam Carter was himself the victim of torture when he was captured by terrorists in Yemen.  It is inferred that his torture was particularly severe.  Yet it is Adam who demonstrates the deepest ruthlessness.  It's obvious that he's made up his mind on this issue, and that he is willing to sacrifice a part of his own humanity.  He KNOWS the price he is paying.  He knows that torturing and killing terrorists will cost him vast tracts of human tenderness.  He's a husband and a father.  His warmth and tenderness are precious qualities.  He hangs his moral hat with his loved ones and his colleagues with dedicated ferocity.  Yet he can't let this inner struggle distract him from the work at hand, which is to protect the State's citizens from harm.
            The boss of MI-5 is Harry Pearson.  He is played by the redoubtable Peter Firth.  This is an actor whose sheer presence transcends his lines.  We are not shown Harry with a wife or family.  The agents who work under his authority are his family.  When offered a promotion to a high level government office, Harry asks agent Ruth Evershed, his senior analyst, to coach him on a way to fail his interview credibly.  With Ruth's help, Harry successfully fails.  He stays on as the top Field Supervisor of MI-5.
            Peter Firth is a master of the use of his own facial wrinkles.  Good actors know how to use their eyes.  Firth's wrinkles are like soldiers that are commanded by his eyes.  He can use them to look impish yet imposing.  His character, Harry Pearson, is a man who must  bridge the worlds of politics and violent action.  He needs to know where all the political skeletons are buried so that he can protect his own agency.  The existence of MI-5 itself is sometimes under threat from big shots
who want to consolidate all the agencies into one Super-Agency, ala Homeland Security.  Harry doesn't like this idea.  Fortunately, Harry has the power of knowledge and decades worth of connections in the intelligence community.  This is another man you do not fuck with.
            As a viewer I feel a tingle of great satisfaction when a "good" tough guy faces down a "bad" tough guy.  Harry Pearce is a master of this kind of confrontation. When he collides with someone, be it terrorist or high level politician, he has what he needs: information, insight or just plain balls.
            MI-5 has that quality of gritty satisfaction.  It's a show that has balls, and provides insight.  In its medium, few have excelled more consistently.  We have watched three seasons plus the first two episodes of season four.  There seemed to be a slight dip in Season Two.  The episodes were good but they didn't quite have the chilling tension of the first season.  Season Three got back in the game with terrifying suspense.  By now we have come to admire and love the MI-5 agents.
The writers took their time in developing these characters.  There was so much plot, so much variety from episode to episode that the series quickly acquired momentum.  The writers didn't rest on their laurels.  They allowed the characters room to breathe and expand until they acquired the luster of real people.  As the series continues I expect this standard will be maintained.  We're looking forward to the rest of the seasons and all seasons to come.  The show began in 2001 and it's still in production.