Thursday, December 1, 2011

Spooks Ending: A Real. Life. Fail.

After the miserable ending to that brilliant show, I just stopped thinking about it. Yes, OK, it was a process... It took a blog post and a few days of decompressing to stop thinking about Spooks. But I did stop. I didn't reflect on it, try to put it all in context, or ruminate about the larger meaning of fiction and it's role in our lives. I just stuffed the experience in a file drawer and walked away.  I walked across the Atlantic and immersed myself in other pursuits (knitting, Star Trek Voyager, and holidays).

That worked for me.

However, over the course of the last week or two, I've had too many occasions that brought up the show and I'm realizing that I do need to do a bit of dredging up and processing before I can fairly and legitimately stuff it all back in the file again and walk away for good. If you, too, are on a Spooks' healing process, read on. Maybe I can be of assistance.

SPOILER ALERT through 10.6. There are references here to events that happened throughout the whole run of this show. Please beware.

With its ending, Spooks, as a series, failed. The "ending" I'm speaking of, is the one that began in Season 9 and continued up until the last pathetic moments -- as life leaked out of the franchise in a sad and plaintive way.

Somewhere during its run, Spooks seized hold of the mantra: "we don't do happy" and decided to run with it to an extreme degree. By adhering to a very limited world view and by intentionally killing or destroying everything that made the show special and real, Spooks ultimately killed itself.

There are two themes to its failure: (1) the first is the increasingly ruthless way that major characters were slaughtered until those losses displaced all deeper meaning, and (2) how the show lost its brilliant focus on team, continuity, cohesion and worthiness as the losses mounted without commensurate meaningful acts. One connection in particular which was the lifeblood of the show (Harry and Ruth) was thrown away cheaply.

I. An increasingly deep trail of bloodshed.

The first few years of the show contained significantly less killing of major characters than later ones did. Don't believe it? Look at this chart. Through the end of the first 3 seasons, only Danny and Helen were killed off. Three seasons, two deaths. And both were treated as catastrophic events for the team. Helen's death was met with assassination and a serious sense of vengeance; and Danny's was met with a distraught Ruth grieving and the whole team's mourning at a funeral. During those same 3 years, four agents (Tessa, Tom, Zoe and Sam) were allowed to leave the show alive and intact.

Then things started to change. The deaths began to rack up. Slowly at first, then fast and furious.
Consider this:
• In Season 4 only Fiona died.
• In Season 5, Collin.
• In Season 6, just Zaf. That's it.

Then the bloodbath began in earnest -- in fast succession we lost Adam, Ben, Connie, Jo, Ros and Lucas. Three seasons, six agents. (Make that 8 agents in 4 Seasons if you add in the last). With hardly more than a "safe" episode tucked in between to grieve, the bodies fell and Spooks began to lose its soul. Somewhere along the way, it gravitated toward a basic premise of "no one here gets out alive" -- and we are all diminished by it. Though lip-service was paid to the agents' sorrow over these deaths, overall there was no time to worry about what all this killing was doing to anyone. The show just plunged in, taking no prisoners.

However, even with these mounting losses, for a long time the show still sustained its history, continuity and cohesiveness because the teams were allowed to regenerate and rebuild (if not to grieve).  Up till and including the end of Season 8, I didn't really mind losing our best and brightest. Because there were always new and bright replacements to bond with. (For instance, after Danny left, we got Zaf; when Fiona died we got Jo; when Adam went, Lucas came.) The show continually renewed itself with fresh (and sometimes even better) characters than the ones who were leaving. New relationships were forged, new teams bonded. And it all still felt meaningful and real.

As long as the show was a process, the continual regeneration and recycling wasn't the death knell. And the show was BRILLIANT about getting actors and characters that clicked. ...And also at introducing them at just the right time and under just the right circumstances to increase bonding.

All that changed by Season 9.

II. When they stopped building teams.

Put yourself back in Season 8 for a moment. Think about the mix of characters and the tremendous chemistry and potential there. We start the year with Harry, Malcolm, Ruth, Jo, Ros, Lucas and Tariq. What an incredible team. Ruth was new to this particular mix, but she shared strong history with Harry, Malcolm and Jo. By the time we lost Malcolm, Jo and Ros, we were already bonding with Tariq, and Ruth was fully phased in. It felt smooth and seamless and it worked.

Meanwhile, Ruth's interactions with Harry were powerful, sad and sexy. We were fully invested in what would happen to them and all the agents around them. It was great TV. And that greatness withstood and transcended the loss of some of the best characters the show has ever known.

But, then with Season 9 and continuing into 10, the show seemed suddenly bent on destroying itself from the inside out. The meaning seemed to take a back seat and character development and trust stopped mattering. Things that a viewer had a right to rely upon were jerked away.

Here are a few ways in which that happened:

• Slowly the character of Lucas became meaningless over the course of Season 9 with unreasonable behavior and ridiculous motivations that changed who he was as a person and what we had come to believe. All this was done toward no real end other than to woo viewers.
• Ruth and Harry's love became untenable. Despite a season of buildup and a proposal she should have respected if not craved, Ruth's character not only denied herself happiness but denied herself even the comfort of some rational motivation for staying celibate.
• The story of Harry and Ruth longing for something greater, was built up and built up but then relegated to a back burner -- artificially prolonged past the point of reasonable anticipation. And toward what end? Apparently only for the hope of stringing along viewers.
• A character like Beth was allowed to be flawed and multi-faceted and then allowed to grow, undergo change, become meaningful and trustworthy, only to be abruptly dismissed (off-camera) with no closure at the start of Season 10. What was the point of that? I suppose they couldn't do anything about Sophia Myles not wanting to stay on for another season, but they could have gotten her to do a single episode and then maybe kill her -- that would at least have preserved her memory, given the remains of the team a bonding moment, and allowed her character some enduring meaning.
• The teamwork between Lucas, Beth and Dimitri, which was one of the highlights of Season 9, was entirely squandered after Lucas died, leaving Dimitri alone and adrift in a room full of strangers at the start of Season 10.
• With a much diminished continuing cast including only Harry, Ruth, Tariq and Dimitri who had appeared before on the show, Spooks limped into Season 10. Instead of immediately drawing upon past themes and building continuity they so desperately needed, the writers went and took out Tariq! One of the few who was actually part of a continuing team.
• They should have allowed their few continuing characters to bond and close ranks, then bring on the newbies in a more subtle way. Hitting us over the head with Calum and Erin Watts was jarring and awkward.
• The flow that was stilted because of character loss could still have been compensated for with continuing plot lines. But we didn't get that either. Almost no mention was made of the massive Lucas North/Albany File build-up. And Ruth and Harry lost all the momentum they had gained by Harry's act of passion at the end of Season 9. Lost without reason. It would have healed so many flaws to have allowed a proper conversation about what Harry did and what it meant.
• Instead, a Russian past was constructed for Harry that did nothing to draw in the other characters or provide the type of background that could ultimately build sympathy and connection for our team.
• As if the bonds weren't decimated enough, Ruth was then pulled into the Home Secretary's office, taking her away from section D too.
• I remember that I was excited to hear rumors that someone, probably Tom, would come back for a cameo in Season 10. Great idea. But even this was so horribly executed it provided nothing. Was Ruth allowed to see and connect with Tom? No. He showed up in the final minutes of the final episode in order to walk alone down a hallway. Someone who could have actually provided a meaningful link to the past was wasted.

The writers couldn't have dismantled the continuity of this show any more had they tried.

III. How the show squandered its amazing Harry/Ruth story

And the main way (the saddest way) that they dismantled the great things they had was they way they messed with Harry and Ruth. Maybe you've noticed, I haven't yet even mentioned how they killed off Ruth in the last episode. And I was more than a little upset by that. But more than the death of Ruth, I am disturbed by the way the writers squandered who she was and how she had moved forward. Her character became pointless. It underscores the lack of grounding to have taken her life just to prove that they could.

I did not need Harry and Ruth to have lived happily ever after, married and settled in a nice cottage somewhere. But there was no conceivable reason to have denied them some resolution, some real love scenes. They were artifically held in limbo and then denied real consummation. Their chemistry and motivations were squandered. And this incredibly powerful story lost.

Anyone may know how much I cared about Harry and Ruth as a couple. And I was hardly alone in that regard. "Harry and Ruth" had a life of their own that was bigger than Spooks as a show.

I now realize that this amazing couple was not a product of the show and its writers. It came from Nicola Walker and Peter Firth. It is common knowledge that the writers didn't plan that romance, but I now realize that they really didn't know what to do with it once it showed up in front of them. It proceeded organically from two talented actors, thus, their very best moments came when the writers weren't trying to manage it, but when Nicola and Peter managed to infuse regular interactions with more meaning and eye contact. In Season 10, the romance felt thin and squashed by the plot lines they were required to follow.  (Now I'm just hoping that some other directors/producers are smart enough to see Peter and Nicola and their great talent and chemistry together and give them work together on some project that really can "handle" them better. Its a dream.)

I could be imagining it, but when I was watching the last episode --and it became clear they were offing Ruth -- I could almost see Peter Firth's acting breaking down. It seemed to me that he (as an actor) just couldn't hang with it anymore because it was becoming so stupid. It really seemed to me as if he was distancing himself and closing down. He seemed to be sleepwalking through those last moments unable to find a place of truth and reality to draw upon. What a shame to have done this to Harry. To make the last 10 years condense down to the plugging away at a desk, endlessly fighting lost battles.

In Conclusion
In its early years, throughout all its traumas, Spooks always carried with it a mantle of care and tightness between our team members. Some reasonable mix of happy/love/pain/death/ambiguity would have been a vision of "giving of oneself, in the public service" that I could hang with. Now it seems that the writers wanted it to end on a note of: "we don't do happy and everyone must die or toil endlessly toward the same miserable end." Hmmm. That's what I waited 10 seasons for?

Yes, its just a show. It's only TV. But, really great fiction is more than just fiction. It mirrors reality. Books, movies, music and TV, are the stuff of life. They intentionally work on us at an emotional level. They are supposed to do that. Really good fiction does owe us something. I don't watch bad fiction. I don't read bad fiction and I don't listen to bad music because I won't allow myself to be manipulated and jerked around by "powerful" media that is "weak" in quality. Powerful media that is good is one of the best things in life.

This show was rare in that it did feel important and had so much capacity to be brilliant. Fiction does have the power to move people and create a reality. Spooks as its best did that and I think that's why people feel so let down when it fails. It diminishes us as viewers and makes the whole thing feel false.


  1. I love you for writing this. I really do. It is everything I despise about what Spooks became in one handy post.

    This is ultimately what I feel about Spooks. It started off a great show, with great stories, themes and characters, but its later series became sillier and sillier until there was nothing worthwhile to hold onto aside from great acting.

    I had a feeling Spooks was no longer for me from halfway through s8 but I clung on because I love Nicola and I loved Ruth and I wanted to see her story resolved. If the finale would have achieved this I would have forgiven previous series flaws.

    As it is, now I feel like I rather wasted my time.

    And yes people can say, "well why did you keep watching?" and I will keep saying till I am blue in the face "Because the potential to be great was still there and because I didn't want to admit one of my favourite shows had well... jumped the shark."


  2. "It is common knowledge that the writers didn't plan that romance, but I now realize that they really didn't know what to do with it once it showed up in front of them."

    THIS! This this this this this. You have summed up in one sentence the problem with ... all of it. And in a sense I do feel for the writers: when your characters completely take on a life of their own, it's hard to know what to do next. When your spy story suddenly wants a romance plot, how can you have any idea what to do with it?

    But even as I sympathize, I'm still reduced to incoherent rage at what we ended up with. I understand not knowing what to do, but you still ought to have some sense of what *not* to do. (Hint: If it involves giving both your viewers *and* your actors nothing to work with, it goes on the "what not to do" list.)

    I've had the vague feeling that my sense of frustration at this ending is a little out of proportion--that it has to be about something more than feeling like I, as a viewer, have been let down. And I think the "something more" is a sense that *the very people who developed the story line in the first place* have been let down. It's like Peter Firth and Nicola Walker gave the writers a gift, and the writers threw it back at them. So I think my frustration is as much indignation on their behalf--they built something lovely and then had it smashed by people who should have worked like mad to preserve it--as anything else.


  3. So, after seeing the extras on the DVD (most of the bits regarding Ruth and Harry are already up on youtube), but if you haven't seen it and don't want to know what they're talking about, don't read on...

    Perhaps their (writers, producers) image of Harry differs from the viewers. We really like him and in our minds give him a shred of humanity that perhaps the writers don't imagine him to have. They say that because of his sacrifice to the service, 30 long years, have left him unable to have a normally functioning relationship. He is literally unable to put anything above the service, he IS MI5. I don't doubt he loved Ruth but well, a normal person wouldn't have proposed to someone at a funeral as a first step in a relationship. What about dating, maybe saying I love you first... =) And above that, with the argument that he didn't want her to have only six people at her own funeral. Not very romantic, Harry!
    They are basically saying that because Harry is emotionally crippled he can never function outside his job, Ruth is in the end just an asset to be manipulated and with the death of her, Harry got a welcome excuse to continue working. (Bitter? Me? Oh no, not at all)

    "It's like Peter Firth and Nicola Walker gave the writers a gift, and the writers threw it back at them." Exactly!! They created something beautiful with great potential and the writers mucked it up so completely. After watching the extras on the dvd I feel like throwing up all over Kudos (oh please, can I just this once be allowed to be this childish about this???).


  4. Thank you for these great comments dweomeroflight, TSS and EB!! Spooks fans (or ex-fans, haha) are some of the most intelligent people on earth. Maybe I just like you all because you agree with me, but in any case, these are very welcome thoughts!

    EB, I didn't realize that there were extras for this season up on youtube already because I've had my head in the sand since that ending and really haven't wanted to see or hear more about it. ...what you describe confirms that feeling! Though its interesting to think about that justification for Harry, it still feels shallow. There is no doubt (no one who has looked at his face when he looks at Ruth can deny it) that Harry had deep passion for Ruth. To me, whether they would have had a disfunctional relationship or not is not really the point. They deserved better treatment, better closure and a chance to express their passion. If you're bitter, I'm right there with you.

    TSS, I love your comment that in a way you need to be at least a little sympathetic to the writers for having to work with material they didn't necessarily ask for. I hadn't thought of that, but you're also right that still, what they got was a gift and they should have worked like mad to preserve it.

    There are so many ways to process what happened with Harry, with Harry and Ruth, or what happened to the show in general and you have all written wonderful intelligent commentary. We all feel this sense of loss and disappointment and in a way that's testament to how powerful the show was -- that this all "mattered" so much. As dweomeroflight says, its that loss of potential -- that jumping the shark -- that felt like such a waste for a show that had so much class.

  5. I just finished season 10, close on the heels of season 9. Actually, I've had an MI-5 mini marathon for the last few weeks. In spite of already knowing the fate of Ruth before I watched the last episode, it was painful.

    So I've been trolling (not in the cyber sense) the internet looking for solace on forums and in clips of "Ruth" and "Harry" sitting close on a bench discussing the show, still alive & well. 'Course one thing led to another and I was watching Fry & Laurie & got a much needed belly laugh.

    Then I found your blog and you analyzed and articulated the whole situation perfectly. Thank you for providing relief through understanding.

    I don't watch much TV or even movies, and most of what I do watch is British stuff on PBS. And some of the best ones stay with me for a while and the sad ones make me sad. But nothing like seasons 9 & 10 of MI-5. I actually had trouble sleeping after watching the last episode of season 9. That's a first for me. I couldn't figure out why it was so disturbing, but you have explained it beautifully.

    1. Thank you! And thanks so much for taking the time to comment. It's funny that almost a year has gone by since the ending and I still feel such a strong sense of sadness and irritation for how that show ended. We have so few bright moments of great tv to cling to don't we, we just want things like Spooks to live up to its real potential.

      I haven't actually watched Fry and Laurie so I'm going to have to check that out! thanks :)

  6. Hi,

    I just finished all seasons (series) of Spooks/MI-5. A few thoughts that I feel compelled to share … somewhere, somehow. Hopefully, someone connected with the show reads this blog and will consider these comments for future endeavors.

    First, although the first season caused me to develop the phrase “24 on Valium” while falling asleep from the tedium, I took a deep breath and gave it a little more time. As it turned out, Spooks progressed and actually matured nicely through subsequent seasons, with some glaring flaws.

    Main among those flaws: I've watched my share of television over 50 years, but I'd never seen a show before Spooks that discarded, chased off, or otherwise lost so many main characters. The losses were so excessive that it killed the momentum of the show a few times. The comments of the blog owner, in the main article above, are “spot on” regarding the character losses and most everything else. I haven’t watched a lot of English TV drama -- is that rate of character loss seen as normal or expected?

    A viewer on another blog, commenting about the show “Hunted”, had the following related thoughts about the Spooks ending:

    “I was quite excited about this [Hunted] until I saw it was from the creators of Spooks; they say it like it's a good thing. However, I like my fiction to have at least some redemptive qualities. If I want a realistic view of how bleak life is I can look out of the window. The killing of Ruth in the last episode of Spooks was a betrayal of my loyalty which I will not allow to happen twice. I'm out.”

    Finally, my most heartfelt comments about the ending of Season 10 probably aren't appropriate here, so I'll withhold them. Let's just say that it's a good thing that ordinary citizens like me don't have access to writers' home addresses and large shit-flinging catapults. Harry and Ruth in a nice little house by the sea would have been a just and redemptive way to end it all; not just for the characters, but for the loyal viewers. Instead, after ten &!@*$ seasons, viewers got a big finger poked in the eye right at the very end. And for no apparently good reason. GRRRRRRR!

    That ending struck me as stupid and senseless on the part of the show’s management and creative team. However, that result isn't a uniquely English malady. The American series “Lost” was fantastic, right up until the dumbest ending in the history of TV. Do they just get tired and go on mental holiday? I don’t think I’ll ever understand.

    Anyway, Spooks was a good and entertaining show overall. Thanks for the good articles on the show and characters and for creating a place to express our thoughts.

    And the healing process continues …