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.
• 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.
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.
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
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 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.