22 September 2015

Spooks 2.5: I Spy Apocalypse


It turns out I was right; I Spy Apocalypse is the episode where the team cope with the decimation of Britain. It's set pretty much entirely within the Grid in Thames House and is every inch the claustrophobic, nail-biting thriller the producers intended. It's tightly scripted and directed and there is a growing sense of doom across the hour as things get worse and worse for the team.

Planted no doubt to stir tensions, two officers pose as part of the exercise, for that is what this is. The whole situation has been devised to test how Section D would cope with an apocalypse (in this case nerve gas bombs infecting millions) but also to see how Tom would bear up with the responsibility of the country at his door. For all I've said about him in my reviews of the last few episodes, at no time does he put himself first, prioritising at different times the core team surviving and the rest of the country. This is a really interesting character piece, to see how different groups of people cope as everything begins to unravel.

The two agents planted as part of the exercise certainly do their bit to test the team's - and Tom's - reserve. They are desperate to leave, and Tom even goes so far as thinking he's shot one of them before the incident is over. This takes place over a period of roughly 24 hours and you can see people reaching breaking point as their situation seems increasingly hopeless. The diversion activities are interesting coping strategies - Colin and Malcolm, for example, thrive on building a remote control robot from various bits and bobs, whereas Ruth falls to bits with nothing to do.

At times this does get quite dark, and I found myself really being drawn into the story. Although, I do have history with this particular breed of storytelling; see the early episodes of The Game or the fantastic Jonny Morris Doctor Who story Protect and Survive. Both of these deal with the issue of coping with the end as it draws nearer and nearer, and that is thematically the same here. Harry is thought to have been contaminated, putting everyone even more on edge. The deaths of the Royal Family and the government only add to the pressure as it turns out Tom must take charge of running the country. It's a very clever setup from the perpetrators, using suspicious activity they know no-one will have picked up on from Ruth's weekly briefings to try and alert them to every threat. And it looks to have worked.

I Spy Apocalypse also deals with the issue of Tom and Vicky's relationship. We haven't seen very much of this (despite what the 'Previously' section would have you believe, presenting new scenes as established fact) and it surprises me that it's Tom that eventually breaks up with her, not the other way around. He's learned to live without her whilst in the exercise, believing her dead, and so when they speak at the end and all she talks about - understandably, I might add - is him standing her up at the restaurant it seems to tip him over the edge. He calls her selfish and dumps her. Whether there's a future between them, I don't know, and don't much care. Vicky is nothing compared to Ellie and it would seem Tom feels the same. In other news, somehow everyone's heard about Zoe's embarrassing incident and she's mightily pissed off about it. Sam is a reassuring confidante, and actually she's wonderful throughout this episode. Shauna Macdonald is fantastic and I really hope she sticks around for a long time as she's far more interesting than a lot of the regulars, particularly Danny, who she suddenly has a thing for.

But that's not to say the rest of the cast are poor. Matthew Macfadyen is pretty impressive as Tom falling apart but my issue with him is that all series I've only seen one expression on his face - surly. That would be alright if it was just in the end of the world situations, but he just looks like a grumpy git all the time. And looking at press photos online, 'unenthused' would seem to be his default setting. Conversely, Peter Firth has a brilliant range, shown off excellently in this episode. He plays authoritative, desperate, doomed and jubilant with the same consummate ease, proving what a true, quality professional he is. He's one of the most effortlessly interesting actors I've come across, actually. Hugh Simon and Rory MacGregor are great too, and Keeley Hawes shines as always. Danny, Ruth, Nicola Walker and David Oyelowo I unfortunately still can't get a handle on.

This is a superbly constructed episode. It builds right from the first scene to the last, with the stakes growing higher and higher. It's a strong start from newcomer Justin Chadwick, who most notably directed Mandela a few years ago, and although there's a few bits that look a tad shaky now, he nails the intimacy and suppression of the situation for the most part. I can now remember why this was one of my favourites. The strongest Series 2 has delivered so far, and a real treasure.


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