25 October 2015

Spooks 5.8: Agenda

Agenda is a surprisingly good episode. I don't mean that I had low expectations; I approached it in exactly the same way I do with any Spooks episode. But from the first moment to the last, this is an extremely intense episode that is completely sold on its concept and execution. This probably due in no small part to Julian Simpson writing and directing this episode, the first and I think I'm right in saying only time this has happened on this show.

If I did have any complaints it would be that this series seems obsessed with religious suicide bombers, and that after more than four series with barely a mention, Mossad (the Israeli intelligence service) are responsible for operations in London in two consecutive stories. But this does put a new spin on martyrdom by showing a Christian uprising against Islam, instead of the usual portrayal - Islamic extremists sacrificing themselves in a location designed for maximum devastation.

After a Muslim terrorist is released from custody after concrete evidence is dismissed by the judge, a member of Christian extremist group Sons of Phinehas shoots first him, then himself. In Manchester, another member uses a hand grenade on another known Muslim extremist. It's not hard to see where this is going; Sons of Phinehas want a holy war to regain Britain for Christians alone. The team find that the link between the two known agents was a rehabilitation centre helping to cure the homeless of their drink and drug addictions, instead fuelling the brains with Christianity. The centre is run by Steven Paynton, who's building his own private army of martyrs with whom to wage his war.

MI5 start up a long-defunct Swiss Christian group, the League of Christ and a company to front their UK operations. The upshot is that they lure Paynton in with the promise of considerable funding and weaponry. Adam, posing as the head of this second organisation, tries to stop Paynton from organising any more terror attacks in order that whatever he can supply him with will have a greater impact on the public conscience. The aim here is to get the list of agents Paynton has waiting around the country, ready to activate when the time is right.

When things get desperate, he interrogates Paynton in character and eventually gets the list off him. But Mossad have heard rumours of the Christian extremists, swallowing the MI5 cover story, and storm the building, ready to assassinate those who they believe pose a threat to Muslims and their country. This includes Paynton, but thankfully not Ros, and the order is given (at Harry's express and urgent request) just in time to save Adam from a bullet in the chest.

What I like about Julian Simpson's writing is that it isn't just as straightforward as this. There are so many layers to his script; on top of all the above, it turns out the Bishop of Westminster and the Cabinet's legal counsel - both very prominent figures in Downing Street - conspired to the first murder. Even though they were basically using an agency, it was what started this latest wave of terror. It seems they believed Paynton would stop at just one casualty, but with things spiralling out of control, they're out of their depth. At the same time, the legal counsel - Charles Lee - is overseeing operations at Thames House on behalf of Downing Street. When we first saw the pair meeting I almost thought conspirators in MI5 was becoming a bit of a cliche, but Simpson puts a new spin on things by taking the power out of their hands.

At the same time, missing his dad, Wes runs away from home. He tries to make it to Heathrow, to come and visit Adam in Vienna as that's where he's told Jenny and Wes he's gone. This comes at just the wrong time, at the climax of the operation and after he's got the list from Paynton, Adam collapses in some kind of fit. All the while, the Mossad agents edge closer. Malcolm manages to coax him into action at the last moment with the lie that Wes has been found safe and well. Adam must know he was bluffing, but it still saves his life and he comes to his senses in the nick of time.

This is a really strong show of both scripting and direction from Julian Simpson and you can just tell some shots, like the bullet being kissed, were planned right from the start. It's quite rare to see a drama show written and directed by the same person and group of people, but this certainly strengthens the case for more of it. This is probably Simpson's strongest direction, independent of who wrote it, as the episode is lent a really close atmosphere all the way through. The writing - from character to plot to dialogue - is pretty strong too but I think the ideas and the way the episode comes together as a complete entity are the real highlights. It's Simpson's last work for Spooks, and it's a good episode to go out.

This is a great episode, and the fifth series really seems to be looking up. Shaun Dingwall stars as Steven Paynton and is predictably brilliant. I think he's probably one of my favourite actors, just for his ability and range. He raises the bar and encourages better performances out of his co-stars, and so is an asset to any programme that can get him. Pip Torrens is also great - as always - as Charles Lee and these two just demonstrate the kind of talent Spooks can attract nowadays. A really good episode, and I hope this upward swing in quality can be maintained through to the series' conclusion. I'm almost convinced that Adam blows himself up in one of the first two episodes of next series now, so I'm cherishing every moment that his character brings as we enter the final stages of his story. Adam, Wes and Jenny are an absolute delight now, and just one of the highlights of a particularly tense and strong episode.

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