The war on terrorism is the new cold war, at least in terms of providing fodder for suspense fiction. It is, as all our elected heads continually remind us, a global war, but it unfolds in vastly different ways in various locations. Consider, for example, Britain’s dramatically different and arguably more effective response to its transit bombings, as compared to the United States’ reaction to 9/11. In Britain, they caught the perpetrators. In the US, they started two wars, one with only the most tangential relation to the terrorist attack.
Consequently, it should not be surprising that the British terrorism drama MI-5 is wholly different from its American counterpart 24, viewing the same sorts of events – planes set to crash into one another, kidnappings, stolen nuclear devices and corrupt government heads – through a cooler and more analytical lens. The violence in MI-5 is fairly brutal. In particularly, the first episode hanging of a desk-bound analyst lands like a punch to the gut. But there is less glitz and theatricality to these events. If 24 is star-centered Hollywood pulp, MI-5 is more like a John Le Carre novel.
MI-5 ran first in Britain the spring of 2002 under the title, Spooks (renamed MI-5 in the US due to the word’s racist history in that country) and with an almost entirely different cast. (Peter Firth, who plays Sir Harry Pearce, is the only hold-over.) Its tone was set, in some regards, during the second episode, when a major character, Helen Flynt, died while under torture. The episode drew the highest number of complaints ever recorded by the Broadcasting Standards Commission, and put viewers on warning. As Firth puts it in the cast interviews on Disc One, “This is the only show I know of that kills its heroes.” (Of course, 24 also regularly offs popular characters. At my house, we are all still kind of sad about Edgar.) You’re liable to grow attached to MI-5 characters, as well – only to lost them.
Season Five opens with Senior Case Officer Adam Carter shot down and hospitalized, a terrorist group making mysterious threats with the phrase “Djakarta is coming.” The two-episode storyline quickly becomes more complicated with high-level government officials implicated in the terrorist plot. As MI-5 investigates, it becomes clear that certain right-wing politicians are instigating the plot, hoping to force a clampdown on political enemies and a reduction in civil liberties.
The plot sounds melodramatic, involving, among other things, the kidnapping of the prime minister’s son, a narrowly averted airline crash, and the arrest and attempted murder of MI-5 head, Harry Pearce. And yet it is treated in such a bleached out, intellectually distanced way that it becomes more like dystopian fiction than a spy show.
The character Adam Carter carries much of the weight this season, as he slowly unravels in post-traumatic stress syndrome. His wife has been murdered in the previous season. He has a young son. At first nightmares are the only sign of the stress he is under. Later, his inability to protect a young African woman trying to stop genocide triggers a near breakdown, and in the final two episodes, he shuts down at critical moments, unable to move or proceed and putting his colleagues at risk. The actor, Rupert Penry-Jones, is quite charismatic and his flirtations – a sham one with colleague Roz Myers (played by Hermione Norris) and a real one with his son’s nanny – have a genuine heat to them. He is allowed to have a bit of a personal life, but not much. Most of his conversations with his eight-year-old son occur over the phone, from airports, where he explains that he will not be home right away.
The Roz Myers character, a capable, superbly dressed ice-woman recruited when the first episode’s right-wing plot is exposed (she has been on the other side), is a nice addition this season. She is not exactly likable, but becomes admirable as the season goes on. You cannot imagine a character like this in American television – intelligent, driven, difficult and riveted to her career – without some sort of softening backstory, a handicapped sister or an incurable disease, for instance. In MI-5, she is left to be whom she is without extenuating circumstances. When she allows a young woman informer to put herself into danger and the girl is killed, she shows exactly the right amount of remorse — not unaffected but not exactly sorry either. She is accustomed, as she would be, to the calculus of acceptable loss, and there is no room for sentiment.
The main departure this season – and the main human interest thread outside of Adam’s dissolution – is that of Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker), an analyst, who becomes entangled in a plot that is intended to disgrace Harry Pearce. To complicate things, Ruth and Harry have embarked on a tentative romance, one dinner really, which Ruth quashes when rumors start. It is a lovely little piece of acting on both Walker and Firth’s parts. They both have mature, interesting faces, and both are driven toward one another more by thought and consideration than romance. And yet there’s an impossible romanticism in their one and only “date” when Harry talks about wanting someone to travel with him. (You sense immediately that he has never been on a real vacation.) Their farewell scene, after Ruth has faked her death and is about to board a ship to France, is quite subtle and effective. Harry is about to say that he loves her and she stops him. They kiss and then she’s gone.
The acting is good even in the minor roles. The writing is taut and effecting, despite the mandatory load of exposition that all technically-accurate thrillers must carry. The film work, though, is alarmingly disjointed, with jump cuts and split screens intended to build tension, but actually causing vertigo.
Bonus features are fairly minimal: a couple of episode commentaries (as pointless as these things usually are), a series of short cast interviews, the trailer for the fifth season, and a short, silly “behind the scenes” film by cast member Miranda Raison.
It’s mainly tone that distinguishes MI-5 from 24, but there are some structural differences, as well. Most of the stories in MI-5 are self-contained, over in a single hour, though the first two and the final two carry over. The focus is on the ensemble rather than any single member. You can go for 20 minutes without seeing one or another character; none are allowed to dominate the way that Jack Bauer does in 24. And finally, while there is a sense of urgency in most of these stories, no one does the ticking clock like 24. Indeed, when, in the final episode, a time occasionally appears at the bottom of the screen, it seems tacked on and imitative.
But in a way, that’s the difference between the US’ approach to terrorism and the UK’s. The US points hysterically to a ticking clock, moving without thinking into Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo and the Patriot Act. The British bring their best people together, review the data, infiltrate cells and bring them down, all without the “lone hero” drama Americans are accustomed to.