By Byassee, Jason
The Christian Century , Vol. 129, No. 12
Starring Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes, Peter Firth, Nicola Walker and Esther Hall
I just finished watching the 87th and final episode of the British spy series MI-5 (all ten seasons are available for instant viewing on Netflix). Why did I spend three and a half days of my life on a soapy spy serial? For Jesus, of course.
And also because it was a provocative and immediately relevant series. The show--called Spooks in Britain--aired contemporaneously with the war on terror. The first episode aired on May 13, 2002 (with production beginning just months after 9/11), and the show ended June 17, 2011, just a few months before the last convoy of U.S. combat troops left Iraq. Neither I nor the show mean to make any sweeping claim about the war on terror being over--members of my congregation are still on the ground in Afghanistan. But this show got its oomph from addressing a reality right in front of us.
MI-5 features a counterterrorism unit of the British security service MI-5 called Section D. In one early show, the spies respond to a test scenario in which a dirty bomb kills the royal family and a few members of Parliament. In the drill, Section D debates whether to declare martial law and run the country or respond with less drastic measures. "Very Oliver Cromwell of you," one character says to section chief Tom Quinn (Matthew Macfadyen) when he advocates a takeover.
As the episode progresses, the characters begin to wonder whether they are part of a drill or are participating in a new reality. In some ways, this story offers a perfect image of the war on terror: we (the audience) struggle to know what is real even as our moral limits are tested. Meanwhile, the characters also question not just proper procedure but the very nature of the harm they are being asked to alleviate. Is it "out there" with the dirty bomb or in their own heads?
At one point, Quinn speaks by video camera with a rescue worker in a hazmat suit. He orders her to go to the radiation-contaminated site of the bomb blast to help determine who launched the attack. "So you're the bureaucrat at the desk, ordering me to my death in defense of the realm?" she asks. He responds blandly, "Something like that." The sequence asks viewers: What would you do in defense of the realm?
MI-5 poses and, through its characters, answers such questions. Would you feign a love affair to gather information? Despite some scruples, yes. Would you turn a child into an informer with possibly deadly consequences for him? Yes. Would you defy orders from your own government, going rogue? Yes, quite often in fact.
But there are also limits. Unlike the character Jack Bauer in the American show 24, these spooks do not torture remorselessly in pursuit of information. Not usually. But would you poison the former home secretary when it becomes clear he was involved in an ultranationalist coup within Britain? The answer here is: yes.
The show has come under fire for being sensationalistic. There's no arguing that. But what kind of dramatic series would show spies at their desks? Yet the show gives the appearance of verisimilitude far more than its more famous predecessor in British spy fiction, the James Bond movies. Whereas 007 sashays across the screen drinking martinis and bedding bombshells, effortlessly escaping ruthless bad guys and saving the world, the world of MI-5 is startlingly unromantic. Every time one of the members of Section D shows a genuine love interest in someone else, that person has to be vetted fully and all but frisked before romance can ensue. Characters' lovers and spouses and children become casualties of their beloveds' efforts at spycraft. Though characters try to separate private life from professional life, that proves impossible. …