11 December 2011

MI-5: Season 9

MI-5 Season 9 Begins to Wane
By Kristin Battestella

Alas, here again I’ve finally caught up with Season 9 of the British spy series MI-5.  Unfortunately, for the first time since I began following the folks at Thames House, I was a little disappointed with this shorted year.

After recruiting new junior case offices Beth Bailey (Sophia Myles) and Dimitri Levendis (Max Brown), promoted Section D Chief Lucas North (Richard Armitage) is confronted by a mysterious figure from his past, Vaughn Edwards (Ian Glen).  The connection leads Lucas to rekindle his old romance with Maya Lahan (Laila Rouass), but Sir Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) and Intelligence Officer Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker) are continually torn between their own would-be romance and life at Thames House.

New writers Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent (Hotel Babylon) spend too much of this fall 2010 season’s reduced eight episodes on daily terrorism and saving the UK’s day.  Yes, we still have MI-5’s great intricate plots, intelligence, and relevant debates with oil talk, recession topics, and other global events. It’s refreshing to breakaway from standard terror plots to have Chinese and Russian relations, indeed. Unfortunately, all that intrigue is a lot less intriguing without the personal elements from our resident spies- the very piece that made MI-5 so delightful.  Without these private reflections or focus on what goes on beyond the Grid, this season’s episodes seem to end too soon or feel shorter despite being the same solid 50 plus minutes.  The viewer just doesn’t care as much about the same old misunderstood gunman or unknown bomber week after week- especially when we know so little about our regular players.  Season 9 feels like a shadow of MI-5’s former self, and even I’m ready for it to wrap up after Series 10.  The ‘people who happen to be spies’ angle has been chopped and lost in favor of the big shocker. Okay, the shockers are still damn good, but without the personal, it all just seems so hollow.  

Fortunately, Peter Firth and Nicola Walker remain the glue of the series. Right off the bat, these two hardened spies pussyfoot around their feelings.  To hell with the young and beautiful blondes, Harry and Ruth’s one on one private conversations are so, so pretty. I am so glad creator David Wolstencroft stuck with Sir Harry all these years.  He makes the show personal, the familiar old spy sacrificing in this changing world, fighting the good fight against global politics and all that. Again, time with its players is MI-5 at its best.  Harry’s phone call to his daughter is particularly touching- no need for flashy crap and over the top plots here. Just a family phone call when doing your duty for Queen and Country. Amen. Ruth also creates the perfect emotional fulcrum on the Grid, the expertise of life inside versus the unfulfilled life outside.  It’s also a wonderful surprise to catch up with Hugh Simon as tech guru Malcolm Wynn-Jones- the lovely old spook we thought made it out of the system!  Colin Salmon has a great guest stint as well.  It would have been nice to have a tongue in cheek crossover to his MI-6 Bond compatriot Charles Robinson, last seen in Die Another Day, but alas, no.

But Lucas, Lucas, Lucas! How much more iffy intrigue can they create here? It was crazy enough going thru all this romance and trauma crap with Adam, and the changes for Richard Armitage’s new lead are tiresome and annoying.  This is of course by no means Armitage’s fault- he does great intense stuff like nobody’s business. Unfortunately, the equally good Ian Glen (Game of Thrones) enters MI-5 for what is largely a cop out retread of prior mystery and betrayal thorns.  Are we really expected to believe Lucas’ complete character destruction because of woman?  And this is all meant to be what really happened before his Russian prison drama and estranged wife? The timeline twists and goofy identity crisis come completely out of left field.  This was before Lucas was Section Chief for the first time before Tom? Even with this groundwork being laid throughout the season, the end result is completely rushed and feels like the audience is screwed with information that we should have already known. Besides, doesn’t this make one too many rogue section leaders now?   Of course, despite this totally unrealistic turn, it’s all still dang intense down the line thanks to Armitage’s coming to play when the writers obviously didn’t.  I find it kind of twisted, even cruel, that the new crew makes it so we steady viewers really don’t know Lucas at all.  They Bobbied in the shower just for the shocker of it!  He’s in The Hobbit, we know. It’s okay to have him just walk into the sunset, really.

New to MI-5 Sofia Myles (Underworld) fairs no better in character development. I like that her Beth is a bit chubby, simply because she’s not what we’d expect as a spy.  That’s an undercover asset, is it not? However, they just thrust Beth upon us and try so hard to make her complicated before dropping any attempt at personal establishment all together.  Beth might not have been bad if we got to know her, but we never do, and to put it simply, she’s just not as good as Ros Myers was.  Beth tries to be warm, then she’s bitchy- which is it? I feel they were going for a wannabe Kate Winslet vibe, and I’m disappointed there has never been a black female lead or any ethnic section chief on MI-5.  What’s with all the dang blondes, weak entrances, and bad exits? Badass ladies, smartly placed, or unexpected players were once the core of the show. Though it was utterly gut wrenching, scream at the tele worthy at the time, in hindsight, getting intimate with our spies only to lose them or distrust them was part of the fun.

Max Brown was also a miss for Series 9. His Dimitri is given a barebones background and remains completely obvious throughout the season. I suppose he would have been cool in due time, but Brown never develops the big presence of previous MI-5 males. I can’t possibly imagine this guy being in charge after Richard Armitage- Brown looks too young and too pretty to be taken seriously, not at all like his fine subterfuge on The Tudors.  I feel like we are seeing Danny learn the ropes all over again- minus the heart, agony, and ‘getting to know you’.   Shazad Latif is also a waste as computer boy Tariq. Sometimes, the character is even made useless with the gadgetry- unlike Malcolm, who had something imperative every episode and did it with geeky class and wit. We don’t know where the new players live, what they like, how they deal after leaving Thames House.  You don’t have to take my word for it, however, just look at their character Wiki pages. It’s a paragraph of empty! Vincent Regan’s (300) tossed in finale appearance and new Home Secretary Simon Russell Beale’s (My Week with Marilyn) intensity are too little too late for MI-5 this season.

More focus is spent this series on action and cool locales like Morocco, and fortunately, it does all still look good. These little niches and slices of London are always cool for little ole American me. However, sometimes there is a bit too much running around and high tech babble making things confusing. Who is where and doing what? It’s fast paced, for sure, with the usual split screens, unique photography, and interesting intercuts in the timeline.  Nevertheless, I keep thinking of that first season moment with Tom Quinn looking through the mail slot at the bomb in his home and how throat clutching it was.  Do we really need all this wham bam?  Season 9 is most definitely not an introduction point for MI-5, the over the top plotting and highbrow action make it look like everything else on television- and all that comes at the expense of the fine character development that previously set MI-5 apart.

Longtime fans of MI-5 on both sides of the pond will still tune in for Series 9. Despite this subpar outing, I can’t wait to get my hand on the six-episode Season 10 swansong.  Is MI-5 still better than anything on US television? Probably. Is the writing on the wall that it has run its course? Yes. Look to your preferred rental or streaming options and enjoy MI-5 while it lasts.


Doug Eisenstark said...

I gotta agree that Season 9 was getting ridiculous with all the running around. I wondered when these guys had time to charge their cell phones. The pretty people were getting irritating as well. Although I get that it wanted to be "realistic" its too bad they killed off such fine characters in the early seasons.
Season 10, just watched on Netflix in the USA, had its problems but it was good to see the adults back in the mix.

Kristin Battestella said...

Hi Doug! Thanks for taking the time out to stop by and comment!

Yes, the new writers seemed to make some mistakes this season in a reaching attempt at something. I'm about to watch Series 10 myself!!

Overall, I think this has been a great show though, and now complete, is still much better than a lot of American shows. I'm tempted to go back and watch it all over again straight through!