Defending queen and country from homicidal anti-abortion zealots, fratricidal Northern Irish assassins, suicidal Islamic terror bombers, and genocidal Serbian war criminals takes a toll on your personal life. But such is the life choice made—so far—by Special Agents Tom, Zoe, and Danny in MI-5, the smart, gripping new British spy thriller now running on A&E (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET). The show is a monster hit in England, and it’s easy to see why. (It’s also easy to see why the show’s British title, Spooks, U.K. slang for an intelligence operative, didn’t cut it stateside.) Action-packed and introspective, MI-5 updates the British spy thriller for a new century that’s more ruthless and touchy-feely than the last one.
Tom is Zoe and Danny’s boss in an elite counterterrorism unit of MI-5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency (its FBI). Tom, Zoe, and Danny live and work—mostly work—in the fictional spy universe whose James Bondian rules were trashed and replaced by John le Carré. MI-5’s spies, like le Carré’s George Smiley, struggle to reconcile the modes and codes of their professional and private lives. But their inner conflicts have less to do with the suspicion that deep inside they’re no better than their enemies—the ur le Carré theme—than with more contemporary and therapeutic concerns about personal identity and happiness. Zoe (a woman) and Danny (who’s black) have added pressures as members of groups that have only recently penetrated Britain’s intelligence services. Tom, Zoe, and Danny go to work in business casual, and when they have a moment alone wonder whether their jobs are worth the price they pay for working so hard and lying so often. They often think about quitting and starting over in a less stressful, more family-friendly line of work. You’d think they were American lawyers.
Tom (played by the sad-eyed, brooding Matthew MacFadyen) loves his job. But it’s hard to meet and hold on to a mate when being a superspy is your 9 to 5, and when on a good day 9 to 5 is more like 9 to midnight. Tom finally meets Ellie, whose little daughter Maisie he comes to adore. But for months, until his colleagues complete a thorough background check, he has to tell them his name is Matthew and he works in IT. Eventually he tells them the truth, but soon after, he can only watch helplessly from outside as the two women he loves are trapped inside his flat, the timer on a bomb ticking down: 5, 4, 3, 2—
Beautiful, Oxford-educated Zoe (Keeley Hawes) has trouble finding a guy. She sees in senior agent Tessa (Jenny Agutter, back from Logan’s Run) the cynical, childless, and unmarried middle-aged woman she fears she might become. As she approaches 30, Zoe is preoccupied by the tickings of terrorists’ time bombs and of her own biological clock. Unlike Tom, at least a part of her relishes opportunities to take on new identities and go undercover as an ordinary person now and then. But she is troubled because she knows it’s playacting, that the weeks and months she spends in deep cover keep her from getting on with her life, and that sooner or later she’ll once again betray those whose confidence she’s gained.
Danny (David Oyelow), meanwhile, is a cutting-edge 21st-century techno-wizard. Cool, orderly, and effective on the job, his personal life is out of control. His self-image as an agent is stuck somewhere in ‘60s spy-as-swinger territory, and he spends way too much of his government salary on killer clothes and a killer flat. He gets himself deeply in debt, soon enough Danny’s private appetites are spilling into his professional life.
The ticking bomb in Tom’s apartment is only one of the many Suspense 101 gimmicks the writers use so effectively to ratchet up the tension. They’ve studied the gospels according to 24 and Alias, and gleefully keep us riveted with screens that split, plots that twist, and charismatic leads who have a knack for finding themselves hanging off of cliffs. Whether the bomb in Tom’s flat goes off and with what results is Season 1’s cliffhanger, and I don’t want to ruin the exquisite, gut-wrenching torture you’ll experience watching the clock count down. Tom won’t have much time to mourn the death of his loved ones or to celebrate their last-second escape. And neither will we: A bomb has just gone off on the other side of London, killing the minister for Northern Ireland and his two daughters. Tom’s queen and country need him.