Sobbing in spite of it all [Spoilers for all of Spooks 9!]
Same disclaimers as before. My caps. Something you might weigh in on in your comments is how soon I can unprotect the password protected posts. This one is still password protected, but not for long, I think. It seems that all of series 9 will be easily available soon for those who want to see it before they read about it — I haven’t had the impression that anyone who really wanted to see it on the slide in the last two months was left in the cold — but if you have a different impression, I’d like to know. I’m grateful for not having had it ruined for me and I’d like to be considerate.
Also, this post is just a commentary on this episode. I’ve got at least two ideas for analyses of scenes in series 9 as I rewatch during the too little that is to come. Feel free to make comments on your reaction to the series as a whole but keep in mind I will also probably write a post about that.
Our last glimpse of him, whoever he was. “I am nothing,” John / Lucas (Richard Armitage) replies, when asked by Harry whether he’s Lucas or John at the end of Spooks 9.8. A chilling statement then mirrored by his suicide.
Ready? O – KAY.
OMG. That was a really exciting ending, with all kinds of painful moments throughout, along with stuff that made me think about life, though as usual, I had problems with the script, which was a fairly serious disappointment. Sorry, Spooks fans: I thought the last two scripts were better, but this one leaves me saying pactum non servatur. I did not get the answers I wanted from it in anything except vague allusions, and I was frustrated by the way that the John Bateman story was closed off by the writers. I could have imagined scenarios or explanations that I would have been persuaded by, to believe in the real villainy of John, or the real tragedy of his suicide, but they didn’t really emerge. We are left with a less-than-credibly written John, and a Lucas –a character we all admired– who’s been destroyed in the process, and for what? I also hated, hated, hated, some of the specific dialogue choices, i.e., the words that were chosen, as I did last week: “I believe in you. We all do!” This week: “The service didn’t do this to me. I was bad before I went in.” Armitage has to struggle to get the word “bad” out in that sentence, and it can’t be purely out of emotion. Delivering a line that bad has to hurt his throat. Servetus squirms. Sometimes they get it so right — so how can they get it so wrong, at a decisive moment? This script is absolutely nowhere near as good as it could have been, given all the various little details from past episodes that it simply drops from consideration in order to fit itself into an hour. However, it was a really exciting episode, and the plots twists engaged me (see below), though I found a decisive one implausible. Also: I again feel confirmed in my decision not to read news coverage or spoilers — if I’d have read the Daily Mail piece published this week I’d have been very angry, I think. So please, if any Spooks actors are reading this: don’t give in to the temptation to say anything at all about the plot of the episodes in interviews beyond vague generalities. It makes it all much more fun for people like me, even if it drives other people crazy. But people who are really dying for spoilers will ferret them out any way — that is part of the fun for them. You don’t need to spread them all over the airwaves.
But Mr. Armitage can’t be serious in that piece, can he? Mr. “I Am Nothing” did go splat, yes? That was a scream from below and a car alarm going off, albeit it a little too quickly? Yes, they tried to make it ambiguous, as if he were running away, and of course none of the reactions of section D have to mean anything, but he did jump off that building??!? I’m not wrong about that??!? Wikipedia says [already!!] that he committed suicide by jumping off the building, though the article also gives the Lucas North legend’s father from 7.6 to John Bateman, which one suspects is highly improbable. (Though I really hope — counterintuitively, since surviving after a jump off that building would require an intervention on the scale of John 11 — that he can be in some episodes of Spooks 10. Maybe if 10 starts filming early? And The Hobbit doesn’t start filming in February? Pretty please? Of course that would require a level of plot implausibility well beyond the problems we’ve already discussed.)
So, the remarks to the Daily Mail must have been all a feint, one last attempt to insist he didn’t know how it ended, as Mr. Armitage must have known by the time the interview was conducted that no matter how that scene finished, even if they didn’t film his death on camera directly, that he’d be starting to film The Hobbit by the time production for Spooks 10 cranked up. Or maybe they filmed two endings so no one would be able to say with certainty? And we got this one? (As a side note: I think that fans now have to concede that anything he says about his professional plans in print has got to be highly questionable until he’s actually observed on the set of something or other. His career is accelerating to the point of being unpredictable from the stance of print media that appear months after statements are made.) The point for Spooks fans is that the big plot cliffhanger this time is about Harry, and we’re being signaled that Peter Firth is finally going to get some more meaningful, extended plot lines? More power to him, I have to say, and that’s something that might actually keep me watching sub rosa. Of course, it seems to me that if the show finally reveals the decisive information about Harry, it will have to end at that point, and I wonder if this isn’t a signal to us that the tenth season of Spooks will be the last. Home Secretary’s suggestion to Harry at the end that he should start preparing for life after MI-5 is intended as prophetic, I imagine.
After I had downloaded this episode, my fingers definitely paused when I went to click on the icon to open the file. On the one hand I wanted to know; on the other, as with spoilers, I knew that I could never retreat from knowing, and I was heavily aware that that approximately an hour after I made that decisive click, the season, and most likely the story of Lucas North, would be over. In the end I watched because I wasn’t prepared not to know how the writers thought this story should end. It hurt. Of course, I feel stupid for being so hopeful; I’ll never again be able to pray that there is some explanation for this terrible backstory for Lucas. I had, a little bit, the Rousseau problem: even as I knew that John was doing terrible things for which he’d never be able to exculpate himself, a part of me was hoping that he’d find a way to escape Section D and making everything work out for himself and Maya in a faraway land with no extradition treaty to the UK. I sure didn’t want him to kill himself. Watching suicides, even implied ones, is extremely difficult for me.
In sum, I feel a combination of grief and relief. Grief over everything we’ve learned about Lucas this season, and relief that it’s now over. These all night writing sessions on Mondays were always a struggle after a long day, and Tuesday is an equally long day, and with all of my students now needing more personal contact as they head into their research papers, as usual, November is a month where there’s little time for distraction of any kind. I’ve got a bunch of papers to give back tomorrow, so we’ll see how long I’ve got energy to write tonight.
Oh, yeah. And despite my problems with the script, I was again moved by Mr. Armitage’s performance, although the script was giving him much less room for ambiguity than he usually is able to exploit, particularly in that awful final scene, in which the script saddles the viewer with the wrong kind of ambiguity. The resolution of the Lucas story with its definitive moments meant that he was left with no choice but to signal his emotions clearly. Throughout the season, I felt that the incorporation of John as part of Lucas gave Armitage a great deal more range for his acting choices, and that capacity was fully realized tonight, in an episode in which Lucas North was definitely dead and only recognizable as occasional vestiges on the margins of Armitage’s performances. As a consequence, I often had tears in my eyes while watching, and some landed on my cheeks.
Seriously, dude, if you had to leave Spooks this season, you really gave it everything you could before you left. We may not have liked the plot line(s) you got, and you may have been taken aback by them as well, but we got to see you show a lot more of your stuff, of the variety of your toolkit, than we have before in a single role.
Mr. Armitage: As Lucas, you made us believe in you so much that we didn’t want to accept that John could be real, and even as John, you were so subtle in many of your moves that I, at least, was also mourning the death of an alter ego that I had grown to empathize with despite everything as the final credits rolled.
For reasons of time I’ve going to eschew plot summary here and get to my remarks. Presumably if you care you know what happened in 9.8.
This episode seems to have the following purposes: (a) to introduce a wacky new character to Section D for next season — someone with “nothing to lose” — oh goody, something to look forward to!; (b) to tie up the “who is Lucas?” plotline; (c) to resolve or at least address Harry and Ruth’s problems. As a result we are asked to believe that the matters of (d) who Sophia was working for before joining Section D, and any loyalty she might feel to Lucas; (e) the significance of Nicholas Blake’s unmasking as a Nightingale member; (f) how the Chinese know about what happened in Senegal and why they picked Lucas North as the weak length to be targeted in order to obtain Albany; and probably some other stuff I am forgetting, are resolved in the places where the plots left them.
I’ll lay aside the fact that it hardly seems likely that in a moment of severe crisis, Harry would take the time to recruit someone new into Section D. I know that when one spook dies, s/he has to be replaced, or else there’s no one to carry out the plotlines. I can live with that, I suppose; Vincent Regan has an intriguing scar on the lower left side of his mouth, and it works on the series-level mood of giving people second chances. He gets scripted confusingly: first he tells everyone not to think of the character being played by Richard Armitage as either Lucas North or John Bateman, then he pins Vaughn’s murder on Bateman. But there are much bigger problems here.
As viewers, we’re also supposed to believe that something like Albany is actually possible, and incredibly dangerous, and I’m sorry to have to disappoint the writers, but this was a serious problem for me — a nerve agent that works on different racial or ethnic groups based on race-based genetic differences? Come on. I’m pretty sure every freshman at my university learns the current general scientific consensus that race is a social concept, not a biological one, and has been shown repeatedly to have no significant reflection at the level of human DNA. And even if there were such a thing and it worked the way the script says it should, it’s absolutely excluded that it would be useful in situations like either Rwanda or Yugoslavia, in which the conflicts were cultural, and one of the mystifying aspects of the situations to outsiders was that there were no discernable racial differences, and often no statistically significant phenotypical differences, between the warring groups. Hutus look pretty much like Tutsis. Yes, that’s right: the Bosniaks, Serbs, Macedonians and Croats are all members of the same South Slav genetic group; it’s the same with the Tutsi and the Hutu, both of which groups are Bantus. If there were significant exploitable differences in the 0.01% of DNA that differs between particular ethnic groups that actually do differ slightly on the genetic level, it seems unlikely they’d specifically be susceptible to attack by nerve agents. We pretty much all have the same nerves in the good old human race. So, if you actually believed, once you heard the description of what Albany was, that any serious government would expend money and resources obtaining this item, I’ve got some extremely valuable real estate in Florida I’d like to sell you. There is, in my opinion, no way that the Russians would have been scared by this technology, or that the Chinese secret services would make any effort to try to track this nonsense item down, or that the Home Secretary, presumably also no under-educated chap himself, could possibly believe this nonsense. Are UK viewers this under-informed? Maybe not, but the spooks all seem to be, including “walking encyclopedia” Ruth. In short: the bomb of the week, in my opinion, fizzles all over the scriptwriters. Unless it’s their intention that we realize immediately that the engine for all of the action of the episode is meaningless. (See, this is what you get for reading a blogger who teaches modern history. All your illusions will be destroyed.) But if that’s the case, the end of the episode, with Harry under threat for betraying state secrets that are nonsense, verges on incomprehensibility.
Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) holds the one personal object Dmitri and Beth found in Lucas’s apartment: an old edition of Blake. The second reference to Blake in the entire series remains a non-clue as far as I can tell. This feels like material for one of those wildly speculative academic essays in which one or two random indices are taken as evidence for an entire superstructure of theory. I imagine I’ll write one on this topic when I finish reading Peter Ackroyd, if I ever do.
The biggest problem for the script at large, though, is “who is Lucas,” since this question has taken up significant pieces of 9.3, 9.4, 9.6, and 9.7. 9.8 is correspondingly devoted mostly to resolving this strand of the narrative. From the perspective of having seen series 9 and then this final episode, more precisely, the question for the viewer is whether it’s in general plausible that Lucas / John would behave as he did throughout the series for the reasons given in the script, which are now as transparent to us as they ever will be, and then in particular, whether it’s plausible that Lucas / John would commit suicide in 9.8 due to the outcomes of those reasons. (I leave out the plausibility of the suicide here because it’s treated in the section on Armitage’s performance.) For me this was one of the biggest gaffes in the script for the final episode: it’s like after insisting to us for the entire series that he would behave in this way for the reason stated, and not giving us any substantiating information — seriously: one scene from before Senegal that explains what it is about his youthful experiences with Maya that allows the mature John Bateman (unfortunate surname; I almost typed Jason Bateman) to see her as the lodestar that’s going to restore everything in his universe to its rightful place would have been sufficient! One memory flashback with a fuzzy lens resolution! Is that too much to ask in an episode with so many other flashbacks that we wonder whether the character is indeed going mad? — the script tries to elude the question with this Harry voiceover at the very beginning with the epic tension music in the background, and repeated flashbacks to events in 7.1 and to flashbacks of flashbacks that Lucas experienced in 8.4. I found the Harry voiceover at the beginning just hokey. This is an off and on problem with the Spooks script — if they haven’t delivered enough evidence to make us believe something ahead of an important plot development they have a character assert it, and it’s annoying: it’s like Harry is telling the viewer: Lucas is crazy! Believe this!
I didn’t especially like the flashbacks, either, either as explanations of Lucas’s motivation or as clues to his state of mind. From the perspective of the end of the episode, the 7.1 flashbacks to various moments from the scene of Lucas’s return to the West is supposed to tell us that Lucas / John is very angry at Harry and does not trust him, and the 8.4 flashback is supposed to tell us that Lucas already tried to kill himself once while in prison and might do so again rather than going back for any reason. But they could also have flashed back to other moments in the Harry / Lucas story, and it’s not clear why these are the decisive ones. And still, even now, this script implies that the conversation about the reasons for Lucas / John’s imprisonment that Lucas appears to seek in 7.8 either can never have taken place or had such an unsatisfactory outcome that John forgets all of the respect that Lucas developed for Harry over the years — sufficient enough that Lucas is willing to risk going back to Russia in 7.7 solely at Harry’s request.
“What if there was one time in your life when everything made sense?” John (Richard Armitage) asks Ruth in response to her question about why he’s doing all this, in Spooks 9.8. “What wouldn’t you do to go back?”
All this is aggravating for two reasons. The first is that the plot development of this series all goes in the direction of making Lucas / John look implausibly immature. It seems like all of the backstory we’re given about John seems to suggest that he’d have every reason to do anything he could to maintain his identity at Lucas, as opposed to putting it at risk for someone who is no more than a distant memory. This is a fundamental rhetorical mistake I warn my students about every semester — in the construction of the first draft of a project, it’s entirely possible that once you look in detail at the reasons you advance in support of your argument, you’ll come to a different view on the subject. When that happens — when your evidence starts signaling the opposite conclusion to the one you’re moving toward — you have to either rewrite the essay in support of your new argument or come up with really strong responses to the counterarguments that have emerged in your writing. All of the elements of the John backstory as we are shown them work equally well as explanations for why John would try to remain Lucas as they would for why he would try to recapture John. Given the experiences of Lucas / John, I have difficulty accepting that a character who’s experienced this much suffering in his life — not just the Russian prison years, and torture, but also the loss of his identity as a young man — can really be quite so naive as to believe that recovering Maya is just going to make everything in his life make sense again. I haven’t suffered half as much as Lucas has in my life, and even I know that! As Lucas, John has had repeated reminders that you can’t go back — to work, or to your ex-wife, or even to the possessions you thought were yours, for instance — as if nothing had changed in the interval. Somehow he realizes he has to give up his vision of Elizaveta as his partner — to whom he declares in 7.2 that he thought of her through his entire almost-decade of imprisonment in Russia — but he can’t see that Maya is equally illusory? Lucas’s statement at the beginning of 9.1 notwithstanding (“don’t even get me started on blondes”), it is simply not plausible that the Sarah Caulfield debacle or imprisonment-related PTSD is causing such apparent forgetfulness of everything the character knows.
I’ve groused before about how in order to have any possibility of getting a redeemed John, we need to accept a stupid Lucas, and so it also frustrates me that we end up with both John and Lucas unredeemed and both of them stupid as well. I’ve talked about all of Lucas’s apparent stupidities in 9.4 and afterwards so won’t repeat that. Laying aside that presumably Lucas has also had a standard university education and would have known, and/or realized after Ruth’s explanation, that the principle behind Albany is bunk — suspending disbelief and allowing ourselves to accept that this weapon is something everyone should care about obtaining — why all that focus on the painting of the Battle of Trafalgar, for instance, if Lucas / John really has no idea of what Albany is (maybe that scene says something to veteran Spooks viewers; it gave me no clue at all)? Is it really plausible he’d steal it without trying to figure all this out? As specifically relates to this episode: why on earth would it never occur to John that if Section D had located Maya, they wouldn’t also have tried to communicate with her and draw her onto their side? That if she’s the innocent person she appears to be, indeed, as we see below, the person John believes to her to be, that she wouldn’t also have some sympathy for what MI-5 would be likely to say to her? That they wouldn’t have tried at least to give her a tracker? Again, with regard to this episode: what possible reason does John have to believe that Maya would simply leave everything behind her — friends, family, and a highly skilled career she’s invested years of her life in and seems to enjoy — just to get back together with him? I didn’t even believe that she was going to jump back into his arms so quickly, and now I am supposed to accept that she’ll give up her whole life for him? (Technically speaking, here we would have needed a flashback scene that would explain what about John was so fascinating from Maya’s perspective. As a professional woman myself this really grated. My main college boyfriend happens to be a perennial (eighteen-year) doctoral student at the university where I teach, but if he were suddenly to pop up out of the blue after a decade and half of silence and propose that we flee to a non-specified location, I would hardly simply nod my head in acquiescence, and I’m much more dissatisfied with my life at present than Maya appears to be from this script.) The result is that we have a John who, like Lucas in 9.4, appears regularly not to think in his operational algorithm past whatever the current dilemma is. Maybe that was the point of making so many of his ops go badly this series. He’s supposed to seem like he has ADD.
Of course, Lucas is not the only short-sighted person in this episode, and the death of the runner underlines this for me. They couldn’t see from this distance that the runner didn’t have Lucas’s build? It was just supposed to be a distraction. I have to give Lucas the benefit of the doubt on this one, I am afraid.
Then I find myself wondering why the episode even needs the whole arc related to the removal of Albany from the church. The reason Harry gives can’t be true, as he undercuts it by gassing Dmitri and Beth. Presumably, assuming Harry knows that Albany is worthless, if he has an Albany replica handy in the safe of his office, for crying out loud, why can’t it be a replica that is exactly the same as the one hidden in the church? Is this all for the purpose of convincing, then faking out, Alec, Dmitri, and Beth? Is the point to demonstrate that even when Harry appears to be acting nobly, he’s using people as chess pieces? Why couldn’t he just have insisted that no one go with him to pick up Albany, or only Alec? Similarly, why tell the Home Secretary in such a pointed way that he gave up Albany? This at least feels like it could be laying down plot clues for next season — an attempt to get rid of this rather wimpy Home Secretary who’s been so annoying the whole season?
Before this turns into one long screed about plot problems, I want to say emphatically that there were intriguing things about this episode (and some of them would open up good opportunities for fanfic that was basically canon-oriented). One of them arises when Alec notes that Harry must have realized that Lucas was lying. At the very least (Harry doesn’t know, apparently, that Albany is the target until Malcolm tells him — and that info seems to be the entire plot-driven reason for Malcolm’s reappearance in this series), this opinion from Alec sheds new light on Harry’s willingness to give Lucas his sidearm back in 9.7 — as if he had to let Lucas take all the necessary rope to hang himself. In a way, then, that decision turns out to demonstrate that what Lucas had always suspected about himself in relationship to Harry was true — that Lucas was always more important as a chess piece (cf. 9.3, where Kai and the female Chinese scientist say this about themselves) than as a person. It justifies his gnashing of teeth in 7.8, and demonstrates ahead of time, without pointing at itself, what John will conclude in the final scene of the episode. This is quite subtle, I think.
At the same time, however, given our retrospective awareness that Harry knows from the beginning that Albany is worthless, we also have to consider the possibility that at least at the beginning of the episode he is still using Ruth as a chess piece. She gets the same information as the other spooks, and, unusually, she goes on the op with them — is Harry assuming that Dmitri and Beth will get faked out and thus by sending Ruth along, he is making an attempt to funnel information to John?
Another interesting parallel in the script is drawn, I feel, between Harry and Lucas. Alec establishes at roughly twenty-one minutes in that Lucas’s pursuit of Albany is a “crime of passion.” We see a look of disgust and frustration from Harry in response — but what is it, exactly, that Harry is doing when he decides to sacrifice Albany to save Ruth? Is that a cockeyed moral decision, as the script seems to paint it through Ruth’s dialogue, the needs of the one over the needs of the many? — or also an act of passion? As Lucas asks: “Committing treason to save just one life?” The ironic question points both to their equivalence as actors (“maybe you aren’t so cold after all, Harry”) as well as to Harry’s unwillingness to have done the same to Lucas, raising echoes of Harry’s statement to Ruth in 9.7. Indeed, John’s actions seem to stem, given the flashbacks, from his feeling of betrayal that Harry didn’t intervene to get him out of prison more quickly.
At 38 minutes or so, when John and Maya have escaped the hotel and are switching vehicles, the episode just becomes one long litany of pain. If you loved Lucas, and even now you were rooting for John, or hoping that Maya turned out to be everything he had dreamed, you’re at this point plunged into a vat of sorrow so deep it will take weeks for you to recover if that happens at all. I feel like we’re once again in that situation where the scriptwriters only give us the decisive information seconds before someone has to act on it — I think this scene is trying to tell us that John loves Maya because she’s good. (Ho-hum, and boy did we ever find this out way too late, but let’s again suspend some disbelief here so I can keep writing.) She turns out, on some level perhaps, to be the clean thing he wanted, the thing that he could love without reservation as a sort of souvenir of a temps perdu, but he’s been revealed to her as a liar — from the beginning. As a dirty thing. His fate is sealed, it seems, as she says, “you’re a liar, John. That’s all you ever do.” She enumerates all the things we’ve become aware of, all the things she ostensibly can’t live with, and then she puts the icing on the cake: “And do you know how I knew it was true?” she asks him, hurling out her question as a challenge. “Because for the first time, you made sense.” I felt like I was being stabbed in the heart. I didn’t want this to happen to John. He thinks that she is the only thing that can make his life cohere; and yet it turns out that what ultimately explains his life is murder, lies, betrayal — and she is precisely the one to tell him; she makes his life cohere before his eyes, but in the worst possible way. I don’t want to see this. But oh, it’s a script move potentially worthy of Greek tragedy. This scene, implausible as the characters’ motivations remain, they got right on the dialogue level.
John (Richard Armitage) reacts as Maya (Laila Rouass) tells him that the narrative of his acts as a liar and a murderer is the missing piece that makes him make sense to her in Spooks 9.8. Ms. Rouass finally shakes off the extreme torpor of her performances all the way through this series to offer us something convincing.
In the end, it turns out, John was right about Maya: she can’t love someone who would bomb an embassy and kill innocent people, or at least she’s disturbed by it enough to switch sides immediately. (Another suspect characterization from the scriptwriters, in my opinion. Maybe the point is supposed to be that she’s fickle?) She tells him that he only believes that they love each other, because he is a liar. And then, in the end, his perfect beautiful thing has betrayed him; she’s got a tracker on (see implausibility notes above). And then she’s dead. And then abandoned by the side of the road. (See notes on Armitage’s performance below.) And then we have an exceedingly disturbing scene in which no one — neither Alec, nor Beth, nor Dmitri, nor Harry — seems in the least saddened by the fact that by pulling her into their operation, they’ve caused Maya’s death. Their cruelty in this setting, in contrast to John’s bare emotion, makes them look almost as bad as he does. Maya, like Ruth, is a pawn, has been one this whole time; Maya, unlike Ruth, has no really powerful man to watch out from her and storm in to save her. Lucas / John has just been manipulated the whole time — as he says in the earlier scene. By Vaughn, by Harry. The realization that the only option he has left is to die must hit him hard, but it seems obvious from the point at which he does not get on that helicopter.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Ruth is chastising Harry for giving up Albany to save her. She says, in a really powerful script move: “it was my turn,” by which she means, to make the sacrifices that MI-5 officers have to make. Something tells me that even this rather amazing gesture isn’t going to get that wedding ring onto her finger. Neither, even though she affirms it, is his decision to go after Lucas alone. So on the remaining matter, the question of the RuthxHarry ship, it is refusing to sail — this time because of her moral rigidity.
Fantastic tiny scene from Peter Firth when Harry calls his daughter from the car, and seems to be telling her implicitly to look after her brother — what plays so affectingly are the alternating expressions of pain and joy on Firth’s face:
In the end, Lucas pretends to take his revenge. The spooks locate and defuse the non-existent bomb, and then we have this devasting showdown. See below.
What a beautiful skyline to have as a backdrop against which to die.
Mr. Armitage’s performance:
Some more nice Action Armitage, including body-slinging. One wonders whether Mr. Armitage realized how much time he’d spend in his career carrying around struggling women. I wonder whether there’s a casting office somewhere where I can sign up to be the thrashing actress carried around by Armitage on any given week.
Again, for reasons of time — it’s now half past 4 a.m. — I can’t discuss every single Armitage appearance. Surely there will be time for that in the weeks to come (grin). Some things pop out at me, and they are mostly matters that establish the continuity of this performance with the previous ones, sometimes over amazingly long periods of time. The total effect, and it’s really admirable, is to establish the continuity of the John of this episode, who has now declared Lucas North dead and sees him as in total discontinuity with that personality, with elements of both the Lucas and the John of previous episodes and even series.
Even as he remembers various unsettling encounters with Vaughn / Michael, John (Richard Armitage) assures Maya (Laila Rouass) that he was manipulated too — but that as soon as he does one little thing, they’ll escape, in Spooks 9.8.
The first is the need that John reveals to maintain control, not just over the operation, but also over Maya. This is an ongoing dilemma for the John / Lucas character throughout this series — the need to be in charge when things are spiraling out of control. Armitage sets us up for this quite nicely with the reassuring energy of his statements to Maya in the Banley Hotel near the beginning of the episode.
Another continuity that I particularly liked was the maintenance of the particular mood and timbre of the character’s “anger / desperation” voice, which I discussed in regard to its appearance in 9.5, if you need links to examples to listen to for purposes of comparison. Mr. Armitage spends a significant amount of time at this pitch here, when he’s actually lying and not in despair at all, as he calls in, allegedly to get picked up, actually to generate the kidnapping of Ruth. (Seems fairly odd insofar as it’s so unusual for Ruth to leave the Grid during an operation, but I’m done pointing out implausibilities at this point.) He picks it up again perfectly when he lures the spooks out of their cars so that he can kidnap Ruth.
Given that the script forces us to accept the huge immaturity of Lucas / John, I do think that Armitage does really well at playing a person who as John seems significantly younger than Lucas / John’s presumably almost forty years. This begins, in particular, in the scene with Ruth. The script helps him out a lot in terms of making his moral calculus much more simplistic than Lucas’s was, and at this point, that decision is still believable, but expressionally, Armitage moves the scene along quite effectively, so that just as you note the awkward black and whiteness of the lines, you see the aggressive killer emerging.
In response to Ruth’s questions about the death of the runner, there’s still a brief microexpression at 0:07 of sorrow or disturbance:
but it eventually disappears in favor of the looks of conviction. As he moves toward telling Ruth that he’s killed (0:14) and saved lives (along with the 8.4 flashbacks), by 0:19 he’s much more self-assured. As the camera moves to show John’s whole body (Ruth persists in calling him Lucas), we see the stepped back equilibrium pose (see remarks in next paragraph) at 0:31. At 0:40 we have that “shaking off emotion” expression on his forehead that says whatever he’s thinking is so painful that he almost has to shake his head to get rid of it. At 0:46 he’s leaning in, as he asks her what she wouldn’t do to go back, but the leaning in is restrained a bit by his self-assurance: this is a rhetorical question to her (as if everyone would make his choices — another sort of typically adolescent argumentative move that the script gives him) and he’s not asking in pain or even in curiosity. At 0:58 he responds negatively to Ruth’s quotation of the Russian proverb, as if the increasingly adult John is now refusing to be condescended to, so that his sincerity language at 1:03, when he assures Ruth he hopes that Harry will give him Albany already reads as less naive, more rhetorical, more adult. So we believe the cold-bloodedness that emerges in response to Ruth’s query as to whether he would really kill her (this really backfires on her — she is trying to get him to think that he couldn’t kill her, and in fact he has no hesitation in naming a method) at 1:09 with nothing more than a single blink — nothing else in his face moves one tiny little bit as a response to that.
What’s interesting at this point is that it’s almost as if John is shocked at his own expression of adulthood, because though at 1:18 he says without difficult that he’d kill Ruth via a bullet to the back of the head, he then has to stand up and move away from her, as if he’s either moving away from the thought of killing her, or moving away from the person who he fears will become his victim in order not to risk having his intentions altered by her or sympathizing with her too much. Look at the body language at 1:34, as Ruth asks him what will happen if the Chinese use Albany and whether he can live with it. “I don’t care,” is his response, but everything in his body language insists that that response is a lie.
It’s the visceral response of the avoidant late adolescent to information he doesn’t want to believe, at 1:35 and following, with a great deal of headshaking, but it’s immediately followed by triumph of adrenaline in the fight or flight reflex, as John says, “I don’t care” at 1:38, whirling to take a stance that dares Ruth to defy him.
At this point Ruth insists on telling him as John tries to avoiding hearing what she has to say — and again we see this sort of weird age transition. He shakes his head, still avoidant, twice (1:47 and then 1:50, where his “be quiet” moves up into despair / anger range), then insists she doesn’t know what he’s done (1:55) — an authoritative way of saying “you will not get under my skin by claiming to understand me,” and grabs her forcefully and sits her down at 1:58. It’s almost like the smack we hear when his hands hit her upper arms provide another break for him, because we are back down to the adolescent earnestness with which the scene began, and again the gentleness with which Lucas / John watched Ortiz die in 9.6. At 2:06, the first real anguish we’ve seen — over his own fate –
“I’ve been so careful,” he says with such sadness that we wonder if it’s not so much the obligations of Lucas that he wants to get out from under as just the obligation to stop lying that makes a return to his past so attractive. Just not to be pretending all the time — is that what’s on his horizon?
Again, we’ve got a lot of Armitage equilibrium here, and it’s still a bit odd for me to see it deployed on behalf of such a dishonest character, in such a desperate way — I reference my remarks last week about how the interrogation scene with Harry jettisons and ignites all of the characterization Armitage developed in two years of giving us Lucas — so that we no longer are on solid ground with respect to lying vs truth-telling when we watch Armitage in this episode. In retrospect that scene from last week now reads as a much more aggressive emplotment of that gestural language, which maybe should have been my clue that John was lying, as opposed to the relaxed, gentle exploitation of it here. The latter makes a very eerie effect: the killer, the monster, if you will, who is defined only by his own irrational drives to recapture an illusory past, is reporting quite earnestly on the reasons for his actions even as he reports with equal sincerity and apparently no inhibition about the method he’ll use to kill Ruth, and his hope (sincere? not? here we see the erosion of the equilibrium posture as a signifier that was initiated last week) that Harry will give him Albany (implication: so he won’t have to hurt Ruth).
Very impressive, Mr. Armitage. I suspect that a lot of commentators are going to have loved the final scene on the rooftop, but this scene, along with the one where you refuse to be Lucas North again despite Ruth’s entreaties and then sedate her (cap above), where, at the end, you make John’s hands oh-so-gentle as he attempts to reassure Ruth after he’s shot her with the sedative, are going to be my favorites over the long term, I think. This is part of why I end up mourning the death of John, I think — because his extreme brutality is shielded with this soft, often adolescent gestural language. Because we see again the boy who, under duress, assumed the identity of Lucas North and became so hard; because of the contradictions you built into both those characters: good Lucas, who was hard; bad John, who was always so sweet.
Again, in terms of continuities, I’ve been asking repeatedly if Armitage’s performances are too emotional in certain settings and have been on the cusp with regards to this problem, eventually concluding that there were issues of personality disintegration involved that might have justified these choices. In the end, here, I see one big upside to this increased emotionality leading up to this episode, insofar as it makes room for John’s visceral, physical grief over Lucas’s death. After we’ve seen the convulsive emotion of 9.4 and 9.6, at a level at which we can’t credit Lucas but only John, we can accept that John’s emotion could be this open, this uncontrolled, this boundless, this uncivilised. (Thank you, unknown American director who taught that drama class.)
When you watch the clip above, try to lower your perception of what is in my opinion a too obtrusive editing in of flashbacks — they’re trying to build up an aural crescendo that reflects a situation in John’s mind that then in turn matches the decibel level of his scream at 1:26. He again goes a long way in this sequence: from jubilation at 0:04, to shock at 0:09, to attempt at self-reassurance at 0:16 (he can’t think he’s really reassuring her — this discourse is all for him, what he needs to believe, how he is lying to himself by this point); realization of the gravity of the situation at 0:21, and then his gathering grief after 0:45; rage at 1:26, and the mournful keening from 1:30 to the end of the clip. I found the end really, really painful to watch.
Again on the continuity question, did anyone notice how much the cadence, tone, rhythm, pitch, etc., of John’s voice as he informs Harry about the bombing here:
resemble the same things in Lucas’s speech in 7.2, as Lucas turns Arkady Kachimov? Clip of latter events here, for reference. I wonder if Armitage watched 7.2 again to achieve that effect, or if his characterization of Lucas and John was that thoroughgoing so that similarity is effortless?
And then the final scene, another extremely long one for the Spooks scenic vocabulary, I find. Not enough time to say what deserves to be said, but I find that Armitage manages to make John seem even younger in this scene than he has previously. (You’d never believe that Armitage is 39 in this scene.)
The script helps him a lot. I have mixed feelings here because for me this was one of those moments when the scriptwriters completely failed, both on the plausibility level (we still have at best an inkling of why it is that John loved Maya, and thus trashed the entire Lucas North legend he’d lived with so successfully even, apparently, under torture, and now stands on the verge of murdering Harry) and on the dialogue level. “I loved her,” John says to Harry. Well, yeah, thanks for making John say the obvious here, scriptwriters. If we hadn’t noticed that by now, you certainly do clear some things up for us.
On the upside, interestingly, the script makes John unable to articulate exactly what he thinks is going to happen at the beginning of the scene. We’re supposed to think it’s Harry’s death, but John can’t respond in the affirmative when Harry asks him whether what’s supposed to happen is his own death. The tempo of the scene only really takes off, though, when Armitage’s acting shifts into high gear over against the script. In my opinion this happens at the point where John is denied his triumph of making Harry a traitor, just like him. When John says, “So it was for nothing,” Armitage gives him a very subtle, almost quiet version of the anger / despair voice we’ve been discussing all series — and it’s this vocal cue that moves us back into the more childlike John who can’t ever reason to the end of his own chain of possible consequences.
And now the script, which sucks — for crying out loud, all we want is an intelligible reason to explain why it was that John perpetrayed the Dakar embassy bombing — totally implodes for several lines. What a piss-poor explanation for all of this sorrow, expressed in lousy, LOUSY, lousy dialogue. “Vaughn gave me the chance to be someone.” This was about self-importance? “To do something.” It was about boredom? Bombing as self-fulfillment? In eight hours of this script we’ve been given no information that makes any of this explanation intelligible. And then Harry says, “I wish you had met me first.” Oh yeah, because manipulating people for Queen and country would have solved both of these personality problems in John? And John, who still can’t release himself from what now seems like a need to be manipulated, says, “So do I.” In response to Harry’s rapprochement, John insists he can’t go back to prison. Well, this is at least believable given all the flashbacks we’ve seen so far.
For me, up to this point, it’s entirely the tone of voice that saves the ending of this episode and thus the series from utter catastrophe — from the point at which Lucas realizes that it was for nothing until his insistence that he can’t go to prison, the pitch of Armitage’s voice is steadily rising, making John seem more and more like the child the script makes him out to be. There’s a brief moment of cogency where John talks about how Harry will explain all this (the job is a machine that chews people up and spits them out — boy do I sympathize), but he appears to want to deny Harry even that consolation. At this point, the script has the potential to achieve transcendence, but what happens? It forces John back into his childish position with a childish vocabulary. “The service didn’t do this to me,” John says, “I was bad before I went in.” Yes, we get it, that was the thrust of all of 9.7, but WHY??? Peer pressure?? Really?? That made you a murderer? Armitage saves all this with the extreme high pitch of his voice here, which makes his emotion not so decontextualized, but it has to have been hard to navigate all of this given the lack of information we have and the weird dialogue.
And I can’t unclench my teeth; I just have to sit there, and accept it. The script gave us no real information to understand why John would kill himself except by allusions to experiences he had as Lucas and via the ongoing “because I loved Maya and now she’s dead and for nothing” explanation. Nothing at all. The only reason I buy this ending at all in the least is Armitage’s performance. He makes me believe, for the several minutes of this scene, in the possibility that John was always a boy who lacked the necessary pieces to become a man — that his idealism about Maya could legitimately fuel the idealism that we end up assigning to Lucas North — and that a man who can love something he believes to be pure with all of this fury, despite the moral flip side of that coin, is worthy of my sorrow when he dies.
At the end, then, John asks Harry, politely, to turn around, and then screams at him not to call him Lucas. Guilt much? Harry asks what he’s to call him: “Are you John the murderer? Or are you Lucas? The man who gave up so many years to help so many people, saved so many lives?” And then he challenges John to shoot him.
And Armitage’s pitch drops back into Lucas range, and he says, “I’m nothing.” And just like that, he’s gone. I still can’t move. Seconds pass before I can rummage around to find something to use to wipe the tears from my cheeks.
The nicest clothing in this episode, in opinion, was our farewell view of Lucas’s tattoos, this time in unusually clear resolution:
One assumes we see him primarily from the rear in this scene so he doesn’t have to have the Blake tattoo applied. I can imagine Mr. Armitage is happy to be rid of this piece of Lucas’s costume, although one wonders how he will dress himself in future, if he resorts mostly to clothes from his roles. I can’t imagine that Thorin Oakenshield will have all that many costumes that the eligible bachelor can easily wear in public. Sadly, I can’t imagine that Thorin Oakenshield will appear topless in The Hobbit, either. Are Mr. Armitage’s beefcake days over?
And then there’s John’s uniform, the black hoodie. Casual. I have to say that although Belstaff made Lucas look excellent, one of the things that makes John sympathetic to me is his down-market wardrobe.
The eternal adolescent, who doesn’t want to dress like an adult. But I like it when an Armitage character is dressed like someone I might know. Quite irrationally, I then think I might run into him somewhere and we could strike up a conversation.
“Where’s Vaughn?” Yimou (Hi Ching) asks John Bateman (Richard Armitage), in Spooks 9.8. Doesn’t Hi Ching use his eyes to the most amazing effect in this exchange? I’m sure there’s some stereotyping of Asians going on this scene and in the series generally, but here that look is just amazing.
So long, Lucas. I will miss you — and everything you, and John Bateman, could have been.