Quick digression: Law and Order Criminal Intent, like a lot of long running US shows, has a very rigid formal structure. The three minutes before the credits present a crime, usually a murder, with original characters. I am impressed each week how they manage to build characters, peril, and meaningful mystery, in about 180 seconds of screen time.
Spooks I think is similarly impressive, racing through complex storylines in a hour, without jettisoning emotional impact, and without ever achieving moral absolution for the characters. This week, for example, Lucas North was pursuing a personal scheme opposed to his official task, which in turn was adrift from central control, and all three threads - the departmental problem, his orders, and his hidden agenda, were braided tightly together, so that his scenes functioned in three different plots simultaneously. But in addition to this, I was emotionally engaged, so that these scenes had an impact as well as a function. Two in particular.
The first was the death of an original character - a young American woman, who was painted very deftly as highly colourful and likeable. Lucas kills her, in a ghastly way, and although you can see he is upset, this really means he is damned now. Bring someone in, make you identify with them and like them so quickly that their death destroys a central character; I think this is impressive writing and acting. And then clever how this event functioned within three plots: that he was ordered to kill her, that he realised this was a fake order, and that he killed her anyway. I would take my hat off to whoever constructed this Rubik's plot.
The second scene I can't quite understand yet, we may find out more in the final two episodes. Lucas North entered a house where he had previously obtained information from an old cast member. The information proved worthless, and the house was abandoned. I thought it was a scene with more metaphorical weight than plot significance. I think it will be fine if this is never explained, and in a way I hope it never is.
I think the job of the best TV writing is to increase the freight of each scene. I think British telly usually does this by thickening up relatively simple and accessible material, for example by drawing on cultural baggage. Life on Mars, Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, all punching above their weight by drawing on the cultural capital out there in the audience. Spooks does draw on our capital a bit, but I think it's attempting something I see more in American telly, which is to thicken a scene by making it serve multiple plot functions plus some kind of metaphorical commentary on itself. Plus nowadays some kind of reflective 'what does this say about the show, and me watching it?' I'm pleased to see the writers of Spooks emulating this model.
if it is less successful it is because the BBC is being forced to please too many masters at once, but that's another rant for another day