Spooks is a BBC drama revolving around a team of MI-5 officers who must juggle their professional lives, working to protect the British state from domestic threats, whilst living semi-anonymous private lives shrouded in secrecy, misdirection, and false identities. Its inaugural series won the BAFTA for Best Drama in 2003, and it was responsible for a surge of interest among Britons in joining the real MI-5, which both bemused and annoyed the organization. Influenced by John le Carré and falling distinctly on the 'stale beer flavoured' side of spy fiction, it features thoroughly-researched tradecraft gleaned from former officers and is steeped in intelligence gathering minutae concerning dead-drops, undercover operations, and suspect trailing. To maintain its conceit of anonymity, the episodes themselves have no credits, although they are available on the DVD releases and on the BBC3 "week in advance" airings.
Its uncompromising nature and morally ambiguous reputation were cemented in its second episode, which featured an MI-5 officer (set up as a main character) murdered by having her head shoved into a deep-fat fryer, which prompted hundreds of viewer complaints despite the show airing post-Watershed. Despite its gritty nature, it also strives for depth and thoughtfulness by delving deep into real-life geopolitics and socioeconomics to flesh out and humanize the threats the team faces, offering up literary allusions and symbolism such as a traitor using Coriolanus to justify his betrayal, and keeping the spotlight focused on the human cost of living in the center of a tangled web of deception and intrigue.
The show ran for ten series, from 2002 to 2011. Through it all, Sir Harry Pierce (Peter Firth) was the sole character to feature in all 86 episodes. Often a put-upon Reasonable Authority Figure struggling through a morass of ineffectual bureaucracy and murky political machinations and occasionally a badass former Cold Warrior who doesn't flinch at strangling an assassin with his necktie, Harry Pierce anchored the show through a revolving door of a cast including Keeley Hawes, David Oyelowo, Nicola Walker, and Richard Armitage.
Peter Firth returned to the role in 2015 for a film sequel named The Greater Good, which co-starred Kit Harrington.
In the United States, partly due to the racial connotations of the word 'spook' in reference to African-Americans, it was renamed MI-5. Although the series was in development before 24, it was released after it, and has similar stylistic flourishes, like heavy use of Split Screen. (Bharat Nalluri, the director of the first two episodes, which very much set the visual tone for the series, states that he independently came up with the idea of using Split Screen in a DVD Audio Commentary. The similarities between the two shows went both ways, and 24 eventually returned the favor by borrowing a Spooks plotline featuring Alexander Siddig as a terrorist of dubious reliability, whom the main characters are forced to work with.)
A Spin-Off with a Younger and Hipper cast called Spooks Code 9, aired in 2008. Poor critical reception and ratings cancelled it before a second series was made.
In 2020, David Wolstencroft said that he was up for the show to have a Stealth Sequel to tackle serious issues like gray zone warfare and cyberterrorism. He also suggested that this sequel might have a more diverse cast and be less centred around London.
This show provides examples of:
- And the Adventure Continues: The show ends on a particularly bittersweet version of this.
- Anyone Can Die: All in reference to Lisa Faulkner's frying as well as dozens of other examples. Only one of the original characters remains in the show, although some ex-characters, like Tom, are still alive and kicking (and are brought back sometimes, like Ruth and Malcolm).
Wolstencroft "[The show] isn't the world where the cavalry always arrive, because in reality these people [MI-5] do risk their lives on our behalf and they do get into sticky situations with genuinely nasty people."
- A quick rundown of the dead: Helen, Danny, Fiona, Colin, Zafar, Ben, Connie, Adam, Jo, Ros, Lucas, Tariq, Ruth, Erin and Callum. Most of their names (plus a few extras) are seen in the final episode on MI-5's memorial wall.
- It's theorised that the one character who has been in it since the beginning (Harry) is still in it because the show would lose a lot of viewers if it killed him off; the series seven finale, when he gets kidnapped by Russian Alan Davies, was... controversial (even though he was in danger in several season cliffhangers before). In the end, he survives the finale, albeit even more broken than ever before, and continues working at Thames House.
- Of course, the previous season cliffhangers which put Harry in life-threatening danger had other characters in even more danger - as in, one character appeared to drown himself in the ocean, and another was left bleeding out on the street. (both survived) That and the fact that he wasn't as central to the show then as he was by series seven...
- David Wolstencroft has explained in a DVD extra on why the characters are killed frequently.
- Apple of Discord: Adam tries to do this to a far-right political party in series 4.
- Artistic License – Politics: Alan Taylor, the Cabinet Secretary, can write bills, control access to the Prime Minister by members of his own Cabinet, and explicitly describes himself as a politician. In fact, the role is that of a civil servant.
- Authority Equals Asskicking: Harry, Harry, HARRY. Strangling a Russian hitman half his age with his tie, interrogation technique that would put Revolver Ocelot to shame, outthinking Mossad, the CIA, the FSB and sometimes his own Government (sometimes all at the same time), threatening to shoot (and actually shooting) people who have threatened his Grid team...the list goes on.
- Back for the Finale: Tom Quinn makes a cameo appearance in the final episode of Series 10, hired by Harry as an outside contractor.
- Becoming the Mask: "Traitor's Gate" has undercover MI-5 agent Peter Salter, who infiltrated a group of violent anarchists and wound up accepting the ideology they advocate due to his disgust with the state of the UK which grew over many years. One of the female anarchists, who he got involved with, also inspired him.
- Bilingual Bonus: In Hostage Takers parts 1 and 2 al Queda terrorists take a group of Saudi and Israeli dignitaries hostage demanding that al Queda prisoners be freed. The twist reveal that they were Mossad agents involved in a false flag operation wouldn’t have been a surprise to anybody that heard them speaking unsubtitled Hebrew in one scene.
- Bittersweet Ending: It's fair that almost every episode will/has end like this or at least have a touch of it as no matter what victory is achieved by the team there some price to pay.
- Blonde Republican Sex Kitten: Christine Dale.
- Bomb-Throwing Anarchists: The group in "Traitor's Gate" plan to assassinate President George W. Bush while he's visiting Britain.
- Bottle Episode: Notably "I Spy Apocalypse" and "Diana", both based nearly entirely on the grid.
- Break the Cutie: Oh, Jo. Poor, poor Jo.
- British Brevity: Sort of. Seasons range from 6-10 episodes in length, but each one is a full hour long (with no commercials) and the trope is averted in that the show ended up running for 10 seasons, making it one of the BBC's longest running dramas ever.
- Broken Ace:
- Tom Quinn. As described by Harry, "one of the best and the brightest." Relied upon by everyone. The team leader. Until, of course his all-consuming job destroyed him emotionally and mentally, breaking down his ability to determine morality, and eventually made him a liability and he had to be decommissioned. Considering what he went through, the outcome isn't really very surprising. He reappears briefly in the finale, where it seems he's become an assassin, sent by Harry to take out the man behind Elena's plot
- Adam Carter, his replacement, went almost as spectacularly off the deep end after the death of his wife.
- And finally, Harry himself in the finale.
- Bulletproof Human Shield: Subverted/shown correctly when Jo Portman manages to restrain a terrorist who is trying to blow himself and everyone else up. The only way to avert the explosion is for Ros to shoot the man, however (as both Jo and Ros realise) the bullet will go straight through him and kill Jo as well; which is what happens.
- Calling the Cops on the FBI: In the fourth episode of the first season, a suspect under surveillance realises that his house is being staked out by two MI-5 agents in an unmarked car, and creates a diversion by calling the police and telling them that the occupants of the car are creating a public disturbance of an intimate nature.
- Canon Discontinuity: In the 2015 film, the events of Code 9—which involved a nuclear explosion in Britain—are completely ignored.
- Clumsy Copyright Censorship: One episode was temporarily pulled because visible Apple logos on the back of the computers had to be digitally airbrushed out, advertising not being allowed on The BBC.
- Combat Pragmatist: if you're a field agent in MI-5 you do not survive long if you don't adopt a "use anything at hand" ideology. However, strong contenders for a prize in this area go to: Adam (for using a set of empty metal shelves to beat up a terrorist), Zaf (for escaping from a cupboard using an opponent's own crowbar and then using it to beat him to a (deservedly) bloody pulp), and Ros (for using a car-jack to immobilise a Mossad assassin before he could call for back-up).
- Ros also kills a Russian dude with a fork and threatens another one with a pen to the eyeball. In the same episode. Without significantly messing up her hair.
- Compromising Memoirs: "The Rose Bed Memoirs" (Series One) and "The Book" (Series Four) involve these.
- The Conspiracy: The second half of the show's run was dominated by season long versions of this.
- Content Warnings: The show had these during its run on PBS in the United States.
- Continuity Nod: The following conversation, from series seven, episode one:Lucas: How'd Tom Quinn work out?
Harry: Took early retirement.
- Crapsack World: Terrorists around every corner, corruption in every rank of the government, allied governments not giving a damn about Britain's survival, Russia openly slaughtering British agents in the street, and Anyone Can Die taken to "Everybody Dies" Ending proportions (by the end it's safe to assume that basically all the current major characters will not survive). Oh, and if Code 9 is still canon, London will be destroyed sometime after the end of the series.
- Cruel and Unusual Death: Several.
- Damsel in Distress: Beth Bailey.
- A Death in the Limelight: Fiona in "Syria."
- Defrosting Ice Queen: Ros, to an extent in series 8.
- Did You Just Scam Cthulhu? / Mugging the Monster: far too many politicians try to use Mossad for their own ends, usually via manipulation and mis-direction One very highly placed lawyer managed to manipulate them into taking out an MI-5 op team. Let's just say that he did not live long.
- Dirty Business: Harry is brutally pragmatic to where can even forgive the Home Secretary putting out a hit on him and his team because it was for the greater good.
- Dirty Coward: How Adam describes a rival agent who was helping rogue Mossad agents to take hostage and kill Saudi officials for this when he kills himself rather than face the team.
- Driven to Suicide: Lucas.
- Dropped a Bridge on Him:
- Adam's death. One of the country's best spies has to drive a bomb-rigged car away from any danger. He first puts his seatbelt on to drive the car, and near the end, he does a useless handbrake turn which costs him precious seconds. Although the seatbelt sort of makes sense since, if you crash, you'd probably want to be injured as little as possible when the car's rigged with a bomb. Also, to be fair, his goal was preventing civilian casualties; only after the car was stationary in middle of an empty square could he look to saving his own life. He didn't know exactly how long he had left, of if the trigger would be delayed for some reason. Had he jumped out of the side while it was moving, the car might have gone careering into the side of a building and caused civilian casualties.
- Zaf, who gets tortured to death off-screen. A lot of fans were expecting him to show up again in Series 6 since the show rarely ever has the main characters Killed Offscreen (and whenever a hero appears to be in peril, but isn't confirmed dead, they usually pull through). So when it was revealed that Zaf had died after being tortured for days while crying for his mother, it felt pretty anticlimactic.
- Dutch Angle: This show makes frequent uses of these for dramatic effect.
- Dying Alone:
- Adam. The man sacrifices his own life to drive a car bomb away from a crowd of people, only to die by himself before he has time to run away from the car.
- Ben, who bleeds to death in a lonely computer room after his throat was lacerated by Connie.
- Subverted with Tariq. After he is poisoned and gets out of the taxi he's riding, he collapses to the ground in the middle of nowhere, seconds away from death. Suddenly, Calum shows up, and then he dies.
- Dying Moment of Awesome:
- The death of Ros, though YMMV. Even though she knew it was probably hopeless she stayed with the paralysed Home Secretary, dragging him painstakingly down the corridor despite him insisting that he leave her. Brave, brave woman.
- Connie. Motherfucking. JAMES. "I'm not scared of bombs."
- Dying to Be Replaced: It's practically a Running Gag for the series.
- In Series 3, Adam Carter, a short-haired White Male Lead in his 30s, is introduced. Tom, a short-haired White Male Lead in his 30s, leaves the show in the second episode and is replaced by Adam.
- Halfway into Series 3, Fiona, a short-haired woman trying to balance her job with her personal life, is introduced as Adam's husband. Zoe, the show's other short-haired woman trying to balance her job with her personal life alongside her boyfriend Will, ends up having to flee the country.
- The Series 3 finale introduces Zaf, a dark-skinned Token Minority. The same episode kills off Danny, who was the show's dark-skinned Token Minority.
- Halfway into Series 4, Jo, a friendly short-haired Action Survivor, is introduced. Two episodes later, Fiona, the show's major friendly short-haired female Action Survivor, is killed.
- In the Series 6 premiere, Zaf is injuried and Put on a Bus. Halfway into the same series, Ben Kaplan, a dark-skinned journalist, is introduced. The Series 6 finale reveals that Zaf was Killed Offscreen, and Ben snags his spot as the show's Token Minority for Series 7.
- The Series 7 premiere introduces Lucas North, another short-haired White Male Lead with dark hair. The same episode kills off Adam Carter, the show's other dark-haired White Male Lead.
- Eagleland: the US is generally portrayed as a somewhat corrupt country, with the CIA not being nice people. By series 8 and the time of the Obama administration, this changes somewhat: a new CIA station chief announces "We're the good guys now" before a duplicitious agent tosses him over a balcony to his death.
- Eco-Terrorist: A season 8 episode has a group of eco-terrorists who kidnap what they consider to be a group of Corrupt Corporate Executives for an on-line trial by Internet viewers, with lives on the line.
- Edited for Syndication: Episodes streamed on Netflix in the United States can have as much as ten minutes per episode removed.
- Episode on a Plane: Series 6, episode 6.
- Evil Plan: Frequently, but Angela Wells's masterplan in "Diana" sort of sticks in the memory: holding the entire Grid hostage overnight with a fake bomb, solely for the purpose of getting access to Buckingham Palace security information, so that a lockdown would be ordered and the Royal Family would be rushed to a secure location which, after getting herself employed there as an electrician seven months earlier, she'd already rigged with plastic explosive INSIDE THE ELECTRICAL WIRING. And then there's a sniper rifle.
- Evolving Credits: Each series changes the intro based on the new characters gradually introduced throughout the episode. Series 3 removes Tom from the opening after he leaves MI5 in the second episode, and Series 7 does a very good job of keeping Adam's death secret by showing prominent clips of him from the first episode. From the second episode onwards, the clips were removed and swapped with clips of Lucas, Adam's replacement.
- Expansion Pack Past: Lucas North. Series 9 reveals he's not Lucas North at all, but just some guy who stole the real North's identity after he'd been accepted into MI-5. And this secret is apparently so compromising he's willing to murder innocent people, yet he spent years in a Russian prison being tortured and yet not once betrayed his country by talking?
- Faking the Dead: Ros, briefly, in 6.08. Unusual in that she didn't know the nerve toxin she was injected with wasn't going to be fatal...
- False Flag Operation: Several. A group of Mossad agents take over an embassy while pretending to be Al Qaeda, and Harry's kidnappers in the first episode of season 8 pretend to be Islamic terorists to throw MI5 off the scent.
- In fact, the majority of the episodes of the fifth series involved these.
- Fictional Country: Usually averted, but not always. While often times real places are used there are still occasional instances of Qurac, CountryStan, and CommieLand.
- Fictional Political Party: The British Way Party, a Fictional Counterpart to the real-life British National Party.
- Flat "What": In a typically British understated fashion, this reaction is used often.
- Genre Deconstruction: Of Spy Fiction. Absolutely everything is grounded in realism. The heroes do not spout one-liners, engage in over-the-top stunts and/or shootouts, and many of them die over the course of the series. They're just regular people doing a regular, mundane job. The series goes out of its way to show that you don't get medals or a feeling of accomplishment for stopping terrorists and serving your country; usually it ends with your life ruined, your loved ones harmed or killed, and your life replaced by someone else once you quit, get fired, or die.
- Girl on Girl Is Hot: Invoked by Ros when dealing with a Saudi prince in one episode.
- Good is Not Nice: The MI-5 agents are not afraid of doing anything immoral so long as they get the results they want. Harry himself has flat-out authorized the murder of a few people simply because the victims were better off dead.
- Groin Attack: Ros takes the phrase "put the squeeze on him" VERY literally.
- High-Heel–Face Turn: Guess which one of the people in this (incorrectly labeled) shot ends up joining the good guys. Go on, guess.
- Heroic Sacrifice (several)
- Heroic BSoD: several agents have issues with maintaining a stable reality. This does not end well.
- Hide Your Pregnancy: Done with three different actresses in three consecutive seasons:
- Olga Sosnovska (Fiona) in season four
- Nicola Walker (Ruth) in season five
- Hermione Norris (Ros) in season six
- In each case, the actress' pregnancy forced her into maternity leave before the end of the respective season - although only one ultimately chose to PERMANENTLY exit the show.
- Hollywood Spelling: In the series four premiere, Adam is told over his earpiece to disarm a bomb using the codeword "Kronos", which has many transliterations from the Greek such as "Chronos", "Chronus", "Khronos", etc. In the original hour-long broadcast, he asks how it's spelled, but in the Edited for Syndication cut on Netflix (which is where most Americans will watch it) he intuitively spells it the right way, despite "Kronos" being far from the most common spelling.
- Ice Queen: Ros watches someone get shot right in front of her whilst hooked up to a polygraph and barely any response is registered.
- I Did What I Had to Do: Harry's justification in The Greater Good for aiding a terrorist attack on MI-5 headquarters so their leader can execute a British official who betrayed him. Harry's rationale is that the government officers swore an oath to defend the British public, and that if they die so innocent civilians can live it's an acceptable loss.
- Idiot Ball: this may come very very close to Too Dumb to Live, but Danny sleeping with Harry's DAUGHTER was so not smart. Really really not smart.
- Improbable Aiming Skills: Subverted. A sniper in Series 9 Episode 5 must come pretty close. His shot is from 1.67 miles away (beating the previous record as specified by Dimitri at 1.5 miles by a sniper in Afghanistan), goes directly through a building after he takes the trouble to blow out the windows, and manages to calculate the trajectory of the bullet accurately enough to come with millimetres of his target's head (and even then, he hits him in the shoulder). Unfortunately, directly afterwards, Lucas comes up behind him and shoots him dead. However, it is soon discovered the whole thing was meant as a diversion to get everybody inside where a bomb was to explode.
- Interservice Rivalry: With MI6, who the more serious-minded MI-5 officers view as dilettante James Bond wannabes.
- Kill the Cutie: Done with introverted Playful Hacker Colin, the most benign member of the crew. It even has an edge of Shoot the Shaggy Dog when two MI6 field agents find Colin, drive him out into the woods, where he momentarily escapes in a desperate chase scene before they catch him, give him his smashed glasses, and then hang him while he is begging them not to. Everyone is pretty shocked by this development. And then of course, the expected happens.
- What makes it even more awful is that Colin, expecting to be shot in the head, relatively calmly told the rogue officers to get it over with. He only starts begging when they take the noose out and he realizes that his death isn't going to be quite as quick as he expected.
- Lady Drunk: Connie has elements of the type. Turns poignantly hilarious in her last episode when she demands a bottle of gin as part of her bomb-disarming kit.
- Lady of War: Ros. This can manifest in Hidden Depths as when you're first introduced to her, she looks and acts too refined and upper class to have any of the badass fighting skills that the rest of MI-5 are trained in. A couple of beaten-up Mossad agents later and you're immediately dissuaded from that idea.
- Leaning on the Fourth Wall: In "Who Guards the Guards?," Zoe and Danny reflect on Tom's recent departure from MI-5, with Danny suggesting that he got out before the job fully destroyed him, and that he and Zoe should do the same and try to live their lives to the fullest. Matthew Macfadyen, Tom's actor, wanted to leave the show because he didn't want to be stuck in a long-running series. Keeley Hawes and David Oyelowo (Zoe and Danny, respectively) followed suit not long after.
- Leave Behind a Pistol: series 5, a failed villain asks for his belt not to be removed when he gets arrested. Harry complies.
- Left Hanging: Series 7 ended with the entire British Government riddled with Russian moles. Though the team got a dossier revealing their identities, the plotline is never mentioned again, not even with a Hand Wave that it's being handled by another department, like the Series 2 premiere. Also, the fact that the Kremlin gave the order to set off a suitcase nuke in the heart of London has zero diplomatic consequences, and the two countries are back to working together like nothing happened several episodes later.
- Location Doubling (the exterior of Thames House in Embankment is played by Freemasons' Hall in Covent Garden)
- Locked in a Freezer: Whole episodes have taken place in a locked-down grid, most notably "I Spy Apocalypse" and "Diana".
- Long-Runner Cast Turnover: The series went through a very large number of cast changes in its run. Only one character, Harry Pearce, appears in all ten seasons and every other position in Section D had at least three different occupants over the show's run.
- The Lost Lenore: Fiona, to Adam.
- Mad Dictator's Beautiful Daughter: Ros's introduction more or less fits the trope, although her Heel–Face Turn has less to do with falling for the hero (it takes her several episodes even to like any of her new colleagues) and more to do with realizing that her father and his cronies are selfish, murderous, and being bankrolled by the Russian mob, and she's far more badass in her own right than the category would tend to suggest.
- Make the Bear Angry Again: Season 7. Season 10 offers up a variant combined with Renegade Russian.
- Market-Based Title: Re-titled MI-5 in the USA, as in America "spook" is an archaic and now-rare, but still sensitive, ethnic slur for a black person.
- Moment Killer Dammit, Ruth! Harry is trying so hard!
- More Expendable Than You: An interesting variant is season 8. The British Home Secretary and Pakistani President have been left paralysed in a room rigged to explode. When Ros and Lucas show up for the rescue, Lucas is heartbreakingly forced to leave Ros and the Home Secretary behind. If the President dies there could be nuclear war, and Lucas is the only one strong enough to carry him.
- Mr. Fanservice: Adam Carter and Lucas North.
- murder.com: In Season 8 a group of eco-terrorists kidnapped a load of Corrupt Corporate Executives to host a live trail and execution on the internet if the businesses were unethical (and of course, they were). The Jury was an internet vote.
- Nebulous Evil Organization: Yalta, an organization of current and former European spies that appears in series 6 during the bioweapons arc. Named after the Yalta Conference during World War II, their goal is to reduce American power in world affairs. Among other things they arrange for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, which the Islamic Republic parlays into a seat on the UN Security Council.
- Never Mess with Granny: And never, ever be alone in a locked room with Connie.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: To the point where someone could play the Drinking Game every time one of the heroes screws something up. Even Malcolm, of all people, had the audacity to place a bomb on a plane and instruct Ros to set it off, which led to the death of a CIA agent.
- Oh, Crap!: Final Episode of Series 7. Three words. Portable. Nuclear. Bombs.
- Our Hero Is Dead: noticeable for subverting this rather harshly. There is a very good chance in this show that if it looks like the hero is dead, they probably are. And if they manage to escape a near-death experience, expect the emotional trauma to manifest in their behaviour.
- Overt Rendezvous: In seasons one and two, the characters frequently have meetings on the benches across from the Houses of Parliament.
- Plot Hole: Much of series 8 resolves around the slow reveal of global conspiracy that is unknown to everybody in MI-5 until Home Secretary Blake first tells Harry about it. Inexplicably in the beginning of series 9 it is revealed that Blake was a part of the conspiracy the entire time. This raises the obvious question of why did he even alert Harry to its existence in the first place?
- Psycho Psychologist: Miranda from season 2 interviews the entire staff and pits them against each other with the express purpose of finding the weakest link. Portrayed realistically in that she doesn't see anything wrong with this.
- Put on a Bus: Tessa, Tom, Zoe, Sam, Ruth (though she returned in the first episode of season 8) Malcolm (though he appeared series 9 and in the film), and Beth.
- The only one this really applies to is Sam, as at the end of Season 3 it's stated that she's upset due to Danny's death and then come Season 4 she's just never mentioned again. For the others, their reason for leaving the show is explicitly stated.
- At the start of Season 10, Harry observes that Beth has been fired in his absence.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Harry and the Home Secretary (most of the time).
- Redemption Equals Death: Connie, who redeems herself with a Heroic Sacrifice to stop London being destroyed.
- However, this is then averted at the end of series 10, when a memorial garden with the names of the operatives KIA across the series is shown. Connie's name is not there, and neither is Lucas North's.
- Refuge in Audacity: at the beginning of season 5 Collingwood and his group of Well Intentioned Extremists try to rewrite the face of British democracy. They believe that Democracy Is Bad and that The Evils of Free Will and The War on Terror will destroy England, and hence they must head the new government with stringent new security measures and detention centres to house people who disagree with them. The entire scheme is so ridiculously blatant (including staging Acts Of Terror), so deeply steeped in a corrupt Propaganda Machine (backed by malicious representatives of England's Security Services), and so heavily relies on Orwellian Editing of the facts at hand that no one had prepared for it. In fact, the entire thing is so outrageous that no one believes MI5 when they first expose it.
- Ripped from the Headlines:
- Series four, episode six. The backstory of Jimi Mistry's character was inspired by a real incident where a handful of Muslims were arrested for plotting to attack Scotland based on nothing more than an annotated map left by an Australian backpacker.
- Revolving Door Casting
- Running Gag: "KGB." "FSB."
- Sacrificial Lamb: Lisa
- And Helen, of course.
- Sacrificial Lion: either Danny or Fiona, depending on your point of view.
- Serial Escalation: The show started out very grounded in reality, focusing on the minutae of spycraft and having very plausible stakes that focused on thorny moral quandries, and of the three main characters who exited in series three only one of them suffered a brutal—yet poignant—death; the other two simply burned out and walked away. Notably, when Danny is ordered to assassinate a weapons engineer, he's extremely upset by it. But after series four, when both creator David Wolstencraft and writer Howard Brenton (an established playwright who the producers credit with elevating the show) left, the new writers started emphasizing thriller action and brutally murdering characters left and right over the stage-y drama of the first four series. That's how we arrive at such episodes as: the woman with explosive blood; the Muslim submarine bomb that Harry stops with an EMP buried under Parliament; the Russian government ordering a nuclear strike on London; the Home Secretary being part of a worldwide conspiracy who Harry poisons to death; and of course the infamous plot twist about Lucas North.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Lucas North, who spent many years being tortured in Russia.
- Even though he'd been captured and tortured gruesomely by a number of rival intelligence agencies, Adam Carter was able to remain optimistic about his work until his wife was shot dead by her ex-husband, a Syrian agent, which pushed him into an Heroic BSoD that he never really got over.
- Shoe Phone. Subverted in "Nest of Angels". An Algerian agent listens politely when he's shown a number of disguised communication/bugging devices for his mission to infiltrate a radical Islamic group. The next scene shows him dumping this highly compromising equipment into a canal.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: In series nine, a mysterious man blackmails Lucas North to get his hands on "Albany". At the end of the series, after Lucas's life has been torn apart and his old girlfriend is killed, Harry reveals that "Albany", a designer bioweapon, doesn't even work, and it exists solely to intrigue and deter foreign governments.
- Connie's name is arguably a call out to Connie Sachs from the works of John le Carré.
- Alex White, from the series 9 finale, is definitely is a John le Carré reference, this time to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The book is explicitly namedropped by the Home Secretary later on.
- Shown Their Work: In the first half of its run, the show took great pains to ground its stories and its villains in a very messy real world geopolitical context, as opposed to contemporary American thriller shows, which rarely went beyond "They're Islamic extremists from Qurac" by way of motivation. This lessened as the show went on, however.
- Smokescreen Crime: In "Hostage Takers", Ros is trapped with a bunch of Saudi VIPs when a gang of gunmen claiming to be Al-Qaeda militants take hostages and start demanding the release of imprisoned members. Ros notices that one of the gunmen has a Yemeni Jewish accent and deduces that they are actually a Mossad black ops team trying to prevent the planned sale of nuclear power technology to Saudi Arabia.
- Spiritual Successor: To Bugs.
- Split Screen
- Spy Fiction: Stale Beer Flavored. Intelligence work is brutal, bloody, unglamorous, and also involves a lot of staring at data.
- Spy Satellites
- Star-Crossed Lovers: Twice, team members with UST get together only to have one of them have to fake their death and leave. With Harry and Ruth, Ruth gets framed for treason; the team fakes her death and she goes into hiding. Adam and Ros end up the same way.
- Suicide by Sea: Subverted with Tom in the series two finale. After being forced to shoot Harry while trying to avoid capture, Tom wades into the ocean and lets himself slip below the surface. Partway through the series three premiere, he resurfaces while trying to track down Herman Joyce to prove his innocence in the assassination of the Chief of the Defence Staff.
- Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Many. Generally, after a character leaves they get one of these. At times the new character is introduced before there's been a cast change, not-so subtly hinting that a certain established character might be in trouble.
- One example is Lucas, the handsome and charismatic former section chief returning from an eight-year stint in a Russian prison. Guess what happens to handsome and charismatic section chief Adam in the very same episode.
- Sweater Girl: In episode "Spiders", Zoe needs to get close to a particular target who happens to be male.Tom: The kids' lives are in danger. (beat) So, wear a tight sweater tomorrow.
Tom: I've been watching him all day. He obviously fancies you. We need to build up on that connection.
Zoe: (sarcastically) Any particular sweater in mind?
Tom AND Danny, simultaneously: The blue one.
- Training "Accident"
- That Man Is Dead: Lucas, after his true identity is revealed.
- There Are No Girls on the Internet: Subverted in episode 1 of series 9, in which an undercover al-Qaeda master hacker is traced to west London and assumed to be the father of a Muslim household. It's actually his 17-year-old daughter.
- The Hero Dies: At least two season finales. One of them twists it by having the character survive the end-of-season cliffhanger, carry on a few episodes into the new season, and then have nervous breakdown and leave the series.
- Unexplained Recovery: At the end of the 'Virus' Arc, Zaf, infected with the titular deadly virus, grabs a grenade from one of his captors and pulls the pin, threatening to let it detonate unless they let Adam go. Adam is released and Zaf is last seen being driven away. Somehow, he manages to survive both the grenade and the virus only to be tortured to death many months later.
- Unresolved Sexual Tension: Ruth and Harry. Also, done in a very cute way with Ros and Adam Lawrence (the new Home Secretary at the end of Series 8).
- Villain Protagonist: Lucas.
- Water Torture:
- The introductory episode of the Nebulous Evil Organization Yalta has one of their moles in French intelligence use the Chinese water torture on Ros: she's tied to a frame in a dark room with water dripping onto her forehead as she's questioned. She resists it.
- Episode 3 of series 7 had Lucas North actor Richard Armitage get waterboarded for real. Kudos stated to the Daily Mail that they really did waterboard actor Creator/Richard Armitage during the scene for authenticity sake; for his part Armitage said he wasn't pretending to be screaming for them to stop.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: In addition to several Villians of the Week from the earlier series (most memorably, Collingwood and his cohorts from "Gas and Oil"), at least two season arcs from the later years (six and eight) are built around massive conspiracies consisting of such individuals.
- Western Terrorists: This trope is fully justified, as MI-5 is (or at least, it was when the show started) concerned with domestic security akin to the American FBI, and not exclusively terrorism. The first series was written prior to 9/11 (although some cursory references were inserted after the fact) when Irish splinter groups, xenophobic race-baiting, and economic rioting were the prime sources of potential turmoil. The show deliberately went out of its way to show as many different threats as possible. The IRA, White Power groups, "totally not the BNP", eco-terrorists, abortion clinic bombers, a wide variety of ex-Soviet spies/assassins/moles, corrupt banks, all were shown as legitimate threats. It even becomes a plot point in at least one episode, where they're trying to work out which of the 10 groups they had flagged launched a chemical attack on London.
- Wham Episode: Given the parade of major character deaths, there are many such episodes but the final minutes of the series have quite possibly the most shocking event in the entire show: the always stoic Harry actually cries.
- What Happened to the Mouse?:
- Tessa and Juliet Shaw both get away scot-free and disappear from the narrative after betraying the team. You'd think Harry would be hunting them across the globe, but if he is it never comes up.
- What happened to Jenny, Wes' babysitter? After Series 5 (and after it looked like she and Adam would start dating), she just up and disappeared.
- Also, what happened to Wes? We saw him hugging Harry shortly after he came to tell him that his father died, and then he never shows up again, or even gets mentioned.
- The MI6 officer that Harry liaises with, Jules, disappears after the first series as his actor got a better offer.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Multiple characters have called out the MI-5 agents on some of the "wrong" or immoral things they've done.
- What the Hell Is That Accent?: While CIA are often portrayed by American actors or have convincing American accents, there are some exceptions. Sarah Caulfield in series 8 has an utterly baffling American accent. Alton Beecher in series 9.
- Will They or Won't They?: Ruth and Harry.
- Would Hit a Girl: Jo, in particular, seems to get roughed up a lot.