Since last Friday, I've barreled through the first few seasons of the BBC show Spooks, also known as MI-5. It's a show about Great Britian's domestic secret service, the spies who spy within the nation as opposed to those who spy on foreign soil, à la James Bond. It is an organization for which the United States does not have a direct counterpart.
I admit, I know very little of what MI-5 does in real life but I recognize that the show is certainly an as fictionalized version of the truth as James Bond is for the real MI-6. Spooks is two parts spy thriller mixed with one part relationship drama - at points truly funny, but, it seems, getting darker and darker as it goes on.1
In some ways, it reminds me of the one episode of 24 I watched, although it's also very different, and easier to enjoy. Maybe because we here in the United States don't have a strict version of MI-5, I can be a step removed from the show. For me, that means that while watching 24 was fraught with frustration and anger over violent and conservative storylines, watching Spooks is, for the most part, pure escapism. I don't have to worry about the politics or the messages. The episodes I've been watching are from 2002 through 2005, so I don't feel a strident need to get angry at the leaders of the country, even though I often was at the time. I know how it turns out, so I can sink into the episodes in the same way I would with a Sherlock Holmes story or the old episodes of the original Mission Impossible. I can get absorbed into the minutiae of the characters' lives and loves, and the people they save and don't save, and it's okay, because it's just fiction.2
And so it was jarring to turn off Netflix on Monday night, after watching an episode in which the MI-5 team collaborated with a CIA operative to successfully protect the people of Great Britian from a terrorist threat, only to see the images of the bombing in Boston. I happened to tune in to the news just as the announcer informed the audience that security had been ramped up in New York and Washington and London, and that the organizers for the upcoming London marathon were examining the route.
And suddenly, it was all real.
I had just watched a television show where the MI-5 team had examined a route for security weaknesses and here we are, in real life, doing the same thing.
It made me sad. It's one thing to enjoy a show about some spies doing spy things and saving their part of the world on a regular basis. But it is an entirely other thing to have to deal with the real life aftermath of those fictional, yet all-too-real, situations.
I find myself now thinking about the people who work to keep terrorism like this from happening around the world.3 About if there is currently a CIA agent briefing MI-5 team members on potential threats to their marathon.
I recognize my privilege - I live in a country and a time where I do not have to live with the daily fear of terrorism, so I am horrified when it happens, and it seems to have happened a lot in the past several months. That privilege lets me mourn from afar instead of up close, to think about it in the abstract, and wonder about the people who live it every day.
I don't really know what MI-5 does in real life. Obviously, Spooks glamorizes and glorifies, but it also humanizes its members. I'm thinking about the person who is currently examining that marathon route for potential security breaches, and if she is nervous or scared or determined. I'm curious about the police forces charged with stopping terrorism here and if, as unlikely as it may be, there was someone who had advance warning about the bombs in Boston, but couldn't get the word out in time.
I wonder about - if - there really are instances that we don't know about where acts of terrorism were stopped just in time or if that only happens in fiction.
And I'm not sure which is more comforting - that there are groups of people watching out and keeping the world a safer place, but we don't know about them or what else they see and do, or that the relatively few horrendous acts we see are the only ones, except that means that there is no one out there watching over us.
1 What is it with BBC shows? This seems to be a trend, so that characters you loved in the first season become almost unrecognizable by season 3. For me, the best example is Mitchell on Being Human - do check it out!
2 Let me hasten to add that I think fiction is remarkably important, or I wouldn't waste my time writing about it and talking about it and obsessing about it. I think fiction changes the world on a minute-by-minute basis. Here, I mean, more correctly, that because these people aren't real, and the problems they are dealing with aren't real, and the real world issues aren't immediate, it allows us to look at real issues without the fear and anxiety that often surrounds them. And for me, that is the real point of fiction.
3 But, to be clear, I am neither advocating for tighter security restrictions nor am I thinking about these people with any sort of judgment, either condemming or condoning. I simple wonder about the individuals.