Spies Like Us

I’ve been watching a couple of TV shows about spies lately. I’m not sure why, but I am.  And I’m enjoying them. Both of them are really interesting looks at spies, from very different angles, with a lot of differences. But the thing that’s got me thinking is the fact that they have a lot of things in common, too; things that I like.

The first one is The Sandbaggers, which is a British show from the ’70s, and the other is Burn Notice, which is a current American show.

The Sandbaggers is pretty gritty, with most of the action taking place in the dingy offices and corridors of the British intelligence buildings, with occasional glimpses of the agents in the field. It is, in many ways, the polar opposite of the James Bond stuff. No one wants to use a gun unless they have to, and in that case things are already pretty much unsalvageable. There aren’t any cool gadgets or flashy cars or masquerading as international men of mystery. The story is all about gathering information, and making decisions when you know you don’t know enough. There are strong themes of loyalty vs. expedience, politics vs. patriotism, pragmatism vs. idealism, and the emotional toll that such questions take on people.

Burn Notice, on the other hand, is a fairly light show, with a lot more action. Every week, Michael Westen is taking on a new client, helping them straighten out a problem. There are guns, car chases, even a few gadgets. And it takes place in Miami, so there are lots of half-dressed women wandering around. There are some similar themes, though: loyalty vs. expedience, pragmatism vs. idealism, and the emotional toll are all explored, in addition to the question of who can be trusted when all your friends are professional liars, and your family is all accomplished amature liars.

So, what do I find in common between these two shows that makes me want to watch them both?

The trickster nature of the spies.

James Bond may look suave and genteel, but he’s not subtle; he’s intelligent, but not clever. He is, as M says in Casino Royale, a blunt instrument.

The spies in these shows are subtle, clever, intelligent, resourceful, and generally afraid of consequences. Willie Caine, the primary agent in The Sandbaggers, hates guns, and tries to avoid them as much as possible, though he’s skilled in their use. Michael Westen remarks how a hardware store is usually more useful to a covert operative than a gun, and proceeds to show you why.

There are layers and layers of deception in both the shows, showing the use of information and disinformation and information used as disinformation. The entire quest is to figure out what the other guy is doing, and what he knows about what you’re doing. Intelligence and counterintelligence.

Dirty tricks.

These are characters who live and die by their wits, not by their firepower. Sure, there’s a little bit of gunplay, and a chase here and there, but what’s really happening are the two sides are trying to outthink each other, to force their opponents to make a mistake, and then capitalize on it.

The other thing I really like about the shows is that they make it very clear the kind of price someone pays for living that way. Neil Burnside in The Sandbaggers is driven, alone, and very bitter. Michael Westen of Buirn Notice, though he comes off very charming when he needs to, seems almost dead inside – there are a few scenes when you see him put on his winning smile over a dead-eyed face when something unexpected happens.

They’re damaged goods.

Which makes sense when you consider the kinds of things they have to do every day. The lying, the deception, the danger… it’s got to wear on you. One of the lines in Burn Notice is, “People with happy childhoods don’t grow up to be spies.” You can see that.

Now, I know next to nothing about the real intelligence community. I don’t claim to be an expert on spies in any sense. I don’t know any, personally.*

But the way they are portrayed in these two shows makes dramatic, emotional sense. It feels right. And that’s what fiction needs more than actual accuracy.**

So, I like these shows. They appeal to my sense of what spies should be like. They are interesting, well-written, and tell good stories.

If that sounds interesting, check them out.


*As far as I know, that is.

**The value and cost of verisimilitude in fiction is a matter for another day.