The Sandbaggers: Is Your Journey Really Necessary
March 4, 2016 5:22 PM - Season 1, Episode 3 - Subscribe

Jake Landy, Sandbagger 2, is killed when a mission goes wrong. After the mission Alan Denson, Sandbagger 3 decides to leave the service and marry his girlfriend. Burnside attempts to sabotage Denson's relationship in order to keep him in the Sandbaggers. Meanwhile, the SIS is called to investigate a homosexual relationship being carried on by a highly placed officer in the UK embassy in Paris, who's brother is a leader in the opposition party in Westminster.
posted by Grimgrin (10 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This is an intensely ugly story. There is absolutely nothing glamorous or even moral happening here. Jake is killed on an assassination mission, the SIS is used for blackmail, Burnside bullies a young woman into suicide. Denson being run over by a taxi is the sort of thing that i'd normally consider contrived. The episode carries it off because it doesn't seem out of place. Of course what happens to Denson is cruel and arbitrary. As Caine and Ms. Benett observe, the Sandbaggers go into the sewer at speed.

A few other thoughts:
Willie Caine is what Burnside has instead of a conscience. Unfortunately he's not an effective substitute.

Last episode Burnside talked about how alike he and Wellingham are. This episode goes deeper into that. They're quite alike, in ways that are rather unpleasant. In this episode they're both quite willing to manipulate, lie, and ultimately willing to ruin lives in order to achieve goals that they deem necessary.

Burnside's line "Not all homosexuals are vulnerable to blackmail" interested me. Old TV always has jarring moments like that in it where it becomes obvious how opinions have changed. I was curious how long the perception of homosexuality as a security risk due to the potential of blackmail carried on. Turns out, Burnside was being quite progressive by the standards of the UK civil service. In the real world the policy of barring gay men and women from sensitive positions until 23rd July 1991; nearly 13 years after this episode aired. It was John Major who reversed the policy:

"Government have reviewed this policy and concluded that in future there should be no posts involving access to highly classified information for which homosexuality represents an automatic bar to security clearance" - PMQT Written Answers 23rd July 1991
posted by Grimgrin at 6:14 PM on March 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is an intensely ugly story.

Yes. Denson is so young, it's the sort of stupid plan a 25 year old fresh from the Army would try and pull off.
They keep referring to a "show trial" that Jake would have undergone. It's certain he would have been tortured prior. I could go into details ... just to say that the methods were designed to elicit confessions that could be used as propaganda, not as an intelligence gathering technique.
Do you think she was pregnant? They tease it enough.
Burnside calls Wellingham "the enemy." I suppose, like here in the States, the Soviets are "the opposition." The communists want to bring down the West, but interdepartmental fighting will get your budget cut.

incidentally, finding these episodes is involving some small amount of skill. Haven't done this in a while
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:11 AM on March 5, 2016

Denson: He knew I was going to kill him.
Willie: What?
Denson: Jake, at the border. He turned full on to me to improve the angle.

This series goes for the jugular all right; that was just in the first few minutes.

MOT&T, check your memail
posted by TWinbrook8 at 2:51 AM on March 5, 2016

the man of twists and turns: My initial instinct is to say no. That that conversation was just a way of showing that the relationship between Denson and Sally was at a point where they were talking about the big questions. Do we have kids, what does the future look like, that kind of thing. I also think that the fact that she didn't say anything further when Denson proposed. Then there's her drinking, which suggest she doesn't know she's pregnant. Though it's 1978 and everyone's smoking, so drinking during pregnancy may not have been as big a deal. On the other hand, I can't quite dismiss the idea, and it would make her reaction to Burnside's blackmail and Denson changing his mind somewhat more understandable.

TWinbrook8: I think it's the only way the series can get away with a plot like this. The show had allowed Burnside any sentimentality about Sandbagger 2's death, or had tried to make Mike's death seem glamorous, then I don't know if I'd be able to stomach what happens to Sally Graham.
posted by Grimgrin at 6:48 PM on March 5, 2016

If you'd asked me before this recent rewatch if she was pregnant, I would've said yes because I "remember" a scene where it is discussed, either it was in the letter she left or after an autopsy. Obv my memory is faulty but it's interesting that that is how I interpreted her despair after watching it originally and it made the episode that much more tragic.

When Spooks/MI-5 came out, I was expecting something on the same level as Sandbaggers and while it did have its cutthroat moments and it certainly killed off enough agents (predictably at season's end), it really didn't have the same punch-to-the-gut effect.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 5:09 AM on March 6, 2016

Caine: "For once, the world appears to be behaving itself."

So with nothing doing abroad Burnside turns to misbehaving at home.
posted by carsonb at 2:36 PM on March 7, 2016

The more I think about this guy, the more I really despise him. He plays all-or-nothing with Denson and Sally Graham and loses both. He does that, he makes that decision, having already stated that he sees himself in Denson, that Denson's the only man for the job, top marks, true Sandbagger, etc. And then a taxi! Maybe that's a lesson that it doesn't matter how nihilistic and self-centered you are in pursuit of your goals, because the Universe will just wallop you with a taxi whenever and then truly nothing matters.

It certainly sets Burnside up to be in the sort of head space where he can arrange things as they happen at the end of the season, mixing up priorities between love and work, making and ruining relationships with impunity, ordering death upon people, etc. In fact, this episode is clearly foreshadowing what Burnside is really capable of and it just... makes... me so ARGH. What he decides is necessary and what isn't does not align with my principles or world view.
posted by carsonb at 6:15 PM on March 8, 2016

I didn't see Burnside's revelation as an absolute bastard coming, even after he was willing to use his ex as a pawn in the previous episode.

I presumed that Sally wasn't pregnant as I didn't expect she would have killed herself if she had been, although it's possible.

The neat parallels between Wellingham's manipulation of the intelligence service for his political expedience and Burnside's for his personal expedience were very nicely done.

I have the feeling that some scenes are cut off with bits of dialogue wholly missing from the copy I'm watching and I wonder what I'm not seeing.

I don't know how Caine puts up with him, really I don't.
posted by MoonOrb at 7:44 PM on March 13, 2016

Burnside's complicity in Sally's suicide reminds me in ways of the Phoenix episode from Breaking Bad, when Walter is complicit in Jane's death.
posted by MoonOrb at 1:45 PM on March 20, 2016

I got a bit lost when it came to the plot about the brothers and the blackmail (or lack thereof).
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:04 PM on December 17, 2022

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