‘Spooks meets Black Mirror’: how The Capture became the year’s most wildly compelling TV show

Trust nobody. Suspect everyone. And while you are at it, stick a small square of tape over your webcam. Surveillance thriller The Capture has got the nation hooked – and fretting about updating privacy settings. Think Spooks meets Black Mirror and you are in the right postcode. No mainstream BBC drama has been this gripping since early Sherlock, mid-period Line of Duty or that day in July when 50 MPs resigned.

The Capture has earned a huge, fiercely devoted following over the course of its two precision-plotted seasons. The debut run averaged 7.6m viewers and was 2019’s most requested new show on iPlayer. The current series is even better, its well-crafted tension building to a climax beautifully for Monday night’s extended 70-minute finale. Tell your friends – but only using burner phones and CCTV blindspots.

The new series chronicles how security minister Isaac Turner (Paapa Essiedu) finds his promising career and perfect family falling apart when an eerily convincing deepfake version of him starts spreading damaging disinformation. As the show’s tagline goes: “Seeing is deceiving.” His social media is hacked. Smears gain traction. Scandal erupts. He is dubbed #IsaacTurncoat on Twitter. “I’m fucking finished,” mutters Turner after going viral for the wrong reasons. Eventually the beleaguered politician comes face-to-face with his own doppelgänger. “WT actual F?” cried creeped-out viewers.

It was merely another dizzying twist in a show full of them. Sure, The Capture veers into preposterousness at times but it is pacy and addictively plotted. Its return may have been overshadowed by giga-budget fantasy behemoths – The Capture’s launch fell midway between Sky’s House of the Dragon and Amazon’s Rings of Power – but it is proving one of the wildest rides of 2022.

When it debuted in 2019, The Capture introduced us to the covert counter-terrorism technique of “correction”. This duplicitous practice “turns intelligence into evidence” by doctoring CCTV footage to help convict dangerous suspects. As heroine DCI Rachel Carey (the excellent Holliday Grainger) explains in a handy exposition dump: “Correction is a method of real-time image manipulation, using the disruption of camera feeds and the deployment of deepfake technology.”

The first series found army corporal Shaun Emery (Callum Turner) on a murder charge after CCTV appeared to have him bang to rights. Carey, who was investigating the case, learned not to believe her eyes, dug deeper and ended up being recruited to the highly classified Correction team. Is she now working from the inside to expose it? Or is it a case of: “If you can’t beat them, join them?”

For a show with a three-year gap between series (blame the pandemic), The Capture picked up again at breakneck pace. It opened with chilling “invisible assassins” pulling off a hit while somehow remaining unseen by CCTV. Viewers were flung straight back into a murky world of cyber-snooping and digi-jiggery-pokery.

Over five episodes so far, the exhilarating set pieces and spine-tingling reveals have kept coming. Car chases have taken spooky turns. A lift shootout shocked. We even saw the BBC itself having its news bulletins hacked by hostile powers (a sly nod to attacks on its impartiality, perhaps). Who is behind this knotty conspiracy? China, Russia, the US, or someone closer to home? Welcome to a dystopia where “Big Data and populist politics intersect” – a “moral minestrone” of photo-real facial re-enactment and uncanny voice cloning. Deploying their algorithms from the shadows are “dons of data” Truro Analytics (any parallels with Cambridge Analytica are surely coincidental). Big Brother is not just watching. He is pulling strings, stroking a white cat and cackling as your life turns into one big poo emoji.

Trying to unravel it all is the unapologetically ambitious, refreshingly unlikable Carey. This “fast-tracked princess” from the Met may sashay around London – coat swishing, pouting pensively – but she is no showpony. As proven in a bruising combat-training scene, Carey can handle herself in a fight. The rules of drama foreshadowing say she’ll need to fight for her life before the series is out.

The Capture is committed to its own bonkersness but its writer, the former documentary-maker Ben Chanan, keeps it just the right side of plausible in a what-if, worryingly near-future way. The UK is, after all, one of the most spied-on countries in the world. Controversies swirl around spyware firms like NSO.

A storyline about the UK government granting contracts to Chinese AI nods to real-world concerns about tech company Huawei and CCTV camera-maker Hikvision. The Capture taps into anxieties about surveillance culture. It asks nuanced questions about false narratives, alt-facts and fake news. It is also a lot more fun than this year’s other cyberdrama, Channel 4’s GCHQ snoozefest The Undeclared War.

Chanan admits that Paul Abbott’s State of Play was a key influence. The spycraft is reminiscent of Homeland. It shares the jargon and jeopardy of Jed Mercurio’s dramas (one critic called the first series “the thinking man’s Bodyguard”). Yet The Capture conjures up a compelling world all of its own, powered by 21st-century tech, while harking back to 1970s cold war cinema.

A leading strength is its canny casting of rising male talent to play off Grainger. Turner was Bafta-nominated for series one. RSC and I May Destroy You alumnus Essiedu is a worthy successor as the hotshot MP with his eyes on Downing Street, if only “AI robo-fucks” would leave him alone. Pervading paranoia means everyone is under suspicion, which is where a high-calibre supporting cast comes into its own. Even incidental characters are a cut above: Indira Varma as the Emily Maitlis-alike Newsnight presenter, Ron Perlman as the CIA warhorse, Andy Nyman as the weaselly home secretary. A woozy soundtrack, composed by Blur drummer Dave Rowntree, add to the edgy atmosphere.

Social media buzz is building towards tonight’s nail-gnawing finale. Will DCI Carey blow the whistle? Exactly how many Isaac Turners will we see? Will one of them become PM? And is The Capture stealthily becoming the best homegrown drama of 2022? As Ben Miles’s suave Met commander says: “Steady the fuck on.”

The Capture concludes on 12 September at 9pm on BBC One. All previous episodes are available on iPlayer