Weirdly, I don’t have much interest in watching English-language crime dramas, but ever since I got hooked on The Killing, subtitled detective stories have become an essential part of my Sunday routine. The latest show to scratch that itch for me was the fourth season of Spiral (aka “Engrenages”), a French series following an assortment of police detectives, lawyers and judges, as they try to bring some sense of order to the crime-ridden streets of Paris.
Sadly, I’m a latecomer here, having missed the previous three seasons, so it took me a while to figure out who everyone was, and why I should care about them… and even then, there were several call-backs and references that flew straight over my head. Despite this, I found the major story arcs very accessible and engaging, even when they took an occasional blind-turn towards the ludicrous. By and large I was on the edge of my seat, tensed and mesmerised, but every now and then I’d have to let out a little guffaw, as I scoffed at a forgotten pair of binoculars or the like. One of my major issues with the second and third seasons of The Killing, is that the writers moved away from the horrifically plausible, could-happen-next-door sort of crime (with inadvertent political ties), towards much bigger, sillier crimes that were all about preposterously rich people, the army and senior politicians. What’s great about Spiral is that there are so many different cases and crimes going on at different levels of society, that you get a much broader mix, and never really know where the next scene will take you, or how it will impact on what you’ve already seen. When one storyline starts to get a little shaggy, you can take heart in the knowledge that there’s another one just around the corner, waiting to pick up the slack… and the supporting characters seem to be fairly disposable, so you can never be sure who’s going to make it to the next episode alive! Even the best shows can sometimes get a little sloppy the longer they go on, but this fourth instalment seemed pretty solid to me, so I’m keen to loop back around and check out the earlier (presumably even tighter) seasons.
I don’t think that ‘Laure Berthaud’ is quite as iconic a character as first-season ‘Sarah Lund’ was, but she still makes for a very compelling and sympathetic heroine… she’s feisty and smart and sweary and independent, but she’s also on the back-foot at work with a career-threatening “pre-emptive self-defence” shooting hanging over her head, and a truly dickish new boss, who’s chief concern is furthering his own career while using his officers as cannon-fodder. I’m not familiar with Caroline Proust’s previous work, but she gives a great performance here, showcasing her range as Berthaud goes from wounded to threatening to motherly to pissed-off to love-torn. I’m not sure how the justice system works in France (or any other country for that matter), but it seemed to me that her team were taking some serious liberties with the civil rights of their suspects… obviously we as viewers know that their hunches are correct and that their actions are justified, but it still made me a little uneasy at times. Then again, Berthaud looks so darn cute, even when she’s bending the rules and screwing people over, it’s kinda hard to hold any of it against her.
The second most prominent female character on the show is ‘Joséphine Karlsson’ (Audrey Fleurot), a defence lawyer with a marked disdain for the police, and a rather lose grip on the concept of “professional detachment”. As I say, I haven’t seen the previous seasons, so I don’t know if she’s always been this unstable… but it certainly made for an emotional tilt-a-whirl, following her various ups-and-downs. Counselling suspected terrorists in custody is one thing, but aiding-and-abetting said suspects while sabotaging the anti-terrorism squad’s efforts and endangering the lives of specific police officers… well, that’s rather beyond the pale, isn’t it? Even though she was basically a stooge of the season’s major antagonists, I didn’t begrudge her “happy ending” in the final episode, because there was something vaguely admirable about the way she pulled herself together and actually earned a little redemption. Again, that’s one of the strengths of the series… the “good guys” don’t always have the cleanest hands, and the “bad guys” aren’t unrelentingly evil cartoon villains. There’s a lot of ambiguity and internal conflict going on… but thankfully the writers seem to err on the side of heroism, rather than wallowing in nihilism.
I should also give a shout out to some of the supporting actresses: Judith Chelma, who played ‘Sophie Mazerat’, a seemingly mousy student with an unfortunate crush on a douchey wannabe-“revolutionary”… Elisabeth Macocco, who played ‘Marianne’, the adorably loyal clerk of twinkly-eyed and puckish ‘Judge Roban’… and Anissa Allali, who played ‘Amina’, a chirpy new recruit to Berthaud’s squad. I made the mistake of checking Allali’s IMDb page at the start of the season, and saw that she was only credited with two episodes… so when the third ep came around, and she wandered off on her own during a manhunt, I felt sure she was a goner… but thankfully she survived all the way to the finale.
Sigh… now I’m left with another gap in my Sunday viewing schedule… but these subtitled crime shows have helped BBC4 to treble their Saturday night ratings, so they’re just as dependent on finding new material to fill that gap as I am! Later in the year we should be getting a second series of The Bridge, and a new Swedish show called The Blinded Man. Yay?