Review: Engrenages (Spiral) 2×2

Black is white and white is black. Although black is also black

The people have spoken and the decree is "let’s have episode by episode reviews of Spiral (aka Engrenages aka the French TV series that doesn’t suck".

So here we go: episode two, another multi-layered piece of subtlety and blistering indictment of the corruption at all levels of the French criminal system. Apparently.

Laure is disciplined for her use of force on a suspect and comes into conflict with Clement over his compromising newspaper interview. Karlsson is taken into Szabo’s pay as his accomplice in representing the drug ring. Judge Roban uses his usual cunning in investigating a strange rape allegation.

But was it any good?
So far, beyond a few more interconnections, the season’s plot arc hasn’t advanced much since last week. While the police catch the dealer they were after, neither his nor snitch-cremator Aziz’s connection to each other and the higher picture isn’t yet clear.

But as is normal with Spiral, the juiciness isn’t necessarily in the overall plot, it’s in the character interactions and the little details – which once again require your utmost concentration.

If you think The Wire is harrowing, this episode’s casual exposé of the misogyny inherent in the French system will leave you drained

Once more in that inevitable but always unsuspected way Spiral has, we have the rug pulled out from underneath our expectations and prejudices. Clement, our handsome hero, is doing his best to help former girlfriend police captain Laure Berthaud deal with the brutality complaint against her. But his political capital has been undermined by his own ambition, having agreed to an interview with a journalist which he uses to advance his own career.

However, despite his good guy credentials, he appears entirely unsympathetic when a woman complains her husband and two swinger friends of his raped her. Judge Roban, whose initial inquisition of the woman and obvious acquaintance with the swinging scene makes you think his sympathies are with the accused, soon reveals himself to be far more dedicated and impartial than Clement or even the police.

The amoral Karlsson, who’s busily trying to revive her fortunes by working for crooked lawyer Szabo, finds she still has some vestiges of ethics when asked to cover up evidence and pass on case notes to him. And Berthaud, who’s torturing suspects then hiding paperwork to save their lives, has to lie to preserve her career thanks to Karlsson’s ambulance chasing, only to find Clement can’t help her and she’s been suspended.

What Spiral appears to be saying in this episode – apart from there are only shades of grey in people – isn’t necessarily that corruption is bad: it’s the far more French message that the system is bad and people are having to work their way around it, even if that means doing bad things. Clement’s principles mean he can’t grease the right political wheels any more – but he wouldn’t need to if Berthaud had been sensibly allowed to carry a means of self-defence with her when investigating a dangerous suspect. Karlsson wouldn’t need to ally herself with Szabo if legal aid actually paid the bills.

The two -isms
The episode also looks at two big -isms: sexism and racism. To UK eyes, the way the rape victim is treated is horrendous: she’s asked horrific questions by a roomful of men in authority and has to sit mere feet away from a man who raped her; the inquiring judge is sceptical, his questioning insulting, and he appears to side with the rapist at first. Even when he later shows his impartiality, the victim still has to revisit the scene of the crime and face her other tormentors. The final kick in the teeth is that the judge can’t get a prosecution against one of those involved, despite the horrors perpetrated. If you think The Wire is harrowing, this episode’s casual exposé of the misogyny inherent in the French system will leave you drained.

The racism of the system is also demonstrated, although Spiral’s producers are taking a hands-off approach a the moment: a beating by our heroic cops of a Muslim suspect gets no condemnation from their boss. But with none of the cops members of ethnic minorities, and so far every single member of an ethnic minority shown to be a criminal or less than enlightened in their attitudes towards women, it’s certainly possible to start wondering if the producers in some way endorse this racism or are merely taking a snapshot of the reality of French criminal justice. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt for now, and at least they avoided the death trap of using tokenism to clumsily parry potential criticisms.

Despite that reservation, however, it’s another gripping episode that just makes you want more.


  • Russian ballerina-assassin. Sworn enemy of Western capitalism and recidivist kulaks. Scarlett Johansson look-alike. TMINE's publisher and Official Movie Reviewer in Residence. I've written for numerous magazines, including Death Ray and Filmstar, and I've been a contributor to TMINE since I was at university and first discovered I really wanted to write about movies, oh so many years ago. Sob.