Review: Engrenages (Spiral) 3×1-3×2

France's answer to The Wire returns

Engrenages (Spiral)

In France: Last Summertime
In the UK:
Saturday 2nd April, 9pm, BBC4. Available on the iPlayer

Bonjour, tout le monde! Welcome aboard previous Engrenages (Spiral) lovers and hello to all those of you with a The Killing-shaped hole in their Saturday night TV schedules and thought you’d give a French TV series a try.

Yes, after months of our collective breath holding, Spiral is back with typical high-powered BBC4 advertising – a brief trailer after last week’s The Killing – ready to make us all go “WTF? No, seriously, WTF? That’s seriously how France runs its justice system?” again at Canal+’s answer to The Wire. All our old favourites are back: Laure, the captain of police, consummate cock-up artist and lover of brutality; Pierre, the handsome ambitious prosecutor; Roban, the ambiguously sexual, fair but draconian judge; Gilou, the over-emotional prosie-loving detective; ‘Tin Tin’, the cipher; the wonderfully evil, foul-mouthed red-headed lawyer Karlsson; and that weird chief lawyer who looks like a lizard. He’s odd-looking. It’s the eyes, isn’t it?

To accompany us on our ride into darkness, we also have the usual gruesome scenes, blanket misogyny, prissy subtitles, police corruption and rule-breaking, and eye-opening sub-plots that we’ve come to expect from Spiral – as well as a new singular image to illuminate and potentially define a whole season. In season one, it was women suffocated by transparent plastic; in season two, it was Aziz setting fire to people in cars in the banlieues; in season three, it’s a handwritten sign: “Fermé pour pédophilie.”

Here’s a slightly low quality trailer in French for the first two episodes:

1/12. When the mutilated body of a woman is found, police captain Laure Berthaud investigates.

2/12. With a second girl reported missing, police take in another suspect.

Happily, we start off with callbacks to both seasons 1 and 2. Prosecutor Pierre has been called in to head up the investigation of the murder of a dead girl – just as with season 1 – and picks Laure, who after the massive cock-ups of season 2, is in nobody’s good books and needs to redeem herself. It soon becomes clear thanks to some extremely graphic imagery that the woman has been mutilated and raped by a psychopathic sadist and the police are going to have tough, but interesting times ahead.

Gilou, who was having a relationship with a prostitute back in season 1 if you recall, has to recuse himself, ostensibly because he screwed up when the dead girl’s grandmother reported her missing two days earlier by not circulating the information. He’s also applied for a transfer, something that the now isolated and stressed Laure isn’t best pleased about.

The police soon find that the dead girl had a friend who helped her lose her virginity to a much older man, a photographer and paedophile, and in typical Engrenages style, totally screw up his life for him. They also find her boyfriend, an illegal immigrant who’s into a bit of voodoo, and they also find that another girl who looks similar to the dead girl has gone missing.

Meanwhile, Pierre is finding that all his political manoeuvring in season two has gone completely pear-shaped and he’s been shunted upstairs to the driving offences department, which bores him senseless.

Karlsson is still working for crooked lawyer Szabo, but after one of his clients is arrested, his associates think she and Szabo are responsible and put a hit out on them both. Since bad guys are largely made of teflon in Engrenages, neither of them die, but Karlsson comes out of it all a little changed for the experience.

Lastly, the sub-plots – which no doubt in the usual Engrenages style will all dovetail together with the main plot before the end of the season – are the province of Judge Roban. A dangerous dog shows what can (apparently) happen to anyone who reports a crime in France, even bereaved parents, if they haven’t behaved 100% perfectly up until that point, thanks to the inquisitorial system. And then the lizard-eyed, gay-hating chief prosecutor, who wanted Pierre to keep an eye on Roban, turns up to point out that the Mayor would quite like Roban to ease off and the thoroughly moral but political Roban does off course go for the jugular straight after promising the exact opposite. We also get to see a little of Roban’s personal life, thanks to his mum having a stroke.

Pierre Clement (Gregory Fitoussi)
Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust)
Francois Roban (Philippe Duclos)
Josephine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot)
Gilou (Thierry Godard)

Was it any good?
I didn’t enjoy it as much as the previous two seasons, since it didn’t quite have the realism and grit of those two, but there were some wonderful moments and given that much of the season is going to be about the media’s reaction to the murders, it’s clear it’s not really got into top gear yet.

Season three is very much a mix of the first two seasons, so far. The first season did a wonderful job of establishing characters, bringing in politics and looking at the problems that are prevalent throughout the French justice system. Season two, however, was very much plot driven. Although it usually had a “problem of the week”, it was largely about Aziz, the misogynistic, ultraviolent drug dealer, the Larbi crime family and the reassuringly competent undercover cop Samy, who like Pierre between seasons 1 and 2, seems to have broken up with Laure, and marched on to pastures new without anyone saying a word about why.

Season 3, however, is a more streamlined affair with more or less everything focused on the main crime, Roban’s investigations and politics. But it’s also remembered to service its characters – the writers have remembered that Karlsson and Pierre used to be friends; Gilou, who was pretty much ignored for most of season 2, is suddenly front and centre again; and Laure gets to step towards the Abyss a little more.

We also get a few wonderful WTF moments, including that iconic “Fermé pour pédophilie” scene, Gilou’s interrogation of the girl, which becomes thoroughly unpleasant once he bends the rules and switches off the camcorder, Pierre’s iPhone fun during the court proceedings, Laure’s lies to the grandmother designed to protect Gilou, the chief prosecutor’s decision not to prosecute a homophobic hate crime because he thinks gays are immoral, the medical examiner refusing to put things in her report that make it easier for the defence lawyers, and Roban’s turning on the soon-to-be bereaved parents who have come to him for help.

But it feels a lot more over the top and unrealistic than previous seasons. As well as Laure leaving important personnel documents lying around for Gilou to find, the motorcycle hit squad and their jammed guns seemed seriously unlikely, the voodoo boyfriend in a deserted clinic seemed close to racism and Laure’s descent into madness, given her career’s on the line, just a little atypical, even if continues a theme of the second season.

And for a story in which teenage girls are being killed in very graphic and unpleasant ways, exploited by paedophiles, and called sluts by the police, Laure’s problems in connection with the collapse of the formerly indestructible Karlsson following her attack make it feel a very female-unfriendly show – particularly now in comparison to The Killing, which had a similarly themed storyline but gave us the marvellous but still flawed Sarah Lund to balance it out.

Nevertheless, despite these problems, Spiral/Engrenages is still reassuringly good. The cast are as on form as ever, the central mystery is strong, the subtle politicking is still there, and it’s still as fascinating to watch as ever. Here’s to its return – and next week’s episodes.

  • Marie

    I’m kind of in shock. Anyway, my review’s over here:

  • The other David

    Can’t say I’ve seen the episodes yet, but the reviews so far have got me excited (I was especially amused by the comment by Chiffres in The Guardian piece about French cops being “zealous”). And while all of the reviews keep comparing Engrenages to The Killing, personally I think that’s a false comparison. Yes, both examine policing in their respective countries, but the former is throwing up the corruption and venality of the French judicial system and process, whereas the latter focused (I thought) more on the crime-solving process, the personal toll murder takes on those nearest the victim with a parallel political story line (which is especially prominent in the second series). To my mind, it’s like comparing apples to oranges — and, frankly, I savor them both.
    On a minor note, from everything I’ve read, I’m glad to see that Gilou and Fromentin get more play. I felt that the second series focused exclusively on Berthaud, Clément, etc. to the detriment of those two characters.
    While I enjoyed your review of the newest episodes, if you have a hard time believing someone would/could survive being shot three times, you’re going to have a hard time with the ending of The Killing II. Spoiler alert:One of the characters gets shot (I counted) six times by someone who was supposed to be a highly trained killer, and the shot character still get up — a point which pushed the bounds of credulity for me. It was a none-the-less excellent series.

  • Marie

    @TheotherDavid, if my reaction to the ending of The Killing 1 is anything to go by, I’m not entirely surprised I am going to have a hard time buying into the ending of Killing 2!

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  • The other David

    Given your comment about the number of times Szabo was shot, I can certainly believe that. (On a side note, I would just point out that there are will documented research about the enormous amounts of rounds expended per kill achieved in wartime. See Angelino’s answer on this page for an example. While the attempted kill of Szabo was at close range, it doesn’t mean that it would be a definite kill. A lot of factors could have thrown off the shot — wind, the ammo used, the shooters nerves or familiarity with the weapon used, the motion of the bike when the shots were fired, and perhaps the biggest factor, luck/chance. To my mind, it’s entirely within the bounds of possibility he could have been killed, as well as visa versa (as witnessed by him having survived the shooting). IMO, only an execution-style shooting would make a kill definite. Just my 2 cents). However, I hope I didn’t/don’t put you off from watching the second series of The Killing. While the ending may push the bounds of credulity, it is still excellent.
    I was wondering if this review of Engrenages was a revival of the episode-by-episode reviews you did on season/series 2? Just curious. Regardless of whether you do or not, I really appreciate your insights and this site. Thank you.

  • “@Rob I was wondering if this review of Engrenages was a revival of the episode-by-episode reviews you did on season/series 2? Just curious. Regardless of whether you do or not, I really appreciate your insights and this site. Thank you.”
    Maybe. I tend to shy away from episodic reviews, since it’s a big commitment and my work schedule is variable enough that I can’t often do them over an extended run. But if there’s enough support for them, I will do them.
    However, so far, there have been two commenters on this review, one of them saying she’s probably not going to watch the rest of the season. So in all likelihood, unless some more commenters crop up asking for episodic reviews, probably not.

  • Chloe

    @ Rob,
    I for one would really like episodic reviews, Engrenages is how I discovered your blog and I’m always interested in your take on the episodes. That said obviously if it takes too much time, then that’s that, would you consider doing a series overview at the end though?

  • Well that you kindly! I’ll certainly do a series overview at the end, then. Anyone else want episodic reviews as well?

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  • cheese4maweasel

    [this is good] I would enjoy reading anything you write on this – occasional reviews, episodic reviews, or an end of series write-up. Haven’t started Series 3 yet although it has been downloaded and I was slightly disinclined to jump in again having read Marie’s views,(found my way here via Marie’s Killing Sum-up) but having read yours, I am definitely more open to the idea. Enjoyed it v much. Of course, very keen to see Fitoussi again too – probably just swinging it in favour of viewing.
    PS. Is it not cool to refer to ‘Spiral’? Do those in the know always call it ‘Engrenages’? I didn’t read any blogs about the first two series so I’m a bit out of the loop!!! 🙂

  • Ooh. Another vote! Yey! Well, there’s a link above to the reviews of episodes 3 and 4, which involve a lot less gore than episodes 1 and 2. The reviews of series 2 are around somewhere (the tags at the top will show you the way).
    I tend to call it Engrenages, because
    a) then French people can find the reviews as well when they Google it
    b) I’m a bit pretentious sometimes
    c) Engrenages also has the meaning of cogs in French, which sounds sillier in English but is a more accurate translation of what the show is like: that it’s about wheels within wheels, everything adding up to a more complicated machine than it might at first appear.
    d) I’m very pretentious sometimes

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