Review: Engrenages (Spiral) 3×3-3×4

What happens when the good guys aren't good?

In France: Some time last Summer
In the UK: Saturday 9th April, 9pm, BBC4. iPlayer: Episode 3, Episode 4

Well, the people have spoken and as many as three of you want me to do episodic reviews of Spiral aka Engrenages aka “the good French TV programme… that BBC4 keeps showing but no one watches”.

So let’s give it a go. No doubt my reward will come in Elysium rather than in this life.

Anyway, season three of Spiral looks like it’s going to be a little bit different from previous years. As I mentioned last week, usually each episode of Spiral has an A-plot and a B-plot that randomly taps into some random injustice of the French legal system. This year, however, both a-plot and b-plots seem to be focused on just a couple of questions.

The first: will the current reforms planned to the French justice system produce a better system?

The second: it’s all very well wanting police to be “over-zealous” in a Life on Mars stylee, but what happens if our ‘heroes’, rather than being the good guys who know the truth but are impended by a system that values the rights of criminals over their victims, are in fact over-zealous because they’re incompetent, in-fighting screw-ups? What happens if they start bribing prostitutes with coke, threatening other car drivers with pistols because they’re having nervous breakdowns – or they end up torturing and framing the wrong guy because they think they’re right?

Here’s a poor-quality trailer in French for episodes three and four.

Episode 3: With the second body identified as that of Celia Morau, police believe they could be looking for a serial killer and delve into the Paris underworld.

Episode 4: Police struggle to hold on to their suspect after he is hospitalised. Friction between Roban’s professional and personal life starts to make itself felt.

Pierre’s quit his job after being manoeuvred into a dead end position. Fed up of being the goodie, he wants to work with Karlsson. But Robard still needs his help because he’s busily investigating the Mayor and the backhanders that he’s getting through a dummy firm that produces badly written reports. Strangely, his brother’s ex-wife seems to be involved somehow. His attempts to circumvent the chief prosecutor don’t work too well. Robard’s got himself a new assistant, who turns out to be the son of a former love of his – whom he promptly hooks up with, much to her son’s annoyance.

Laure – still sleeping in her car and showering at the police station – is a bit stressed by the pressure, nearly shooting a cabbie who toots her for driving slowly. A cabbie who toots you for going too slowly in Paris? She’s going to need and Uzi…

But she’s found herself a suspect, a Mexican doctor who seems a bit suspicious, has a suspicious poster up in his room, a white van with a suspiciously clean interior and who has a hat that was suspiciously near the crime scene. Surely he must be the killer. If only he didn’t have good excuses for everything, despite the sleep deprivation, shouting, intimidation, slapping around and stress that the police put him through.

Well, fortunately, a prostitute that Gilou spoke to (and who tricked him into bodyguarding her while she bought drugs) is willing to make a false identification, provided Gilou gives her some coke. So he does and they get to keep their prisoner locked up. Except then another woman is abducted…

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

Was it any good?
I enjoyed it more than the first two episodes of the season, at least. There was far less gore this week, far fewer points of melodrama, implausibility and downright nastiness.

For a change of pace, we also had romance of a sort. Pierre and Karlsson are finally flirting away at an Olympic level like we’ve always wanted them to. Laure collapsed in a nervous breakdown heap and nearly shagged Gilou after coming close to shooting a cab driver in an act of road rage. And Roban finally nailed his colours to the mast and had an actual shag with a former love.

But largely this was about the developing mystery, the ethical lines that Laure and her other colleagues are prepared to cross to prove what they think they know, but don’t. Gilou is fine with bending the law, Laure not quite so happy but willing to turn a blind eye, while Tin Tin is less than keen to be giving cocaine to anyone, let alone a criminal, although a quick wrestle with Gilou to assert pack loyalty appears to have fixed that qualm.

Sitting in the background of all this is the political corruption involving the Mayor, which is up to the usual Spiral excellence of subtle politicking, be it Roban’s sending of a blank fax, pretending it to be a warrant he knew would never get signed, or the equally clever misdirecting of his own brother away from the guilty parties.

We also get the more subtle b-plot that I suspect is going to be filling the season: the mistreatment of prostitutes. Until now, they’ve largely been the usual staples of crime fiction: there as background, ready to be murdered and cut up or to provide our hero cops with information. This week, however, we’ve seen them humanised, shown to be people, shown how they’re treated by their pimps and traffickers. I expect this is going to develop into more of a thread in later episodes, since the paedophilia and child abuse involved in the first episodes seems to have taken a backburner as a motive for the killings. Now, prostitutes appear to be the targets – will these two things link up in some way? Let’s wait and see.

And where’s Pierre and Karlsson going? We’ve had an interesting little mystery of sorts, with a woman coming in to ask with help getting a divorce, only for it to be revealed she’s having an affair with her biological father. Ugh (a nod back to last week’s ugh, I wonder?). We’ve had Karlsson giving Pierre the benefit of her experience of surviving as a defending lawyer, something we’ve seen from season two isn’t very easy unless you’re going to cuddle up with crims. But how will their plot link up with the others? No clues yet. Anyone?

Lastly, we should mention the flipside of all the politics – the proposed changes to the French justice system to remove investigating judges from procedures. It’s very hard to look at Spiral and to understand where they’re coming from on this. For two seasons, the bad and good of having investigating judges has been depicted. We’ve seen the corruption and subversion of justice that both Szarbo and Karlsson have perpetrated and we’ve seen what less scrupulous investigating judges have gotten up to.

So what do we make of Roban, defending the institution of the investigating judge by claiming that since the judges are independent of the government, they ensure justice (at least the good ones do) and the alternative is the UK/US system in which “Only the rich can afford the best lawyers?” – while in the very same episode, we see Karlsson and Pierre setting up shop in an expensive part of Paris in a run down office, purely because they’ll attract the richest clients there.

Are the writers really defending the system as it is or, more likely, are they trying to subvert the words of Roban to show him to be naive? I don’t know. Maybe the writers are trying to have their cake and eat it – “the system is what it is: we aren’t arguing as to what should replace it or what needs changing.”

As always, let’s see what happens next week with Spiral, since it’s all too… spirally to fully understand yet.


  • Natalia Romanova

    The Gloria Steinem of the jumpsuit set. Russian ballerina-assassin. Redheaded Scarlett Johansson look-alike (yes, really. No, I won't send you photos). 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.