Review: Engrenages (Spiral) 4×3-4×4 (France: Canal+; UK: BBC Four)

WTF and OMG! Not OMD

In France: Last autumn
In the UK: Saturday 16 February, 9pm, BBC Four

Very much a game of two halves, this Saturday’s episodes. After I waxed lyrical about the show last week, episode three decided to be all contrary and a bit of a disappointment, an unremarkable plot expander, redeemed by just a few twists and turns.

But then episode four turned up. Episode four, which contained not just a big helping of WTF, but topped it all off with a massive dose of OMG. No, I don’t know what French texteese is for Oh My God. I’m assuming not OMD.

Episode 3
Berthaud and her team visit the scene of the immolation of a Kurdish detainee and spot Sophie Mazeret amongst the demonstrators outside the centre. Sophie escapes, but they arrest Vasseur and suspect his involvement with the terrorists. Josephine Karlsson is asked to warn the squat of an imminent police raid. Pierre Clement is pleased to learn that Judge Roban has returned to the courthouse and asks his advice when testimony against Berthaud leads her to ask for his professional representation.

Episode 4
Berthaud and her team stake out the Turkish restaurant that the Kurdish suicide victim was known to frequent, and uncover what appears to be an organised work crew of illegal immigrants. Judge Roban uncovers more inconsistency in the investigative procedure in the case of a senior colleague. Josephine Karlsson invites Clement to her sister’s wedding where she has a major confrontation with a family member.

Was it any good?
So last week we ended on the WTF ending of a Kurd in detention self-immolating. This week, we started off forgetting a lot of that in favour of the return Judge Roban, ostensibly on compassionate leave following the death of his intern but actually pushed out because of his opposition to the Sarkozy reforms and general politically damaging things. Pierre’s delighted but Roban wants to get down to the job of stopping Laure from getting fired, particularly now the new, unmalleable member of CID has grassed her up about her relationship with the head of the crime squad, making his testimony look a little dodgy.

Intriguingly, Laure wants Pierre to defend her on the grounds that he’s the best and a friend, which shows a lot of water has passed under the bridge since seasons 1 and 2. We also have the culturally interesting suggestion by Roban that times have changed and that now justice is to blindly follow the law, implying that truly justice should be to interpret the law as seen fit. It’s certainly an attitude that Braquo would support in a more extreme form, and whether it’s a result of the Napoleonic form of justice in France, in which rights have to be spelt out, I wouldn’t like to say. But it would be hard to have a uncorrupt police officer or judge in a British show arguing that justice can only be found by ignoring the law and deciding for yourself what’s right.

Roban’s also being ostracised by the other judges, being given tiny cases that are trivial to someone of his stature. While this does take up time with quite a dull case, it does give us that rarest of things in Spiral: a black lawyer. Up until now, you could pretty much guarantee that a black character would be a civilian and probably a criminal, probably African. Now we have an actual black lawyer and it looks like he’s going to become more significant as time goes on.

This can only be a good thing, particularly when we get back to the A-plot of the leftie terrorists, where we have the rather subtle racism of Gilou as he takes a statement from the incarcerated immigrant from Mali whose adventures through the French legal system we followed in the first two episodes. Gilou manages to take a simple statement – that the Kurdish suicide victim thought he’d be in as much trouble in Turkey as he would in France – into a suggestion that he thought Turkey and France were morally the same, changing an act of desperation into an act of aggression.

As I’ve said before, nothing is ever clear cut in Spiral, and even our heroes and heroines are clearly not perfect. Which is delightfully refreshing.

Nevertheless, the third episode left me somewhat bored, and an insipidly directed riot at the beginning with all the tension of a student rally didn’t help in that regard.

But come episode four and everything just blasted off. We start off straight from the outset with Gilou being offered the possibility of Laure’s job, since her new boss (Nicolas Briançon from Maison close) doesn’t think she’s doing a great job. The theme continues throughout the episode, where it becomes apparent that new boss is nothing less than that rarest of beasts: an out-and-out sexist. Not some subtle man who subconsciously discriminates against women, but someone who actually believes that men shouldn’t take orders from women. Until now, we’ve not been sure why he’s been quite so aggressive towards Laure, and why he sent someone from finance to tail their chief suspect and then blame Laure when it all goes wrong. Now we know it’s the beginnings of a less than subtle attempt to force Laure out of her job.

I’m unsure how to take this. Is this truly representative of French police officers, even a small element? Is this out and out exaggeration for dramatic purposes? Is this really not the kind of thing that would make the average Frenchman’s jaw drop when he heard it?

To his credit, Gilou defends Laure as a great police officer, but he’s still interested in her job. Except, of course, everyone knows – particularly the new female cop on the team, who seems impressed by his ability to get informants and manage surveillance operations, and clearly hasn’t seen any of the earlier seasons of Spiral – that Gilou is a follower rather than a leader at best, and king of the cock-up at worst.

Gilou himself demonstrates that quite admirably, bringing along a criminal to help CID break into a garage, only to discover the crim has a tracker tag on his ankle. When the suggestion is then later mooted that maybe Gilou could take over from Laure, Laure bitch-slaps him with a reminder of this latest of Gilou cock-ups.

Fortunately, Laure’s chances are considerably improved by Pierre’s defence of her. Using some obviously Karlsson-inspired tricks, Clement shows enough doubt about the forensics – without worrying for a second whether Laure actually did shoot an unarmed man – that Laure is saved from suspension. Cue much relief all round… and Laure pointing out to Pierre that he really is getting very much like Karlsson now.

Roban is getting some better jobs now, because he’s been put on a rather unpleasant case of alleged rape. The survivor’s story sounds very plausible, she’s obviously very traumatised, but the alleged perpetrator said he was with his brother at the time and his cellphone records seem to prove it. Why did the original investigating judge ignore the alibi? Roban wants to know.

All of which is very hard to process. Even though nothing is actually shown, the description of the rape is horrifying and the survivor is obviously upset. So we’re torn between what seems to be obviously true and the facts of the alibi. Strangely, it’s hard to root for Roban as he tries to get to the truth of the matter, even if it means bravely exposing culpability on the part of another judge, because the knowledge that false accusations of rape are very rare (almost as rare as rape convictions in France) means that a possibility is being raised in drama that’s not only extremely unlikely in real life but is only likely to lead to reduced convictions in real life. Where the show is taking us, though, remains to be seen, since nothing is what it seems in Spiral, but I’m feeling a bit wary about this whole storyline already. Fingers crossed, it’s going to be an exploration of the whole approach to rape taken by the French legal system.

All of which leads to our WTF and our OMG moments of episode four. WTF arrives chez Karlsson and Pierre, when Karlsson announces out of the blue that not only does she have a sister, that sister is getting married at the weekend… and, after jealously knocking Pierre for being cliquey with the cops, particularly Laure, asks if would Pierre like to take her to said wedding. It’s somehow fitting that Karlsson would again make the first move with Pierre, but it gets even better.

While at the wedding, Pierre happily ‘Karlssons’ by spinning lies mixed with truths about how he met his fiancée ‘Jo’. Karlsson, however, gets a little wasted, primarily because her dad is there and clearly Bad Things happened when she was younger, and before you know it, she’s getting Pierre to give her a hand job.

Again, very appropriate. And yey! Pierre and Karlsson! It’s about time.

I’m, again, a little wary about the father side of things. One of the nice things about Karlsson is she’s somewhat evil and she’s somewhat evil because she’s had to be. She’s wanted to get ahead, she’s wanted to be rich, it’s not an easy profession and she’s been willing to cut as many corners as necessary to get what she’s wanted. And that’s been Karlsson.

The suggestion is now that her father abused her, possibly sexually, which is the standard thing that happens with ‘evil’ female characters in stories: women can’t just be bad or have rationally become bad to get what they want, just as men have become in their stories; there has to be an event or a reason, usually sexual, that turns them to the dark side when they might otherwise have been lovely potential mothers and girlfriends with hearts of gold. It’s the ‘rape as character development’ trope that’s so easy to mock in low-grade comics, video games and other trash media.

So I’m hoping, much as I love a little Karlsson character development, that in this area at least, we get less of it. Let it be a one-off that doesn’t define her, but merely shows the kind of upbringing she had. It’s already shown just how strong willed she can be, so let’s not take away from her by adding to her, if you see what I mean.

And have I said yay, Pierre and Karlsson, yet?

Now let’s go OMG. Because at the end of the episode, the CID launch a raid on some suspects, except the suspects are armed. They open fire, but CID stops them. Except it’s too late.

Tin Tin’s dead!


Tin Tin has, of course, been with the show since the first season. However, to be honest, he never really gelled. He rarely had much to do beyond be nicer than the other cops and agonise over decisions. I even used to get his and Gilou’s names mixed up, because Gilou somehow seems more of a Tin Tin than Tin Tin did (although the comics character Tin Tin is a bit of a Dudley Do-Right, he was also an adventurer and Gilou is more of an adventurer that Spiral Tin Tin was).

So will I miss his passing? Not much, and I expect the audience won’t either. However, it’s a notable, gutsy, unexpected move on the part of Spiral to kill off one of its longest serving characters, particularly when Laure’s career is on the line. Tin Tin’s death was pretty much out of the blue, with no sudden character-developing storylines or talk of how much he’ll enjoy retiring in the country to flag up his imminent demise.

Now, I could theorise that the producers intend to bring in a more interesting replacement for him. And I might even have video evidence to prove it. But since all my theories are always wrong, don’t bet on it. Either way, things are looking very interesting for the next few episodes.

Bravo, Spiral. Now let’s see where you take this.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.