Review: Engrenages (Spiral) 4×5-4×6 (France: Canal+; UK: BBC Four)

In France: Last autumn
In the UK: Saturday 23 February, 9pm, BBC Four

Well, we’re halfway throughout season 4 already. How distressing is that? Bloody BBC, burning through these things as if there’s an unlimited supply. This is France’s answer to The Wire, we’re talking about, and there’s not a lot on TV to rival it.

A more even affair this, following last week’s mix of not-so-cracking and cracking, with shocks aplenty. And for those who think I’m kidding about that comparison with The Wire, this week, on top of the usual less-than-complimentary look at French society, we had a police officer’s gun stolen and him going all out to get it back, a bunch of high-up police officers more concerned with the stats than getting to the root cause of crime, and a mysterious Greek with criminal connections turned up.

One unshocking thing we learnt this week, too: Ms Rullsenberg should be writing these reviews…

Episode 5
The autopsy of the Kurd reveals a hidden clue which leads Herville to upgrade the case to the highest priority. Karlsson receives a visit from Special Branch, who attempt to blackmail her into providing information about Thomas Riffaut. Judge Roban continues to investigate the case against his colleague Garnier and finds that he has a very unlikely ally. Gilou is getting in deeper with the sinister Egyptian brothers.

Episode 6
At a top-level police meeting called when a youth is shot dead in a drive-by killing, Herville boasts that his unit is already investigating a gun-running case and will have arrests within 24 hours. Karlsson visits Riffaut’s new hideout and overhears the gang planning a kidnapping. Clement is called to a judicial review with Jorkel and the wife of Jorkel’s missing business partner. Berthaud asks Judge Roban to take on the gun-running case.

Was it any good?
This is shaping up as possibly the best season of Spiral so far, for me. It’s once more looking relatively quietly but deeply at the nature of the French justice system, its flaws, French society, crime and more, but it’s managing that while still maintaining its focus on the central characters in a way that’s previously escaped it.

This week, Tin Tin rose from the dead. Whoops. Still, I was watching on my iPad last week and I can now see that he was actually still moving after being shot in the head, a fact that escaped me last time. Ho hum. Dearie me. Sorry about that.

Tin Tin makes a lightning recovery physically after his bullet to the head, but all is not well chez Tin Tin: when everyone comes round to visit, he has a quiet cry after realising how close to death he was and that he nearly widowed his wife. This won’t be the end of it all. We’ve also had Gilou giving Laure a piece of his mind about the cock-up that nearly caused Tin Tin to die, which is rich given he was the one who caused it.

Gilou, of course, is feeling the stress of those nasty Egyptians who think he owes them either money or a favour or both. He’s once again ended up in bed with the wrong people (not literally this time), and he and probably a lot of other people are going to have to pay the price.

Interesting to note how little information Gilou is expected to record about confidential informers under French police rules. Gilou’s having far more problems because of the lack of rules than if he’d recorded everything and told people what he was up to. A cautionary tale? Let’s see.

Things are not much better with Karlsson and Clement as a result of all that secrecy either. Karlsson is being blackmailed by ‘Special Branch’ into spying on her terrorist clients or else they’ll make sure Clement’s life is a misery and they know she likes him rather a lot. Clement’s problems with the law in season three are brought up – season 4’s been a lot better at acknowledging continuity and events in previous seasons than those before it.

Does she tell Clement about it? No, making him think she’s up to no good as always. Odd how often Karlsson tries to do the right thing but ends up being blackmailed by someone into doing bad things or having sex. Special Branch are horribly misogynistic in this regard. Again, is this a common French police thing or is the show commenting on society as a whole? Je sais pas.

But I do wonder if perhaps it’s a commentary on society as whole, because we do get some admissions from both of them. Clement admits – to Laure at least – that he’s in love with Karlsson. Meanwhile, Karlsson admits that her father used to abuse her mother and that because she told the police – who turned out to be corrupt and sent her back to her family – when Jo was packed off to boarding school with her sister, her mum ended up committing suicide.

While this is the dreaded answer to “why is Karlsson the way she is?” that I was worried about, it’s a lot more nuanced than the “rape as character development” that I feared was about to happen. Karlsson is vehemently anti-police and helps even obvious bad guys because she knows the police are corrupt and are not on the side of the little people. She’s not so much evil or amoral as blindly anti-police and anti-establishment.

We also have the continuation of judge Roban’s investigations into a rape investigation by another judge, which looks to be a fit-up. Again, as per The Wire, season by season, we’re slowly moving our way up the system, watching meetings at higher and higher levels (although season 1, of course, started at the very top, but not as an analysis of the system). Now we see that the frog-eyed judge who’s been Roban’s nemesis since the beginning has feelings too, and now they’ve been hurt by his higher-ups, he’s going to help Roban, who doesn’t care about politics at all – except if it can help his friends, such as Laure who’s getting grief from her misogynistic boss, at which point he begins to excel.

Roban, of course, thinks an innocent man has been accused of rape – a travesty of justice. I had my worries about this, too, but again, the writers are doing a good job: the rape victim commits suicide when her attacker is released, so was she really lying after all? There’s a lot more to this story than was obvious and I’m intrigued to see where it’s going.

As well as all these deeper issues, the two episodes continued to advance the terrorist and Kurdish narrative, piling on tension all round. I’m unconvinced the Greek’s kidnapping plan (and what are the chances of a Greek speaking French, Greek and English fluently, BTW? Oh…) is a good one and likely to succeed, but I imagine that’s the point. Pierre’s deal with a dodgy client almost gets him shot, but it was all in a good cause, it seems. Both he and Karlsson could probably do with a few lessons in data security, particularly when it comes to locked filed cabinets and password protecting their computers, but that’s for another time, I guess. It won’t involve sticking SIM cards up bottoms, I promise.

All in all, a double-cracker all round, even if Tin Tin did prove to be The Highlander.

Subtitles: This week’s subtitles were more than a tad on the prissy side. When they could avoid swearing, they did, only dispensing swear words when it was blindingly obvious that someone was swearing. But we did end up with rather an earthy phrase from Karlsson getting translated as “Stop winding me up” and Gilou actually called someone a “blockhead”. Laure’s misogynistic boss is incredibly foul mouthed, using the p— word, its diminutive, and o— word rather a lot (French people will know what I mean), but you’d never know it from the clean-mouthed subtitles.

Slightly worse, apart from all these weird translations, is the usual ‘handy’ translation of meaning into English equivalents. All the French job titles and departments are called after their English equivalents, which could be helpful, but then you get things like ‘banlieues’ translated into ‘estates’. We’ve already had Banlieue 13, over here in the UK, so it’s not an unfamiliar word, and ‘estates’ really doesn’t convey the same meaning of almost no-man’s-land and desperate poverty that banlieues has come to mean to Parisians. I’d actually prefer it if certain words didn’t get translated at all.