Review: Engrenages (Spiral) 4×9-4×12 (France: Canal+; UK: BBC Four)

Out with a bang

In France: Canal+. Aired last autumn
In the UK: Saturday 9/16 March, 9pm, BBC4

Blimey. We’re already done. In fact, we were done a week ago, but because I’ve been a tad busy, finding the time to watch and review four whole episodes of Spiral after a week away proved a lot harder than I thought (note to BBC4: next time, show one episode a week if you want me to review them on time. There, I’m sure that will affect their scheduling policy). Plus there’s only four of you reading these things anymore, now the BBC has stopped linking back to blogs that link to them. Ho hum.

Anyway, let’s go in and discuss suicide, terrorists, death, counselling (and lack thereof) and abusive lovers. Who says the French are culturally pre-disposed to misery, when they have rolicking good fun like this?


Episode 9

On learning of Cetin’s release from police custody, the Ozbeks suspect him of informing against them and Rodi is ordered to eliminate him, but Rodi’s associates have other ideas. Karlsson is called to the police station to answer a traffic offence, but is instead charged with perverting the course of justice. Roban chases a further lead in the case against Garnier, but time is running out as the judicial review into his own professional behaviour draws ever nearer.

Episode 10

An online clue leads the team to the anarchists’ squat, but during a raid Thomas Riffaut manages to escape. A plastic bag found at the scene of Cetin’s execution provides a vital DNA clue. Judge Roban is given the results of his disciplinary hearing, but vows to carry on. Clement is hounded by an unsavoury associate of his client Jorkel.

Episode 11

Kolabi is taken into custody and confronted with the evidence against him for the murder of Cetin. His sim card reveals further clues linking him to Rodi Ozbek and arms dealing. Riffaut is warned of Kolabi’s arrest but is determined to continue with his plan. Karlsson attends court to defend the illegal immigrants who have been victimised by a factory owner and Roban is invited to a mysterious meeting with Prosecutor Machard.

Episode 12

Events reach a dramatic conclusion as the net draws in around Thomas Riffaut and his gang, but departmental in-fighting within the police organisation means that very dangerous loose ends remain on the streets of Paris.

Was it any good?

So let’s go through the good, the bad and the ugly, then. Because, being Spiral, individual cogs in the overall machine don’t necessarily go together, I’ll deal with it by character strands.

Pierre and Karlsson

So we start off with Karlsson getting her comeuppance and being arrested by the police, prompting much joy from Laure and eventually much eye-rolling from Pierre, whom Laure reckons is too good for Maître Jo Jo. Karlsson finds out that even the people she’s been helping don’t want to help her.

Thinks get even worse when Pierre, after helping her out of jail with the help of the friend of the immigrants she’s been representing, decides enough is enough and he’s going to break up with the evil red-headed one in an incredibly dickish way, resulting in some lovely acting from Audrey Fleurot. Karlsson can’t cope so after a slightly humiliating bit of begging, she decides to end it all in her bathtub.

Of course, that doesn’t work, and our Karlsson wakes up in hospital after the neighbours complain about her overflowing bath tub. Pierre turns up not to say sorry or to help her, but to be a bit consoling and smirk a bit when he realises it was because of him. Bad Pierre.

Pierre, left to his own devices, discovers that maybe he’s not well cut out for a life of evil. Whereas our Karlsson managed to survive three seasons of bad guys shooting at her, threatening to lock her in their basement and gang rape her, blackmail from the police and criminals, and a whole lot more, all it takes is a bunch of thugs taking him out into the countryside and putting a gun against his head, and he’s blubbering like a little boy.

Despite being perhaps a little too assertive with a man who could and probably would kill him with a rolled-up newspaper with the right nudge, Pierre manages to convince Jarkal to pay off the bad guys… except the bad guys have already been paid off and Jarkal gets blown to smithereens by his own sister, who’s a bit worried about what a head case Jarkal has been since he got back from one of those ‘soft’ French jails. Quite why she effectively sent her son to tell Pierre this, I don’t know – it’s one of those necessary scenes to explain the twists of the plot, but it’s not really something you’d suspect would happen. Far better for Mrs Jarkal to let everyone think it’s those naughty Fight Club boys whodunnit, even Pierre.

Meanwhile, with the maximum compassion and vigilance offered by the French medical system to someone who’s just committed suicide (none, apparently), Karlsson returns to life as normal, but a slightly changed woman. She offers Laure some top secret information about her terrorist clients, nervy all the time about her now-bandaged wrists; and while in court, representing her immigrant clients, she spends the whole time texting Pierre and losing important paperwork, so nearly gets them all deported.

Fortunately, she gets her groove back and in her own franco version of Suits, saving the day outside the court room by revealing she knows that the employer of the immigrants has been struck off the list of directors. The immigrants all throw a great big party for Josephine and she gets to find out what it’s like to be on the side of good and be liked for a change.

And hey presto, Pierre turns up, realises that maybe she’s not all that bad, and decides that he doesn’t want to end their partnership – work or otherwise – after all.

And for once, in Spiral, we have an actual happy ending.

What worked and what didn’t

While ultimately all worked out well for the Pierre-Karlsson plot strand over the season, it bore little relevance to the main plot along the way, beyond providing the occasional method of information leakage in both directions. I didn’t really buy Pierre’s rather rapid descent into evil, particularly since although inspired by Karlsson, it wasn’t assisted by her. And for such a blubbery wreck when his life was in danger, he always seemed ridiculously brave in the face of the bad guy, particularly Jorkal – although his tussle with Karlsson’s former employer, Szabo, at the end of last season and the start of this season might have emboldened him, you’d have thought he’d have realised he wasn’t a true match for the bad guys.

Similarly, Karlsson’s intense hatred of the police seemed a little too all-consuming. While it certainly took some time for the terrorists to become threatening over the season, they were clearly dangerous and liable to cause real damage to people. It seemed odd that Karlsson would be happy to side with people intent on killing large numbers, particularly towards the end when they started arming themselves properly.

Her descent through love of Pierre into a suicidal type didn’t seem right either. She braved out worse than that in season two, when there wasn’t the hint of anything going on between them to warm the embers of her heart, so losing Pierre’s approval didn’t seem like something that would push such a strong woman over the edge.

And really, did we have to have, yet again, time after time, the police constantly blackmailing her and even saying that she should sleep with the enemy if that’s what they wanted? Ditto the terrorists. While it did give us the chance to see Karlsson outwit them and fight back, it got tiring after about the third or fourth time. Could she not just represent people for a change?

All the same, it was great to finally see the two of them together, particularly with the WTF moment in episode 4. We got to see some of Karlsson’s family, got to find out a little more about what drives her and Pierre got to realise that Karlsson’s twice as strong as he is. Good to see the two characters back, but ultimately, they weren’t what this season was about.

Judge Roban

Judge Roban had, of course, got himself into trouble by discovering that another judge had been covering up evidence. After a search of his offices in episode 8, he was up before the investigating court in the next episode – again, we’ve been going further and further up the justice system this season.

Despite proving his case, right down to an example of exonerating DNA not being tested in the rape cases, Roban is disbarred for damaging the ‘equanimity’ of the justice system – as grade A an example of how whistleblowers are punished for exposing the bad guys as you can get. But Roban appeals, and after a quick excursion to visit the Sophocles-quoting Freemasons, whom his new friend the frog-faced procurator would like him to join, manages to demonstrate that judge Garnier was taking bribes to exonerate clients of a particular law firm.

His judgehood restored, Roban celebrates, only to discover that he still would never have been restored to his job without the help of the Freemasons. Then his clerk, Marianne, returns, hopeful that after Roban more or less confessed his love to her, that they’d have a closer relationship. But Roban is as incorruptible and proper as always and it’s business as usual for the both of them.

What worked and what didn’t

Again, this has been a more or less independent plotline, with Laure popping by to ask for a search warrant occasionally, but that’s about it.

Instead, it’s been an excuse to explore the nature of judicial independence in France, whether the system is inherently corrupt (it is) and whether the only way for a good man to triumph is to fudge things occasionally (apparently, it is).

I’m not entirely convinced that Roban would have cracked up so much in his appeal, particularly given his coolness during the search. I’m also curious as to what happened with the rape cases, which weren’t satisfactorily resolved: who committed the third rape? Why did the victim kill herself if it wasn’t the man she accused? I have to admit that I also found the frog-faced procurator’s fast friendship with Roban a little strange, after three seasons of trying to destroy him.

So while it was an interesting diversion into the upper echelons of the French justice system, I’m not entirely sure it was worth it or that Roban was well serviced by this particular plot.

Tin Tin and Gilou

After Gilou’s multiple cock-ups for the first half of the season, the second half was more or less devoted to Tin Tin’s. After getting a medal in the first of these four episodes, he finally confesses to Gilou that he’s a nervous wreck. This becomes abundantly clear in episode 11, when he starts beating a criminal in custody and has to admit to Laure that he’s having problems.

You think?

Tin Tin finally gets his groove back towards the end, but by then, it’s all too late…

What worked and what didn’t

Tin Tin’s storyline was, in effect, a pleading for better therapy for police officers who get PTSD. This is what happens; this is what happens if you don’t treat it – do something.

As I admitted when I thought Tin Tin was an ex-cop, I’ve never been a big fan of his, seeing as he’s never had much to do. This season changed all that and made Tin Tin a far more interesting character. Flawed, but more interesting.

Gilou, of course, has been Gilou. King of cock-ups and stupid schemes that have gone south very quickly. But he has shown far more cunning and scheming than before, and his relationship with the new (but way too young for him, but hey, it’s a French TV show – quelle surprise) female cop has shown a different side of him. The writers haven’t really touched on why he’s come so close to getting promotion and then either decided not to accept or has been over-looked – love for Laure has been hinted at – but he remains with the squad as always. Plus his loyalty to both Laure and Tin Tin, as well as his ability to cry at almost anything, have been extremely endearing.

Laure, her boyfriends and the terrorists

Of course, this season has really been about two things: the terrorists that Laure and the rest of ‘CID’ have been chasing, and Laure and her two boyfriends.

Sami was the surprise (if you hadn’t been to the Canal+ web site, which gave the game away) return, since Spiral almost never re-introduces old characters and storylines, beyond the regular rogue’s gallery of returning heroes and supporting cast. Strange though it may be that he returned for Laure after all this time, ostensibly to help hunt down Kurds, a group he had no links with, and that she was still interested, back he came, making current boyfriend and head of the ‘Robbery Squad’, Brémont, a tad jealous.

Episode nine saw the Kurds decide to get rid of their associate, whom Laure and co had released the previous week. To do this, they got their friends from the banlieues to help out by pretending to be cops. Far be it from to suggest this was a daft idea, but an all-black bunch of cops in the somewhat racist French policeforce? That’s plausible.

After that, thanks to Tin Tin, it’s a never-ending series of cock-ups as Laure and co try to chase after both the terrorists and the Kurds. Sami does help out a little in this, putting on the world’s least convincing moustache in an attempt to infiltrate one particular banlieue where one of the gang is hiding out. This did lead to one of the show’s more menacing moments, with kids tailing Sami through the estate because they know he’s working for the cops.

With the help of some other cops who work the estate, Laure and co try to get the guy they’re after and start a full-scale riot instead. While the show is obviously suggesting that the banlieues are lawless no-man’s-lands, the lack of proper riot police and rapid response team in France is a little bit disconcerting.

Of course, the fact that Sami and Laure’s boss is a bit of a nob who won’t provide the necessary resources doesn’t help. He’s not best pleased by the beating Tin Tin administers to the gang member, but at least Sami sticks up for her. Which gets him a shag with Laure later on. Brémont has good reason to be suspicious, particularly when Laure starts lying about where she’s been.

After a somewhat comedic heart attack for the head of the Kurds, followed by more in-fighting between brothers, eventually one of the Kurds decides to fess up while they’re all in custody. Strangely, after all that kerfuffle about the new rules on interrogations requiring a lawyer to be present at all times, this happens without a lawyer present.

The noose begins to tighten around the terrorists, but they get away with some semtex. For reasons best known to Sophie the terrorist, she decides she’s going to be in charge of blowing up the police station, a target that wasn’t the most surprising revelation in the world.

Everyone’s gathered for the big conclusion as the cops do their best to prevent the bomb going off. The big surprise is that Sami gets blown up when Sophie gets jilted by her boyfriend and triggers the bomb. Well, it would have been a surprise if Tin Tin hadn’t legged it at the vital moment, thus giving the game away in terms of the plot.

End credits then roll in silence… except if you’re watching on BBC4 rather than the iPlayer, in which case an announcer will gas over them instead.

What worked and what didn’t

Certainly, the depiction of the increasingly radicalised gauches worked, starting out with minor plans and eventually working their way up to blowing up a police station. You could certainly quibble about the mysterious injured Greek who turned up with his rubbish ‘Let’s abduct a Belgian plan’ and who thought it a good idea to sexually assault the girlfriend of the the main terrorist in the oddest of ways. The Kurds storyline did get wrapped up in a way, although ultimately, their struggles were a mere sideline to the main action – more a red herring than true plot. Ditto the gang from the banlieue, who together with the Kurds, were this season’s Spiral ‘ethnic enemies’.

Sami’s death was as unexpected as his arrival (ie either totally unexpected or completely expected). Although not a regular character in the same way as Roban or even Procureur Machard, he came out of season two very much a fan favourite. After a season of essentially being a pawn in Herville’s schemes and one vertex of Laure’s love triangle, as well as not acquitting himself in any of the raids or with that moustache, it wasn’t the best of returns and he wasn’t serviced very well by the plot.

Speaking of Herville, although he has been a moustache-twirling misogynist for most of the season, he did help to mirror the Roban storyline by taking us up a few levels in the French police hierarchy, and showing us the rivalry and politics around the top jobs in the police. Here, he was willing to let terrorists get away to spite Laure, as were the anti-terrorist police in order to stop Herville becoming their deputy. The result? The death of Sami, rather than terrorists behind bars.

Laure, of course, was the main focus of the season, more so than usual, and for once she actually got her groove on, rather than be a colossal f*ck up who sleeps in her car at night, even if she was hampered at various points by niggling procedures, the law, sensitivity and more. But she got to have fun with both Sami and Brémont, got to give some teenage girls some gun lessons, got to crow at Karlsson and more. It was a nice change for her – just a shame her new boss was such an idiot.

The season as a whole

So, from some of the comments above, you might think I didn’t like this season. Certainly, a lot of plot logic got thrown out the window at times, some of the characters weren’t serviced very well, there wasn’t enough focus, few of the storylines meshed together in a satisfactory way and some were dropped altogether for no good reason. Not always – a lot of it hung together very well, with most of the main plots dovetailing towards the end.

But rather than cogs or a spiral as per season one, with everything linked and everyone connected, this was more an unwinding, with everything going in different directions and with few plot resolutions. Where there were plot resolutions from season 3, with Laure’s killing of Ronaldo Fuentes finally brushed away and Szabo’s ownership of Karlsson dismissed in a couple of lines, they were there more to invite cameos from known characters, rather than to be continued in any meaningful way.

There were many loose plot threads at the end, too: is Karlsson turning to a life of goodness with Pierre? Are Laure and Brémont going to be happy together, even with Sami out of the way? Can Tin Tin be a cop again? What’s up with Gilou and the new female cop? Will Roban and Marianne get together? Can he survive independently or will he become a Freemason? What happened to the lead terrorist and where was he going dressed like that, anyway? Is Laure going to get fired by Herville? Who did rape those two women and why was the third woman so sure it was the man Roban released?

And I confidently expect, based on the premiere episodes of seasons two, three and four that roughly 5% of these threads will be even referenced at the start of season five, let alone answered.

There was also very little of the thematic unity or the looks at different aspects of the French legal season of seasons one or two. Again, where the show did look at them, it was in passing, rather than for any real investigation.

Yet for all that, I think both the first and last episodes of season four have been the best openers and closers of any season, bar perhaps the first. And I also think that to look at this season of Spiral in the same way as the previous ones is perhaps a mistake now. Essentially, Spiral is now a vehicle for the characters and we should really look at how it services those characters.

On that level, season four has been fabulous, giving us insights and explorations into even the duller recesses of Tin Tin that the show has never done before.

Against that backdrop, the show has also given us some excellent isolated moments, such as the investigation of Roban, the exploration of the banlieue, the shooting of Tin Tin, Clement’s cowardice in the countryside, Karlsson’s suicide attempt, Clement and Karlsson at the wedding, the bomb explosion, the adventures in the appeals court, Karlsson at the party and many many more.

Although I often compare the show to The Wire, Spiral is now finding its own path, not making arguments about the law society, except in a few rare instances, but looking at how individuals within the system struggle to do their jobs and live their lives inside something that’s fundamentally corrupt and flawed. Rather than explain that the system is failing and posit solutions or come up with one convoluted plot that links all characters, it shows what happens when the individuals we already know about try to find their own solutions to their own problems.

So Laure and co may object to the new laws about lawyers, but they quickly find – with Roban’s help – a way round them that enables them to do their jobs. A criminal may argue that French prisons are nothing compared to Turkish prisons, but Jarkal came out of the prison system so fundamentally different and damaged by the experience, his own sister murdered him out of fear of what he’d do to her and her son. And when someone like Clement tries to turn to the dark side, although he’s able to get the president of the appeal court to do what he wants, he soon discovers that he’s out of his league.

It’s a complicated world depicted by Spiral, best summed up by Clement’s explanation of why he fell in love with Karlsson: “I don’t know why.” Perhaps there are no solutions, because whether it’s a good man like Roban trying to do good and ending up causing a rape victim to commit suicide and persecuted by his corrupt colleagues, before receiving help from the Freemasons; or a bad woman like Karlsson trying to do bad and ending up blackmailed by the police, spurned by her lover before eventually finding solace and friendship in helping some lowly, powerless immigrants, the message is that whatever happens, the only way to navigate French life and its legal legal, at least, isn’t through black or white morality, but in shades of grey – go too far in one direction or another, and life and the law will bite you. You’ll just never know what’s too far until it’s too late.

Au revoir, mes amis. À bientôt!

PS If you’ve enjoyed the reviews (even this one), let me know below, just so I know it’s all been worth it! You can even buy the entire fourth series using this link or even a box set of all four series using this link. I might get five or ten pence per purchase or something.