In France: Aired on Canal+ in 2017
In the UK: Available on Sundance Now
In one way, the Internet has been very liberating for us TV viewers, giving us access to shows that we’d never have otherwise seen from all over the world. Look at Walter Presents. Look at most of the content of TMINE.
However, it’s also led to a certain Balkanisation of viewing.
You want to watch Igor Kosnokosnokovnokov’s latest and greatest 39-part drama about dissent dolphins during the Austro-Hungarian war of 1477? Sure, but it’s only available on the DolphinTV channel, which you can get on Roku and Android, but not your iPhone or Chromecast, but you’ll need to take out a subscription to Mammalian Channel X first and then buy the Aquatic Creatures top up for £100 a month, as only seven of you want to watch it.
It can also mean that a show that you’ve already started watching using normal, mainstream methods becomes harder to watch in full as subsequent seasons emerge. You may be a Lucifer fan (why?) but in the UK, after you’ve watched the first three seasons on Amazon, you’ll have to take out a subscription to Netflix to watch seasons four and ultimately five.
The Bureau – at last
Which is why, despite the first two seasons of Le Bureau Des Légendes (The Bureau) being some of my favourite ever TV viewing, it’s taken me nearly two years to watch the latest two seasons. The first two seasons are available with an Amazon Prime subscription. I have that anyway, so it’s basically not a cost, and I can watch it on my Roku, Apple TV, iPad or iPhone.
However, the second two are only available through a Sundance Now subscription. That’s an extra £5.99 a month, and you can subscribe to it through iTunes – meaning you can watch it on an Apple device, but not a Roku – or through Amazon (again).
And seeing as there’s next to bugger all on Sundance Now that I want to watch that I haven’t seen already (including a bucketload of Scandi Noir), I’d basically be stumping up £5.99 per month to watch The Bureau and given my schedule – I had Capote on DVD for a year from LoveFilm and that was the only thing I had, and I still hadn’t watched it by the time I returned it – that could have wound up very expensive.
Thanks heavens for holiday projects, hey? Because over summer, I took out a Sundance Now subscription, downloaded all the episodes of The Bureau and set myself the task of watching them all by the time I got back. All for £5.99. Bargain!
Today I’ll be reviewing season 3; tomorrow I’ll be reviewing season 4, so tune in then for more of that but less of me whinging about subscription costs. Thank God for that, hey?
For those of you who don’t know about The Bureau, I heartily suggest you check my previous write up, which explains why it’s basically the pre-eminent spy thriller of the 21st century. You think it’s The Night Manager? Then I can do nothing for you, I’m afraid. You’re lost to me. The rest of you I can work with. Please go and watch The Bureau if you haven’t already.
But as there’s very little I can say about season 3 that isn’t a spoiler for people who haven’t seen the first two seasons, let’s go talk about it after the jump.
World-wide spying in French
If the first two seasons of The Bureau were about what happens when your spying life – and other spies – catch up with you when you get home, season 3 is about what happens next… and what you can do to escape. Which may not be much at all…
When last we left our hero Guillaume “Malotru” Debailly (Matthieu Kassovitz), he’d gone on a seeming suicide mission to take down as ISIS terrorist, having been exposed to friends and colleagues as a double-agent who’d betrayed France and its CIA/MI6 equivalent DGSE to the Americans in order to save his Syrian girlfriend (Zineb Triki). However, although his mission succeeded, his suicide didn’t work and he’s soon seen on a ransom video, about to get his head chopped off.
Season 3 back-pedals a bit from there to show us how we got to that moment and what life’s been like for Malotru as a captive of ISIS. And it ain’t pretty. Expecting Bondian levels of resistance to torture et al? It ain’t happening in real life.
And if you’re expecting that “with one bound he was free”, you’d be wrong, too. I won’t tell you exactly when he’s no longer a captive or whether he escaped, is freed or rescued, but it takes far, far longer than you’d probably expect.
As a result, oddly enough, season 3 is far less about Malotru than about all the other characters. In true The Bureau style, half of the plots are related to Malotru and other half have nothing to do with him. But somehow it does all add and meet up at a later point (although that may be in season 4 – again, I’m not telling).
Fly little birdie…
As usual, Marina Loiseau (Sara Giraudeau) is the spying B-plot. However, the main theme of season 3 is “how do other agencies work?” We already know what DGSE gets up to, so now we get glimpses of how FSB, Mossad and Iranian intelligence work, primarily through Loiseau.
In particular, perhaps in homage to False Flag, Loiseau gets caught up in an attempt to recruit her by… the DGSE. Except it’s not the DGSE, it’s Mossad. As a result, her storyline mirrors season 1 as she basically has a new ‘DGSE’ handler trying to teach the woman he imagines is a complete spying virgin all the tricks of the trade (that she already knows).
It’s an odd choice, but it does allows Giraudeau to play a fun double game with the audience. It also highlights the difference between a Bond and real spy, with there never being a question of her using violence to overcome difficulties, just her brains. And the final pay-offs, for both her handler and her escape, are just marvellous. I especially loved the minute attention to detail that (spoiler alert) enabled him to realise she was a spy because she’d used some tradecraft he hadn’t taught her.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Zaccaï is off trying to help the Kurds – and one female Kurd in particular. It’s another plot that doesn’t really feel like it’s doing much, other than illustrating the complexities of Middle Eastern politics, as well as French realpolitik. But it does at least do that very well.
Gone but not forgotten…
Malotru may be gone, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s ignoring him. Boss/pal Henri (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) is bending the rules as much as he can to help him, even if that means dealing with the Americans and their drones.
In particular, there’s a fascinating subplot about an embedded agent from the 1980s who uses SNCF train signalling diagrams to communicate his intention to come back into the fold. Will Henri use him to get Malotru back, even though everyone else is telling him that he absolutely mustn’t?
Everyone else is a bit more guarded about Malotru and wants to have him arrested, but that’s a cancer that’s going to spread and start taking everyone down by the fourth season. Regime change is on the way, as you might expect.
Also surprisingly prominent is Triki’s storyline, as she tries to further the interests of both Syria and Malotru, unaware exactly of where he might be.
Just so real
As usual, it’s not just the characters but the verisimilitude that makes season 3 of The Bureau such a delight to watch. There’s massive amounts of location filming, from the Middle East to France and from there to the European Commission in Brussels. Despite being a French show, probably only a third of the dialogue is in French, the rest being a mixture of copious amounts of English (the Lingua Franca for everyone), Arabic and Russian.
But there’s also the tradecraft. Such good tradecraft. This is how it’s done. There are mad skills on display in a way you’ll never have seen before. And what you have seen done before – codes, mobile phone call interception and tracking, tailing cars, tracking people using GPS chips, interrogation, escape – here it’s done right.
It’s also the first time I’ve seen French special forces play a prominent part in anything, and the show is really good at showing them doing on the ground intel.
For long term fans, there will be some disappointment, as there’s distinct cast attrition this season, with characters starting to get written out. But we do at least get the return of Léa Drucker’s Balmes, who does more than just cameo.
Overall, the season gives us real insights into all the characters, shows us just what slippery beasts the top spies can be, and gives a genuinely fascinating look at global spying. The acting’s all top notch in every language and there are even Americans who can speak French really well.
It’s a real global battle of wits that at no point makes you think narrative corners are being cut in order to make things move along more easily. Every battle is hard-won and no one wins every battle.
And, of course, at the end, we get the set up for season 4. And you ain’t seen real spying until you’ve seen season 4 of The Bureau. There are moments in that that made my jaw drop. Honestly.
But more about that tomorrow.