In France: Aired on Canal+ in 2017
In the UK: Available on Sundance Now
Normally, I’d write a rambly introduction to one of my Boxset reviews, but seeing as I reviewed season 3 yesterday, without further ado, let’s get on with the review of season 4 of Le Bureau des Légendes (The Bureau)…
It’ll have to happen after the jump, though. Spoilers, you understand.
While each of the seasons of The Bureau have been fascinating in their own ways, for me, season 4 is probably the best since the first season. That’s despite the fact its usual verisimilitude wobbles a bit. And I’ll tell you why.
For starters, it deals with something I’ve not seen spy shows ever tackle before: Russian cyberwarfare to destabilise western elections and the use of artificial intelligence. The season very quickly puts its cards on the table here, fingering everything from Brexit to Trump to highlight just what real-world importance these issues already have had.
Sure, ISIS is still there and the show’s traditional “what shall we do with character x this season that’s almost unrelated to everything else” plot sees Victor Artus Solaro’s Jonas heading off to the Middle East to hunt down various terrorists and interrogate them to stop a cell in Europe committing atrocities. He’s helped in this by special forces soldier Grégory Fitoussi (Engrenages (Spiral), Les hommes de l’ombre (Spin)), who’s the hard knife edge to Jonas’s intelligent interrogation.
As a plot, it would probably have worked as its own, really very good series (it’s similar to but far more interesting than the first season of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, for example), showing how truly understanding your enemy and finding out what he wants is far more effective in achieving your aims than hitting him on the head with a gun (cf also The Looming Tower).
Indeed, there is a constant tension between Solaro, Fitoussi and other soldiers they come across, from nations as diverse as Turkey, Mali and Iraq, as Solaro refuses to do bad things, for which everyone thinks him weak.
There’s also one scene in which Solaro is in a car while Fitoussi is on a raid where it takes a few seconds to work out what’s going on. When the penny drops, you’ll gasp, because you won’t have seen what happens anywhere in a spy drama before.
But the driving force for the season is Russia, and for once the show is aiming two barrels at its target. Not only do we have Sara Giraudeau’s Marina Loiseau trying to infiltrate the Russian cyber security centre at a university in Moscow, but we have her original mentor Malotru there, too – although neither knows about the other’s presence.
Here’s where it gets good, because after a few episodes in which Malotru is working for himself as before, he finally gets a chance to use his skills on behalf of France again. And it’s scary how good he is and what he’s prepared to do for the mission. The final episodes really were jaw-dropping in that regard. This is perhaps the first season of the show that’s actually about French agents actively spying rather than passively infiltrating and it’s just done so well.
Again, as with the third season, Malotru is not up against idiots and what makes everything so interesting is the battle of wits between the two sides, as he tries to convince the Russians that he’s trying to defect to them while the Russians have understandable concerns that he’s trying to hoodwink them. No one does stupid things, everyone does their research. It’s lovely to not have your intelligence insulted by TV.
MIAs and new recruits
While the core of the cast remains the same, this season follows on from the previous season in seeing more characters exit (or just be completely absent, in the case of both Zineb Triki and Pauline Etienne). There are some lovely flashbacks, though, that allow the dead to return, including Henri, and we get to see how Malotrou was with everyone before his big change of heart.
We also get big changes in the higher echelons, with new bosses who aren’t best pleased with the DGSE and its Malotrou problem. This starts to go a little wonky in places, with Mathieu Amalric (Wolf Hall) taking his wanting to get everyone fired to often psychotic lengths. However, there’s always balance and even Amalric’s devotion to proving what idiots everyone is has its meticulous uses.
Also slightly wonky is the cyber tradecraft. The Bureau‘s big selling point is how realistic it is and most of the fourth season is a joy to behold, as we see how everyone communicates illicitly while being observed, how the Russians try to undo Malotrou and Loiseau, and so on.
So it’s slightly disappointing to see some of the usual tropes about cyberwarfare being regurgitated in an effort to make it more exciting. True, it’s not the most visual of things, but Mr Robot shows it is possible to make hacking exciting.
Unfortunately, instead, we have the standard “we’re 15 server hops away. They can’t get to within four server hops from us or we’ll be found out!” kind of nonsense (buy a VPN, you twats, or maybe run your hacking operation from somewhere other than DGSE’s basement, if you’re worried you’ll get found out). Similarly, no one tries to rewrite their scripts on the fly, making it a battle of who can type faster. That’s just nonsense, particularly if the actors never, ever, hit the spacebar.
Fortunately, there’s not a lot of that, but it does slightly tarnish The Bureau‘s reputation for accuracy.
Business as usual
Otherwise, it’s business as usual, with all the (other) usual reasons for watching The Bureau. There’s some lovely location filming, particularly in Moscow. Everything’s multi-lingual, with even more English and Russian than before. There’s surprises galore – particularly in the final two episodes and the ultimate cliffhanger on which the season ends.
There’s also some great character work. I do wish French TV shows could scale back on the old bloke/young women relationships – last season, we had Henri’s ridiculously young wife and now we have Malotrou shacked up with the 20 years younger Maryana Spivak – but that is what it is, I guess, and their relationship is quite touching (plus educational – I had no idea why tuna niçoise was so-called*) and intriguing: he may be a spy but she’s grown up in a society where everyone is spied upon, so knows the ropes and has a somewhat different attitude from a western woman, one suspects.
Similarly, there’s plenty going on back at home base, with the office/bureau politics that’s fascinating to watch – spies trying to outfox one another, even in their natural habitats. In particular, there’s newly promoted Florence Loiret Caille’s marvellously mutating loyalties and pragmatic adaptability, as well as her differing ways to tackle the boys club she’s having to deal with.
All in all, despite that wobble around the tech and the sadness of watching some much loved characters go, I adored season 4 of The Bureau. I’d probably rewatch it again in a heartbeat if I hadn’t cancelled my Sundance Now subscription.
Don’t get me started again.
Anyway, watch this nice video about The Bureau‘s efforts with cyberwarfare, as I’ve probably been a little harsh – it does get a whole lot right, too, and this shows that off quite a bit.
* If you’ve now watched the season and believed what you saw, I’ll now point out that Malotrou is actually making an English pun – Tuna Niçoise is named after the French city of Nice, not because it’s nice. Imagine a British TV show making puns in French and expecting the audience to understand them, hey?