In France: Aired on Canal+ in April
In the UK: Available on Sundance Now
All good things end eventually. Sometimes they finish naturally, sometimes they’re forced to stop. And sometimes they just decide to do something odd. Like The Bureau.
Probably Britain’s finest ever spy show was The Sandbaggers, a marvellously daring combination of office politics, realpolitik and verisimilitude.
It tragically lasted a mere three seasons because its talented creator, Ian Mackintosh, mysteriously disappeared in the middle of the third season. The show’s quality dropped afterwards – if not markedly, at least noticeably – with other talents simply unable to do what Mackintosh uniquely could do.
France’s answer to The Sandbaggers is Le Bureau des Légendes (The Bureau), an equally thrilling but decidedly modern spy thriller about which I’ve written considerably over the years:
I’ve compared the two shows a considerable amount over the years, but I was somewhat hoping that The Bureau would finish on a slightly higher note than The Sandbaggers, as we entered what would appear to be the final season. The show has largely improved every season, from an already superb starting point, but its creator, Eric Rochant, has decided enough is enough and has decided to move on to make his (much deserved fortune) in the US.
Yet, here I am, forced to make the same comparison as always, because while season 5 of The Bureau is largely as brilliant, and possibly even better than previous seasons, Rochant decided to hand over the reins to the final two episodes to noted French director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust & Bone, Dheepan). And while these are actually pretty good by most standards, the show’s quality drops – if not markedly, at least noticeably.
By my God, those first eight episodes…
Spoilers aplenty after the reminder (in French) of what happened in seasons one to four, the (subtitled) trailer for season 5 and the jump. If you haven’t seen the previous seasons – or this season – you’re probably better off waiting until after you have. Remember: the only place you can now watch all five seasons in the UK is Sundance Now, since the first two aren’t on Amazon Prime any more (at least, not for free).
Everything comes together
If The Bureau has had a flaw over its five season run, it’s probably been that there’s typically been an A-plot and a B-plot in each season, neither of which have much to do with each other. Here, though, the A-plots and the B-plots are united.
It’s probably no big surprise to say that that the season still focuses on Guillaume “Malotru” Debailly (Matthieu Kassovitz), who’s not dead after all. Instead, he’s rescued by the Russians of all people and goes to work for them, given it was his supposed allies who tried to kill him.
Slightly more surprising is how much of the story revolves around him. While Zineb Triki makes a very welcome return after sitting out most of season four, a lot of the other characters are missing in action – Marina Loiseau (Sara Giraudeau)’s appearances are largely cameos, rather than anything significant, while Victor Artus Solaro pops up to have a doomed relationship but nothing more. Others are off in thankless side plots that ultimately serves Malotru’s storyline more than their own – Florence Loiret Caille is stuck running a hotel in Cairo, for example.
All of which sounds like a criticism and if you’re watching The Bureau for those characters, you’ll probably be disappointed by the fifth season. But that greater discipline works to the show’s advantage, giving it a tautness and focus that it’s sometimes lacked. Even those seemingly insignificant plots do serve a greater purpose: if the season has one obvious theme, it’s that there are no happy endings for spies and if they’re happy, it’s not the end yet.
Spies like us
The other, less obvious theme but one that’s just as big is the necessity of human intelligence. While this builds on season 4’s interrogations of terrorists by Solaro, with its focus on the power of soft methods of persuasion, it speaks more globally this season: how do you convert a zealot to your own cause? How do you turn a spy? How do you turn a good guy into a bad guy? Here, we have the ever superb Aleksey Gorbunov reprising his FSB officer role to show us how you try to convert committed French spies into double agents – or single agents who work only for you. It’s like the first season of Homeland but better.
Meanwhile, back in France, Mathieu Amalric’s über-paranoid Bureau leader gets reprieved. Something of a moustache-twirling villain in the fourth season, albeit one with good reason to be internally pitted against out heroes so determinedly, here he is the main driver of the action and we also learn just why he is so paranoid – and why he’s so effective. He has his own plan and when you find out what it is and how it ties into Gorbunov, you’ll be astonished.
Hacking the hackers
Human intelligence may be the show’s main tradecraft concern but The Bureau continues and improves on its fourth-season depiction of cyberspying this season, as it continues the adventures of ‘Pacemaker’, first in Moscow and then in Phnom Penh – as with previous seasons, there’s some marvellous global location filming going on this season.
While some of the things it depicts border a little on science-fiction – although they are depictions of things in development, so a little latitude should be given – largely, it’s outstandingly authentic in a way no other spy show I’ve seen has ever managed. There’s talk of SCADA networks, worms that use PC virtualisation technology, PC boot keys and more, all authentically depicted.
And then we get onto how to communicate with someone all of whose electronics and interactions are being constantly monitored. As always, nothing is ever obvious and no one is ever stupid. It’s a wonderful feeling to be watching something that’s both exciting and highly intelligent.
For eight episodes…
After that, for the first time, the show starts doing obvious things and ditches its trademark realism to give us dream sequences of all things. More worrying is the fact that the most obvious possibly conclusion is flagged up and the show then spends another two episodes sauntering towards it like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Worse still, none of the characters see it coming, even though it’s so obvious, I assumed it had to be a double bluff.
Yet, despite the jarring of genres and that obviousness, it does kind of work and serves as a reasonable send off for the show – or at least for all the characters we’ve met over the past five seasons who haven’t left already. I don’t think it actually ruined my enjoyment of the show and what I saw. It’s more that I was so hoping that the show would be perfect and for four seasons and eight episodes it pretty much was, so I was expecting more than just ‘pretty good’ for the show’s ending.
And I will miss it for sure. The Bureau showed us that French TV could produce something not just truly remarkable but something consistently truly remarkable that could beat the rest of the world. It also showed us what a modern TV spy thriller should be and was prepared to give us more realism in that quarter than pretty much any spy show this millennium. Just watching it made me feel happier for global TV in general, knowing this sort of quality was possible in countries other than the UK and the US.
If only Eric Rochant could have been persuaded to pen the final two episodes, it’s possible we could have had a truly perfect show. As it is, I’d go for 98% perfect. That ain’t bad, is it?