Examination of 'Spiral': A Peerless Cop Takes On The Final Case
On MHz Option, France's reply to The Wire and Law & Order begins its final season.
The long-running crime drama "Spiral" is Engrenages, or Gears, its title in France, where it premiered on Canal+ back in 2005, does not take place on a Paris postcard. There are scant tourist landmarks and picturesque boulevards; the Eiffel Tower often appears, like a mirage, in the hazy distance. The eighth and final season of the show starts with a shot of Sacré-Coeur, but the camera pans down to the working-class district of Barbès, where a homeless Moroccan teenager's dead body is discovered inside a washing machine.
And the "Spiral" police officers in Paris are cut out of the same rough fabric. Their toolbox involves blackmail, manipulation and disingenuousness, so routine is like breathing, when their lips move, you can tell they're lying in their superiors' presence. They're not 'true cops,' but they're good cops, of course. "Spiral" may be a cop show that is unusually tense, granular and absorbing, but it is still a cop show. There's no wonder what we're cheering for.
Season 8, whose 10 episodes aired in France in September and began streaming on MHz Choice on Tuesday, continues a series-long exploration of the need to break the rules in a system of justice that is haunted by bureaucracy, careerism and politics. However, with the end in sight, the key is lower, less sensational, more crepuscular.
At the heart of the show, the subterfuges and indiscretions engaged in by the judicial-police team are not as dramatic as we have become used to. And the core characters are hunkered down, the fiercely determined police captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust, in a captivating, beautifully ragged performance) and her wild-man colleague and boyfriend, Gilles Escoffier or Gilou (Thierry Godard). Since taking the fall for their new well-intentioned crime, he is in jail, and she is back in charge of a unit that has been sidelined and enjoys partial custody of the baby daughter she was unable to care for in the previous season.
But as the talented young detective Ali (Tewfik Jallab) chafes under Laure's leadership and considers a transfer, the legacy of their maverick behaviour, which had already pushed away the strait-laced team member Tintin (Fred Bianconi) in one of the major emotional arcs of the season, is still central. And Laure dives right back to bending the rules, finding a way to take on the launderette murder case for the squad.
The French "Law & Order" is often called "Spiral," a contrast that makes some superficial sense because it portrays the branch of the French justice system that places cops in a near working relationship with investigating judges who act as American prosecutors. Both shows leverage the visual and tonal variety setup, stakeouts and chases alternating in paneled chambers with brittle claims.
However, the parallel breaks down immediately, since "Spiral" is an entirely more contemporary program, an 8-to-12-episode serial with season-long murder mysteries and plots of A, B and C that intersect and intertwine in often clever and convincing ways (by TV crime drama standards). Laure and Ali's murder investigation balances the final season with Gilou's infiltration of the shady enterprises of a nightclub owner, an initiative Gilou hopes will win him reinstatement to the police, and adds an arc to the ruthless defense lawyer Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot), whose redemptive journey begins as she becomes a surrogate mother for another young Moroccan.
It is familiar with the "Spiral" mix, or formula: a well-paced and amusing presentation of police gruntwork; a backdrop of administrative infighting and suspense that adds notes of dark humor; and, without excessive sentimentality, the struggling personal lives of officers, prosecutors and lawyers. Another, more fitting, American analogy is to "The Wire," but in both of those categories, "Spiral" was the show's equivalent, or better. Few crime dramas have mixed a rich texture with stories as thorough and arresting; they come to mind along with "The Wire," "NYPD Blue" and "Bosch." (The Shield was too hyperbolic and melodramatic with its murderous police to be a good comparison.)
If there is a criticism about the final season, it is that Laure and Gilou have been so entertainingly working with and against Clément (Grégory Fitoussi), killed in Season 5, and Roban (Philippe Duclos), retired at the end of Season 7 without any of the judges they worked with and against over the years. Clara Bonnet joins the cast and is perfect as a young judge trying to assert her authority, but she doesn't have time to make a good impression.
"Spiral" otherwise works its way through a satisfactory valedictory season, less hair-raising and dire than previous editions, but more moving in certain respects. As the star-crossed Gilou gets drawn into a plot that clouds his future, there are references to the great tradition of the French caper film, and shades of noir as Laure ends, literally, on a dark and lonely path. And the camera keeps coming back to a fitting Parisian landmark, the towering courthouse of Renzo Piano on the northwest fringe of the city. Powerful, unadorned, difficult to look away from.