In a cruel twist of fate and timing, the acclaimed French cop series Spiral returned for a fifth outing in a week when the series’ real-life counterparts of Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and her squad were rocked by the Charlie Hebdo outrage. Series four (back in March 2013) had gone out on a cliffhanger following a terrorist attack on the police HQ, killing off several characters including, it transpires, Berthaud’s beloved colleague Sami. In terms of timing, this return to a storyline that had a police death caused by the hand of terrorists was a tough watch. But this was the world of fiction, and there was no way our handsome hero was going to survive trying to defuse that great big lump of Semtex before it decimated the building…
In this two-episode opener we rejoined the team a few weeks after Armageddon, to find that although Berthaud’s team was hanging on professionally, their private lives were in disarray. Berthaud always was one for drunken barroom encounters, but her fragile mental state rendered her oblivious to the fact that Sami may have left a very solid presence behind him. She only cottoned onto her pregnancy after a tussle with a pick-up started her bleeding.
Berthaud’s ‘bad lieutenant’ Gilou (the superb Thierry Godard) and straight arrow Tintin (Fred Bianconi) were still sparring like fractious toddlers, although loveable wideboy Gilou was now even more the rock his colleagues clung onto in times of trouble. The depth of his love and friendship for Berthaud was revealed in a touching scene where he offered support during her latest personal travails.
His cavalier approach to the safety of his team – and city – ended in carnage, so it was a surprise that the cruel and totally incompetent Commissioner Herville (Nicolas Briançon), head of Berthaud’s division, was still in his post. Amazingly, he had been hoping to take over the anti-terrorism squad, but his comeuppance arrived in episode one when he heard he was shifting sideways into a time-serving desk job.
Given Berthaud’s personal predicament, the latest case was likely to hit her where she lives.
Sandrine and Lucie Jaulin, a mother and young daughter who had been beaten to death and trussed up face to face, were hauled out of a canal. After a quick spray of luminol around the family home, the officers suspected absent father Stéphane Jaulin of the slaying, sparking fears for the couple’s younger son Léo, who was also missing. After tracking Jaulin down to a motel, Berthaud’s squad found Léo alive and well and Jaulin claiming ignorance of the killings. He said he’d taken the boy in a custody battle with Sandrine; his phone history tallied with his statement, but Berthaud believed something about this prone-to-violence father didn’t add up. Suspicion also fell on Jaulin’s mentally disturbed brother, Olivier Delorme, whose hobbies included seeing imaginary Nazis and jumping on random female runners in the park and half-drowning them.
As before, the writers’ exposition of France’s inquisitorial system of justice immaculately pulled together story strands between the lawyers, judges and police.
TV’s most glamorous briefs, Pierre Clément (Mr Selfridge’s Grégory Fitoussi) and Joséphine ‘so sharp she’ll cut herself one day’ Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot), were back. Karlsson again overstepped that thin line between the legal and decidedly shady by poaching client Kevin Leseuer from a young, inexperienced brief. He stood accused of running down and killing a cop – but was he being fitted up by dirty flics who were colleagues of the dead officer? Photos taken of the damaged vehicles seemed to support Leseuer’s story – and his car had for some reason been consigned to the crusher. However, Leseuer later altered his story, but why? This case has fallen to the loveably eccentric Judge Roban (Philippe Duclos), the closest the series has to a moral centre. A quick reminder: Berthaud is friends with both Clément and Roban; the ruthlessly ambitious Karlsson hates the police – and most of her colleagues.
Once again Spiral lives up to its original title Engrenages – which literally means ‘cogs’ but alludes to so much more in French. Spiral is not a totally satisfactory translation, but then “getting caught up in the works” would sound a bit naff.
The BBC part-funds Spiral and British TV as a whole could learn a lot from producer Son et Lumière’s approach to drama. Although the show is shot in less of a cinema verité style than when it began, it still eschews the overbearing incidental music that has become a curse on British TV. This is a joy for those of us who are listening to dialogue rather than reading the subtitles (are you listening, Broadchurch?).