Within the blink of an eye, this excellent French series found itself at its conclusion – five episodes of fast-moving, multi-layered police procedural with two intriguing characters at its heart had left me breathless, and desperate to find out who was behind the murders of four men. There was lots to tie up and not a lot of time to do it in, but like the rest of the episodes before it this sixth episode didn’t pause for breath in revealing everything. In episode five we had already established that this was a three-layered crime story. On the top layer was Kaz Gorbier the psychopath who had been tormenting Paul Maisonneuve and trying to avenge Maisonneuve’s perceived role in breaking up his family; on the second was Laura, who had been digging up dead bodies and rearranging them in show homes in the Le Tréport area to send Maisonneuve a message; and the third unknown person, who had actually murdered the four exhumed men in the first place. What started off as a macabre set-up involving those carefully arranged cadavers in show homes quickly unpeeled layer upon layer until it made my head spin. We were introduced to another layer of the story at the end of the last episode: the digger-uppers had left Maisonneuve another clue – the press clipping that detailed the suicide of a young woman who the detective had admitted was his first love. So who was she? And how would this all end?
As I’ve come to expect with Witnesses, the answer came within the first scenes. Maisonneuve explained to Sandra that the woman was Juliette Le Roux. As teenagers they fell in love but years later he left Le Tréport for bigger and better things. About the time he arrived back in town she hanged herself in a bunker, with her three-year-old daughter playing yards away on the beach. No wonder Juliette Le Roux’s daughter, Laura, was angry. But that still didn’t explain why she had dug up these men from their graves.
The answer came from Kaz Gorbier. Having survived the gun-shot wounds he incurred in episode five, he sat in solitary confinement. He struck a deal with Maisonneuve – bring his son to him for one final chat and he’d spill the beans about Laura and her motives. Maisonneuve acquiesced and Gorbier kept up his end of the deal. ‘Laura’ visited him in prison knowing that they shared a common enemy – Paul Maisonneuve. She told him that her mother had not fully gotten over his exit from Le Tréport or the end of their relationship, and because of this heartbreak her mental state deteriorated. She blamed him for this downward-spiral into mental illness. Juliette Le Roux was also gang raped, the outcome of which was a daughter – Valérie, or Laura as she was now known. Valérie/Laura told Gorbier that her mother was killed by devils in the bunker, and was upset that Maisonneuve, now back in town, did nothing to investigate what she still maintained was a murder. Her anger at Maisonneuve for what she perceived as doing nothing about her mother’s death tallied with the earlier conversations the two had in the café in earlier episodes. She kept pressing him and asking him what he was going to do about capturing the people who laid out her friend in the first show home. This line of questioning seemed odd, if innocent, to me at the time – we now know she was subtly chiding him, anger bubbling just below the surface.
There was also the question of Henri Norbert’s role in all this. Picked up at the end of the last episode, he was the prime suspect in the actual murders of Laplace, Muse, Kremer and Weber. How he got to the conclusion I’m not sure (we were only four minutes into the episode), but Maisonneuve laid it out in front of the suspect – he knew the four dead men, they had met Juliette Le Roux and raped her; he killed her because she was beginning to talk after the birth of her daughter and the circumstances in which she was conceived; the other four men also blackmailed him, so they needed to be wiped out, too. “Have you overplayed your hand?” Sandra asked Maisonneuve. He sure did, and not only that he spoke about the rape of Juliette Le Roux before he had been told by Kaz Gorbier. Some detective this Paul Maisonneuve.
It was down to Sandra to find Valérie/Laura. She found her, or at least her footprint, at the foster home she was taken in by after her mother’s death. In her well-preserved bedroom there were dolls, lots of dolls and pictures on the wall of wolves howling into the moonlight. What’s more, in her fellow fosteree’s room – a boy called Carl – she found more pictures of wolves. The wolf motif was well and truly back and she knew instantly that if she found Carl she would find Valérie/Laura. She found him quickly (a little too quickly, and quite inexplicably), along with their snarling pet wolf.
All this happened within the first quarter of an hour. It was breathless, occasionally mind-boggling stuff.
The next three acts went by in equally as breathless a fashion. We saw Sandra and Maisonneuve establish contact with Valérie/Laura, and her endgame was now clear – to fully avenge her mother’s death she needed to kill her mother’s murderer, Henri Norbert. But there was a twist – Norbert wasn’t acting alone. He had hired someone to carry out the murders, and that person was Damien, who we saw in the very first episode. Working with Norbert at GECO, his re-emergence was another lesson in always taking notice of those seemingly periphery characters in early episodes of a series very seriously indeed. I do remember him inviting his old friend Maisonneuve around for dinner and, in a quiet moment, Damien’s wife telling the detective that they were near broke. Money was the motive for Damien.
From we were funnelled into a tense, final confrontation. Sandra – in one of her classic sequences of deduction, established that Norbert and Damien would meet with Laura at the scene of her mother’s death. She raced to the beach, flung off her heels and, in odd socks, ran across the pebbles to see Valérie/Laura mid-confrontation with Norbert and Damien. Valérie/Laura had lunged at Norbert, plunging a knife deep into his abdomen and took a shot from Damien. As she staggered off he stood over his boss, weeping. What did Norbert have over this man? It was curious to see Damien react so emotionally over the death of a man – who had told Valérie/Laura in their final exchange that, “as I told you mother, I have a one-in-five chance of being your father” – that had had him under his thumb. You’d have thought he’d have finally free of someone blackmailing him.
By this time Sandra had caught up with the wounded Valérie/Laura and they both lurched away, but Damien wasn’t far behind and as the two women stumbled into a water works and hid inside some sort of vat or silo, he slammed down the door, leaving them both for dead. It took Maisonneuve and Carl’s wolf to track them down and rescue them. The very wolf that had plagued Sandra’s dreams had eventually saved her.
But not Valérie/Laura. She died from her wounds, while Kaz Gorbier had swallowed some poison pills given to him by his son (where did he get them from)? And so it was all over, bad guys dead or arrested, good guys relatively unscathed (apart from Justin, who still lay in a coma) and the hint that they, thanks to this journey, were starting to lay some ghosts from their past to bed. In terms of Maisonneuve – Mr Sangfroid himself – it might have even changed him a little.
Sandra Winckler and Paul Maisonneuve said goodbye to each other, he heading for retirement, she heading for reconciliation with her partner. But these last scenes seemed rushed to me. Yes, Hervé Hadmar had managed to fit an awful lot into these six episodes and for the most part did it very skilfully – I would argue that the Valérie/Laura and/or the Kaz Gorbier layers were layers too far – but we never really explored the death of Maisonneuve’s wife, for instance. Perhaps that’s for series two.
Still, for its few flaws, Witnesses provided quite a ride. Those two characters – Winckler and Maisonneuve – were hugely watchable and intriguing. Winckler reminded me most of Sarah Lund. Not as tortured, but equally as obsessive and determined. In fact, there were many familiar stylistic tropes dotted throughout this series that have been seen in the best, recent Scandinavian dramas – the beaten-up car Sandra drove, the bleak coastal town, the yin and yang relationship between Sandra and Maisonneuve…
Add to that a genuinely creepy and original initial set-up (something similar to what the upcoming series three of The Bridge is using, by all accounts), and Witnesses ticked a lot of boxes very often and very resoundingly.
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