Bold Berthaud

WARNING: Spoilers ahead, so you might want to watch the remainder of series five before you read this review! (Episodes 11 and 12 are on BBC iPlayer until 16 March.)

A long running murder investigation. Check. A tenacious female lead. Check. Subtitles. Check. A European setting. Check.

On the face of it, there are more than a few similarities between the dark, complex French cop drama, Spiral and the immensely popular police procedural The Killing. (The former has also been likened to The Wire, probably because of its grim setting and the fact that it criticises corruption and draws links between social deprivation and crime. But if you’re being really picky, it’s not an accurate comparison, as this Paris-based crime drama doesn’t have The Wire‘s ambition or scope.) Unlike its Scandinavian counterpart, Spiral has a more socially skilled and much less intense main character in Chief Inspector Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and decent doses of natural daylight, teamwork and camaraderie. It also has no distinctive, itchy-looking knitwear. Unfortunately Spiral hasn’t garnered quite the same amount of column inches as Ms Lund and her colleagues, which is a shame because it’s every bit as well-constructed and engaging.

Gritty is a label lazily slapped on anything crime-based, has an urban backdrop and isn’t Midsomer Murders. However, in the case of Spiral — the fifth season of which was recently shown as a run of double bills over six Saturday nights on BBC4 — it is an appropriate description. It’s a downbeat, profanity-laden look at the City of Love’s less salubrious and more disturbing side. The focus is on detectives, lawyers and judges’ work, but the show also manages to cast a cynical eye over the structures and political machinations of the judiciary. As you’d expect, this is a byzantine bureaucracy in which everyone knows their place and the key players scratch each other’s backs, score points and protect the status quo in an effort to advance their careers.

The case which provides the show’s focal point is the investigation of the double murder of a mother, Sandrine Jaulin (Susan Lay), and her daughter, Lucie, whose bodies are found in a canal. Initially, Sandrine’s unpredictable and truculent husband is the prime suspect. But what at first seems like a straightforward example of spousal homicide, becomes much less clear as the episodes progress.

As well as the primary plot line, there are subplots which intersect with both the main story, and also with each other. These involve a mugging ring, bank raiders, a group of female gang members, a double-dealing thief specialising in high-end cars and a smug, moneyed Libyan business man with links to the upper echelons of the French establishment. Because it’s a closed mystery, we follow Chief Inspector Berthaud and her team as they sort through all the red herrings, dead ends and genuine leads, piecing together the gruesome puzzle at the same time as they do.

There is plenty of moral ambiguity and ends-justifying-the-means behaviour

Like a lot of recent, critically acclaimed dramas, Spiral doesn’t view the world in black and white. Instead, it sees things through grimy, grey-tinted glasses, so there’s plenty of moral ambiguity and ends-justifying-the-means behaviour. For example, when Berthaud’s right hand man, Police Lieutenant Gilles “Gilou” Escoffier (Thierry Godard) befriends a grass, Berthaud withholds information from a judge and their boss approves the use of non-regulation tracking equipment. Similarly, Sandrine Jaulin is portrayed as a complex and imperfect character.

Likewise, there are a few violent characters who aren’t completely one-dimensional. It would be easy to just label them as monsters, as they carry out horrific attacks and appear to be incapable of empathy or compassion. (One kicks a person to death and another sets dogs on someone who she thinks is going to blab to the police, also kidnapping a young child and filming her having an asthma attack in order to force her mother to pay the ransom.) However, although social exclusion isn’t put forward as an excuse for the sickening actions of these characters, it is also true that, in some cases, their back stories and hopeless circumstances provide a context for the ill-advised choices they’ve made from the limited options on offer to them.

As the genre demands, we’re also privy to events in the chaotic personal lives of the investigating officers as well as the reality of detective work (which includes losing a suspect in a rundown shopping centre). This particular spotlight shifts between the following stories: Police Lieutenant Frédéric “TinTin” Fromentin (Fred Bianconi) and his fragile marriage, Gilou’s unwise dalliance with an informant’s girlfriend and the unstable boundaries between Gilou and Berthaud, who are close friends and care about each other, but with no clear indication of the possibility of romance until the very last episode.

However, the main non-work issue overshadowing all the others is Berthaud ‘s ambivalence about her unplanned pregnancy, which we find out about in the opening episode. To underline her complicated predicament, the father of the baby is either her ex, Vincent Brémont (Bruno Debrandt), or Samy (Samir Boitard), the man she was cheating on Brémont with, who died after a fatal foray into the world of bomb disposal at the end of season four.

In TV-Land, women aren’t permitted to go through with abortions and then live happily ever after

Like its real-life counterpart, the criminal justice system depicted in Spiral is male dominated, with men safely ensconced in all the highest positions. Despite this, it is the multifaceted women who are at this programme’s centre and the character of Laure Berthaud, who was recently bestowed with the lofty title of Feminist Anti-Hero by The Guardian, is the star attraction.

To get the not-so-good out of the way first: because she’s a Cop Who Doesn’t Play By The Rules, Ms Berthaud’s not averse to using less-than-legal methods to get the results she wants. But she’s good at her job and committed to it. We’re repeatedly shown that she is victim-focused and motivated by a desire to do her best for people whose lives have been hijacked by crime. She is also well respected by, and incredibly protective of, her all-male team (who are sweet and considerate when they find out that she’s expecting).

Although Berthaud is unconventional in many respects, it has to be said that she does everything by the book when it comes to her reproductive choices. Initially, she’s adamant that she doesn’t want to keep the baby (and, at one point, boards a train to Holland to have a termination because she’s passed the legal time limit in France). However, it’s boringly obvious that she is eventually going to have a change of heart. Probably because she knows full well that, in TV-Land, women aren’t permitted to go through with abortions and then live happily-ever-after.

Along with this, the writers don’t bother with subtlety when they’re foreshadowing Berthaud ‘s decision to become a mother. She spends a great deal of time at work examining the contents of her knickers in the ladies, sighing and vacillating between what seems to be resignation and relief. During a search of a suspect’s flat, she takes time out to clutch a doll, gaze pensively out of a window and grab her stomach. Also, parents — and the dysfunctional, sometimes abusive, relationships that they have with their children — are a central theme.

Just in case we’re still not getting this, Gilou is a card carrying member of the, “If you’re physically capable of conceiving then, irrespective of your own needs and circumstances, you must bring new life into the world” fraternity. He takes every possible opportunity to let Berthaud know that, if she has the baby, he’d be more than willing to play daddy. And, as if all that wasn’t enough, the season ends on a pregnancy-centred cliff-hanger.

Refreshingly, every day is a dress-down day for Berthaud

Still, though it should be a given instead of lauded, the fact that Berthaud isn’t sexually objectified is great. First and foremost, she’s an able and effective leader. She’s allowed to be a flawed, three-dimensional woman, with the value of her character not amounting to her physical attractiveness or how much of her skin is on show. Refreshingly, every day is a dress-down day for Berthaud. She doesn’t wear any slap, always looks dishevelled and never glams up. Her work uniform consists of jeans, drab, layered jersey tops, a well-worn black leather jacket and boots. Her hair is always unbrushed and pulled back in a haphazard ponytail.

Unlike Ms Berthaud, the ambitious, police-hating lawyer Josephine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot) does have that effortlessly elegant, French clothes-horse thing going on. But although the writers do seem to be seduced by the Sexy Gallic Lady stereotype, they have thankfully decided not to go down the tedious Fiery Redhead road (despite Josephine’s striking barnet). Instead, Ms Karlsson is cold and cunning, thinking nothing of representing a procession of unsavoury clients in order to further her career and bolster her tarnished reputation. She’s cynical, self-serving and doesn’t give a toss about what people think of her. It doesn’t matter that she’s not loyal or very likeable; she’s still a great character — shrewd, self aware and capable of working the system to her advantage. The only time we see Josephine’s more vulnerable side is in the heart-rending scenes following the death of her partner in a tragic accident.

Another woman of note is the efficient and sensible Carol Mendy (Fatou N’Diaye), a judge who happens to be young, black and a woman (how novel!). She’s pretty much the only character who manages to have a stable family life and is capable of switching off from the horrors and injustices that she encounters at work.

Although Spiral could, in parts, definitely do with being a bit less heavy-handed, it is well-paced and manages to maintain tension nicely. The show is convoluted in a satisfying (as opposed to unintelligible) way, the acting is great and doesn’t treat viewers as if they are clueless; for example, there’s a panoply of characters to keep track of and a lack of spoon feeding and intrusive soundtrack noisily dictating how we should feel.

Rumour has it that filming has already started on season six, but that still means there’s going to be a long wait until Laure Berthaud et al are back. Zut!

Image description:

Head and shoulders shot of a serious Laure Berthaud standing in front of a wall, looking straight at the camera. She wears a leather jacket and her hair is casually pinned up.

As well as giving Dawn an insight into the French legal system, Spiral has also furnished her with some excellent new swear words