I am currently watching more television series drama than I have for a long time. Each new episode of Broadchurch on ITV and of both The Good Wife and Nashville on More4 demands a viewing, and Mad Men S6 is just about to return. (I am, however, clearly the only person in the world who is not totally up to speed with GoT S3 E1.) But this post is about another episodic drama that I have just discovered on DVD: The Spiral. The first series of this French cops’n’lawyers chronicle (Egrenages in the original) ran – thanks to the need for a follow-up to The Killing – on BBC Four in 2009. But it was made in 2005, since when there have been three further runs, each of which has also made it to Four, and series five and six are underway. Perhaps it’s a bit eccentric to write about an eight-year-old programme (and apologies for coming so late to this particular petite réception), but it really is terrific television – and DVDs have in any case made the medium more perpetually present than ever before.
I want to do nothing more than catch a few of my reflections at the end of the first series – and in the coming months I’ll compare my sense of this series with the later ones, including the fourth which has just finished on Four. I should acknowledge that the first two episodes did not totally win me over, but from episode three onwards The Spiral had me hooked. [I should also say that there are spoilers ahead.]
Set in present-day Paris, The Spiral is what we might describe as a ‘judicial procedural’, rather than a ‘police’ version of the form. Three of the main characters are from the baffling French system of justice – a judge, a public prosecutor and a defense attorney (I know the titles are not quite right). The defense lawyer is Joséphine Karlsson (played by Audrey Fleurot, above) and you’ll have to go a long way across the television landscape to find a character who is more purely (and wonderfully) amoral.
Not that anyone in this series is wholesome and wholly without sin. Certainly not les flics, who routinely resort to intimidation and cheating. Even police captain Laure Berthoud (Caroline Proust), who works with our legal eagles, ends up sleeping with one of them, and is in in many ways is the moral centre of the drama. But we see her trick internal affairs to save one of her men from being found out as a coke head. And everyone else is deeply – and fascinatingly – flawed, implicated in different ways in a spider’s web of sexual and financial and political corruption. This is one of the great delights of the series.
Another attraction is the sophisticated story structure, which combines a mystery arc across eight episodes (who murdered a young Romanian woman?) with a net of other narratives that sometimes last for one episode and sometimes for more. And the pace is richly varied too, so that some parts move past at speed and others are dwelled upon.
The main tale works with the structure of classic detective fiction, driving forward by slowly revealing the past. But the episodes and the worlds they reveal do not have the tidy feel of, say, Broadchurch. The Spiral has all the messiness and muddle and complex contingency of real life. The key villain even gets away with his evil.
Like almost all great detective fiction since the Second Word War or so,whether literary or filmic or televisual, the setting is urban. But this cityscape is the underside of the nineteenth century touristic vision of the French capital, and indeed a number of key landmarks, like the Opéra and the Eiffel Tower – are associated, even if only by contiguity, with criminality. The spaces that are literally beneath Paris, in the catacombs, also feature in several episodes.
This world is a dark and often desperate one, but somehow it is never depressing. And just occasionally there are the most surprising grace notes of human contact, like the short exchange between judge and prosecutor right at the end of episode eight. It is also – and again it has this in common with so much recent crime fiction – a world inflected and infected by the Gothic, as is hinted at by the Romanian origin of two (in fact, three) of the victims and as is made explicit by the exchanges in episode eight about vampires and the true scariness of Little Red Riding Hood.
The presence of Gothic ideas and images (see especially the scenes set in the Gustave Moreau museum) is of a piece with the series’ fascination with the abject body. The first murder victim is found dumped in a skip, naked and bloody and horribly disfigured. Her sister dies messily in a bath. A good deal of fun is had with autopsies, and there is a comic sequence built around the sh*t of a drugs pusher. One story features a wife who tried to burn her husband’s body in a domestic fireplace after she discovered him having extreme gay sex. Among the numerous bodies that feature is one found half-eaten by rats, and we become very aware of the decomposing smell of a woman who has died of natural causes.
What are we to make of the centrality of bodies that are almost bodies no longer? The voyeuristic visuals are clearly there in part to put across a thrill of looking at that which we otherwise avoid or which is forbidden. But these transgressions of the usual boundaries between the human and the non-human, even if they are only the products of highly effective make-up artists, perhaps have another force here.
There is an academic argument (formulated initially in relation to ‘body horror’ in the movies) that suggests that such bodies are reflections of the most profound loss of our sense of ourselves as individuals. Here is the critic Barbara Creed writing in 1995 about body horror films:
Images of the bleeding body… point symbolically to the fragile nature of the self, its lack of secure boundaries, the ease with which it might lose definition, fall apart, or bleed into nothingness.
And as with the human body, so with the social. Should we see this explicit embrace of corpses as reflecting in some way the breakdown of the usual values and structures or society, of the family, the community and the state? This is Peter Messent writing recently (but not about The Spiral) in The Crime Fiction Handbook:
If our identity as individual subjects is insecure, so too the successful functioning of the contemporary social system as a whole is put in question.
In which case, is The Spiral an expression of this collapse of the self and of society? Or does it work to help us reconstruct our ideas of our own body and of the communal body? Messent again:
We distance ourselves as spectators from the vulnerabilities and mayhem of the represented world about which we read [and which we see], and reaffirm thereby a confidence in our own autonomy and agency.
Whatever. Whether it reflects our most profound anxieties or helps us to overcome them – and it’s probably both, with the indeterminacy part of the pleasure – The Spiral, at least in series one, is tremendous television. Do take a look.