June 11, 2020


Deep cover: ‘The Bureau’

By Craig Mathieson

Sara Giraudeau as Marina Loiseau in The Bureau

The fifth season of the understated French spy thriller leads the pack of June streaming highlights

Early in the first season of the intricate French espionage thriller The Bureau, rookie agent Marina Loiseau (played by Sara Giraudeau) is being prepared for a lengthy deep cover mission in Iran. She is being coached by her handler, Marie-Jeanne Duthilleul (Florence Loiret-Caille), on how to surreptitiously navigate her Tehran workplace. Office rivals are her enemies, Marina is told, but so are potential friends. “They make you vulnerable, fallible,” Marie-Jeanne notes. “People you really like must be destroyed.” Such calmly destructive guidelines are typical of this sleek but understated drama, which eschews the familiar tropes of most spy series for a more intimate incursion.

Created by filmmaker Eric Rochant and informed by off-the-record input from former members of the DGSE, France’s intelligence service, The Bureau is focused on the section of the agency that trains agents and inserts them in undercover operations overseas. Their intelligence-gathering work is subdued and accretive, and so is the show. With the fifth season available in full on June 18 via SBS On Demand, the show now encompasses a simmering body of work that begins with the return to Paris in 2014 of Guillaume Debailly (Mathieu Kassovitz), who has spent six years under an assumed identity setting up French intelligence cells in Syria. “Acute hypervigilance” is the diagnosis of a DGSE psychiatrist, and the decisions Guillaume makes in his first weeks back have ramifications that are still being played out in the newest episodes, taking place years later.

The series favours the sombre techniques of tradecraft over flashier firearms, while the narrative reflects recent history: the conflict in Syria, returning foreign-trained jihadists, Iranian reformers and Russian disinformation tools all feature. The DGSE are more circumspect than their international contemporaries, debating budgets alongside goals, with a necessarily nimble outlook; at one stage the hunt for a mole leans towards the Americans and not the Russians. The Bureau doesn’t reset with each new season, instead it refocuses. It’s not afraid of narrative ploys (such as a suggestive flash-forward that’s explained over the course of a season), but it’s also deeply attuned to the work’s contradictory impulses – duty requires duplicity, loyalty is isolating.

Commercial streaming services increasingly value shows that deliver an immediate bump in subscribers, which is subsequently exhausted after two or three seasons, resulting in the title concluding or being cancelled so that a new series can begin to juice the numbers. But The Bureau is testament to how a show can develop a distinct texture and nuanced characters when it is given time to evolve. As with the MI6 novels of John le Carré, there’s a psychological undertow to these intertwined plots. “How do you feel?” a DGSE officer will ask a subordinate or colleague, in a tone more challenging than caring, and it’s a reminder that beneath the protocols and analysis reside actual people. There’s genuine suspense in waiting for these characters to reveal themselves, whether inadvertently or deliberately.

Streaming successes: The royal court period drama is recast with an absurdist take on power and agency in The Great (Stan), a farcical and fictionalised version of how the future Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) replaced her husband, Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), as the ruler of 18th-century Russia; and Little Fires Everywhere (Amazon Prime Video) harnesses uneasy melodrama and the civility of Clinton-era America to examine America’s racial divisions, bolstered by sharply etched lead performances from Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington.

Streaming misses: Steve Carell has played the self-entitled American buffoon masterfully in the past, but not even his perpetually tested four-star general can alleviate the uneven Space Force (Netflix), a sitcom about the growing pains of the US military’s latest arm (although a hat tip goes to John Malkovich’s unflappable chief scientist); and ZeroZeroZero (SBS On Demand) is a gorgeously shot and grimly plotted depiction of the international drug trade, where family-based crime groups in Italy (dealing with purchase), Mexico (production), and America (shipping) predictably fracture under the impetus of illegal money.

Return seasons: The first season of Homecoming (Amazon Prime Video), a puzzle box of personal trauma and corporate malfeasance, was admirably self-contained, and the second installment (with star Julia Roberts and director Sam Esmail out, and Janelle Monae in) still has an eerie modern menace that’s eminently watchable; Ryan Murphy’s florid political satire The Politician (Netflix) returns on June 19, with Bette Midler and Judith Light joining the cast; and June 27 brings the third and final season of Dark (Netflix), a riveting German time-travel mystery whose apocalyptic rhythms feel like they’ve been building to a suitably bleak climax – in parallel to the real world – for the last two and a half years.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.


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