Now that was a glorious binge. The Bureau‘s fourth season is another rock-solid one, a multifaceted tapestry of international intrigue, politics, suspense, and high drama about the French intelligence services. As someone who has consumed more than his fair share of excellent spy shows, trust me when I say The Bureau is likely to be the genre’s standard bearer for years to come.
In season four, The Bureau continues to follow the legendary life of traitorous French spy Guillaume Debailly (Matthieu Kassovitz), who has pulled one last trick out of his sleeve. Having miraculously survived his ordeal in the Middle East, he has also eluded his DGSE captors, who worked tirelessly to liberate him even as they intend to hold him accountable for his betrayal of the service. Debailly goes to ground in Moscow, where he tries to a build a new identity and life for himself, but inevitably he winds up in the crosshairs of the FSB, which subjects him to another round of harsh experiences and tough ethical decisions. As it happens, Russia is the next target for DGSE undercover operative Marina Loiseau (Sara Giraudeau), whose cover as a civilian seismologist has survived close calls in both Iran and Azerbaijan. Now she’s embedding at an institute in Moscow, trying to gather information on Russian artificial intelligence research and hacking efforts to penetrate western election security. Loiseau’s mission and Debailly’s improvisation are once again destined to intertwine.
Back in Paris, meanwhile, the DGSE’s attempts to both run Loiseau and track down Debailly are challenged by the intrusive investigations of a security director known as JJA (Mathieu Amalric), whose nickname derives from the famously paranoid CIA officer James Jesus Angleton. JJA believes that Debailly, for all his betrayal and treachery, is beloved by his colleagues and has poisoned the clandestine bureau beyond repair. To that end, he inserts an internal affairs officer, Liz Bernstein (Anne Azoulay), to audit the bureau’s operations. This creates professional strife for new bureau director Marie-Jeanne Duthilleul (Florence Loiret Caille), who sees JJA’s investigation as a destructive witch hunt causing distracting stress for her staff. But JJA has a point: even absent, Debailly — at this point, practically addicted to operational deception — continues to wreak havoc on his former colleagues. His actions are destined to throw all of the players into yet another crisis.
Season four evolves The Bureau yet again, introducing richly designed new milieus even as its maintains its dimly lit home base and sustains a gripping broader narrative. Debailly is the anchor: the show’s various intrigues forever swirl around him, and the four-season journey is an impressively charted downward spiral as he compounds well-meaning mistakes with a survivalist’s resourcefulness. But the ancillary subplots back at the DGSE are just as compelling, following logically from earlier events. Unlike many spy shows, where the mistakes of the agents are forgiven in the interest of cast continuity and viewer allegiance, The Bureau doesn’t let its heroes off the hook for its failures. JJA’s investigation is both mean-spirited and necessary; the show does a fine job elevating his point of view, while still remaining sympathetic to our heroes.
If the failures of the clandestine bureau dominate much of season four’s narrative, there are also operational successes, and one of them is the season’s structural master stroke. This involves the efforts of an awkward, bookish, driven officer names Jonas Maury (Victor Artus Solaro) to track down French jihadists in the Middle East. Jonas, who debuted in season three in a minor role, makes for an unlikely globetrotting hero. But his adventures across North Africa and the Middle East — usually accompanied by Jean-Paul (Grégory Fitoussi), the leader of his security detail, who grows increasingly fond of him — make for a creeping slow-build that pays off brilliantly. Jonas is a Smileyesque figure: portly, bespectacled, deceptively ineffective, but secretly a dogged, intellectually rigorous officer who goes about his business with quiet efficiency and effectiveness. Jonas is the anti-Debailly, in other words, and his track this season serves as powerful, framing counterpoint to the strife embroiling most of his colleagues.
Four seasons deep, The Bureau shows no signs of letting up. Season five is currently rolling out weekly on Sundance Now, and while I’ve decided to wait for the full season to be available before diving back in, it’s taking all the willpower I can muster. In my view, this is the best spy series ever made, hands down.