No television series is perfect, but for me The Bureau — despite the occasional minor blemish — comes plenty close. Its latest season, while not as rock solid as its earliest ones, does nothing to mitigate my enthusiasm. The Bureau is a gripping French spy drama focusing on the DGSE’s “bureau of legends,” a department committed to planting agents in hostile theaters to recruit sources and gather intelligence. Throughout its first four seasons, the series followed the exploits of master spy Guillaume Debailly (Mathieu Kassovitz), a brilliant but unreliable agent. Debailly’s activities have consistently cast his allegiance in doubt, ultimately landing him in perilous straits during an ill-fated operation to Ukraine. Reports of Debailly’s assassination, sanctioned by the CIA, have created professional turmoil back at the bureau, where newly minted director JJA (Mathieu Amalric) — whose paranoid investigation has transformed the department — works to cope with the fallout. But is Debailly actually dead? The many colleagues he befriended and betrayed over the years aren’t certain, but the mystery surrounding his fate turns out to play into JJA’s career-long ambitions, as he finally shifts to the offensive, in a painstaking, risky operation against a rival officer in the Russian FSB named Karlov (Oleksiy Gorbunov).
If season five of The Bureau is probably its weakest, that’s only because the bar is so high. It’s still a sophisticated, restlessly inventive spy series that never settles into formula, deploying its rich roster of appealing characters in just the right way to sustain an epic, long-form, multi-character narrative. Season five lacks the structural finesse of seasons one, two, and four, but its primary arc is compelling, revolving around the unlikely figures of JJA and Karlov, whose rivalry has a certain Smiley’s People vibe to it. Meanwhile, the officers and agents of the DGSE — those who have survived the wreckage of Debailly’s betrayal, at any rate — are scattered but still struggling forward in their careers. This leads to intriguing, if truncated, subplots to Egypt — where Marie-Jeanne (Florence Loiret Caille) has gone back into the field — and Cambodia, where ill-prepared double agent Cesar (Stefan Crepon) is crumbling under the pressure of his cover as a defected cyberintelligence expert. There’s also a new agent, Mille Sabords (Louis Garrel), who journeys all across the Middle East on a dangerous cover selling black market technology to various intelligence targets. All these threads are peripheral to the main arc, but continue to increase the series’ impressive, eye-popping international scope. Production values, cinematography, dialogue, and performances remain first-rate, contributing to the series consistently authentic atmosphere.
The Bureau has not yet been renewed for a sixth season, but I certainly hope it does; I could watch another ten seasons. It’s easily the most richly designed and thoroughly compelling spy drama ever made, and nothing I’ve seen so far has convinced me it doesn’t have the legs to continue.