Tuesday 6 February 2018

Spiral and the Thin Blue Line

And there endeth another season of Spiral, the smash French police procedural that, along with other near abroad cop shows, have been putting the noir into our dark Saturday nights. Like the acclaimed Scandi hits (The Killing, The Bridge, Arne Dahl), they pull off a depth of drama we just don't get in British detective shows, and certainly not in American offerings since the climax of The Wire all those years ago. Yet this quality of Spiral, the hook which a small but not insignificant UK audience chomps down on is flavoursome with some familiar and very old forms of ideology.

The superlative quality of Spiral is never in doubt. The French title, Engrenages in written English is redolent of anger, of 'enrage' and repeated in the daft accent British people put on while trying to read out French underlines this impression. The literal translation, however, is Gears, implying to its native audience complexity, depth, and mechanisms that just have to play out once set in motion - none of which its rendering as Spiral adequately encapsulates. Nevertheless, the main plot wasn't too deep in this, the sixth season. A cop is brutally murdered and local community champions feted by the municipal mayor are the chief suspects. It goes from there into stolen gold, bent coppers, fences, trafficking young women and girls, it has the lot. The season's two side plots featuring Judge Roban and lawyer Joséphine Karlsson sees both coming off the rails - Roban lies under oath to cover his own cover up of a colleague's indiscretion, and Karlsson attempts to murder her rapist and ends up getting charged for it.

Jolly old Louis Althusser in his well known essay on ideology made distinctions between institutions of two types: those whose primary effects were the articulation and dissemination of ruling class ideas which, given they were the outlooks of a very small, very privileged and very powerful minority meant they offered a distorted picture of how the social world looked from the standpoint of the immense majority. These Ideological State Apparatuses buttressed the legitimacy of the capitalist state, and were comprised of what you might expect - education systems, the media, religions, the family, and so on. Building on the classical Marxist view of the state, Althusser wanted to preserve the core insight that all states, from terroristic dictatorships to fluffy Scandinavian social democracy are dedicated to the preservation of private property and the rule of the ruling class, and will resort to violence if that is deemed necessary. These coercive apparatuses, or 'Repressive State Apparatus' comprise the branches of the armed forces, intelligence agencies, carceral capacities, and, of course, the police. As they exist to repress, and as no state can indefinitely last on coercion alone, the ideological apparatus works to confer them legitimacy. Simultaneously, each type of apparatus carries an element of the other. Education coerces with sanction, the family coerces with discipline and, at times, physical punishment, and so on. Similarly, like all organisations, those of the repressive type secrete their own ideologies, particularly around self-sacrifice, loyalty and duty. In Britain, for example, the shift to community policing in the 1990s to the present has enmeshed large sections of the police with social care, a move that came from within the police itself in response to its own problems of legitimation stemming from racism and the political policing of the 1980s.

I digress. One of the core ideologies secreted by the police is that of the thin blue line, that the police are the guarantors of social order per se rather than an order of a particular kind. These few are the ones that keep the chaos from our doors and the decent people safe in their beds. The most obvious manifestation of this is wave after wave after wave of cultural product dedicated to crime detection. That the bulk of crimes are banal, mundane, are easily solved, and represent no threat whatsoever to the social fabric is neither here nor there. The rare, spectacular crimes - the murders, the serial murders, the heists, the sophisticated con, organised crime - are easy pickings for entertainment. They have the casts of characters, conflicting motivations, the dialectic of evasion and capture, the posing of clues, the second guessing of motive, the brain work of cracking a puzzle, this is the stuff from which some of our best drama is made.

All of these staples are present in Spiral, but here it is the character types that interest. The core CID characters of Captain Laure Berthaud, Gilou and Tintin are all expertly played and come across as complex human beings. Laure is no-nonsense and is single-minded about the task to hand, though here in season six we are confronted with her existential terror of becoming a mother and her lapse into the anomic abandonment of her baby. Gilou, now in a discreet relationship with Laure, is a policeman's policeman, absolutely loyal to the force but not afraid to rough up suspects if it helps get the confession. And Tintin, the more by-the-book of the trio who is nevertheless hard bitten by the collapse of his marriage thanks to long hours work forces upon him. All three are broken in some way. They're gritty and grizzled, people who've lived and seen things. They're a million miles away from your Dixons of Dock Green and the woke Sam Tylers of Life on Mars. Yet, in each case, their character arcs spin (spiral?) ideological yarns found here too; particularly attention to duty. Laure is a mess because she is a copper above all else. Motherhood and its responsibilities throw her into an acute sense of anomie; when your sense of self is inseparable from the badge, what does that do to someone suddenly confronted by a new, overwhelming priority that will forever change the course of your life? Gilou, much like our own Gene Hunt, isn't brutal for the sake of being brutal. The abuse he dishes out has nothing to do with real life abuse of police power but is strictly instrumentalised, is geared toward the bad guys and is about getting results. And Tintin, like pretty much any fictional detective, has sacrificed his closest intimate relationships for, yet again, duty. Even the friction with Laure and Gilou arises from his disapproval of their methods, of their being against his sense of officer integrity.

The message is clear. These people are heroes because of what they give up to enforce the law and keep the public safe. It might come with harsh language, violence, sex, parleying with villains, sticking it to the bosses further up the chain. It drips with frustration, anger, sweat, and blood. It invites the viewers into a world of dog eat dog, of society at its very worse. By proxy, you too wallow in the morass. But the deepening plots and the satisfying pay offs - even if it leaves the protagonists strewn about as so much human wreckage - serves a very conservative, some might say twee permutation of thin blue line ideology.


Richard said...

Good stuff Phil. I think you can even extend this point to the wonderful Roban, whose unceremonial dumping by the legal system when they find out he has health problems is utterly brutal. Not even a card and a collection from his colleagues! His adherence to procedure, his absolute workaholic nature (and apparent lack of any other 'life') and total dedication is suddenly laid to waste as his fellow magistrates pillage his files and the loyal Didier is reassigned. The relationship between Roban and Laure is brilliantly done, two kindred spirits.

Speedy said...

Are there any spoilers in this article? I haven't seen this season yet but am looking forward to it. Best cop show on TV.

Phil said...

Yes, there are spoilers!

Unknown said...

I'd chuck in two comments here. One is from a long since dead blog that I saved for posterity; 'Police officers are, almost by the nature of their job, conservatives. They look to conserve the best of society, to protect what is good from the bad. In that, they represent and act on behalf of a cultural consensus, only occasionally becoming outright tools of the state, and often feeling uncomfortable as they do. Objectively, they're always tools of the state, but cultural consensus, or, to put it another way, the ruling class's hegemonic domination of popular discourse means they don't often feel or need to understand that to be the case.'

The other is an anorak's point about Life on Mars; it's not a crime series, not even in the broadest sense. It's pure sci-fi, satirizing police serials simply to give a dramatic framework to some very old ideas about purgatory and a warriors heaven. You could do the same series in a much grainier way with soldiers from world war one endlessly refighting the same battles until one day they discover their gateway to heavn via a French bar behind the lines.

Andrew Coates said...

The latest Spiral also redeemed the rather flagging Saturday night BBC 4 foreign policier series slot.

I personally associate La gangrène with engrenage, but that has no basis in its origin either.

One delight is the contrast between the incredibly formal language of the lawyer and judges - I heard for the first time ever the phase, à la insu, "unbeknownst" uttered by one of them - and the fluid slang of the coppers.

Deeply satisfying.