Spy fans haven’t been short of high-stakes thrillers over the last few years. But among both fans and critics, there’s one award-winning series that’s been consistently praised for its mix of high-stakes tension, up-to-the-moment political intrigue and authentic take on real-life spycraft: The Bureau.
Intricately plotted and based firmly on real-life events, The Bureau focuses on French agents working for the Service of Clandestines, an elite unit within the DGSE (basically the French CIA or MI6) also known as the Bureau of Legends. Consistently praised for its realistic look at the world of spycraft, the series features a lot of office work, but with the stakes so high the smallest detail can cut the suspense like a knife. Plus there’s regular excursions to the Middle East to keep the action levels sky high.
The series follows Guillaume “Malotru” Debailly (Mathieu Kassovitz), a master spy who’s usually one step ahead of everyone around him (which isn’t always a good thing). He spends much of the series pursuing a personal agenda that doesn’t always align with his superiors’. Which is another way of saying he spends a lot of time on the run.
The Bureau begins with Malotru back in Paris and back behind a desk for the first time in six years. Before that, he was working undercover in Syria: after being mysteriously recalled, he’s struggling to adjust to civilian life and reconnect with his now-grown daughter Prune (Alba Gaïa Bellugi). When he learns Nadia El Mansour (Zineb Triki), the married professor he was having an affair with in Damascus, is now in Paris, obviously the last thing he should do is take up his old identity and make contact with her. No prices for guessing what he does next.
Soon Malotru is again leading a double life. He’s a smooth-talking spymaster by day; by night he’s ditching the security detail keeping tabs on him so he can meet up with Nadia. But it soon becomes clear she’s not in Paris for a holiday. When her deeper political mission comes to light, will Malotru side with the woman he loves or reveal her to his bosses as a vital asset? With chunks of the season told in flashback with Malotru attached to a lie detector, things don’t bode well.
Meanwhile, as part of his day job Malotru has teamed up with his former handler Marie-Jeanne (Florence Loiret Caille) to train Marina Loiseau (Sara Giraudeau), the other main character in The Bureau. It’s their job to turn the 20-something scientist into codename Phénomène, an agent capable of infiltrating the highest levels of Iranian state science – and handle any trouble she might encounter along the way. What does this have to do with a bunch of French spies out in the Sahara desert and a missing agent who may have gone rogue in Algeria? One thing’s for sure: The Bureau keeps the twists coming.
Season 2 is in many ways a continuation of the first, as Malotru’s work and relationship troubles become ever more entwined, while Marina’s first major mission becomes increasingly fraught. As his agenda takes him outside of France, it’s clear Malotru isn’t above going outside his own agency to get what he wants. The Bureau has a consistently strong focus on the political nature of spying, whether it be internal, inter-agency or international, and no one’s better at playing the game than Malotru.
Even he has his limits though, and while he isn’t exactly sidelined for the third season, being an ISIS prisoner for much of it doesn’t give him a lot of opportunity to hang out in Paris. What it does do is give the series a chance to look at what really happens when you’re a prisoner. Short version: it’s not much fun.
Back in France, season 3 widens its focus beyond the DGSE to look at the numerous other spy agencies infesting Europe. Malotru’s dealings with the CIA haven’t exactly won him their undying loyalty (at one stage they want to bomb the camp where he’s being held hostage) while Marina finds herself working for Mossad in an “every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in” situation for the now battle-scarred young spy.
Season 4 sees Malotru on the run from… well, pretty much everyone, which is how he ends up in Moscow trying to negotiate his return to the DGSE. He couldn’t have timed it worse, with Marie-Jeanne still settling in as the new Bureau chief and with DGSE internal security performing a major investigation into the Bureau (largely thanks to Malotru’s antics). But the main focus is the timely topic of Russian cyber-attacks and election interference, with Marina finding herself the focus of a hack while Malotru’s efforts to redeem himself lead him into the very heart of the Russian secret service.
Season 4 ended on the kind of massive cliff-hanger that’s too good to spoil here. Let’s just say that season 5 starts with the DGSE on the ropes more than usual. This season reportedly sees a number of old favourites returning, including Malotru’s old flame Nadia. Their affair changed the lives of everyone in the Bureau: her return could shake the organisation to its foundations.
Season 5 of The Bureau premiered at SBS On Demand on Thursday 18 June.
Seasons 1–5 are now streaming. Catch up from season 1:
Or go straight to the start of season 5:
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This week Fiona and Ben recall the documentaries about racial inequality that have had the most impact upon them (13th, Burn Motherfucker, Burn!, I Am Not Your Negro, LA 92). Elsewhere in the episode, they review new releases The Great and Love Life, and they each recommend something from the SBS On Demand catalogue, for everyone still spending extended periods at home.