The original idea behind this essay was to direct your attention to The Bureau, the French espionage thriller that can be seen by Americans on Amazon Prime and, after two free episodes, with the Sundance add-on. That would have been fine; the show is smart, beautifully written, tense, and well-acted, and belongs in a league with recent miniseries gems like The Night Manager and Little Drummer Girl. The difference is that there are 50 episodes to digest here, and at least so far—I’m in the middle of the second season, burning through the episodes at an indecent pace—there hasn’t been any dip in quality. I’m years behind, but it’s been one of my favorite TV discoveries of 2021.
And yet, when I think about this show (which is happening a lot lately), I end up going back to one character: Guillaume Debailly, aka Malotru, an intelligence officer at the French DGSE (their CIA) who spends six years undercover in Syria before returning to Paris and quickly becoming one of the organization’s leaders. He’s played by Mathieu Kassovitz, a well-known film director, and I’m not sure I’ve seen a more riveting combination of character + performance, at least in the world of spy TV.
A big part of the draw is that he’s living a double life, but that feels like too basic a description; how many spy shows, after all, don’t include a character living a double life? Debailly, who goes by Paul Lefebvre, brings us deeper into the psyche of what it takes to be truly good at his job, and the show itself isn’t afraid to question his motivations. On the surface, the thing that gets him into trouble on his return to Paris—I’ll be intentionally vague to avoid spoilers—can be seen as an act of love. But as a psychiatrist who also works for the DGSE tells him, it’s more than that. He has an addiction to the thrill of duplicity, and to emerge from that is shocking and disquieting, and he has the urge to jump straight back into the dynamic. It undermines what looks like noble intent, and hints at the egotism and even narcissism of those who play god by adopting fake personas, becoming close with people under false pretenses, and coercing or outright manipulating them.
The late John LeCarre started out as an intelligence officer, and though he was close-lipped about his actual job, interviewing defectors was part of it. He wrote later about employing all his social skills to catch these people out; seeming to befriend them, cajole them, and paint himself as an ally in order to extract the wrong word that could spoil their entire lives. Even when he was right, it made him feel guilty, and what he did was a far cry from the life of a true undercover spy. The work can be noble, but to be truly great, The Bureau posits, you have to be something of a sociopath.
And Guillaume Debailly is a sociopath, I think, albeit a very likable one. He’s a natural leader, funny, reliable, seemingly empathetic, and with the bearing of somebody who would never hurt you. A quarter-smile, Mona Lisa-like, always plays on his face, and his features have a natural friendliness to them, perfect for hiding the viper inside. Everything to him is a kind of game, albeit with serious consequences, and his biggest fear is somehow being extracted from that fame. As noted above, Kassovitz, a well-known French director who won the best director prize Cannes in 1995 for his film Le Haine, is an inspired casting choice. His expression is at once so composed, even flat, but manages to convey so much with a simple twist of the mouth, or a narrowing of the eye. Crucially, though, it conveys only what he wants it to convey, which is to say only what the character Debailly wants it to convey, and he has that rare skill of becoming a blank palate on which we can project our own wishes. What better trait could you ask for in a spy, then to confirm the biases of everyone who looks at him?
This charming inscrutability makes Debailly irresistible, even more so as he spirals into an undertow of his own making, desperately trying to keep people fooled as he sacrifices one principle after another in the service of making the false puzzle pieces fit together. Again, this is not an uncommon device in a spy thriller, and I’d be focusing too much on one person without recognizing that the deeply intelligent writing and the terrific performances by the rest of the cast set Kassovitz up to soar. But soar he does, and in the process becomes one of the genre’s great lead characters.
Read the Wikipedia page for this show, and you will encounter clauses about the second season like, “has even been seen by some as the best television ever produced in France.” It would be hard for me to comment on that, but as someone who devours spy fiction of all kinds and tends to be rather picky, it’s easily one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in any country. You can cite all the qualities above, and add the courageous pacing which is neither fast nor slow but perfectly patient, but so much rests on the character of Debailly, and together the writers and Kassovitz have scored a massive success.
The art of performing a double life is not an easy one, because acting itself is a kind of double life, and stacking further complications on top of that has a way of getting narratively cluttered rather quickly. For someone to internalize those conflicting character motivations and convey distress, love, and even ambition with such subtle, pinpoint accuracy is a feat that deserves the highest kind of praise. More than that, it’s a feat that deserves to be witnessed, obstacles be damned. In this case, there’s no excuse: Watch the first two episodes for free on Amazon Prime, and go from there. The show will sweep you away, if you’re anything like me, but what lingers won’t necessarily be plot or atmosphere, but the sly, unreadable face of Gillaume Debailly.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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