I’m addicted to this show about French spies

Some thoughts on The Bureau

We understand what makes a good astronaut all wrong. We think you have to be a daredevil, a rugged individualist, a macho, a cowboy of the skies. In reality, the best astronauts are cooperative, patient, chill, and ideally pretty short. That’s the kind of person you want to be stuck with in a confined space for months or years. That’s the kind of person you can trust with your sanity, and your life. (Mary Roach writes a lot about this in Packing for Mars.)

We have a similar misconception when it comes to spies. (Not that I know any spies. Or do I? Being an expat in a country whose stability is somewhat fragile and also critically important to the US does raise the probability, I’ll admit.) We think of spies as dashing and charismatic, people who command attention and leverage it into power. James Bond, Mata Hari. People you know you shouldn’t spill your secrets to, but you do it anyway. Even Carrie Mathison of Homeland, perhaps the most recent revision of the spy’s image to break through into popular consciousness, was defined by being exceptional, extreme in her insight and her instability. Real spies, however, are entirely generic. Their superpower is blending in, not standing out. You never know they manipulated you into giving up intel. You might not remember meeting them at all.

This is what makes The Bureau, a French TV show about undercover intelligence agents, so good. The spies are extraordinary in their ordinariness. They build and live inside of a big lie, within which they try to tell the truth as much as possible. When the show opens, one of the agents is returning from living undercover in Syria for six years and, for reasons both personal and psychological, can’t give up his false identity. Meanwhile, another agent is training for her first mission to Iran, and yet another has gone missing in the field.

The Bureau is about undercover identities, yes, but it’s also about all identities of all kinds, and the work it takes to be (or seem like) a complete, coherent person. In this and many other respects, it echos The Americans, the best spy show of all time, about two KGB agents living so deep undercover in 1980s Washington, DC, that they’re married and have two unsuspecting American children. Unlike The Americans, however, The Bureau is a relatable workplace drama. There are no hidden rooms of wigs or late-night surprise murders. It’s mostly normal people, being pretty good at their jobs, with access to some occasionally creepy technology. (Weirdly, it’s made me miss working in an office, perhaps because of its rare-for-television depiction of a truly good boss.) And look, I’m not going to tell you that Western intelligence agencies aren’t global bad guys. They are. But it’s refreshing to see a spy show where the US and the CIA are side players. (YMMV on this depending on how top-of-mind French colonialism feels for you. France is one of those countries, along with Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal, and I’m sure many others, that isn’t always remembered as a brutal colonial power outside of its former territories. But uh, it was!)

And about the murders, or lack thereof. Brutal things happen on The Bureau, including violent deaths. But it’s rare, and when it happens, characters mostly take it seriously. On The Americans—which, again, I think is a great show—they were killing people all the time. The missions on The Bureau are smaller—get a USB drive into a particular computer; convince a supposed friend to turn down a job they want—but no less suspenseful. Also striking is that The Bureau doesn’t make you watch its most grotesque and horrifying moments in excruciating detail. It cuts away, or just implies. As someone who closes her eyes the moment a person on screen does so much as raise a fist or point a gun, this is such a relief, and something I had forgot was even possible in a “serious” show.

We’re almost done with three seasons out of five, so I reserve the right to take back anything I’ve said depending on what happens next. Which I can’t wait to see.

Programming note: I’ve been following the recent discussion of Substack non-transparently using subscriber money to fund anti-trans and otherwise discriminatory writers, via its Substack Pro program. (Summary here, with plenty of links.) Some writers I read and respect are leaving the platform; others are staying, pointing out that Substack has also given up-front support to diverse and progressive writers, and also, have you heard how book publishing works? No ethical consumption and all that. To be honest, I haven’t decided yet. To be transparent myself, I have 214 subscribers and no paid plan. So I can say with certainty that none of the money you’ve paid to this newsletter is funding anyone or anything shady, because you haven’t paid any money. I also employ what I think of as an anti-growth strategy, at least at this point in my newsletter’s life. This makes me unimportant to Substack. I’m not in a powerful position to push for change if I stayed, but I have no illusions that my leaving would create even a ripple. So I’m insignificant, but also not locked into Substack, unlike the writers who did take up-front support or are otherwise earning money from their newsletters. Anyway, I’m exploring some options (not anything owned by Twitter or Facebook, I can tell you that!) and continuing to listen. If you have thoughts, hit reply and let me know.