It Still Stings: The Bureau's Baffling Finale

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It Still Stings: <i>The Bureau</i>'s Baffling Finale

Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:

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French spy Guillaume Debailly, code name Malotru, fell in love with Nadia during his six years undercover as a professor in Syria. When his mission concludes, he’s told to cut off contact with everyone in his Syrian life. Back in Paris, after he sees on a news report that ISIS has destroyed the building they’d both taught in, he phones Nadia to make sure she’s okay. It’s an understandable defiance of the rules, but an enormous mistake—and the repercussions are felt throughout the entirety of The Bureau, the internationally acclaimed French show created by Éric Rochant. (The series is streaming in the US via SundanceNow).

From kidnappings and torture to assassinations, the snowball effect of Guillaume’s illicit phone call puts everyone in his life at risk, especially his colleagues at the DGSE (the French equivalent of the CIA). As we track the nightmarish fallout through three flawless seasons and two solid ones, exquisite performances, intelligent writing and masterful direction keep The Bureau riveting.

Until, that is, the last two episodes of the fifth season—the grand finale. That’s when, bafflingly, Rochant handed complete creative control of his show to someone else. That this someone else happened to be Jacques Audiard—award winning director of films like The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Rust and Bone, and The Sisters Brothers—is almost beside the point. Rochant had created The Bureau and been the showrunner (an unusual position in French TV, which favors a more collaborative approach) since its inception. Whoever he had handed off to, it’s unlikely that a change in leadership so late in the game would have been issue-free. Unfortunately, those issues proved ruinous.

For starters, characters we’ve been following for years are casually jettisoned. We see nothing at all of Sylvain, the fan-favorite mainstay of the DGSE’s tech department; or of César, whose undercover mission in Russia had been a major focus of the latter seasons. Marina—who has served as the audience surrogate since Season 1 when Guillaume trained her—does at least make an appearance in the finale, but in what amounts to an extended cameo. That all of these beloved characters are shafted at the expense of a last-minute nothing of a storyline, involving a second-tier agent whose new girlfriend may or may not be an opposition spy, is both bewildering and deeply frustrating.

Perhaps the most unexpected result of the late shift in showrunner is that, twenty minutes from the end of the entire series, Guillaume and DGSE boss Marie-Jeanne develop superpowers.

To be fair, the conversation they have when she appears to summon him via ESP (“Guillaume, I need you” / “I’m here, Marie-Jeanne”) is probably meant as an artistic illustration of how much Marie-Jeanne relies on Guillaume for guidance, rather than a literal event. Still, it’s a joltingly atypical stylistic choice for The Bureau, a show that had prided itself on painstaking realism. Guillaume exhibits these superpowers again minutes later, when—via an admittedly striking dream sequence—he intuits that his beloved Nadia has been assassinated.

Nadia’s death is the finale’s ultimate insult, and the fact it even happens is ridiculous. To cut a long story short, the main arc of Season 5 involves an undercover Guillaume dramatically betraying Karlov, a head honcho with the Russian secret service. Though Karlov commits suicide, it’s clear that before his death, he’d already set in place his revenge. Guillaume knows that it’s coming. Yet somehow, it never once occurs to this formidably smart agent that the love of his life might be the target? He may have developed ESP, but it must have come at the expense of his common sense.

And the execution of Nadia just feels callous. Much of the finale is dedicated to punishing Guillaume for the snowball of disaster that stemmed from that first phone call, but that implies he hasn’t been suffering continuously throughout the whole series—the same man we’ve seen beaten and burned, kidnapped, and tortured. If Nadia had lived, it wouldn’t have been a simple case of happily-ever-after; they’ve both been through too much for a steady relationship to run smoothly. Still, it would have offered a little slither of hope after a relentless fusillade of pain. We know Guillaume won’t come back from her death. His broken body might struggle on, but his mind will be destroyed. That The Bureau asks us to watch this man suffer for five whole seasons, and then ends his story such a cruel way (the last time we see him, he is curled on the ground in an agony) seems almost perverse.

So, why did Rochant make the fateful decision to abandon The Bureau at the last minute? In the New York Times, he offered an explanation: “I wanted to finish in a non-sentimental manner and not make it about me or my relationship to the series… so the best was to entrust the end to someone who’d be detached from it and would want to explore new sides of the story or the characters, someone with a powerful poetry”.

This statement misunderstands why viewers get invested in TV shows. If a series can sustain an audience for years, it’s almost always because the fans care about the characters. We know them. We’ve seen them at their strongest, and at their most vulnerable; there’s an inherent sentimentality in that. The closing two hours of a show that’s lasted five years is not the place for a detached outsider to start finding new sides to them, or to make careless decisions about their fates, no matter how poetic the filmmaking may be. Audiard’s finale may look striking, and it might make some interesting artistic choices, but it’s felled by a complete misunderstanding of the characters that made The Bureau popular.

Although the final shots literally show the DGSE building being torn to pieces, there are rumors that The Bureau may return for a spinoff, with neither Rochant nor Audiard at the helm. If this happens, we can only hope that whoever takes the reins sees their story through to the bitter end—then maybe the end won’t feel so bitter.


Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.

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