My first thought on finishing The Break (La Trêve) – a Belgian neo-noir crime drama miniseries that you can, at the time of writing, watch on Netflix – was that it’s the best crime series I’ve seen since Breaking Bad‘s first season. That’s frustrating, because it means that our best could be better.
Modern crime dramas are a lot of smoke and mirrors. They’ve gotten adept at convincing you they’re a lot better than they are. Back in the days of, say, The Rockford Files, TV crime had little depth, but then none was advertised. You tuned in once a week to watch a plot and a character you liked, and occasionally there would be some social commentary to chew on, but it was primarily a diversion. What you saw was what you got.
Lots of shows these days have aspirations to being cinema-level art. They’re stylish in inventive ways, they leverage the serial format to treat their characters with depth, they’re even sometimes thematically rich. For all that, we haven’t completely left the old gimmicks behind. Modern shows have a way of unwinding when you start to really think about them. The plot you thought was well-constructed has holes. The characters that seemed so believable are inconsistent in less-than-convincing ways. Which is fair enough: there are a number of reasons why serial TV is really hard to do well. It just means that I frequently feel empty as a show "wears off."
"The Break" has a lot of these problems. It’s shot in a strikingly unsettling way. The acting is superb. The material is frequently disturbing. This is no ordinary show. And yet, it’s still the string of dead-end red herrings we know so well from shows like Broadchurch.
Inspector Yoann Peeters has, somewhat reluctantly, taken up a post in remote (well, in remote in Belgian terms) Heiderfeld, a village in the Ardennes, after a previous case he worked on in Brussels ended in disaster. On his first day on the job, the body of a local african immigrant soccer player is dragged from the river – the aftermath of an apparent suicidal jump from a high bridge upstream. But Peeters quickly realizes it is, in fact, a murder, and begins to quietly investigate it as such. As the show opens, he’s telling an interviewer – who seems to be a psychiatrist – about a violent dream he had. We soon flash to a scene of him walking blood-soaked out of the woods, and it becomes clear that these are scenes from after the events we’re about to see in Heiderfeld. Something will go wrong with the Heiderfeld case too, possibly because Peeters himself is unstable.
It’s an excellent setup, and the show executes it beautifully. Peeters, we come to see, is not without his flaws. He’s obsessive, and he pushes boundaries, and I really like how this show handles this. They keep the "Peeters, my office, NOW!" cliches to a minimum. It’s more that in the middle of ordinary conversations something will catch his eye and start him thinking about the case again, very effectively making the point – coupled with his chronic insomnia – that Peeters’ subconscious is always at work, even when he’s ostensibly relaxing. And the inevitable shouting matches, when they roll around, don’t take the standard form of Peeters defending his unorthodox tactics to a supervisor whose patience is wearing thin. It’s more likely to be Peeters losing his temper about something minor – taking his frustration that he can’t solve the case out on subordinates who are insufficiently obsessed. He comes across in these scenes as unreasonable and unstable – because he is a bit – and it’s always a jarring contrast to the emotionally numb, but strangely energetic, demeanor he normally exhibits. Peeters is an interesting character.
The people around him are too. Everyone is well-sketched, and the acting is really very good. There are no Mark Latimers in this show. Everyone, without fail1, just naturally inhabits their role, and everyone is more than their type.
Where the show falters is where all these shows do: there’s too much plot. There’s too much "shocking." Too much "twist." Of course, twists and shocks are crime shows’ bread and butter, but like with so many shows in this genre, The Break creates characters just to – temporarily – be suspects. The silver lining is that it seems to be aware of this: and as suspects are highlighted and then eliminated, they vanish from the narrative, which, in an odd way, contributes to the sense of the surreal. 7 out of 10 episodes open with a dream, and we know that to some degree what we’re seeing is the testimony of a man in an asylum. Having characters sort of vanish as they’re eliminated as suspects works to remind us that this is largely sourced from Peeters’ not-entirely-trustworthy memory. But of course it also serves to highlight just how excessively plot-driven this show is. For my taste, it could have slowed down enough to make the minor characters more durable, and just left it to the – excellent, it must be said – cinematography to keep things feeling unreal.
Spoilers begin here
Of course, the main complaint anyone will make is the apparent plot hole at the heart of the solution. If Ines killed Driss, it seems stupid for her to then turn around and give Peeters the piece of information that confirms that Driss was functionally illiterate and couldn’t have written the "suicide" note.
For my money, that in itself isn’t really a plot hole. The overarching theme of the show is one of guilt and how people deal with it – with the interesting subtext that Peeters’ unusually healthy approach to it is a kind of pathology of its own. All of the minor characters run the gamut from being pathologically wracked with guilt to the point of confessing to things they didn’t do (Jeff the Indian) – to pathologically unable to feel it at all (Tim the Swede). Ines seems to have an innate capacity for guilt, but she feels that her lifelong string of disappointments in love entitles her to a lover. She’s a killer who knows what she does is wrong on one level, but feels justified in doing it on another. Her motive is completely believable. By the same token, so is her apparent inconsistency. She’s somewhere in limbo – perhaps at the perfect balance point, actually – between feeling guilty and righteous. Because she doesn’t really see herself as a criminal, she will not actively mislead the police unless she has to. But because she actually is one and knows it on some level and doesn’t want to get caught, neither will she play cat-and-mouse games with them. Her instinct, as an ordinary citizen, is to anwer directly-asked questions from the police. So when Peeters asks her what her relationship with Driss was, she tells him. This aligns with her desire not to get caught. If you have a relationship with a murder victim that is in principle discoverable (as she must know it is via Driss’ cellphone call records), better to just admit it upfront than face questions later about why you lied when asked directly.
If there’s a plothole here, it’s that she planted the false suicide note in the first place. To tell the truth, I’m not entirely clear on the sequence of events, so my reconstruction here may completely miss the mark. But my understanding is that Ines had the autistic child – another one of her pupils – write the note, which she then planted. This begs a whole series of questions. First, if she’s smart enough to know that she needs to get someone else to write the note so the handwriting won’t be traced back to her, shouldn’t she also be smart enough to guess that the police will figure out that it isn’t Driss’ handwriting? I guess the way we’re supposed to fill in the blank here is that she knows that there are no writing samples of Driss’ lying about because she knew Driss was illiterate. But that doesn’t quite wash: if she’s tutoring Driss in how to read, she’s presumably also having him write out words and sentences as practice. Maybe she’ll have cleaned out all of his practice sheets from the apartment, but she can’t really be sure there aren’t others elsewhere – in his locker in the changing room, maybe. Deliberately leaving a faux suicide note that’s so easily (and conclusively) identifiable as a plant seems like a bad idea. More to the point, how did she know to write it in the first place? I guess the scenario is that the landlord essentailly walks in on the murder. Ines is either leaving or has time to hide, but is in any case still around as he cleans the house and drags the body to the river. We’re the supposed to believe that she realizes he’s staging a suicide to cover up a murder he didn’t commit – for whatever bizarre personal reason – and so decides to help it along by planting a suicicde note? Or is it rather that the landlord, not knowing that Driss was illiterate, plants the note himself? On the one hand, that makes more sense: the person who actually staged the suicide should be the one to think to plant a note, and in any case he has the keys to Driss’ apartment. On the other hand, that just begs the question of why anyone thought he was going to get away with passing off – as a suicide note from Driss – a letter written in someone else’s hand entirely. Unlike Ines, the landlord presumably doesn’t know that Driss can’t read or write … and so had reason to think the police will discover the handwriting mismatch in short order. So, it’s what I like to call an idiot setup, as distinguished from an idiot plot. I can buy that Ines would casually let slip that Driss can’t read even after having written the planted suicide note herself. That makes total (psychological, if not rational) sense. But I can’t really buy that she (or the landlord, if that’s your theory) would’ve written it in the first place.
An alternate theory here might be that it’s a red herring planted by a character, for once, rather than the author. If she can guess that the the cops will eventually see through the suicide setup, then why not double bluff a bit? They’ll go looking to match the handwriting to the note, but since it’s actually written by a child the match will never be found, and it’ll confuse the case. I really hope this is the intended version of events – but even so it seems a bit clever. Ines as a character is smart enough to think of something like this, but these writers would be placing a lot more trust in the audience than we’ve seen from them elsewhere if they expect us to understand that this is what she’s up to. So, this probably can’t be the real version, as good as that would’ve been.
A secondary complaint might be the choice of killer in the first place. This show doesn’t seem to be widely watched, and so it’s hard to find commentary about it on the internet – at least at the moment – but I get the sense from comments sections that a lot of people saw this coming and would have prefered its competitor: the Chief did it. I don’t share these criticisms. Yes, the solution wasn’t much of a surprise to me either. I had an inkling it would be her the first time she showed up at the door – for no other reason than that it seems like the kind of deliberately innocent scene someone who fancies himself a master plotter would throw in. It seems to happen right about the time you’re asking yourself whether we’ve met the killer yet … and there she is! By episode five she was my active first choice. By the last two episodes there wasn’t even a shred of doubt. Mostly my certainty was metafictional: it is clear by this point in the series that the writers are selling us twists, and if they’re going to keep doing that competently there’s really only one place left to go that’s more "surprising" than the places they’ve already been. She’s also the only character so far not to have really had any secrets: the one she does have she volunteered freely when asked. If all the people we actively suspect are innocent (of the crime under investigation, anyway), then the guilty one is the one we haven’t suspected – Mystery Novel 101. I appreciated that they dropped hints in plain sight. She tutored Driss, there was the implausible story about Driss falling in love with her (the first thing that enters your head is that it seems likely to have been the other way around), and the matching handwriting sample was found on her fridge. The Chief as killer wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. He was initially presented to us as shady before being rehabilitated, and yet there was never any indication of a relationship to Driss, or to any activities that Driss might’ve frustrated. Having it be the Chief would’ve meant introducing us to relevant plot details at the 11th hour, and that’s never satisfying. No, it had to be Ines – for reasons of plot as well as theme. If the identity of the killer is a bit of a disappointment, then because the writers tried a bit too hard to mislead. There’s too much sleight of hand concerning the events of the night Driss is killed. It gets a bit ridiculous at some point just how many people may or may not have been at the cabin, and having the landlord clean up after a murder he didn’t even commit while the killer is likely still lurking about was maybe a little too plot-convenient for my taste. It isn’t how I would’ve reacted, but then again I don’t have a bedroom full of Nazi memorabilia and a rapsheet; I’m blinded by Law-Abiding Citizen Privilege (it’s a thing, mkay?).
So, the show is definitely not without its flaws. It has at least one major plothole in what is altogether too much plot. Exactly like with Broadchurch, this would’ve been a better show if we’d focused more on the townspeople and how the muder affects them instead of investing so heavily in the "shock-o-the-week" format. If The Break does Broadchurch better than Broadchurch – and I’m in the camp that thinks it does – then because in addition to being geneally better-made, it’s also thematically more interesting. When you dig past all the twists and turns in Broadchurch, you’re really just looking at a disappointingly old-fashioned paean to nationalism. There’s some specualtion on the role (and effectiveness) of the legal system – how it comes into conflict with and often fails community standards – but Broadchurch ultimately, especially in the second season, is just waving the flag for Little England. The Break‘s concerns are more cosmic, and of a decidedly Roman Catholic brand. Guilt – and by implication Sin – is a force in itself. It manifests at the individual level, but it also spreads from people into whole communities. Beyond the entertaining procedural level, The Break shows us a parade of characters who all have very different relationships to Guilt (and responsibility), who deal with it in very different ways – are to a large degree defined by how they approach it now, and how they’ve approached it in the past. Like all the best literature, it isn’t an essay about the right approach disguised as a story. The writers do seem to have some opinions on the subject, but they don’t indulge in clever deck-stacking. Just the opposite: they seem to genuinely wnat their viewers to explore it.
I said before that when the final credits rolled my first thought was that this is the best series I’d seen since Breaking Bad’s first season. I still feel that way, but it’s not an opinion I want to commit to. I just can’t say with any confidence that if I watched this again and gave it a close examination that it would hold together. This is easily best-directed and -produced crime drama I’ve seen since Breaking Bad, but it isn’t nearly as well plotted, and the characters aren’t as well drawn. The worry is that the impressive production will turn out to have been carrying the weight for a plot that could really have been better.
My understanding is that the Beligan government (or at least the Wallonian Region) financed this in the hope of kicking off an evolutionary leap in (French) Belgian television. To date, they mostly produce forgettable comedy soap operas. This project was deliberately given to people with experience in movies to make the kind of cinematic-quality television that is proving popular in Northern Europe and North America. If that’s true2, then this project was also under a lot of pressure to be a hit, and that explains the temptation to Broadchurch-style plot gimmicks. Which is disappointing, because it means this otherwise excellent show didn’t really live up to its potential. It was great, but it could’ve been better.
This is a common impression with police shows on TV these days. They’re impressive in their way – certainly a vast improvement on the flashy, silly 80s shows I grew up with – but there’s a danger that we’re getting formulaic in a new way. If you only just shoot the thing like a movie, people won’t notice that the plot is junk food. The Break is definitely not junk food, but it might be fair to call it the product of a chef who is better than his current place of employment. He does the best he can with the ingredients and menu he’s given, but he’d do better with different management. The writers tout in interviews how much of a free hand they had in making this, and I don’t doubt it for a minute. I’m nevertheless left with the impression that they made some compromises they might not have felt the need to make if they would free themselves just a bit from chasing popularity. As Steve Jobs famously put it – "You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them." Customers want what they think they want, but that isn’t always what they actually want. This show – every cop show these days – errs a bit on the wrong side of that conundrum. We’re getting exactly what we want, now we just need someone to show us what’s better.
I feel like the people who made this show could be the people to do that. This wasn’t that show, but it is at the top of the pack of police dramas as they’re currently filmed. Which, ultimately, is why you should watch it.
Overall Rating A-