This is an overdue love letter to one of my favourite things in the world: Nordic Noir TV.
So, I moved back to London last week which has been very surreal. Starting work again doing what I was doing before lockdown did indeed, as I thought it would, make the past 4 months back in Glasgow and working with the NHS seem like a very vivid fever dream. Even as I was living it, preparing to move back to an old pre-pandemic life, I could feel conviction in reality slipping away, as though my brain was prematurely preparing to forget everything that had happened since 23rd March 2020.
My sister (who I lived with during lockdown) doesn’t like crime dramas or subtitles so I have had to wait until I am on my own again to catch up on all the angsty Scandinavian business. First thing on the list was Deadwind (2018 – 2020), a Finnish cop drama featuring two impossibly good-looking leads, the first series of which I watched a year and a half ago and then have to rewatch as I totally forgot everything about it.
I’ll come back to what I think about Deadwind in a bit, but first I want to talk about some of the great things about Nordic Noir (first being the name of the genre which just trips off the tongue). To start with, I’ve never been to Helsinki or even watched any other TV show/film set in Finland, so becoming immersed in the language, scenery and culture of a foreign city and comparing how the Finns do things compared to their neighbours is immensely satisfying, almost like having a little mini-break (I’d love a holiday). I’ve watched a lot of TV set in Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Reykjavik, and that makes me have a personal enjoyment of these countries that heightens when I actually get to visit them. I remember when I got off the plane in Oslo and was walking behind two strapping uniformed police officers speaking together in Norwegian looking like TV extras and my first thought was, ‘Where are my subtitles?’
My first love in Nordic Noir was the Swedish Wallander (2005 – 2006) which I caught on BBC 4 when I was about 16 or 17 – it remains a top quality classic of the genre, though the ensemble cast of the first series couldn’t be improved upon (a nod here to sadly departed Joanna Sahlstrom as Wallander’s daughter Linda). Then came The Killing (Forbrydelsen, 2007 – 2012), which was deeply excellent (though drags a little upon rewatching, having a more ponderous pace), and boasts the iconic Sarah Lund and her cosy knitwear. Next for me was The Bridge (Broen/Bron, 2011-2018) which was so gripping and exciting that I once spilled a drink over my laptop in my haste to get to the next episode. The laptop was destroyed, but my love remains. Again, however, the first two series of The Bridge were addictive perfection, but after the loss of Martin my interest sadly waned.
Aside from these big hitters, I’ve watched so many they often get muddled up. It takes a particular characteristic out of the ordinary muddle of summer houses, docklands, urban skylines, sleek apartments, suits and guns to stick in the memory – though it is difficult for me not to enjoy them. It’s an enjoyment that partly comes from the comforting Scandinavian tourist aspect previously discussed; partly from, having watched so many, spotting crossover actors that often feature in several series and films, as variously cops, murderers, witnesses. It’s especially fun when it’s outwith the genre completely, such as when Mikael Persbrand who memorably played total renegade Gunvald in Beck (1997-2006), popped up in the Netflix show Sex Education (2019, it is terrible) as a sexy Swedish plumber who immediately got tore into Gillian Anderson.
The Scandi’s just know. They know how to do it. Quite a bit less is definitely more. They can do secrets, addictions, angst, grief and lust in ‘most speaking looks’: a side glance there, a sigh or a swig of a bottle of whisky says a thousand words. A deep interior world of emotion. None of the characters, police or criminal, seem to be able to maintain healthy relationships or wholesome lifestyles, but this seems par for the course, ubiquitous across the board, acknowledged with almost a wry smile when one character may tell another to ‘go to bed’, or ‘seek professional help’.
The Deadwind characters are all a bit odd, even taking all this into account; and it’s hard to tell if their erratic behaviour goes beyond ‘just being Finnish’. One minute they are barely speaking to each other, the next they’re making out steaming drunk or punching their bosses in the face. So far so Nordic Noir, but then every so often they are joyriding helicopters or strangling bad men with their thighs with their hands tied behind their back; it’s these little unexpected things that go a little further out of the box.
The two leads of Deadwind, impossibly beautiful and twisted, are especially guilty of operating under quite incredible amounts of misery (death of parents, orphanages, teen step-daughters, widowhood, junkie girlfriends, surprise offspring). I enjoy the never-quite-able-to-be-believed quality of their self-described histories; Sofia maintains her husband was randomly killed by a hit and run driver who was never caught, while he was out running in the nighttime with no reflectors on. Hmm, think there’s more to that. And Sakari came up with a bizarrely tragic story about his parents murdered in their bed in the Congo while working for the U.N. As he was drugged and tied up by a paranoid schizophrenic posing as a psychiatrist at the time, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had made the whole thing up to avoid giving out personal information to a madman. But even if the facts have been twisted or falsified, you can tell from the characters’ haunted eyes and odd behaviour that some shit really did go down, and might even be worse than what they let on.
Watching so much Nordic noir has made most UK TV offerings unbearable (everything American is already unwatchable automatically). I suppose that a lot of things I notice when watching actors speaking in English goes unnoticed in Scandinavian tongues. Recently I caught the third series of Unforgotten that I had previously enjoyed, but this time the lead actors’ facial contortions (gurning, I could unkindly call it) by themselves struck a dissonant chord. French shows start strong but tend towards the overdramatic and supernatural/emotional climaxes. German shows have never landed, they tend to be boring; neither have Spanish, which tends to be boring in a different way. There have been some UK shows I loved that are the exact opposite to Nordic Noir sensibility (No Offence, Happy Valley). Honourable mention goes to 13 Commandments, a Belgian offering that gave me exactly what I wanted. Fantastic cast and characters, tight plot, angst and trauma aplenty, a show that is few and far between. Fortunately (or unfortunately) it was destined for just one perfect series.
Note November 2022: watching series 3 of Deadwind and everything is great, just one little thing that I’ve felt from the beginning, I want to scream HENNA IS SUCH A STUPID FUCKING CUNT!!!