Nordic Noir television detective series crept up on me last year on the BBC i-player site. Like many other British viewers, I was immediately hooked, from Wallander and The Killing to The Bridge. Looking back, I am struck by how well I can remember the bleak atmosphere and the main characters’ individual quirks, but how hazy the plot lines have become, almost merging into one extended dystopian fog. I’m sure I’m not the first to also wonder why this slow-rolling, gloomy, depressive genre has become so popular among a large section of the British audience. Perhaps it has something to do with the increasing numbers of urban adults preferring to live alone. They are transported to a recognisable place that is a slightly alien, stripped-down version of messy little England. The episodes press the right buttons for disillusioned, pessimistic singletons, survivors of broken families and failed relationships, in an awful climate under a dishonest socio-economic system. Here, in Nordic Noir Land, things appear to be bleaker on all fronts, without the comfort of our self-depreciating black humour or the tatty remains of our imperial glory. The loners can wallow for hours in an amplified vision of their own fears, with tight, well-acted storylines keeping the tension simmering at a constant level.
The plots, full of conspiracies, red herrings and fiendish serial killers, often incorporate a cynical update of anti-establishment 1960’s idealism. The back-stories are worthy of Greek Tragedies. Nordic Noir can have its cake and eat it here, both airing the evils of corporate society and debunking them as hollow facades for vengeful personal agendas. They do this more effectively than most US crime series, which are hamstrung by their ingrained capitalist ideology and therefore resort to cliché and demonisation rather than real critique. Series-long American plots with cynical social awareness, like The Shield and The Wire, stand out as exceptions. In The Bridge, the Jens characteris a prime example of the flawed idealist, with his five-point ‘truth terrorism.’ Saga Loren, a fellow psychopath working for the police, is immediately on Jens’ wavelength, dismissing his ethical pose as ‘just talk’. Her single-minded autism, unclouded by emotion, makes her the real Truth Terrorist of human relationships. A stickler for procedural protocol, she has no concept of normal, imperfect human behaviour patterns, such as flirting or white lies, but is completely attuned to a calculating, robotic master criminal’s psyche. She is the diametric opposite of Martin Rhode, and, for that matter, the flabby, emotional, diabetic Wallander. One ends up thinking, “Thank God she’s on the right side. With a slight twist, she’d make the perfect Nazi automaton.”
Essentially, the female detectives, Sarah Lund in The Killing and Saga Loren in The Bridge, are staking out territory in traditionally male preserves. Sophie Grabol found her way into single mother Sarah Lund’s character by imagining she was a female Clint Eastwood. Sofia Helin, as Saga Loren, goes further, using her character’s Asperger’s syndrome to give us a kind of unwittingly glamourous Robocop. Interestingly, increasing numbers of western women are currently having their partners medically examined for Asperger’s, redefining gauche social behaviour and ‘neurotypical’ obsessions as predominantly male mental health issues.
All the fictional Scandinavian detectives, male and female, share a relentless drive to solve their cases in spite of messed-up private lives. This addiction to the job transmits itself to the viewer in the short term, but it is the characters and bleak settings, not the convoluted plots, that resonate.