Saturday, November 05, 2011

100 words on my personal life and over 1700 words on Wallander.

Now that I'm settled in at work and have time to pursue home internet, I can't find the landlord. So yeah, will probably still be scarce for a bit. In the meantime I have plenty to preoccupy me without net access. I'm doing a low stress Nanowrimo (trying to write the requirement each day but not focusing my entire November and every interaction on making the damned wordcount), I've got loads and loads of beautiful (non-comic) books to read. I have books I've read I mean to review so I can sit and write reviews. I have a cluttered apartment to clean and the German trash system to navigate. Arts. Crafts. Comics. Sorting. Oh, and a new fandom.

Those of you who watch me on Twitter'll know this one. I ordered a DVD based solely on a preview and boy am I glad I did. It is AMAZING and so far the books I've gotten through are AMAZING too.

For those of you who skipped the post title, it was Wallander, starring Kenneth Branagh, based on novels by Henning Mankell, and rated EW, MC and AM for Extremely White Cast, High Body Count, and Abject Misery.

(Slight spoilers below)

So let's go over the amazing in increasing order from unsettling to excellent.

I admit first of all that the opening episode--Sidetracked--left me confused. Not because of any clumsiness with the filming or the writing, the story was good and the characters made sense. Just, as an American, it left me baffled. It's set in Sweden. Produced by the BBC. So, it's a British show about a Swedish cast based on a Swedish book. And in the British show about the Swedish cast based on the Swedish book there is a serial killer (Who is not the good guy.) that is appropriating Native American culture.

With no Native American characters around to comment on how fucked up that is.

It kinda overloaded my brain there. I wasn't sure exactly how to process that setup. My initial impulse--even in enjoyment--is to analyze that sort of thing when I notice it, and it's hard to analyze a culture that's not yours first off. Then it's a culture that's not yours interpreted through the lens that's not yours. Then it's about cultural appropriation, which is not my strong point.

However, if you are offended by what the villain is doing and how they're perpetuating stereotypes... You'll probably at least get some satisfaction over what happens to them.

Outside of that one, there's another episode that deals with actual racial violence. (Faceless Killers.) It's not perfect. The core cast of the show is all white, and pretty much all the POC characters in this episode are there as a plot point. (And I know someone out there is about to tell me I'm being unfair to even discuss the racial makeup of the cast because the UK and Sweden are in Europe, the homecontinent of all white people. So before you do that A--open a god-damned almanac and B--if there were nothing but white people in Sweden this episode would not work.) It's complex, though, and covers the interlacing problems of individual everyday prejudice, nativism, and public hysteria against the backdrop of a murder investigation. That's quite a bite for a 90-minute story and like with Sidetracked I still want the book to see how differently it's handled in the longform.

While the other episodes don't overtly address inter-racial interactions, there's definitely a heavy examination of Swedish xenophobia going on in all six episodes and in the one book (The Fifth Woman) I've managed to obtain. I'm not qualified to comment on Swedish culture, but I think I can safely recognize a theme. Watch whenever anyone mentions having been to Africa or being interested in America. Most of the time they will either be evil or get killed. Or both, in some cases. Thing is, while the surface problem might SEEM to be that the outside world is encroaching in on Sweden... in the end, the source of violence is usually something that's been below the surface in the Swedish countryside all along. And even when the initial crime is actually from outside Sweden, it's overwhelmed by the potential for violence that's present in the country already. The big challenges in the stories are problems that originated inside the culture that are covered up with anxieties about the rest of the world. The scalping killer in Sidetracked is not from the Western Hemisphere, it's a Swede who'd be fucked up either way. The real cause of the events in Fifth Woman is not the act of violence on another continent, it's violence that had been occurring in Sweden for decades.

While this is going on, though, there's another amazing thing. There's backstories of sexual violence in the first, second, and sixth episodes. And the way the cops handle this is fucking incredible.

They take the reports as the truth, and don't question the victim's histories, motives, or behavior.

And the way the writers handle this is incredible. They don't come up with a stupid twist later on that so and so is lying to get revenge or manipulate the characters (*middle finger to Season 2 Dexter*) or some shit. There's no "this is a story about sexual violence, with a twist that perpetuates the myth that this sort of crime gets falsely reported more than it actually does", it's more that a sexual assault happened in someone's past and THAT is why this event, this event, and this event happened. It's never the big crime of the story but it's never trivialized. And it's not every female character you see, just some characters.

And the way the director handles these revelations is incredible. It's not shot graphicly or sexualized or brought out as the big titillating revelation. It's part of some character's history, part of the horrible shit that happens in the world that leads to other horrible shit and in particular the horrible shit that lands on Kurt Wallander's desk.

I wish these were the guys in charge Law & Order: SVU, honestly. I hate that it's so rare to see a police show handle sexual violence in a way that doesn't make me ragequit it.

Thirdly, and this I can demonstrate with math, Wallander is uniquely suited to my own appetite for brutality. This series is a bloodbath. It is a tastefully subtle bloodbath (they don't go overboard with the onscreen deaths), but a bloodbath nonetheless.

They rarely show the body directly or linger for long on the grotesque stuff when they do, but in the cold open to the first episode a teenager sets herself on fire and things just get worse from there.

While recounting how much I love this series, I did a body count for one of my coworkers. There are no less than six deaths in each episode of the first season. In the second season, it dips down to four for one episode but there is a violent and traumatic shootout. The other episodes are up to par, at least six people meet gruesome ends over the course of events.

6 deaths over 90 minutes. That's a higher average than Dexter, folks.

Oh, and the first novel I got my hands on? I tried to count to compare. Mankell offs five people in the prologue. And sometime around the fifth chapter he sinks a boat and several hundred people die. (Also, the villain does much more damage to the cops in the climax of the novel than the climax of TV adaption.) Really, after 11 books I'm not sure how there's anyone left alive in Ystad.

Also, even though Wallander is consistantly portrayed as overweight, out of shape, forgetful, racked with insecurities, and reluctant to kill even the most horrible murderers he runs up against... He still manages to be a fearless badass in the big confrontations. I suspect he's just one "I'm getting too old for this shit" away from superpowers.

And finally, there's the most amazing thing and this one is done better in the book not because of any failing of the television series but simply because a novel is better set up to handle it: Kurt Wallander's sad, sad life.

Which really is something that needs to be examined episode by episode and book by book. It is so bleak it's actually absurdly amusing at some points. Each episode ends with a moment of quiet where the sun shines and the murders have stopped and everything is well with Southern Sweden but that's cinematography set against things like funerals. The ending to each episode reinforces that Kurt can only connect emotionally with another human by sharing mutual feelings of despair and convincing themselves to forget them for just a moment of sunlight on their faces.

It's kinda awesome, and I think I love him.

My amusement at misery aside, this goes beyond being chronically unlucky and mostly pessimistic. Wallander is a genuine man of constant sorrow type, and while the depressed cop stereotype in fiction can be excessively melodramatic, he's pretty relatable in his despondency. Sure, he cries more than any other TV cop I've seen, but it's usually at a point in the episode where you'd expect someone to be stressed to tears. Though really, when you take into account the disaster area that is his personal life and the job that is slowly killing his soul and his complete lack of hobbies (and for this character, not having outside interests from his work is a major character trait and not an oversight of the writer), he should be crying a lot more than just after an intense scene. If he were to start his day by weeping it would be perfectly understandable and natural, just because he's Kurt Wallander and he has to start his day. He is soaked in anguish, and every way I look at him he doesn't deserve to be. (Yet he's convinced he does.)

Basically, the world is built to a point where if you watch from outside the world and take into account what's going on, you watch this poor hapless bastard in disbelief and may even find yourself laughing at points like when Kurt's late for a date, the lady tells him off/storms out, and then--while he's standing dejectedly in the middle of the pub--the lights turn out. (This indicates a dead body at the power station, by the way, that Kurt gets called in to investigate) but at the same time you really sympathize with this guy's suffering because it's not a result of selfishness, or brooding over his bad luck. He definitely causes some of his own problems, but where I can be hard on characters I tend to naturally side with "You need to lay off yourself" a bit for this guy.

Maybe that's because of Kurt's motivations. He's not trying to prove himself, or aching to put away bad guys, or working off a history of personal trauma in his job. He's more personally invested in the people around--not just the victims, but he feels for the witnesses and the villains. He sees himself really clearly in everyone else, even the most monstrous people. Like he's missing a protective filter a lot of others have, something that lets them look at a killer and go "That's an inhuman monster I have nothing in common with" and instead has him being reminded by their crimes of his own actions. And while he's doing that, while he's getting tunnel vision and focusing on the killer and the victims he ends up completely missing the emotional cues from people he sees every day (Svedberg, Linda, his father) and he avoids them while chasing the monster. He's more guilt than self-pity and he's very introverted and empathetic at the same time. And I get a real impression that it's clinical, that his brain is set up to see things this way. If the viewpoint character were Linda rather than Kurt, I imagine things wouldn't seem quite so horrible all that time.

And there's just little moments in the novel and in the series that seem to me like something I could see a real person doing when they are operating under this level of crushing desolation every day of their lives. There's something deeply compelling about a character who gets that across and still manages to accomplish the stuff he accomplishes in these stories.

Also, Rupert Graves plays a bearded character in the 5th episode, which convinces me we're one "Oh, that's the name of Lestrade's identical Swedish cousin" away from a crossover.

Come on, BBC. You know you want to.


  1. Great essay on a series I thought I was the only one watching. My love of Branagh's "Dead Again" inspired me to give this show a shot.

    Don't forget Tom Hiddleston plays a member of Wallander's team, which made me look for a Wallander crossover during "Thor".

    Also, at one point in the novel series, the focus does shift to Linda.

    --Greg A

  2. I caught some episodes of Wallander when it aired here on PBS. Excellent show. I skimmed through your post but i do remember an episode dealing with Iraqi immigrants/ war refugees. I like the slower pace of British shows when compared to American ones. This show introduced me to Hiddleston's work before Thor and Branagh probably selected him (originally as a candidate for Thor)because of their work together. happy to see Tom now getting to work with Woody and Spielberg.

  3. I saw this show too. I chiefly remember being struck by the fact that it was BRANAGH playing this quietly melancholy detective. He's come a long way from when every one of his characters seemed to be a human pinball, bouncing off walls. I nearly didn't recognize him.

  4. Greg -- If Martinsson is actually Loki, that might explain a lot of Kurt's problems.

    (I did order Before the Frost.)

  5. I tried watching this series on PBS and it depressed the living hell out of me. I understand that we are dealing with murders and a man whose life is immersed in an inherently depressing job, but the soul crushing melancholy tone of the episodes I watched just turned me off. It just wasn't my thing.