Kurt Wallander Exists to be Fucked With

Because "is it on Netflix?" is the first question one asks about a show, I began watching the second series of the Swedish Wallander first. A man detective--where's the fun in that? It is at least an unabashedly political political murder mystery: In the first episode, it turns out the terrorist/murderer is a military man trying to convince the government that terrorism is a threat only the military can deal with. The show also isn't entirely on Wallander's side. It's a familiar hard-boiled bargain: he can have his moments of knowingness only if he's thrown off-balance.

To this end, enter two women to confuse him: a new boss who he falls in love with, and a new officer who accuses him of running a boys club of an investigation.

"You just don't want any women on your team, right?"

"Maybe..."

That's what he is: a walking maybe. How else does one solve a murder? She ends up putting together much of the case, but both women tend to get lost in the background. They come, they give Kurt presumable inner turmoil, they leave. (His boss even lives tantalizingly next door, so that he can have a crisis every time he walks his dog.) Thus problematized, he goes forth to dominate the screen. The most satisfying moment for me was cutting back and forth between a pedophile staring at a group of children playing, and Kurt at his neighbor/boss/crush. Both are uncomfortably close to their desire; the pedophile's route home from his therapist passes by a playground.

Nothing populates such cramped psychological quarters as family, which is one reason the first series is better. It begins with his daughter, Linda, graduating the police academy. His very first scene undermines his fatherly authority. He's on the phone with Linda's mother, who is very amused with herself (how could you not be, when he's so serious?), poking fun at him as he packs to go to Linda's graduation the next day.

"Isn't it today?"

"You're drunk."

"No more drunk than you are. I can see you with a glass of whiskey in your hand..."

So can we. As the episode goes on, he seems drunker and drunker, though he isn't necessarily drinking. The graduation was the day Linda's mother thought it was, as he finds out the next day, when Linda shows up at the station in uniform. She is, of course, pissed that he didn't show up.

"But it was a misunderstanding..!"

Unlike series two, in which it's Kurt supported by a host of characters, here the story is told in tandem: Kurt and Linda follow related but different trails. She has a life outside of police work. They fight, and their fights are thematically tangled up with the rest of the show.

Eventually, she seems to tentatively forgive him for missing her graduation, kissing him on the cheek. Over the course of an episode thick with daughter-father drama, I find that hers is just the right perspective on him. He's pompus, and abstracted, and dense, yet can be endearing. It's a critical gaze that has a consequence of humanizing him. His limits are clear.

It's so satisfying when she gets at an aspect of his demeanor that in the second series passes for stoical respect: "Look at you! You just stand there, blank-faced like a cold fish!"

Compare this anger toward the father's flaws to the downright scary relationship between daughter and father in Alias. There, Sydney vacillates between near-religious love of him and the realization that he is her mortal enemy. Perhaps this has the ring of psychoanalytic truth, and it's convenient for a spy show whose basic move is the 180-degree reorientation of reality. (Wallander is more concerned with revealing ugly prejudices through false moves.) The trouble is, Sydney's father always reserves the possibility of turning again. He's unknowable, irreducibly above.

Why is there no Linda in series two? Because the actress, Johanna Sällström, comitted suicide. Cue a million blog posts reading her depression into every facial tic of her performance. I can't deny that I'm fascinated, but all I can really say is, one side effect of her death is we're left with a father run amok.

1 September 2013