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When you think of Sweden, chances are your mind is filled with visions of meatballs, Ikea, and attractive blond people grinning in the snow as ABBA—or perhaps some tuneful death metal—plays in the background.
Not, in other words, a dark, seductive noir world of complex and twisted crime. Yet that’s exactly what the 26-episode 2005 TV series Wallander delivers. (For the record, we should make it clear that we’re talking about the original Swedish show, not the U.K. version starring Kenneth Branagh, quality work though it is.)
Set in the small, austere Swedish port town of Ystad, Wallander is arguably the most engrossing police crime drama since The Wire. And, like its Baltimorean cousin, Wallander makes the most of its location, jig-sawing multilayered plots into this tidy Scandinavian seaside city that’s picture-book perfect. Provided the pictures in the book contain images of sadistic ritual cult killings, teenaged self-immolation, Danish motorcycle drug mules, and a living burial in wet cement. Among other dirty bits of titillating business.
Kurt Wallander is a softy cynical loner, an aging, opera-loving cop close to retirement whose strongest relationship is with his black lab Jussie. He’s an old-school officer, a relic from a different age with little use for technology beyond a riveting stare and a loaded gun. He’s a man aware that time is making him less relevant, a notion he embraces with a dark, subtle humor that draws the viewer in all the more.
Wallander gives in to the odd cigarette now and again and is no stranger to the bottle—his whole hangdog demeanor suggests a chronic, low-grade hangover—though he never falls into the well-worn stereotype of the booze-soaked, tough guy detective. And while he may be every inch the quiet, methodical Swedish lawman, Wallander is no mere desk jockey, despite the telltale gut. There are tense, climactic, holy shit moments in the show’s meticulously crafted scripts that allow him to attain the level of supreme, badass cool usually reserved for the likes of Bogart’s Sam Spade and Eastwood’s Harry Callahan.
Like those classic characters (and Idris Elba’s intense Luther) he’s capable of a brooding, narrow-minded focus and flashes of rage which subside as quickly as they appear, leaving him embarrassed and confused and altogether human. Which has driven his wife to leave him, created an uncomfortable rift with his adult daughter, and frequently scuttle his awkward flirtation with Ystad’s prosecutor. It’s worth noting that—unlike, say Law & Order, in which all female characters are young and absurdly foxy—the Swedes allow this character to be what the actress herself is: a fifty-something woman with wrinkles. Who is also quite beautiful.
Beyond the title role, there really are no minor characters; no one is drawn one dimensionally. The crime stories themselves are finely wrought and easily satisfy anyone with a jones for grisly, exquisitely-paced yarns of evil-doing, but it’s the rarely comfortable relationships—family and professional—that create an almost voyeuristic viewing experience. In a good way. Wrap it all in that ghostly, somber northern light and you have a show that won’t let go. And you won’t want it to. In other words, prepare to binge.