Looking back at The Killing series 1
In the run-up to The Killing's third season airing on BBC4, James celebrates the Danish crime series that brought us Sarah Lund...
This feature contains mild spoilers (though pains have been taken to avoid giving anything major away).
A few years ago, a whiff of something began to drift down on the winds from Scandinavia. At a time when most television channels were scrapping for the rights to the next big US TV series (which may or may not get cancelled before the end of its first run), BBC4 picked up the scent of what has now been affectionately referred to as “Nordic Noir”.
The BBC had produced its own version of Swedish crime thriller Wallander and it had been a sizeable hit for them. So much so that the decision was made to show the original in what has become known as BBC4’s Saturday night subtitled drama slot. This in turn proved to be another audience winner and with the help of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy of novels, an ever growing appetite for all things Norden became apparent.
The shows and books that were coming out of Scandinavia were markedly different to those from US and UK shores. They were often characterised by bleak storylines and characters, free from flashy sensationalism and a parade of good looking actors. There was a real sense of Nordic grit.
If there was one show which stood at the pinnacle of this invasion then is was Forbrydelsen. Directly translated as “The Crime” but known to us in the UK as The Killing. Shown in its native Denmark in 2007, the show struck a huge chord with BBC4 viewers when it made its debut on the channel in the spring of 2011. The impact of The Killing can perhaps be measured in that it is one of the few Scandinavian exports that has so far been picked up for its own US remake.
The Killing was shown in double bills over ten Saturday nights and gave viewers something that was rarely available on television. At twenty fifty-five minute episodes, the show didn’t bombard its audience at a relentless pace but took its time hooking them in and then turned the screw ever tighter.
The main protagonist of the programme was Detective Inspector and knitwear aficionado, Sarah Lund. As the series opens, Lund is on the verge of leaving Copenhagen to join the Swedish police force and be with her fiancé and son. She accompanies her replacement, Jan Meyer, in an enquiry into the disappearance of a nineteen year old woman, Nanna Birk Larsen. The discovery of the girl’s body in a car at the end of episode one leads to Lund being drawn into an investigation that she finds impossible to leave behind the further it progresses.
The show’s primary storyline was that of the police investigation into the murder. Running alongside this and intertwining on more than one occasion were two side plots. The first of these concerned Copenhagen mayoral candidate, Troels Hartmann. The car in which Nanna Birk Larsen’s body is found belongs to Hartmann’s office. A plot then unfolds in which Hartmann’s political opponents endeavour to use this against him while his own parties decisions on what information to release to the police and the impact on the campaign that will have, formed many of the shows most revealing plot twists.
The most emotional story strand revolved around the Birk Larsen family themselves. A notable difference between The Killing and other police procedural dramas was that the show devoted a lot of time to detailing the repercussions of the murder upon the victim’s family. The grief of Theis and Pernille Birk Larsen was laid bare as they tried to come to terms with their daughter’s death and keep things together for their young sons. The story dealt with their desperation for answers and an explanation to events, a closure that was once or twice dangled in their faces before being snatched away.
Each of the three plot lines that made up The Killing was equally gripping in their own way. They each threw up more than their fair share of the shows notable plot twists. The twists in The Killing were plentiful. Every episode was a near game changer when it came to this programme. By the end of an edition, the viewer had been so intrigued, with the desperation to find out exactly what happened next - the kind of thing DVD box sets were made for. Bear in mind as well that this was not a fast moving show, the writing was so expert that every, even seemingly minor, turn in the story seemed to send repercussions through either the investigation, the campaign or the family, often leading these characters down dark paths which in turn played into the constantly evolving narrative.
The compelling and surprising plot is only half of what lifted The Killing head and shoulders above its peers. Writer Søren Sveistrup not only crafted a well structured and complex story, but filled it with a cast of characters that over the course of twenty episodes allowed the audience a chance to deeply get to know them, and feel a connection with them.
It is not unfair to say that the show's ace-in-the-hole character wise was Detective Inspector Sarah Lund, played by Sofie Gråbøl. Although Lund wasn’t the most identifiable character, she was perhaps the show’s most interesting. Sveistrup and Gråbøl worked together to create the character with the actress always lined up for the part. Lund goes through quite a journey in the course of the series. When we first meet her she seems settled on a new life in Sweden. At first, we respect her for wanting to continue with the investigation, putting her personal life on hold for a few days but as Lund’s obsession with case grows, so does the distance from her fiancé and son.
An idea of Lund’s past can be gleaned from the character’s relationship with her mother. Her mother’s joy turns to exasperation as she watches her daughter seemingly sabotage her relationships and leads the viewer to conclude that she has probably done this sort of thing before which might be why she is no longer with the father of her son. Although Lund is a great detective, as the show progressed we got the feeling that she has just been waiting for a case like this to come along and it gives her the perfect excuse to isolate herself and become emotionally distant.
Sofie Gråbøl’s performance in The Killing is truly incredible. It’s a notably different take on the police woman, one which is cold but yet some how likeable. Lund is cuttingly ruthless when it comes to her investigation. She doesn’t quite approach the levels of abruptness that Saga Norensen does in another great Scandinavian export The Bridge, but she won’t let anything stand in her way. At the same time, she has the support of a family and fiancé, whom she is trying to make a new life with so we assume that she has some warmth in her. Ultimately though, what matters to Lund is the case, above all else. It’s common place to see portrayals of male detectives on television becoming estranged from friends and family, obsessed with their work but Sarah Lund is one of the few females that have cropped up so far. Gråbøl plays this perfectly. We don’t ever see her glam-ing up, and her preferred uniform is dark jeans and a woolly jumper. She’s one of the most powerful female characters on television in the last decade.
Assisting Sarah Lund in investigating the murder of Nanna Birk Larsen is Detective Inspector Jan Meyer. Meyer is coming in to replace Lund when she leaves for Sweden. He's a family man and a more conventional detective than Lund. At first he begins to feel exasperated with Lund’s methods and yearns to be in charge of the case. There are number of tense moments between the two when Meyer believes Lund is crossing the line but as the investigation progresses, he sees, as most do in the long run, that Lund can produce results. Played by actor Søren Malling, the chemistry between him and Gråbøl is excellent. You sense the frustration he has with Lund but also the camaraderie he feels with her.
If The Killing has someone who could be branded the series’ chief suspect in the investigation then it would be Troels Hartmann, the mayoral candidate to the city of Copenhagen. From the moment he is connected with the murder of Nanna, we get a slow, peel back reveal of just who Hartmann is. Being a politician, we almost feel we have it ingrained in us to be distrustful of Hartmann but he actually seems like a pretty decent guy, even if he mustn’t have much room to hang his suits up next to what becomes an increasing large collection of skeletons in his closet.
Even if Hartmann does come off as half-way decent, we know his party is somehow involved with Nanna Birk Larsen from the off. Fortunately there is no shortage of shady characters surrounding him. Rie Skovgaard, his girlfriend and political advisor has a striking presence which immediately leads the viewer not to trust her, while his campaign manager, Morten Weber, definitely has one or two things to hide.
The characters who pack the most emotional punch in the series are undoubtedly Theis and Pernille Birk Larsen, Nanna’s parents. As previously mentioned, one of the things The Killing gained much praise for was the time it devoted to showing the effects of the murder upon the victim's family. Pernille finds her faith in being a mother shaken leading her to make some unwise decisions, but the effect of Theis is perhaps greater. Bjarne Henriksen, who played Theis, looks like a bear of a man, and not someone you would easily trifle with. Taking steps that anyone who is a parent would likely consider themselves doing in the same situation, Theis on occasion takes the law into his own hands. The actions of both Theis and Pernille drive their family into ruin as the series progresses. Every time they believe closure may be close, they have the rug pulled out from under them, sending one or both of them on another self destructive course. It’s thanks to the skills of Bjarne Henriksen and Ann Eleonora Jørgensen that we feel every ounce of their grief, wrung out on the screen before us.
There is a character we see very little of in The Killing but is worthy of mentioning in this piece, the girl at the centre of it all, Nanna Birk Larsen. Although as the series progresses we learn a great deal about the victim, as do her nearest and dearest, it is one of the few times that we actually see Julie R. Ølgaard as Nanna which delivers the shows most poignant moment. In a videotape uncovered during the investigation, Nanna wishes her parents well and shows a great deal of love for her younger brothers, whom she calls Tellytubbies. It’s a heart-wrenching moment, making the brutality of what befell her seem all the more evil.
Over the course of its twenty episodes The Killing proved to be one of the most engaging and tense shows in television history. Given the episode lengths and the number, the total duration means that it is one of the longest running, single story dramas on television in the last few years. It is a show which requires a level of devotion from the viewer, if only because it’s twenty hours of subtitles, but the reward of getting behind it was well worth the effort.
The show has provided its audience with one of modern televisions great female characters in Sarah Lund, a woman who has entered the pop culture conscience. If you want proof of this, just go to eBay and look at how much replicas of her knitwear jumpers are going for!
The Killing’s narrative was of a complexity that 24 could only dream of, and a coherence that Lost would fall over itself in admiration for. Although the US is still producing some fine drama series, The Killing truly announced that there was stiff competition coming from Scandinavia and convinced many people that the future of TV drama lay to the North.
The Killing's third season begins on BBC4 on Saturday the 17th of November. Come back next week to read James' weekly episode reviews, and his look-back at season two.
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