Wallander is one of the most successful televisual outputs from the Nordic countries. Its second series has just finished its run on BBC4. James Garry explains that second series was inadequate compared to the first, because it lacked its tragic star Johanna Sällström.
The second series of Wallander finished its thirteen episode run on BBC4 last Saturday. That is, the Swedish Wallander starring Krister Henriksson (as opposed to the Swedish Wallander starring Rolf Larsgaard or the British version starring Kenneth Brannagh). It disappointed me. The first series snared me. When I watched the first series in the summer of 2010, I tuned in every Saturday at 9pm on the dot to be absorbed in two hours of Swedish noir. It was something I truly was immersed in. Something that, for its two hour duration, no real-word worries could intrude upon.
Where did the second series all go wrong? As the second series it had, naturally, a bigger budget than the first. To my eye it seemed a lot of that budget was committed to stylising the programme which made it look like a generic cop show that could have been set in Britain or America or anywhere. Not only was there more style in the second series of Wallander but there were more styles, suggesting that a new host of directors took control of different episodes. In some episodes the camera work was still, in others jaunty. Some episodes tried too hard to be artisitc, others too hard to be realistic. The entire run was disjointed and lacking identity.
The first series was mainly filmed in the colder months, the second in the summer. The hot, sultry episodes, with the characters wearing golden halos of sunlight, looked contrived. So did the beach houses with swimming pools.
The characters who had been scruffy, careworn and average-looking in the first series acquired a new wardrobe and make-up artist in the second. The fiction became more obtrusive as I found myself thinking “he wouldn’t have worn that jacket in the first series” and the spell was broken.
Then there was the audio. In the first series, Adam Norden composed the icy incidental music and stark theme tune. His music was dropped in the second series in favour of an ethereal, poorly-scanning pop song, which typified the overall shift towards a more popular format.
I do not think that the failure of the second series had much to do with the absence of creator Henning Mankell. Mankell is an over-praised, formulaic writer with few insights into human nature. As much as I like Wallander, Kurt Wallander is the cliche of the depressed cop who wavers between authority and rebellion, who has a broken family and is lonely.
Mankell’s plots are incestuous (often in one sense of the word, sometimes in the other) and hinge on an unbelievable interconnectedness between the characters. He never deviates from the whodunnit trope, and you spend your first half an hour watching a Mankell story thinking: Well, I don’t know who did it, but I know it surely isn’t the person whom the police have been harranguing for the first half hour of the story.
I get the feeling about Mankell, who is a self-confessed leftie, that the whodunnit genre suits his desire to expose our prejudices. You thought it was those pesky muslims, huh? Wrong! Ha ha!
Another failure of Mankell’s writing is that he, as with so many of his contemporaries in the noir genre, must end a story with a gunshot. This is too American for words. It is also a cop-out. The gunshot allows the writer to finish the story without having to offer us any profound insights into the killers nature; he affords us no revealing dialogue between the cop and the man the cop has hunted so long. For this reason alone, I elevate the writing of Jimmy McGovern above that of other detective series writers. The exchange in the interview room between Albie Kinsella and Cracker towards the end of To Be A Somebody is unrivalled for its exploration of a haywire brain.
The run-time of the second series’ episodes (one-and-a-half hours instead of two) suggests that the producers of Wallander were aiming for a different audience: An audience that did not have the patience to sit through two hours; an audience that wanted their storylines stripped of dialogue and replaced with action.
Yes the first series of Wallander was much better because it was authentically Swedish (they even filmed one scene in IKEA, for goodness sake), it was cold and sparse, the camerawork was unobtrusive, the characters were attractively unglamorous, Wallander was active not passive, the storylines hadn’t been too compromised by the law of diminishing returns, the incidental music was better, the theme music aptly icy. But more than all this, the first series had Linda Wallander, played by actress Johanna Sällström.
Sällström made Wallander work both as a character and an actress. She was Wallander’s daughter and was also a cop. The subplots of the stories explored her relationship with her father to the extent that they became more engaging than the whodunnit storylines.
Even before I knew that Sällström was severely unhappy and had taken her life at the age of 32, I could tell that she was under-acting the part. She went about the police station, or patrolled the small town of Ystad, or strolled forlornly the beach, with an unforced, haunted expression. She was more Johanna Sällström than Linda Wallander when she was in front of the camera.
She was undoubtedly beautiful but hers was a profound, sad beauty. Her replacement – if that is not too cynical a word – in the second series was a rookie cop by the name of Isabelle (played by Nina Nanjani) who is uninterestingly pretty. Isabelle’s boring beauty reminded me only of Linda Wallander’s/Johanna Sällström’s greater screen presence, her eyes that revealed sensitivity and cynicism, the sorrowful intelligence knotted in her brow.
Without Johanna Sällström, Wallander – both the show and the man – does not work. We need the protagonist’s uneven and awkward reconciliation with his emotionally-distant daughter to provide a human interest. The cop stuff that Wallander does is dull. Without Johanna Sällström’s character we see how passive and useless Wallander is. He doesn’t seem to solve crimes; crimes solve themselves.
A special mention should also be made about Stefan Lindman, Linda Wallander’s flaky boyfriend in the first series. He was killed off at the end of the first series. His relationship with Linda, as with Wallander’s relationship with Linda, was the other point of interest in the show.
The show orbited around Sällström’s star. With the fictional death of Stefan Lindman and the real-life death of Sällström, there was nothing that could have saved Wallander from mediocrity.