Culture, Europe, Sweden

Johanna Sällström: Wallander wasn’t the same without her

Johanna Sallstrom

Johanna Sällström

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.

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About James Garry

James Garry is a political writer and commentator. He is the chief editor of Poltics On Toast a political magazine with a right-wing editorial bias. He believes that Britain should return to social, moral and political conservatism and that the changes since the 1960s Cultural Revolution should be undone. He wants out of the European Union and he wants capital punishment visited upon murderers, rapists and drug dealers. He is not a Thatcherite or a free-marketeer. He considers David Cameron and the rest of the Tory brigand to be liberal imposters. His other writings can be found on his personal blog James Garry on Politics in Britain and Hackeryblog

Discussion

12 thoughts on “Johanna Sällström: Wallander wasn’t the same without her

  1. Your analysis is spot on. Just finished S1 on Hulu and was far more moved by Linda’s emotional response to Stefan’s death than anything Kurt had done the entire season. Interested in learning more about the actress, I was moved beyond words to learn of her tsunami survival and subsequent suicide. Profoundly sad.
    On a much lesser note, started S2 on Netflix and no mention of Linda? Maybe I missed something but where is sheik the story?
    Thanks.

    Posted by Jack | June 21, 2014, 1:57 pm
    • Just started on S2 as well. I was confused that they somehow didn’t manage to tell us what happened to Linda. The only thing we hear about her is when Wallander’s new boss asks him about his family, and he tells her that he has a daughter. And that’s it. I think it’s sad that the character is nonexistent throughout S2, it really ‘kills’ the show.

      Posted by Markus Holm | October 12, 2014, 11:38 pm
  2. I totally disagree; in fact on Netflix you only have seasons 2 & 3. And thanksbto season 2 I was hooked by Kurt’s character was very well played a true multidimensional person imperfect as anyone in real life. Completely unpredictable not falling into the clichés that American series are so typical.

    After finishing season 2, I learned about Salstrom’s suicide and sought to watch season 1. I also liked it very much but the notion of her suicide was very influential in how I was impressed by her portrayal. I see this unavoidable and doubt if I would’ve liked it as much if I ignored this fact. Kurts character in that season was almost secondary so i would say both seasons where very different yet equally good.

    Posted by Pablo | August 3, 2015, 4:31 pm
  3. You are the one who is a cliche. You overly romanticize Johanna Sällström. Good actress. But there is a reason why the Wallander books and the series enjoy immense popularity. Both Mankell and Krister Henriksson are the stars. You are one big cliche.

    Posted by Inspector Morse | September 18, 2015, 5:43 am
  4. I do agree that Johanna Sällström added a whole other dimension to the first 13 episodes. There is a laconic sadness in all that she does and like many others I was entranced by this. Compare her to other portrayals of Linda Wallander and you see that she did not simply deliver a line and walk away, she paused often, spoke with deliberation and more than anything held an expression. Her melancholic demeanour made you care about her character and her rare smiles made you smile. The scene in which we learn that she would ‘say goodbye to the sea’ was beautiful in its writing and execution. I love how nothing in these episodes has to make sense, nothing needs to be concluded and nothing needs to be flagged up for the dumb audience to understand it.

    In the next series suddenly we see that there are obvious interconnecting plots and parallel stories… it does get a little too obvious. The barren landscape and broken relationships of the first series are replaced with the colour one associates with soaps. Isabelle and Pontus are characters without soul. It is as though after Sällström’s departure, they were not brave enough to be as bleak any more. A pity as it was then only good rather than exceptional.

    As for Johanna Sällström – her haunting eyes and intrinsic sadness will stay with me forever. She was wonderfully evocative, coldly beautiful and oh so sadly vulnerable. What a terrible loss for us all.

    Posted by Prylander | November 22, 2015, 12:59 pm
  5. I don’t disagree with anything in this beautifully thought out critique, but will only add a few thoughts: the potency of the first series must have been very great, if the lesser bleakness, duration/detail and authenticity of the later series were still sufficient to captivate me in the way they did. The author compares those later series with US Cop shows. To me they are almost incomparably different, thank God… as all the Swedish series are different- and immensely superior to- the UK versions. What a pity all this cross-contamination had to go on, with the two Wallanders ‘running around’ the city and studio at the same time as they were filmed concurrently. It does appear as if the ambitions of the producers have indeed resulted in a loss of vision.

    Posted by Jussifan | January 22, 2016, 7:01 am
  6. One more thing… it’s quite a sad time for me right now, as I’ve only just now read of the death of Johanna Sällström. It is extremely disappointing, of course with regard to the series, but I also really hate to hear of people succumbing to depression and succeeding in exiting. It is in the nature of depression for the sufferer to try (unsuccessfully, usually) to hide it partly out of shame and partly out of a keen awareness of others’ impatience with the conditions, especially if it is chronic/of a longstanding nature. In any case I wonder if we are neither sensitive enough nor close enough to each other- instead we give each other infinite space in which to be alone and die and yet fail to love each other adequately.
    I have no issue with Henning Mankell’s political leanings or his didacticism. Because I am so in accord with his thinking I am grateful that he has existed.
    Back to the sad time… I have also only in the last day or two learned of Mankell’s death, when I am already reeling from the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman.
    That’s far too many needed people gone from this world.

    Posted by Jussifan | January 22, 2016, 7:12 am
  7. Wow, you mean this series actually gets worse after “Stefan’s” suicide? I started watching this series as DVDs from my local library, and I enjoyed the first couple of episodes. Dark and intriguing, a bit raw and gritty, interesting characters, edgy plots. Then “Linda” was introduced, and the series began to show signs of that typical US affliction where the writers have characters do idiotic things so it simplifies the plot development. I figured it was just bad writing of a new character. I then got access to the program again via our local cable network, and things went from bad to worse. The characters became even less perceptive, more unlikable, and the plots became even more strained and predictable, if not outright formulaic. As it happens, I just finished watching the episode where Stefan does himself in, and after the last several episodes, I was developing a distinct dislike for the character, and for Linda’s inability to see through him. I was nearly cheering when it appeared Stefan was going to be removed from the series permanently. Almost every character was lying about some major aspect of their current or past life, in spite of supposedly being intimately involved with one another. I almost felt like I needed to take a bath after watching some episodes. They were supposed to be police, but they mainly messed up their own cases and lives with deception and dishonesty, or just sloppy police work and personal relationships. The writers seemed to be going every which way, like they couldn’t solidify the characters they were trying to develop.

    Anyway, I’m done with this series. I see no point to continue following it, especially now knowing it just gets worse as it goes along. The one thing I do want to research, however, is if Sweden really doesn’t require search warrants. This show seems to walk all over basic rights I take for granted in Canada, and I’d like to know if that is an accurate portrayal of the supposedly enlightened Swedish criminal justice system.

    Posted by Mister-eWatcher | March 1, 2016, 10:51 am
  8. The first series is the best to my mind, mainly because the interaction of three charismatic actors / interesting characterisations (Henrikson, Rapace and Sallstrom). It is also quintessentially Swedish (whatever that is, but you feel it) in a way the second series is not. However, I think you are harsh on the second series and you do over-romanticise Sallstrom (excellent though she is). There is not too much difference in the quality of the writing and production between either series. Series 1 had some pedestrian and silly plotlines – as does series two. This is not really the point though, as the attraction of the series is the representation of another cultural mentality and landscape, which Wallander does well. The producers did well to keep the series going after losing Sallstrom and Rapace – I had doubts they would pull it off, but on the whole I think they do. Pontus and Isabelle are adequate additions, and a greater focus on Henrikson’s Wallander works to the good. The character of Katarina Ansell also papers some cracks. There’s even Jussi the labrador! The vein of Swedish summer moving through series two is a strong atmosphetic element – rather than a contrivance. So all in all – like for like with the shifting of some components, albeit the first series has a freshness and star quality which can’t be replaced. Sallstrom is missed.

    Posted by David Inglis | May 26, 2016, 9:54 pm
  9. Wow. Interesting take. Incisive in many ways. But you are so abjectly negative and mean-spirited. You must be a sad human being.

    Posted by Alan Garber | October 28, 2016, 11:14 pm

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