Tuesday, 25 January 2022

TV review: Bordertown, seasons 2 and 3, Netflix (2018-20)

The bodies keep piling up but what gets me with this show is how people are allowed to have feelings. It’d probably be nice if the filmmakers showed in more detail how victims of crime and their families deal with all the murders, but even without that focus there are lots of slow shots with people just being themselves, plain and unadorned. Having awkward conversations. I think back to ‘Doc Martin’ and ‘The Big Bang Theory’ to find other examples of shows with neurologically atypical protagonists, people whose unique ways of seeing the world animate the shows and make them engaging. I think about my own character, and reflect back on my personal history to find traces there of strangeness. What is “usual”? What is normal? Who’s to say that I’m not? 

In ‘Bordertown’ atmospheric aerial scenes capture columns of cars angling through the Finnish countryside and are skilfully mixed with shots of the interior of police headquarters and people’s bedrooms. At the same time a secondary story involving Kari’s (Ville Virtanen) wife Pauliina (Matleena Kuusniemi) evolves to emphasise the human side of the show. It’s striking how important such things become for the viewer, and you get a sense of what the producers are trying to do as they slow down the action so that a look or a glance can take on epic proportions. In a way that reminded me of daytime soaps.

As in the first season the Russian angle is prominent in the first two episodes, which involve an historical crime Lena (Anu Sinisalo) has a connection to. Her daughter Katia (Lenita Susi) plays a part in this plot, which inducts a retired special forces soldier from across the border into the life of Lappeenranta. 

A major innovation in season 2 is Kari’s hallucinations. These strange scenes aren’t introduced by any special effects – for flashbacks you get a washed out palette, by contrast – so you segue seamlessly from a segment that carries the story forward (as usual, at a fast pace) to a dreamy conversation between Kari and someone from his chequered past. As a narrative device, this tactic adds drama while avoiding the trap of taking the viewer too far from the main plotline.

‘Bordertown’ switches to winter mode in season 3 but it’s always creative, and the way it helps the filmmakers interrogate humanity keeps you grounded because it avoids facile voyeurism. The importance of overarching themes – such as loyalty, power, or wealth – thus remains central. I watched in wonderment as Kari’s daughter Janina (Olivia Ainali) went off the rails, but these scenes were only possible because of how Kari’s family is involved effortlessly into the crimes rendered in dark tones. 

Colours full of night and love. It’s hard to see how you could get further from a stereotypical Hollywood variation on a well-trod map. Do we really need more police procedurals? If they’re as good as this one, I think they’re definitely warranted. Some people are addicted to the suspense, to the undertones of sin, to the strange symbiosis of prison and its colleague – a kind of populated freedom.

Although ‘Bordertown’ almost jumps the shark in season 2 eps 9 and 10 (‘Without a Shadow’), as each episode is unfolded – with quick shifts of focus from office to apartment building forecourt, from bedroom to crime scene – it’s almost impossible to work out the pattern and you wonder how the filmmakers are going to get it back in its envelope. The design is large and their vision is expansive: this ambitious show wants it all, even our memories.

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