There’s Something About Sarah: The Killing


This story ran in The Sunday Herald, November 11 2011

THE FIRST TIME YOU SEE SARAH LUND in the second series of The Killing, you might not realise you’re seeing Sarah Lund at all.

The scene comes five minutes into the opening episode. We’ve already seen, back in Copenhagen, in the night, cops swarming busily around the body that will set this dense new story in motion: a woman, stabbed repeatedly before she died, tied to a post in a park, left propped there on display.

Now, though, it’s the bleak morning of the next day. We’re no longer in the city, but far away, out through southern Denmark’s flat, grey-green countryside to a bare industrial port. From a high distance, we watch as a lorry just off the ferry waits to be checked. A small, dark figure in a bulky police uniform appears, walking away from the camera, examines documents, waves the truck on – then slouches, stands hands in pockets with the dreaming attitude of a bored boy, staring off toward the sea, waiting for whatever happens next.

As entrances go, it’s hardly grand. But for Inspector Lund – for that’s who this distant, anonymous soul turns out to be; demoted, demoralized and banished from the city to dingy parochial duties following the events of the first series – it’s all but perfect.

Back at the start of 2011, an audience of over half a million followed Lund’s every move, as the first series of The Killing unspooled on BBC Four in Saturday-night double bills soon so obsessively guarded that, even in this time-shifted iPlayer age, entire weekends were being arranged around them. (The viewing figures are small beans, but for a digital channel like BBC Four, big news. More people watched The Killing than Mad Men.)

Towards the end of the series, which saw Lund investigate the rape and murder of a teenage girl, I heard more than once about people inviting friends over on a Saturday on the strict understanding that, between 9 and 11, they would all be watching TV. And there would be no talking. Such communal viewing happens a lot with point-and-shout reality parties like Big Brother or The X-Factor. But when you’re dealing with a quiet, subtitled Danish drama that spends a fair amount of time dwelling on the grieving process of bereaved parents and the backroom chicanery of Copenhagen’s local politics, it seems a phenomenon worth remarking.

For 20 hours, as she went through the 20 days of the case (The Killing’s format devotes one episode to each day of a single investigation; although most of those days tend to be nights), we sat right on Lund’s shoulder. We saw her at work, and we saw her at home, thinking about work. Showing her character thinking – a slightly pinched frown, a far-off fury behind the eyes – is something the actor who plays Lund, Sofie Gråbøl, is particularly good at.

All in all, we got about as close to her as you can to a TV character. But, aside from noting a certain stubborn chippiness, a failed marriage, the fact that she is invariably right and everybody else is invariably wrong, and a perverse, persistent inclination to wander alone into the most clearly and stupidly dangerous situations, usually in dark buildings, we never really got that close to her at all. There’s something about Sarah Lund that always turns away from you, keeps you at a distance. That’s what keeps drawing you in.

IF THERE’S AN UNKNOWABLE QUALITY TO LUND, it might be partly because the people who created her don’t fully know her themselves. The Killing, which first aired in Denmark in 2007, began life when the writer, Søren Sveistrup, approached Gråbøl, with a barebones idea for a series: a murder mystery about the death of a young girl with secrets, one that would touch an entire community, and almost everyone would seem a plausible suspect.

His original idea was to set it in a small village, but then the echoes of Twin Peaks might have got just a little too loud. Partly due to its length, the sense of a story that can just go on and on, the first series of The Killing, in basic outline, is very reminiscent of the David Lynch series, except without any of its mad cosmic otherness. Which is to say, not much like Twin Peaks at all. (Those echoes were there again in the recent American remake of The Kiling.)

Gråbøl had previously worked with Sveistrup on another series, playing the Julie of Nikolaj & Julie, a very popular, soap-edged drama, pitched roughly between This Life and Cold Feet, about thirtysomethings, relationships, emotions. Perhaps as reaction to all that, it was she who suggested the approach that became key to Lund, or the key to locking her away, just out of reach.

She wanted to make her detective uncommunicative, isolated from the people around her, and yet untroubled by that. When she started acting, in the mid-1980s, in films like Pelle The Conqueror, Gråbøl worked often with Ingmar Bergman’s most famous leading man, Max Von Sydow, and she has performed Bergman on stage; this is not to suggest The Killing’s high-polished pulp in any way recalls the deep, bleak fractures of the transcendent Swedish depressive, but memory-traces of the chill might have rubbed off on Lund.

As much Gråbøl’s creation as Sveistrup’s, Lund came together in pieces, while the programme was in the process of being filmed. Neither knew quite where she was going when they started. Sveistrup worked in a way so old-fashioned it can seem new: he wrote his show as it was being made, sometimes only a script ahead of the episode being shot.

This seat-of-the-pants method helps account for how, while it comes on all quiet, sad and slow-burning, The Killing’s plot actually has the frantic, relentless, hook-and-twist-laden forward motion of a cliff-hanger serial. It also explains a few apparently overlooked loose ends in the first series that, depending on your frame of mind, are either irritating, or intriguing. (Without giving anything away to anyone yet to catch series one, and who is hoping Santa might bring the box set, I still don’t have much clue who was supposed to be spying on Lund in her lonely apartment. But I can’t  decide whether I quite like not knowing.)

As they went, the story would mutate as Sveistrup would factor in ideas inspired by what the actors were doing in front of the cameras along the way. Equally, though, Gråbøl was able to challenge the writer when she sensed Lund being turned in directions her detective wouldn’t take. Sveistrup had originally planned the obvious thing: for Lund to have an affair with Troels Hartmann, the charismatic young mayoral candidate who becomes a suspect in the murder (brilliantly played by Lars Mikkelsen). When you watch the first series, you see clearly the moment it is supposed to happen. And then it doesn’t. Because Gråbøl argued the writer out of it.

At the same time as she knew instinctively what Lund wouldn’t do, however, Gråbøl at first found it difficult feeling her way into an estranged character who kept her emotions to herself, who had a hard time coping with family (it can be difficult to remember that Lund is a mother, as the series doesn’t shove it down your throat), and who, for all her reticence, had no difficulty arrogantly insisting on doing things her own way, regardless of the consequences or what anyone else might say or feel about it. Finally, she figured it out. She decided, more or less, to play her like some of the men she knew.

IN THIS RESPECT, SARAH LUND is the diametric opposite to the other most famous female protagonist of the Nordic crime wave that recently swept the UK: Lisbeth Salander, the hacker-punk heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy. Salander is very much a male fantasy of a damaged, sexual, vengeful superheroine in PVC. Lund, while also created by a male writer, is animated by a woman trying to think what a man might do.

Aside from their particular obsessiveness, there aren’t too many similarities between the characters of Sarah Lund and The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo. But The Killing undoubtedly owes much of its success in Britain to the perfect storm of interest in Scandinavian crime that was peaking as it debuted.

It’s a fair bet that every person in the small audience who watched the first episodes, and then made it the word-of-mouth hit it became, had also been watching the Swedish version of Wallander that occupied BBC Four’s Saturday night slot before that. Many of them would have also have been followers of Spiral, the great, twisted, pulpy French policier which, back in 2006, first launched BBC Four’s ongoing experiment in weekend Eurocrime. (Far more than Lisbeth Salander, Spiral’s magnificent lead cop, Captain Laure Berthaud, played by the brilliant Caroline Proust, seems a stubborn soul sister of Lund, though Laure has an unfortunate tendency to give herself away too much.)

The Killing, and particularly the second series, which touches on the psychic and political effects on Denmark of the “war on terror,” shares ground with the concerns that Mankell explores with Wallander, and Larsson did in his Millenium books: the idea that something has gone rotten in the northern heart of Europe, that leads to cartoons that provoke riots and gunfire on islands where teenagers are camping.

Really, though, for this viewer, anyway, the big draw of the series is less the plot and the theme than the mood, the chance to sink deep and long into the satisfying gloom: the damp streets, that crepuscular light in forgotten zones, the rain, dank woods, those regular, punctuating shots of mysterious city lights by night. In this respect, I mourn that the second series, at 10 episodes, is only half the length of the first. The third and final series, being filmed at this moment, will only be 10 episodes, too.

Can we get to the end of a piece on The Killing and Sarah Lund without mentioning her jumper? The chatter over the Faro Island sweater that Lund wears to ward off the chill has been done to death. All the same, it’s worth mentioning something Gråbøl said on the subject once, before she got sick of being asked about it:

“I was brought up in the 1970s, in Copenhagen, and I wore those sweaters. A lot of people did. They were a very clear signal in the 1970s of believing in humanity, believing in soft values, y’know: sitting round a fire with a guitar. I just loved the contrast of a very cynical woman in a very cynical line of work, dealing with very brutal crime, and then this very soft-valued sweater. It might send a signal. This lonely woman might be longing for other people, deep down.”

That may be post-rationalisation, but it’s an incredibly poignant reading. Where Steig Larsson created Lisbeth Salander as a modern, ass-kicking Pippi Longstocking, Gråbøl casts Lund as still secretly the little girl who once read those kinds of books, back by the fire, back among the singing, back before the rot set in.

Not to be confused with…The Killing