Saturday, September 08, 2012

Wallander III: The Brooding Continues

Inspector Kurt Wallander might have the most annoying ringtone ever.  He would not mind changing it, but he is not a gadget guy.  His specialty is the dark recesses of the human soul.  The Swedish detective will be put through the psychological wringer again in the third season of Wallander (promo here), which premieres tomorrow night as part of the current season of PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery.

As the season opening An Event in Autumn begins, Wallander is trying to pull his act together and start a new chapter in his life.  Together with his lover Vanja and her young son, he has moved into a comfily restored farmhouse.  Yet, then the dog goes and digs up a dead body in their front bushes.  Wallander reacts rather badly when the site of his hoped for domestic tranquility becomes a crime scene.  It also brings him into conflict with the seedy former tenant, whom Wallander suspects, but cannot pin anything on.  Things really get bad when a colleague is gravely injured, partly due to Wallander’s recklessness.  As you might expect, he takes this turn of events rather badly.  However, his other active investigation starts to overlap with the case of the corpse in his yard.

Autumn is absolutely vintage Wallander, filled to the brim with his angst and self-recriminations, with everything he says making matters worse.  Though grim even Wallander’s standards, it is a pretty solid crime story.  However, Sakia Reeves’ Vanja gets a bit tiresome.  After all, what does she expect from Kurt Wallander?

The clear high point of season three comes with the middle episode, The Dogs of Riga (airing 9/16).  Now shockingly living on his own, Wallander meets an even more miserable copper when Major Karlis Liepa of the Latvian police comes to inspect the bodies of some Russian gangsters that washed up on shore.  It turns out the victims were his confidential informers and members of his own force were probably responsible for their murders.  When the world weary Major also meets an untimely end, Wallander is sent to assist the Latvian police.  It is hard to tell the cops apart from the gangsters, but they are all hassling Liepa’s widow Kristina, looking for his case notes.

While the Baltics are still pretty Nordic, both in terms of climate and temperament, the change of scenery does Wallander the series and character good.  It gives director Esther Campbell an opportunity to stage some respectable cat-and-mouse games and Branagh quickly develops some nice chemistry with Rebekah Staton’s unmerry widow.  There is also an intriguing plot point involving the old archives of the Soviet-era secret police that adds some historical perspective.  It also features one of the overall series’ best guest-star performances from Søren Malling as the soon to be late Major.

Unfortunately, Riga is followed by Before the Frost, a series low point that thoroughly reflects Wallander author Henning Mankell’s strident leftism.  A childhood friend of Wallander’s semi-estranged daughter comes looking for help, but he inadvertently pushes her away with his clumsy interpersonal skills.  He will soon be desperate to find her, fearing the worst about the Christian doomsday cult she has fallen in with.  It is pretty clear Mankell considers Sweden’s biggest problem to be a surfeit of Christianity and anyone believing in Creationism is a potential terrorist waiting to snap.  Frankly, Frost is so didactic, it gets rather silly (and distracting).  For fans though, at least it reveals a bit more of Wallander’s backstory.

Despite ending on a comparatively flat note, season three of Wallander represents a rebound from the somewhat disappointing second season.  Branagh so thoroughly plums the depths of the detective’s depression, one fears for his own mental health when each season wraps.  The tense and cinematic Dogs of Riga gets the highest recommendation, but An Event in Autumn is also worth seeing, as a particularly representative day at the office for Wallander, when season three kicks off this Sunday (9/9) on most PBS outlets nationwide.