Nordic Noir is dead we keep hearing. Broadcasters are now straying away from the tried and tested cop procedurals based in Scandinavia, we’re being told. Well, Bordertown is unashamedly Nordic Noir and it’s all the better for it. What do I mean by Nordic Noir? It’s based in Finland, and in a specific area with lots of history and conflict (Karelia), features an unconventional cop who, ahem, borders on the obsessed, and crimes that are both gruesome and contextualised with that ol’ socio-political ‘second story’. So far, so ‘by the numbers’ but I found the first three episodes of Bordertown (which was one story, called Nukkekoti Osa) to be really enjoyable and engaging, with characters that you believe in. Not revolutionary or groundbreaking, but good, watchable and gripping.
NB: Spoilers inside
Initially, I thought that this 11-part series would comprise one story – a la The Killing or The Bridge – over the 11 hours, but I was wrong. Bordertown – or Sorjonen as it was known when originally broadcast by Finnish national broadcaster, YLE – has been chopped up into five separate stories. The same central cast of characters, but five different stories. This is ok by me, because the only downside to streaming services like Netflix is the sheer amount of time you have to put aside for one series – let’s face it, anyone who watches Netflix or something of that ilk doesn’t just watch one episode; many episodes on the bounce tend to be consumed.
So I’ve decided to break the series up into five separate reviews, just like I would as if it was a series on linear TV. The first of these stories was called Nukkekoti Osa, which took up three episodes.
We were first introduced to our central character Kari Sorjonen (Ville Virtanen) as he surveyed a particularly gruesome murder scene: a young child lay, doll-like, on her bed, her eyes and mouth sewn shut. Sorjonen peered with sullen eyes upon the victim; his calm, docile exterior housing a busy, deductive mind. He got close to the victim – so close without actually touching her – looking, smelling and noting the fine details. For Sorjonen, examining this poor child’s body was an intimate, involving and exhausting experience. Suddenly he twitched into life, reeling off details as if his brain was externalising chains of events, rapid-fire. Soon he had deduced, from the body and from the child’s surrounding bedroom paraphernalia, that the murderer was her mother. Her birth mother (not the adoptive mother she had been living with), who had been posing as a cleaner. Or perhaps a home help. She was hiding in a hidden room, he proclaimed, perhaps an attic. His team of detectives soon found her, covered in blood, cowering in the corner of a makeshift surgical room upstairs.
It was quite the start, and quite the entrance to a character who had a touch of the Sherlocks about him.
We next saw Sorjonen at the bedside of his wife Pauliina (Matleena Kuusniemi) who was coming out of the other side of a battle with brain cancer. As her recovery evolved, they had decided to take themselves and their teenage daughter, Janina, away from Helsinki to the eastern town of Lappeenranta – Pauliina’s hometown – near to the border with Russia. St Petersberg sat just on the other side.
It was Sorjonen’s hope that this quieter pace of life would mean more time with his family. But, as we were to expect, this wasn’t to be the case. This was a crime drama, after all.
In the town, a young teenage girl had been murdered and dumped on the side of a river, and another had been abducted. In fact, we saw these girls in the initial scenes – a young man was giving them drugs from a syringe, and the whole conversation suggested that they were part of a prostitution ring in the town. Why they were being drugged, we did not know why at that stage.
As for Sorjonen, he demonstrated his special deductive techniques to his new work colleagues in the area’s newly formed security force – he used, he explained to slightly incredulous colleagues, mind mansions, which again echoes Sherlock Holmes’s mind palace techniques. He stood there, twitching and rubbing his temples, and began to show off (basically) by charting the histories of his colleagues with uncanny correctness. Like a mind reader or clairvoyant. Bearded Niko preferred desk-bound jobs, perhaps because he came from a family of pen-pushers; Johanna liked to be out in the field, but was constantly questioning herself.
Unlike Holmes – who Sorjonen obviously shares techniques and social awkwardness with – our Finnish ihme etsivä is a likeable character. He displays empathy and kindness, he dotes on his wife and has a believable relationship with Janina, who’s smart and funny and witheringly teenage. In fact, his family anchors him, and he’s well capable of love. When it comes to detective work, however, Sorjonen slips into a familiar groove – like a needle stuck on a record, he has to find things out and complete a task; like having a superpower he cannot turn off. It tires him, it worries him and it makes him unpopular with his new colleagues.
But this case – which reminds him of the dead girl we saw in the opening scenes back in Helsinki – has gotten under his skin. What’s more, there are forces in the town against him. Some city hall people and members of a Keralian business group who want to build a super casino to attract Russian tourists are part of a gang who – Sorjonen, Niko and the team find out – are drugging young women to the point of full sedation and offering their lifeless bodies for sex with tourists. As sex tourism goes, this is at the darkest end of the spectrum.
The Doll House – and young women providing sex while under sedation – is as high-concept and nausea-inducing as anything as I’ve seen on TV. It felt like the concept was lifted from a particularly gruesome novel.
What drives the narrative is the search for Katia, the abducted member of the Doll House and whose life is in extreme peril. Unlike traditional whodunits, we see Katia’s first abductor, and then second – a dentist, and expert anaesthetist – as he prepares her for one final ‘job’. What complicates Sorjonen’s search are two things – his colleague Johanna is reporting to the Karelian business group on the team’s progress (she’s told to stall things and keep Sorjonen away from their business interests), and Katia’s mother, Lena, who’s a hitwoman and FSB agent in Finland carrying out her own dirty work.
Lena added an interesting dynamic to what was a fairly by-the-numbers investigation – she too was desperately looking for her daughter, but went about things in a much more, ahem, direct way than the cerebral Sorjonen. Whenever the two met, however, it was an interesting juxtaposition, not unlike the scene in Heat when De Niro and Pacino met, sat across a diner table. Both wanted the same thing but came at that thing from different directions. When they met in the middle, they had respect for each other but both knew they had to do things their way. It added a tense, dance-like layer to the cat-and-mouse chase.
In the end, Katia was found alive and Sorjonen, who came to Lappeenranta for a quiet life, found that one big theme followed him: childhood and the loss of innocence. His case in Helsinki featured a child who had her mouth and eyelids sewn shut, as if trying to shield her from the horrors of the world in the most horrid and perversely deluded way possible; and then in Lappeenranta, young women were rendered lifeless to have sex with older men. These were pretty dark crimes.
But what kept Bordertown going was Sorjonen himself – a complicated but hugely likeable man who loved his family but also had trouble switching off his incredible deductive powers. Yes, we’ve seen it all before and some of the things in this story didn’t quite add up (I wanted more context and explanation behind the dentist’s motivations), but it was presented with verve and style. Enough verve and style to demand more viewing.