The final two parts of the superb Below the Surface come late but even more welcome: it is not always easy to access what you want to see. But I am so glad to have completed this series, because this was the part where this taut and crisp thriller moved out of being merely a thriller and into the deeper realms that it had slowly begun to suggest in the last couple of episodes. In doing so, it cemented itself as an awesome piece of serial writing, an object lesson in creating a piece of gripping and genuinely unpredictable fiction, whilst simultaneously more or less sealing itself off from any realistic possibility of a second series. Though I’d watch one in a Copenhagen heartbeat.
Where we left off, Alpha kidnapper Alpha had just been revealed as reported dead Danish soldier Mark Hald. Jakob Oftebro has played this role behind a ski-mask for six episodes, using a fake Muslim accent, and was amply rewarded for his patience by writing that turned the grim hostage-taker inside out, turning him into a tragic victim.
How did Philip know Mark? Under orders from the Chief of Defence, he was commanded not to say, even to his immediate superior, Hans, who temporarily suspended him, pending possible criminal charges. But the truth was horrifically simple, and the revelations horribly complex.
You’ll remember that, in episode 1, Philip was presented as a genuine hero, a hostage who’d endured solitary confinement and torture, but who’d escaped. I noted then that we weren’t being told how he escaped. Because he didn’t. He was one of three Danish soldiers taken hostage. The other two were Mark Hald and Jim Hansen, the two soldiers that we were told, by their Platoon commander, Sammy, were dead. Blown in two by a hand grenade. Not dead. Hostages. Unaware until Philip joined them, that no-one was negotiating for them because everyone believed they were dead.
The deadliness of that situation, a simple twist that opened up measureless canyons beneath the characters’ feet, fed through episode 7. Philip, who had genuinely believed his two fellow captives, who he’d sworn to get out, were dead, vents his rage at both current Chief of Defence Palle, and the former Chief, his Dad, seemingly breaking with the latter permanently, because they’d lied to him about Mark and Jim – whose foot was badly broken – still being alive.
Under Hans, a plan was devised to attack, a tendentious plan, extremely risky, but the only marginal bet. Philip returned, reinstated, in time to turn one of the other plans into something safer, with the aid of Naja, who volunteered to go in to conduct a live interview underground, to help the fundraiser over its last few million kroner.
This became the trojan horse that enabled the action team to neutralise the explosives in the tunnel, kill Beta and Charlie (who’d been getting bolshie about Mark since he’d removed his ski-mask) and get most of the hostages out. But Mark secured three, and insisted on a fourth going down there: Philip. Who goes below the surface.
And thus we reached an extraordinary final episode. When Philip arrived, Mark had secured the last three hostages, and furthermore taped something to Joachin. We found out what it was when he very professionally neutralised Philip, zip-tied his hands behind his back, and taped something similar to him: a semtex charge.
Then he contacted Naja to offer her a last interview. Hans immediately refused it so Naja, who was not under arrest, slipped off, found a quiet corner with wi-fi, and broadcast it anyway. So Mark interviewed Philip, and Philip told everything.
Philip didn’t escape at all, he was ransomed, personally by his father who used his entire life savings. He promised Jim and Mark he would get them out, he would not just start but force negotiations. But in Denmark, he was told to keep his mouth shut. Officially, he was not ransomed, he was a lone prisoner, who escaped. A bona fide hero. Because to admit that the Danish Government ransomed its soldiers was to put a price on the head of every single one of them.
And because the negotiations didn’t work, Philip was headed off by being told the compound had been hit by a drone strike, and everyone was dead. Which means, incidentally, that Philip’s torturer Ahmad wasn’t dead after all, which could be a lead for a second series yet.
The whole thing was an example of Henry Kissinger’s oft-touted Realpolitik.You took the Danish Government’s point whilst hating the abandonment of men who were acting in the service of their country. And there was another toughening twist immediately: Mark had indeed escaped, just as Philip was supposed to have done (making him the better soldier, maybe even the better man, or at least the more honest). But the crippled Jim was still back there.
And the ransom from the Copenhagen hostages was to pay the ransom for Jim.
There were still two more things that made this outcome even more hellish than it would have been in the hands of someone more prepared to play to television’s cliches. The first was that Mark forgave Philip. He understood what had happened. He did not have any rage against Philip, indeed at the end of things rage had not been a factor at all, just the determination to rescue his friend, his comrade, his fellow captive.
Because, once the money was very skillfully, professionally and irrecoverably delivered – by Platoon Commander Sammy, repaying his own unpayable debt and receiving forgiveness if not an absolution his eyes said he would never allow himself – Mark released and sent back the last three hostages, alive, before surrendering himself to a released Philip, asking to be taken out, via the tunnel, in uniform, by a fellow soldier.
But just before that was complete, Mark got a photo on his phone. The ransom paid, the money flown out of the country, and Jim had finally broken. And hung himself.
Mark said nothing, continued his plans, even got Philip to promise to look after Jim when he returned. But above the surface, Joachin told Louise about the phone message. I’ve not mentioned her so far, but she was on an upward trajectory throughout this pair of episodes, throughout the whole series, a character whose strengths led to de facto leadership, recognised by all unconsciously. She tracked the photo, and sent in a team to rescue Philip.
It all looked as if it was going to go horribly wrong at the last moment, but Philip asserted his authority, stood his men down, sent them back. By then it was too late: Louise had communicated about Jim. That left Mark with no ground upon which to stand, and he used the gun he’d trained on Philip to blow his brains out.
The sound of the shot crumpled Louise, calling Philip’s name, bringing her to instantly panicked tears. The series began with her breaking off their quasi-casual affair, but this instant took us deeper inside her, without the need for words. Yet, in a quiet but wonderfully buoyant coda, of the hostages being reunited first with each other and then their families, the Chief of Defence being sacked, Naja regaining her job at the tv station but returning to reporting not presenting, the last loose thread was left unpicked up. Philip left, presumably going to lose his job as Head of TTF, but there was no easy reconciliation with the extraordinary woman: she may have understood why he didn’t trust her with his secrets, when he didn’t trust himself, but he didn’t trust her: at least for now that was still a barrier, and a seemingly insoluable one.
Instead, Philip’s reconciliation was with his father, and a readiness to begin again.
It’s impossible to see how he could continue as Head of TFF, or even return to it, especially as he has spilled national secrets, hence my saying the ending has pretty near sealed off a series 2. But thinking about it further, there is an obvious link for a second series featuring many of the same characters, or at least Philip and Louise, based on the still alive Ahmad. I’m hoping.
What made Below the Surface so good, even on the purely thriller level, was its rigorous approach to its situation, and its refusal to make it easy for itself by any cheap tricks, shortcuts or cliches. One glaring point is that there were no Mavericks. It was all done by the book, by the rules, completely realistically.
Because do you know what Mavericks are at their heart? They’re cheap. They’re nasty. They’re a soft underbelly, a laziness to the writing, a way of getting round the obstacles that really exist by pretending that the obstacles aren’t there, that we can just do whatever the hell we like and solutions will magically appear because we break the rules. Same as Louise and Philip getting back together at the end. It’s cheap, it’s a cliche, it’s pretending. It’s a lie to the audience.
And Below the Surface showed that you can do this, you can draw your audience in, keep them there, even given them a basically happy ending without once lying to them. I wish a lot more TV series could make enough effort to do that, especially UK series. It can be done. It should be done. It makes it so much better.