Saturday SkandiThriller: Below the Surface 2 – episodes 7 & 8


Unsung heroes

Woah! The blurb in The Observer last Sunday promised a stunning ending to Below the Surface 2, better even than the first series. I’ve been looking forward to this all week. As I’ve often done before, I’m splitting this blogpost up, and writing about episode 7 before I watch the finale.

And what an episode! At first, I thought it was going to be a tension-ratchetting episode, drawing things out until we’re ready to scream: the Russians invade Herdis’s home, bag her, threaten to shoot the little dog, Benji. June’s phone is in an envelope lying in plain site, but the Russian lady doesn’t find it. Neither do SP and Simon, arriving to interrupt proceedings. My fears that one or both of this pair would be killed off were unfounded. There was a mini-shoot-out, with the Russian heavy getting wounded and the ice-blonde abandoning him per protocol, but Herdis keeps her nerve, lies to everyone, and leaves in her son-in-law’s truck, with the phone.

And on the Ferry, things are getting tense. The Engineer’s dead, the tanks are still full, they’ve already passed Provensteen island where the ambush awaits. But Philip finds the valves and dumps the fuel whilst Captain Hvalso convinces Yusuf that it’s Provensteen or drift into the Baltic.

But there are bombs inside the trailer, threatening the hostages. Philip has to get in and disarm them or the ambush won’t work. He’s trying to break through the trailer roof. June wants to kill Rami and Mahdi. Time’s getting tight. Rami discovers that Mahdi used Hassan’s body, that Philip and June are alive and free.

And then it all comes to a head. Mahdi panics, runs for it. Philip orders the troops notto shoot, but Rami does. Mahdi is down, shot in the shoulder, possibly dead. June welts Rami over the back of the head with a wrench. Yusuf orders Hvalso to drive the truck and trailer, heading for the exit. Philip’s in the back, disarming bombs as fast as he can. He gets the last one just as the truck reaches the barricade: a sniper shoots Yusuf through the shoulder: he too looks dead.

Unexpectedly, the hostage crisis is resolved with an episode to go. And if Yusuf is dead, how can TTF track down who was pulling his strings? Mind you, the ferry is yet to be secured, Rami and June. June’s on our side, Philip says, blithely. Andwe cut to June, armed with Rami’s gun, running away, furtively.

Is there a big surprise coming? As I said, Woah!

In the end, though, the ending was not as advertised, and certainly lacked the personal tragedies that made the first series so brilliant. The episode began with June pursuing Rami and Philip pursuing June, assuming she intended to kill him. Not so. June wounds him in the leg and takes him hostage, a clever if short-lived reversal. She’ll let him go once she gets her phone back. This development doesn’t last long: the Strike Team are ready to attack but Philip goes in first, disarms June by shooting her in the arm. As for Rami, who has been defiled by being touched by June (there really are some sick aspects to the fanatic’s version of that religion), he tries to restore his honour by knifing her and Philip,and only loses his life by being shot, several times.

So at last it’s over, barring the mopping up. But the mopping up has heavy implications. Faithful Herdis, no less fanatical in her way than the religious nuts, givesJune back her phone in thee hospital. The blonde Russian, Anna Karashina, is identified from CCTV footage of June’sarrest at the airport. Bulow recognises her. Anna’s going to be deported, or she would be if she wasn’t going to be pulled out first. But she’s taking June with her, the first ever extradition from Denmark to Russia.

June doesn’t mind. She’s handed her phone to Philip who, after having seen that the two dead Danish soldiers were Rangers, his old mob, has promised to get the video out. Philip’s hacker buddies can upload it to the internet, untraceably, via the Dark Web. Unfortunately, Philip has to abort once he hears of June.

Philip rescues June one last time, swapping the phone for her extradition papers. It’s a yielding to the infamous realpolitik, doing the wrong thing to protect the country as a whole, not that anyone ever tests the opposite hypothesis, because they don’t want to, they’re fixated on being tough-minded, the mad arrogant bastards.

June, needless to say, is furious. She has her life back, and her family, at the expense of her cause, and we all know what matters most to her. Philip is left with a troubled conscience, the desire to expose wrong set against the knowledge that the entire State apparatus will be turned against him if he tries, andthis now he’s decided to go back to TTF.

I spent the last six or seven minutes expecting something explosive, literally explosive, to happen. But the series was too sophisticated for that kind of cliche. Its explosion was metaphorical, not literal: the Hacker Twins still had a copy of most of the video, 88% of it, to be specific. Should they wipe it, or….?

So the video comes out, and questions start to be asked. How much they might affect the now inevitable third series, I don’t know, but I’m happy to wait.

No, series 2 didn’t match up to series 1. It was still a sophisticated, gripping thriller, free from cliches, of a standard I wish this country could reach. But by opting for realpolitik concerns against private grief, honour and commitment, it condemned itself to stay merely a thriller. It avoided the personal on anything except a personal level, and left the hard questions to a credits-covering voiceover.

Even so, if series 3 is no better than this, I’ll still lap it up. But one can dream, can’t one?

Saturday SkandiThriller: Below the Surface 2 – episodes 5 & 6


Our Russian Friend

Well.

The first half of this week’s double bill kept us alert with a revelation, two connections and a twist at the end of episode 5 that, in a UK series, we’d see through in an Oresund heartbeat, and which even here was pretty hard to take completely seriously. With three episodes left, even the most hard-edged, risk-taking thriller series is not going to kill off both of its two leads at once, but just how the trick was going to be worked was something that set a high bar for episode 6.

Like a high-speed 24, we’re now into the daylight hours of the series, dawn creeping up and everyone still working overtime to be ready to resolve the hostage situation on the ferry. But the revelation, which explains just why the Russians are behind Yusuf and the kidnap plot, comes in one of two flashbacks for June. Remember that infamous footage she has of Danish solidiers being killed in Syria? They are being killed by the Russians: hence our cool peroxide blondewith the sleek Nineties hairdo being so eager to recover the mobile phone with the footage.

Which is currently held by dog-groomer Herdis, who sat next to June on the plane out of Syria, with her do Benji: that’s the connection. And by the halfway pointthis week, the Russians have Herdis’s name and her whereabouts.

But the trail is developing, and of course it’s the reliable SP and Simon who are on it. After his moment of indecision last week, Garnov is out, and the guy who stepped in (whose name and position I can’t at this moment recall or determine) has taken temporary charge. Meanwhile, our two most professional lieutennts have picked up Rafiq Hussain, owner of the apartment where the self-styled Brothers of Islam have their ‘mosque’ and hauled him in. And when the self-righteous Rami, out there on the boat – the biggest kind of religious idiot, sure he is right and everyone else will roll over because Allah is on his side – decides that Yusuf isn’t as smart as Rami thinks and calls Rafiq to get them to Syria (just like that: Allah will provide, remember), that gives SP and Simon what they need to link Rafiq to the Ferry, and turn him.

We learn that Yusuf is a nwcomer, more radical than though. Remember, that’s Ola Rapace under that face-fuzz, so just as Alpha in series one was only playing being a Muslim, I’m anticipating tht Yusuf too is playing a part we don’t yet know about.

Rami, however, is your original radical. Little brother Mahdi will be safe and will achieve paradise because Rami the blind fanatic says so. All he’s got to do is put a bag over June’s head and Philip’s head, shoot them both, film it. Philip, who’s been frozen half to death, sprayed with scalding water and hung several times and who consequently is not at the top of his game, tries to talk him out of it. He has a wife (Rami has already written her off for Mahdi) and he’s going to have a son. Philip’s offering a kind of Witness Protection.

And Mahdi puts a bag over June’s head and Philip’s head, shoots them both, films it. Both bodies go in the water under Raman’s proud-of-my-little-brother eye. How did they get around that?

Actually, it’s easy. There are two dead bodies hanging round, one male, one female, one dead terrorist convert, one dead canteen lady, and all that’s needed is a change of clothes. And now Philip’s got a certain freedom of movement on the boat, with the assistance of a blind eye from Mahdi, who wants back to his wife and son-to-be, but can’t bring himself to let the engineer (who’s been hiding out in the engine room all this time) gas Rami to death.

Rami and Mahdi’s little trick with ‘philip’ and ‘June’ has gone world-wide on the net, even as far as our dangerous Russian blonde (who hasn’t yet got to Herdis in Jutland in episode 6: the roads must be busy). Yusuf is now on his own with no reason to trust his amateur allies, so he starts negotiating with Garnov, who has to be brought back into the fold for this.

Philip’s also able to liaise ship-to-shore, guiding the authorities towards a plan to pretend to offer the terrorists a plane to Syruia whilsat guiding them to an island from which there are multiple attack angles. So the Ferry starts to move. As do SP and Simon, doggedly following June’s trail, discovering her home laptop is bugged by military hardware (Bulow denies it’s Danish), and now they’re off to Jutland. I have a bad feeling about this.

It’s all starting to turn inwards towards the end-game. According to the Observer, we’re heading towards a climax even bigger and better than last season. I don’t exactly see eye to eye with the Observer on a lot of things and their idea of better isn’t necessarily mine. But I’m watching very closely…

Saturday SkandiThriller: Below the Surface 2 – episodes 3 & 4


A Russian

It’s almost frightening how quickly we reach halfway, but we reach halfway with the first inklings of what might lie behind the story in Gidseltagningen‘s second series.

Up to this point, the third and fourth episodes were almost purely thriller, long on tension, short on development, but not in any way less engrossing. Episode 3 saw the ferry arrive in more-or-less mid-Oresund Sound, when it was allowed to stop, out of shoooting range of both countries. That with its engines off it would then become subject to the tide does not seem to be a factor anyone has considered and by this I mean kidnappers and writers: the ferry is just sitting there, not going anywhere.

Meanwhile, on shore, two lots of Police are preparing to deal with the situation, but as this still isn’t The Bridge, we only get to see the Danish side. Everyone’s in the dark, especially Darnov, the current Commander of TTF during Philip’s gardening leave. and it’s obvious from his immaculately cut beard and his elegant suit that he is not an action-oriented leader. Indeed, he can’t cut it when it really needs cutting.

We’re not up to that point yet. Nobody knows anything, not even that Philip is on board, though as the situation intensifies overnight, intelligence is gathered until TTF know almost as much as we do about the hostage takers.

Most of episode 3 is spent in hunting down June, who’s using all her paramilitary expertise to stay ahead of her hunters. One of the two truck drivers, the wimpier one, the driver, gives her away to the terrorists, but of course she’s no longer on the truck. He becomes the first hostage to be killed, as June ignores his plight in her efforts to escape.

Unfortunately, the second isto be a double-header: mother and six month old baby. Philip tries to talk June in, but her intransigence – which we see develop through a series of flashbacks of her advancing radicalisation – remains absolute. She constructs home-made bombs, chucks one at the wimpy terrorist Mahdi, brains him with a fire extinguisher that she brings down with skull-crushing force only for it not to even give him a headache, and is only stopped by pointblank machineguns as she leads a hostage fightback that forces her to drop her weapons.

Philip spends most of these two episodes out of action. He starts unconscious, spends most of episode 3 under armed guard, gets lockd in the freezer, frees himself once but goes straight back inside where, as his paraallel flashbacks with the sympathetic Beate illustrates, he gives up, helpless.

Onshore, the Minister authorises a raid, in force, covertly. Unfortunately, it’s not covert enough: the boats of armed anti-terrorist Police are seen by the moron terrorist and a trap is left. Unfortunately for him, he’s the bait, left to be gunned down to guide the attackers into the lounge where six hostages are wired to C4…

The attack’s a flop. Yusuf gives them thirty seconds to get clear or the rest of the hostages die. Garnov wastes ten of them being unable to decide what to do. TTF pull out. New impasse.

What is all behind this? The terrorists want a number from June, a mobile phone, and Yusuf is prepared to waterboard her for it. Rami, Mahdi’s fanatic brother and the one you’d most enjoy seeing be gut-shot and bleeding out over the whole of episode 7, gives her ten minutes to write it down or he’ll slit her throat (without recognising the self-defeating aspect of that threat). June writes it down.

Onshore, Military intelligence Chief Bulow once again has a cryptic meeting with his Russian diplomatic opposite to tell her that Denmark won’t hand June over. Meanwhile, the mobile phone number June’s written down leads us to the dog-grooming salon, where a mobile phone is stolen. And handed to Russia’s diplomatic representative. Well, well.

Despite the couple of slipshod moments in the writing, which I found somewhat depressing after the absence of them in 2017, I’m still on board (as is Philip) to find out where this is going, and how many more get killed along the way. The third week is when we usually start to see more of the shape of things…

Saturday SkandiThriller: Below the Surface 2: episodes 1 & 2


I said at the end of this brilliant Danish thriller’s first series that  I thought they’d left themselves no ground on which to build a second series but that I’d watch it like a shot if they did. And here we are with series 2, another eight episodes and, on the strength of the first two, as good as it was before.

Of the three stars in series 1, there’s no room for Sara Hjort Ditlevsen as Louise or Paprike Steen as Naja Toft but Johannes Lassen returns as Philip Norgaard, the ex-Army Captain, ex-hostage and halfway to being ex-Commander of the Danish Police’s Terror Task Force (TTF). Philip is on leave for a year, a kind of gardening leave to recover from the events of series 1. He’s been seeing a psychologist, Beate Seitso (Helle Fagralid), initially not of his own volition, and we don’t yet know how good she is at psychology but she’s been good for him on one level, because the pair are in love, make warm, loving (as opposed to gymnastic) sex, he’s moved in with her and her ten year old son Asger (Bertil Smith) and he’s not going back when his leave is over.

Yes, I know, it’s a cliche of sorts, the idyllic life about to be shattered by unforeseen events that will propel the hero back into action and demonstrate to him that the quiet life is not for him. After the dismal season 3 of Follow the Money I am prepared for this rather tedious structure to play out, but we have three more weekends to find out if that’s what the team have in mind and Below the Surface starts from a higher level so I am hopeful.

For all that, and my praise of the first series’ refusal to allow mavericks to compromise it, it is necessary to admit that the premise of the second series is based on something rather too close to that.

The first episode starts in typical Scandinavian fashion, introducing us to various, seemingly unrelated elements, in media res, that we will ponder over the relevance and interrelation of until they are knit together. The largest of these are Philip, and co-star Yasmin Mahmoud, playing June Al-Qabee, a 22 year old radicalised Danish student who went to Syria to fight ISIS, who has been tried and convicted for it and surrendered her password for twelve months. June, who is gloriously (or fanatically: we don’t know enough yet) unrepentant, is both dangerous and in danger. There is a fatwa issued on her, plus she has footage of Danish soldiers being killed in Syria, where, of course, no Danish soldiers are. Officially.

The connection between these two is tangential: Philip gave a guest lecture at June’s college where she challenged him in pretty straightforward terms about how fucked-up everyone has made Syria. But she’s trying to get the footage to Philip, not realising he’s on leave, and when she tries to speak to him directly, she’s kidnapped.

Philip swings into action, tracks the kidnap car to a nearby underground parking garage, but no further. So he brings in TTF, in the person of the reliable SP and Simon (Alexandre Willaume and Peder Thomas Pedersen, welcome returnees from series 1). They approach the case professionally, but with less conviction that Philip, the more so after Military Intelligence, in the person of its Chief, Lars F. Bulow (Soren Pilmark) arrive to claim jurisdiction. Bulow will go on to doctor TTF’s report on June, redacting like crazy for reasons yet to be disclosed.

But Philip, even though he’s been warned off the case, is still thinking about it. June has been kidnapped, by four Muslims, made up of one competent leader (Yusuf, played by Ola Rapace, who was Denmark’s answer to lonely, big-breasted, Fifties Danish women in Crimes of Passion, as dear old Christer) delivering June to a mystery figure we know of as Abdul, one moron (there is always one), one naive boy and one religious fanatic, the latter being Mahdi Hasan (Anis Alobaidi). And it’s Mahdi’s name, which has come up in TTF’s preliminary investigation overlooked by Philip, that Asger, the kidnapping’s only witness now mentions.

Philip goes in pursuit. At the moment, I’m avoiding the ‘M’ word in favour of ‘rogue’. Yes, he’s used illegal hacking to track Mahdi’s whereabouts using his mobile phone, but he’s representing himself as Police, and when the moment comes he engages procedure, because he knows procedure works.

To get to that point, Philip has called in favours from Kiki, daughter of Olai, the guy with whom he’s restoring a dilpidated boat, to track the kidnappers’ Audi to the Elsinore-Oresund Ferry, where they’re travelling to Sweden. (Apparently, we can’t use the Oresund Bridge, presumably because it’s under trademark to The Bridge, though the real reason for the Ferry – which is being captained by familiar and welcome Soren Malling – will shortly become apparent). Philip has to physically leap the widening gap to catch the Ferry.

Practically the whole of episode 2 takes place on the Ferry. June escapes, the gang search for her, Philip prowls. Oresund draws near. Once he’s scouted the place thoroughly, Philip alerts the Captain to press the red button, the alert to Swedish police. In typical Below the Surface fashion, no-one plays silly buggers aout the Captain not believing and he pushes the button. Process starts. SP and Simon are called in.

And someone’s monitoring the Police intelligence and warns Yusuf, Mahdi and co they’ve been rumbled. Breaking out machine guns, they storm the bridge and order the ferry to stop. The second-in-command refuses and is shot. The Captain puts the Ferry in reverse. We have a hostage situation again.

This is where English retitling comes a cropper. The original Danish title is Gidseltagningen, which translates as ‘Hostages’. The overly simplistic retitling for series 1 has hung a misleading yoke on the series. But this is where we’re at, and this is where we’ll progress from. And, looking forward in anticipation, this is a good point to assume there’ll be a Below the Surface 3 in due course.

Just one more thing to mention before we settle down to watch the stand-off play out. I did refer to disparate strands seeming to be unrelated, and one of thsse is a  skinny elderly woman, who runs a dog-grooming business with her daughter, and who seems to take an inordinate interest in June. For why? We don’t know yet. All we do know is that this lady’s perky black and white dog used to belong to June…

Saturday SkandiThriller: Below the Surface episodes 7 & 8


All good people

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.

Saturday SkandiThriller: Below the Surface episodes 5 & 6


After a week’s interlude to dissipate the effects of a real-life terrorist attack, Below the Surface moved into its back half with another pair of fascinating and taut episodes that set up the final week.

There was a distinct Lost element to both episodes, with pertinent flashbacks for a central character in each. First was Bodil, the elderly woman hostage. Joachin, the tense, uptight guy among the hostage, permanently restless and wanting to strike back, developed a plan to do so. This involved jumping one of the captors, taking his assault rifle and causing trouble for the others.

You were hard pushed to see how that could work, given the imbalance of power, and training, which in the end proved crucial, but Joachin, who succeeded in dragging some of the others into his scheme, got a long way into it.

Basically, he took advantage of Alpha and Brave taking Ricco out for the next interview with Naja Toft, now happily loved up with Jonas the fake, leaving Charlie alone. By pretending to have shit his pants, Joachin got let out of the cage, and used his opportunity to smash Charlie across the back of the head with a handy adjustable spanner.

But this only led to a stand-off: Joachin and one prisoner on one side, Alpha and Bravo with Ricco on the other, guns to eveybody’s head. But it was two guns to one. Fortunately, Philip Norgaard had managed to negotiate his way into the interview at Naja’s end, and talked Joachin down into surrender without bloodshed.

Where does Bodil come into all this? She’s trying to talk Joachin and the rest out of doing this at all, out of upsetting the apple cart, out of risking eeverybody’s life for the frustration of one stupid blowhard who’s reacting more to having his masculinity threatened than to his intelligence. The flashbacks establish her as a lifelong activist, constantly challenging society’s rules. She’s contemptuous of how she failed to communicate this to her daughter, proud that her grandson picks this up – until, that is, he has to run from the Police, and falls through an unconstructed floor, two stories, onto concrete. His mother is contemptuous of an old hippy who was a neglectful and unsupportive mother who can’t see how she has led up to this disaster.

So Bodil tries to keep the peace, prevent disaster developing, individual hurt rising from an unchecked, unthought out attack on superior forces. There’s a cruel aftermath: Joachin has a punishment beating administers, Denise snaps, tries to attack the captors, she is throw off and a gun is fired. The lift brings up another dead hostage: it is Bodil.

In the background, TTF’s attempts to get some kind of handle on the situation continue. Last episode’s cliffhanger, the discovery in the garage, turns out to be a wall of clippings, an obsessive study…of Philip. It’s clearly significant, though the Justice Minister dismisses it as anything but: just studying the opposition chief, nothing personal.

The lovely Louise is sent to negotiate away into Naja’s interview, which she signally fails to do: it’s Philip who achieves this. And there’s where the first clue arises. Naja is still shagging fake Jonas, supposedly Leon’s son. She determinedly asks Ricco to pass on a message to Leon, from his son. But Ricco’s known Leon for fifteen years: he has no son, instead two grown daughters.

Needless to say, Naja keeps this discrepancy to herself rather than immediately tell the Police: well, she’s a Reporter, isn’t she? Which looks likely to get her into trouble, in episode 6, when Jonas turns up for more morning screwing and realises from her sudden lack of enthusiasm that it’s all gone pear-shaped. A quick backhander later and Naja is forced to dress and pack for an extended stay somewhere else, a process that she drags out interminably until TTF, who are tapping her phone and surveilling her, can bust in and take Jonas.

Or Ben Larson, ex-Danish Army, a man whose younger brother was killed in Afghanistan, one of a number of men in elite Platoon K7 caught up in a massive disaster. Jim and Marc held were killed by a grenade. K7’s men underwent heavy trauma, to which they have responded in varying degrees.

The idea that the Danish military may be involved in this is horrific. The crisis has lasted six days now, two hostages are dead, twelve others still captive. The public are getting restive. It mustn’t get out. TTF are getting ever nearer. One of the things I like about this series is that everybody’s competent. There are no mavericks, solving things by breaking the rules, just men and women who know what they’re doing and can be trusted to do so without it undermining Philip in any way. The team of Simon and S.P. have done much of the groundwork, with a total lack of flash, and it’s been so refreshing to watch.

But this is Louise’s episode. We see flashbacks to her at twelve, already reading things into body language, voice inflexions. Her father’s lost his job but won’t admit it to her mother. She saves is life when he tries to commit suicide in the garage, by carbon monoxide.

And she diagnoses, and reports to the Minister, that Philip is lying when he claims not to know anything about K7. And she analyses recordings, and finds a match between Alpha and a member of K7. The revelation of who Alpha really is, that it’s not Ahmad but is equally horrifying, floors Philip. Alpha’s real name is Marc. Marc Held.

Next week is going to be gooooddddd!

Saturday SkandiThriller: Below the Surface episodes 3 & 4


Louise Falck, negotiator

We have now advanced rapidly to the halfway point of this extremely well-made series, and what has continued to be a taut, and highly engrossing thriller is starting to develop elements branching out from a mere plot. In a way, this is something of a limited series in comparison to the best of Denmark’s previous TV efforts, but I’m enjoying it far more than anything else from that part of the world since at least 1864.

Two more days have passed in the hostage crisis, and TTF (or maybe that should be CTF as I seem to be working off a different set of sub-titles this week) are inching nearer to the hostage-takers, Alpha, Bravo and Charlie, after a false move in episode 3.

That saw the elderly, unshaven Leon (played by the only actor I’ve seen before, Tommy Kenter, who was in Follow the Money 2) collapse into a diabetic coma. Alpha agreed to allow a medic down to treat him, but TTF used this as an opportunity to get one of their own into the underground lair, to be eyes and ears for a raid. This back-fired badly: a trip-wire set off explosions, which set off shooting. TTF had to back out with four men shot, not fatally at any rate, but Silas of the hostages copped a bullet in the side.

This became a proving moment for Marie, the nurse. We found out from her flashback that she’d be blown out for indecision (peculiarly apt in Denmark…) and she was out of her depth and failing in trying to save Silas, until she finally pulled herself together and set-up a makeshift blood transfusion which kept him alive long enough to be got out.

Leon got his insulin shots and was restored, and he flashbacked in episode 4, to life in Thailand with a not-so-young Thai prostitute who he planned to bring back to Denmark, but who wouldn’t go with him, destroying his dreams. That spurred him to break out the cage when flirty Denise pushed her luck too far with the psycho hostage-taker and was in the process of being raped. Leon averted the rape at the cost of a rifle-butt to the ribs and consequences to be seen. I anticipate a Denise flashback in episode 5: let’s see how right I am.

The story-line twisted at the end of episode 3. After last week’s shooting of Adel, Naja Toft had lost her nerve. She couldn’t believe they wanted another interview, which would have been with Leon, but at the last moment, she bottled it, switched off her phone.

This carried over into episode 4, with Naja withdrawing entirely, apologising to the families, leaving. But in a move I thought suspicious, one guy – rugged, self-sufficient, reasonably hamdsome or at least personable, followed her out. He said he was Leon’s son, he said he wanted to take over the fundraiser, he quite clearly fancied her. They spent the day together, talking, exchanging stories, meal, wine, and as could be seen coming, they spent the night together. Naja got an evidently enjoyable shag out of it, and her confidence back. And he walked away, pausing only for a quick mobile phone call to reassure Alpha that she’ll take his next call…

See, I was right.

It’s about the only cliched thing so far, and it does serve to deepen the waters as to just what Alpha wants, where this is heading and a large dose of What Is This All About?

I’ve avoided mention thus far of the traumatised Philip and the lovely Louise. After the error in authorising Cramer’s ill-fated raid in episode 3, Philip has kept a little in the background in episode 4, leaving S.P. and Claasen to trace back weapons equipping and get closer to the background, though he plays a brief blinder, empathising with a PTSD veteran in such a way as to have the lovely Louise fearing it wasn’t an act. He insists it was. Mind you, he’s using a back channel to check up on whether his torturer Ahmad really is dead, and when the word comes back that he really is, Philip is forced to open up the way she’s been wanting him too, confessing as to his experiences with Ahmad, and his fears that in believing Ahmad is Alpha, he is cracking up.

It adds a depth to what is going on that has previously to this been more hinted than actual, but which tees things up very nicely for the second half of the series.

I’m torn between wanting Alpha to be Ahmad, because so much is being built into this that I’m worried about how they’ll pull this off if it is someone unrelated, and being intrigued at the prospect of being blindsided and the ingenuity of how they’ll pull it off. With only four episodes left, some very clever plotting is going to be needed to draw everything into a satisfactory conclusion, but you know when you’re in good hands as readily as you know when you’re in bad ones, and I’m expecting to be kept in edge to the final edge.

Two more weeks. It’s hardly fair.

Saturday SkandiDrama: Below the Surface episodes 1 & 2


Okay, you got me for the next month.

Below the Surface is a 2017 eight-part Danish thriller series, which came to BBC4 on Saturday evening in the usual two-episode format. It’s a simple, straightforward series, or so it presents itself in the opening salvo. Three seemingly Muslim terrorists stop a Danish Metro train underground, lead 15 passengers at gunpoint through the system into an area being constructed, near Copenhagen’s picturesque Marble Church, where a well-prepared site is waiting. They demand a ransom of 4M euros (30M kroner) for their release.

The Government calls in its newly created TTF (Terror Task Force), under the command of ex-Army Philip Norgaard (Johannes Lassen), to contain and resolve the situation. However, the Terrorists refuse to communicate with TTF’s negotiators, who include the lovely Louise Falck (Sara Hjort Divletson), Philip’s very very recently (as in, this morning) ex-lover, choosing TV presenter journalist Naja Toft (Paprika Steen).

Naja is offered a live interview with one of the hostages, Marie Bendix (Alba August), a student nurse, which she puts on air without authority, and which gets her fired. But the terrorists, under their leader Alpha (Jakob Oftebro), maintain the relationship: Naja, who has now started a fundraiser to raise the ransom, is offered a second hostage interview, this time with karate teacher Adel (Dar Salim).

But Adel refuses to play ball, tells his audience he’d rather die, not to pay anything. He continues in the face of a threat to shoot fellow-hostage Denise (Sus Wilkins), an attractive young woman. At episode 2’s end, the terrorists release a hostage: it is Adel, and he is dead.

So far, so slick, professional and absorbing. It may not seem like more than an action story on a sadly-contemporary theme, but there are a couple of aspects that look like taking it into a higher plane.

These centre mainly on Philio. The series opened with a lengthy underground scene of Philip, a hostage himself, being brutalised by Ahmad, a burly figure in camouflage gear, with a big, black beard. Ahmad plays with Philip, teasing him almost, in between savage blows. It is an impossible situation. Yet Philip escapes, returns home, goes back to work as the operational commander of the new TTF.

How did he get away? That’s being kept in the dark so far. Philip won’t talk about it, either with his Dad, the former Defence Chief, nor the lovely Louise, who’s splitting up with him because he’s lying to her about the ‘bad dreams’ that wake him up whenever she stays over. Philip’s been fully debriefed, seen all the shrinks, got a clean bill of health, but obviously whatever he told them is not going to be the truth, and he is still having flashbacks.

Is it going to be that he’s another Manchurian Candidate? Or, to be more up-to-date, first season Nicholas Brody? I dunno. It’s got Louise concerned about his fitness to do the job.

And there’s one major question mark over Philip from another source already, and as this is the current Defence Chief, I’m already betting Philip gets relieved of his command no later than episode 5. Because Philip is convinced he has recognised the heavily balaclava-masked Alpha as Ahmad, because Alpha ends episode 1 by quoting Peter Sellars’ catch-phrase from that old, old film, The Party. Ahmad uses it during Philip’s captivity, Alpha uses it now: “Howdy, partner.”

But Ahmad is dead, three months after Philip escaped, killed in an American drone attack. Or is he? Is Alpha Ahmad, or is Philip cracking up? I’ve already laid my bet. Ahmad doesn’t appear in the credits in imdb for Gidseltagningen (the Danish title) after all.

Even if Below the Surface turns out to be no more than a thriller, it’s at least a well-made one in which no-one’s done anything stupid so far. Which, given things like Modus, Follow the Money, and that legend of legends, Salamander, is all manner of plus points already.