Salamander: Happily Ever After

Now this guy WAS good.

So that’s how it ends, with the stunning, unexpected revelation that…

No, you’re not buying it, are you? Salamander ended as it began, in cliche and torpor, and with the usual welter of improbabilities that fell apart under the merest touch of thought. The good guy won and the bad guys lost, Gerardi got the girl (even though it’s still only at most ten days since his beloved Sarah burned to death before his eyes in a bombed-out car, meant for him, so no guilt-inducing trauma there) and Jonkere paid the price.

Which, in a way, was a sad thing, as Mike Verdrengh gave the only truly effective and convincing performance in the whole series.

What surprised me most was that the last two episodes were played out at the same glacial pace as the preceding two. There were yet more fade-to-black-and-white flashbacks to Gil Wulfs’ youth, as he sat, melancholy and contemplative, stopping proceedings in their tracks for great chunks of time without informing us of anything seemingly relevant to the story. Gerardi continued to move around with an astonishing lack of alacrity, his backup reduced to the cop-turned-Monk Carl – who seems to have been thoroughly forgiven both for shagging Paul’s beloved Sarah (which Gerardi found out about at most eleven days earlier) and having been a corrupt bag boy for Salamander in the past – and the Novice Internet Wizard, Victor.

Put together, the final two episodes would have made a taut, if conventional, finale, but stretched out as they were, the last four episodes demonstrated a comprehensive failure of pacing from Huselmans, who had too little left to say and ended up saying it very slowly indeed.

The penultimate episode was based, gradually, around three things: Wulfs has his bank-robbing sidekick check out Paul ‘Vander Velde’ in case his beloved daughter is being messed around by some no good – I mean, she’s already telling Papa that she’s falling in love with him, though that is before he turns down a nightie-clad wee small hours snog with her and proposes instead that they sit in the kitchen for a natter.

Gerardi’s carefully prepared ID, organised by Persigal and P9, melts away faster than ice cream on the beach. Wulfs and Klaus both jump to the ludicrous conclusion that Gerardi has tracked them down (the two greatest mysteries aabout this series are why Salamander thinks Gerardi is the most dangerous thing on two legs, and why Salamander, an organisation of the great and powerful across every aspect of Belgian society, are so fucking ineffectual), but they respond very differently. Wulfs wants to protect his darling daughter’s fragile heart, Klaus wants to kill Gerardi.

And when Wulfs sacks him, Klaus immediately offers to sell him out to Jonkhere. Jonkhere will only buy if Klaus delivers up Wulfs and Gerardi to their makers.

So we come to the stunning climax. Wulfs sends the lovely Patricia and the two hot-looking teens into Brussels whilst he – a sixty-plus industrialist – moves faster than the trained cop to belt Gerardi over the head with a gun. Klaus, who is now revealed to be a former soldier and active mercenary, loads up a very heavy-duty sniper rifle. Wulfs completes the story of Salamander’s founding over the stolen Resistance money and his Dad’s dead body, all of which we have long since worked out for ourselves but which is spelt out, letter by letter, because there’s time to kill, obviously. But when Gerardi reveals he’s after Jonkhere as well, Wulfs, who we already know is such a naive, trusting soul, cuts him loose.

And promptly gets shot by sniper Klaus, through the window.

What follows is, quite frankly, ludicrous. Klaus is a trained and ruthless marksman, with serious weaponry, yet he’s only hit Wulfs in the shoulder. Despite Wulfs being in his sixties and being shot by the kind of rifle that would blow someone’s head off, he not only stays conscious but is able to stand up, get into his car, drive it into Brussells, get an unexpected appointment with Jonkhere, wait outside his office and carry on a conversation with him before blowing Jonkhere away with three or four shots.

Meanwhile, back at the country estate, Gerardi runs in all directions around the room with sniper Klaus firing shot after shot but never hitting anything except antiques or glass-fronted cabinets, until Gerardi gets outside with his police revolver. Gerardi fires shot after shot at Klaus’ eyrie without actually looking where he’s aiming and gets over to that building still without so much as a scratch (remember, too, that he’s doing all of this shortly after waking up from a gun barrel across the head and with an unstitched two-inch cut in his eyebrow).

But Klaus nips past him into the house, where the shoulder-shattered Wulfs has already left. And, just as any trained professional killer with a quarter century’s experience can be expected to do, he promptly skylines himself behind a curtain, against the afternoon sun, exposing himself to being shot to buggery by Gerardi.

Maybe that’s what makes Gerardi so dangerous, the fact that when they’re around him, ordinarily practical, capable and experienced people obligingly act like fuckwits.

So: Jonkhere’s dead. Wulfs is either going to die or else spend what’s left of his life in chokey, leaving his vast fortune to the lovely Patricia. Klaus is dead too. And Gerardi has the sixty-six Salamander files. There’s even a touching, walk into the sunset shot in the monastery graveyard, where Gerardi and Sofie lay flowers on the grave of Sarah, with its cheap, wooden cross. Patricia and Nicole watch from a respectful distance, but as they turn away, the girls get together, Gerardi and Patricia share the kind of reassuring, now-we-can-fuck-each-others-brains-out hug that promises a happy ending, and in true Magnificent, er, Six fashion, the two Monks, Carl and Victor join in at each end.

And they all lived happily ever after.

But then there’s a very strange little epilogue. Six months have passed, it’s snowing, and we see a meeting in Salamander’s HQ. The Committee is all there, intact, but instead of Jonkhere as chairman, we have Vincent-the-psycopath, in a new and equally horrifying suit of Liverpool Spice Boy cream, but with his hair still slicked back with the grease of half an oil-tanker. He’s welcoming the new Police Commissioner to Salamander’s ranks.

Just a little, conventional cliff-hanger, to remind you that organisations like Salamander don’t get blown away like a puff of smoke, especially when their exposure could bring down the country, right?

No, you’re wrong. In the one genuinely surprising moment of this tortuously dull series, having set up Salamander and the menacing Victor in readiness for series 2, we discover that Victor’s incriminatory speech is being recorded from outside, that Police vans are lined up everywhere, and that the raid is about to begin, led by Paul Gerardi. Patricia’s obviously a good influence on him: he’s shaved his beard and he’s even brushed his hair!

I mean, congratulations on a twist that wasn’t to be foreseen, but that really is a particularly pointless coda, of no dramatic worth or relevance. Salamander were beaten once Gerardi got his hands on the goods: what is the point of resurrecting them as a still-functioning, undefeated menace just to pull the plug put from under them ten seconds later?

But then Salamander has been dumb ever since the end of that first, ten minute, bank-robbing sequence: dumb from the foundations up to the roof, across the chimney pots and dumb all the way back down to the floor again. Belgian drama has not got off to a good start on the basis of this series. I can only assume there are better things over there.

According to Wikipedia, a British remake is planned. In the words of B.H. (Calcutta, failed), I fair dreads it.

Salamander: the plot goes on holiday

Is it proper to fancy the one on the left?

I’ve heavily criticised Salamander this past few weeks for being trite, cliched and dull, but this weekend’s double bill did spring a minor surprise on its audience for the first time, by being utterly tedious and advancing the story – at this late stage in the series – by no more than a few millimetres.

We went flashback crazy with Gil Wulfs, constantly stopping in the middle of doing nothing much to remember another chronological chunk of his childhood that took us virtually nowhere in terms of explaining why he’s set himself up to bring Salamander down. No, I tell a lie: at one point in our interminable exposure to Brussels’ orphanage system in the 1950s (tick-boxes: anonymity, emotional indifference, cruelty, heavily implied child sexual abuse leading to suicide, did we miss anything out? No, good) the young Gil sees and recognises Emile Jonkhaere from the wartime operation that saw his Dad go missing.

Then there was blonde Patricia. You know, the attractive, thirty-something widow who was so empathetic with Paul, and going on about how impossibly soon it was after Sarah’s death for him to think of looking for a new partner, and who spends two full episodes moping about the fact he hasn’t called her. Well, guess what? Out of all the girls in the whole of her new, private school, young Sofie makes friends with Nicole – Patricia’s daughter – a fairly standardised troublesome rebel, who takes one look at Sofie and immediately lets her have free rein of Nicole’s contraband tuck-shop, and becomes so close a friend (to someone concealing the truth about herself) that she invites Sofie home for the weekend. Giving Patricia the chance to hustle Paul into a visit.

It’s all too damned coincidental for words, especially as Patricia’s father and Nicole’s grandfather is Gil Wulfs, the big baddie, and once Paul is in his house, he recognises those significant wartime photos.

So, let’s get this straight: Paul Gerardi, super-detective, who has the entire Salamander organisation, a collection of the rich and ultra-powerful afraid of him, identifies the villain not through his maverick tendencies, his unorthodox ways, his brilliant detection, none of that horseshit, but because the villain’ daughter fancies him, and her daughter is bessy mates with his daughter.

I can’t decide whether this is lazy writing, or the work of someone so uninspired that he can’t think of a way in which his hero cop can actually solve the case. Though given how much of this series is stolen from cliche…

This pair of episodes sees the elimination of Public Prosecuter Persigal. He’s obviously on his way out from the moment the King demands a scapegoat. Yes, the King of Belgium, concerned that his constitutional government is in complete disarray, demands that someone publicly carry the can for not solving this. And that will help actually resolve this, how? Persigal protests that they can’t do this to him, he’s a senior Judge, which immediately gets me confused: I have no idea about the technical aspects of Belgium’s legal system, but if Persigal’s actually a Judge, how the hell can he be a Prosecutor? The untranslated title for his office is Procurator-General and Wikipedia confirms that we are not dealing with a mistranslation in the sub-titles, so someone is under a basic misunderstanding here, though I grant you, it’s probably me.

But it’s all one with the final fate of Persigal in these two episodes. I loved the subtle, indirect way the series introduced the fact that the man who started off as another villain but who is now Gerardi’s protector and supporter has a heart condition, by having his secretary shout after him, ‘”You forget your medication!” as opposed to some crude and obvious method like, say, having him take some pills in an earlier episode. I mean, dammit, we’re writing for big audiences here, and everybody knows they’re thick as pigshit and have to have everything telegraphed to them. If you ask them to actually think, that’s when you get only small audiences. Huselmans knows that.

So Persigal’s on his way out, and wants to protect Gerardi to the end. To do this, he announces to Salamander’s new, up-and-coming Young Turk, Vincent Noel (a man with one, apparently cheap given that it’s shiny all over, suit, with slicked back hair and the cold demeanour of a psychopath) that he’s going to resign the day after tomorrow and tell everyone everything about Salamander. In this, he shows the subtlety of a man whose talents have taken him to one of the highest legal offices in the land, who knows himself to be up against a vast and powerful conspiracy that reaches everywhere: give their most obvious thug 36 hours notice that you’re going to shit on them. They’ll let you get away with doing it, naturally. I mean, no-one with seemingly infinite resources can organise an assassination and public disgrace worth a damn in that meagre amount of time.

Ah yes, Vincent. We’ve been missing a Young Turk who wants to turn the organisation along specifically vicious lines, whilst wearing a suit that makes him look like an American mafioso: what is the use of power if you can’t scare the crap out of people by using it? You can’t expect old men and women who’ve been incredibly successful for nearly seventy years to actually know what they’re doing, can you?

Actually, just how old is Salamander? Between Gil’s flashbacks and Gerardi’s investigation into public records of the Resistance years, we are given to anticipate that Salamander was founded by Emile Jonkhaere in or about 1944/45 utilising stolen British money intended for the Resistance to found his bank and start building contacts. But, unless I’m given to delusions, did not an earlier episode state that Salamander was founded, with royal support, sometime about 1910?

Presumably, no more than about half of this will be explained in the final double-header, though not whether Paul gets into the knickers of the lovely Patricia (a considerably more interesting question than any posed by the conspiracy element of the story, even though we know he’s still too much in love with the late Sarah to do anything even if Patricia removes them herself, as she probably will). Incidentally, An Miller, who played Sarah, is Filip Peeters’ wife, which may go some way to explaining why she’s buried in the graveyard of Carl Cassimon’s monastery – a monastery with a conveniently internet-expert novitiate monk.

But given how much ground Huselmans has left himself to cover after this astonishingly slow-paced and slow-witted pair of episodes, and given that Salamander 2 is already in the pipeline, I predict quite comprehensive disappointment on the near horizon, maybe even a cliffhanger ending.

Speaking of which, credit where credit is due, episode 9 did have a new twist on the cliffhanger ending. Gerardi has been exposed to Salamander’s assassins, when he finds P9’s offices empty. Distracted by the lift coming up to the second floor, he is a sitting target for the guman on the next landing. Naturally instead of shooting Gerardi in the back whilst he’s completely exposed, the gunman delays shooting until Gerardi has opened the lift door and is stood behind it (this is, presumably, rule no. 1 in assassination classes: never shoot when you might hit your target).

Which leaves Gerardi trapped in a tiny lift, no escape, as a gun-wielding killer advances on him

Now, anyone who knows the slightest thing about cliffhangers will recognise this as the cue to cut to the theme music, leaving the viewer a week to wonder how Gerardi will get out of this (press the down button in the lift?). Only Salamander has the utter freshness of thought to continue the episode to the point where the killer throws open the lift door, only to find Gerardi lying on the floor and shooting him through the forehead from below. Ladies and gentleman, the first cliffhanger where you see the hero get out of it before the closing credits.

I bow before its magnificence.

Salamander: the plot thickens


Poor Paul. No sooner does his car explode, incinerating his beloved wife before his very eyes, than he’s being hit on by a cool and attractive blonde who looks like Victoria off The Bridge 2. And guess what? Not only is she a widow, so she’s empathetic to his plight (yet not so empathetic that she doesn’t want him to shag her, and before too many more episodes have passed), not only is she younger than him, which is only right and proper for maverick detectives, and is why Karin Rasenberg never really stood a chance, but she’s also the big villain’s daughter!

How convenient.

Then there’s young Sofie. Now at the end of last week, she was hit by the blast of an exploding car, with sufficient force to knock her off her feet, and send her flying by at least her own body length, and what happens to her? A mild case of concussion and a fetchingly tiny cut on the extreme end of one eyebrow where it won’t interfere in the slightest with the photogenic appeal of Violet Braeckman. But what of the trauma of being 15 and seeing your mother killed in a violent explosion? How many 15 year old daughters go through that and are still sage and calm enough to reassure their hero-of-the-series father that it’s alright, he and Mum weren’t really getting along together, but it was nice to have had one happy evening together.

It’s an odd contrast to Paul himself, and here I have to apologise to Filip Peeters for suggesting that he has an acting range slightky smaller than that of a plank: we get tears and shaking and a slow curling up into something approaching the semi-legendary foetal position as he mourns Sarah (though only in the Gents, when no-one’s watching). It’s in complete contrast to how Gerardi has behaved so far, when even his murderous rages have been low-energyand monotonous. Unfortunately, it’s also in complete contrast to how he behaves afterwards, even when breaking into the Rasenberg household and holding everyone at gunpoint.

There’s low key, and then there’s inert, and Peeters’ performance just can’t escape the latter.

As for Salamander, and the reason why Guy Wolfs wants to bring them down, we get more B&W flashbacks to 1944, to the Belgian Resistance, to an operation being masterminded by a very slick Emile Jonkaere, which results in the disappearance of Wolfs’ father (and he a curly haired moppet at the time) together with scads of British money in a parachute drop. Wolfs has very good reason to want to pull Salamander down, a process which accelerates amidst another bout of envelopes, resignations and zefmorts, but there are still four episodes yet, so the brass tacks are still lying around, waiting for someone to get down to them.

There is a certain degree of tension about this: will Guy’s father turn out to have been corrupted by Jonkaere, or merely killed by him? As Geert van Rampelberg has completed his stint in the series, I think we can safely guess. And how high does Salamander go, since you’re asking, and since people are going around asking this everytime Gerardi wants a name? We already know that it’s made up of leading Belgian citizens from all walks of life, but if there is more to it than that, the only inference I can draw is that it goes up to the Belgian Royal Family.

Is Salamander about restoring, in clandestine fashion if no other, a non-Consitutional Monarchy? I wish I cared.

To be serious for a moment, the cliffhanger ending to episode 7 provided an intrigung moment of comparison with The Bridge 2. Episode 6 of that, coming at roughly the same place in the overall drama, saw Saga, booked into a hotel room, surprised by a knock on the door, which proved to be the eco-Terrorist group, holding guns on her. In Salamander, Gerardi, now back working for P9 (but only for vengeance, you understand) has followed a link to Joachim Klaus, the bank robber and Wolfs’ field-agent. Klaus, gun in hand, is descending by lift. Gerardi, gun in hand, is waiting for the lift to descend.

Both series use the anticipation of a direct conflict as a lead-in to the next episode, and both resolve the cliffhanger in similar ways, by deliberately undercutting it, by not following the audience’s preconceptions, learned from a thousand prior identical scenarios. In The Bridge 2, Saga promptly whups the ‘terrorists’ (who are no more than copycats) in a matter of seconds, deflating the tension into laughter in brilliant fashion. In Salamander, a similar escape is provided, as Klaus simply descends past the ground floor to the basement car park.

What comes over as ingenious, even playful, in The Bridge 2, falls limp in Salamander, but why? In large part, it’s because I was thoroughly absorbed into, and enjoying The Bridge 2, which had created its own, thoroughly consistent reality of which Saga’s superiority was a consituent part, and because I really cannot take the bodged patchwork cliche-factory of Salamander remotely seriously.

But the two scenes differ in that The Bridge 2 takes a common scenario and confronts it, exploding the audience’s expectations by taking it in an unexpected direction, whilst Salamander leaves the scene unresolved, frustrating its audience’s expectations by not following through at all.

The unsatisfactory nature of this is compounded by what follows: Gerardi races down to the garage, where Klaus is in his car and able to just run him over from behind. But, being sporting in the way that all such highly efficient killers naturally are, he warns Gerardi of what he’s going to do by revving his engine and turning his headlights on so we can admire the effect Gerardi creates, silhouetted against them. Before hu jumps out of he way.

And Klaus races off through the streets of Brussells, pursued hotly by Vic and his shiny blue stick-on Police light, but in what appears to be P9’s only car, since no-one else tries to intercept or otherwise block Klaus, and indeed the law-abiding citizens of Brussels, presumably inured to such things by their frequency, go about their busioness with complete indifference…

Ah, what a sludgy mess of cliche and improbability this is. It’s a Frankenstein series, a corpse created from body parts long dead, with no thought for how people behave in real life, as opposed to what they do to accomodate plots of stunning inconsequentiality.

But I’ve started, so I’ll finish. And Belgium liked this enough for there to be a second series? They must really be cut off from cheap elevision over there.

Salamander: Further Appraisal

An unsurprisingly disposable wife

Two further episodes of Salamander were broadcast last night, taking up to the halfway point of the series, and I wanted just to record a couple of thoughts to supplement my piece last week.

I said that the worst thing about the programme was that it would never do anything to surprise me and – SPOILER ALERT – it totally didn’t surprise me with the ending of episode 6. Frankly, was anyone going to be the least bit surprised that there was a car bomb in Gerardi’s new, snazzy car, and that it would go off with his wife behind the wheel, killing her but not him?

In the first week of the series, there was a Guardian interview with writer Ward Hulselmans, contrasting his work with the Scandi-dramas, and with some disdain. “In Belgium they reached a very small public, they were scheduled late in the evening. They were very serious, very dark. I write for a big audience.” Well, Mynheer Huselmans, they don’t give their audience the kind of tired cliches you’ve been trotting out for us so far.

To be fair, the series did manage to avoid one cliche in episode 6. Karin Dasenberg made it increasingly clear that she wanted to shag Gerardi in a pretty enthusiastic manner. Gerardi had saved himself for the moment by agreeing to work for the secret, state-preservation cell, P9, a name chosen presumably for the echoes of the infamous Italian Maonic Lodge, P2. They’d told him about Sarah’s infidelity with Cassimon, and they encouraged him to fuck Karin’s brains out, to keep her onside.

Gerardi went as far as getting Karin’s tits out (a brave performance by actress Ann Ceurvels, who is no longer young) before deciding he couldn’t go through with it, that he loved his wife too much to cheat on her. The maverick detective doesn’t shag around: well, I never. Though it’s just another part of establishing Gerardi as the only moral person in this entire affair.

Incidentally, there was more nudity on display in episode 5, from the rather younger Sura Dohnke, playing Sabrina, a casual pick-up of Joachim, the bank robbery leader, who discovers that he’s not what he seems and is promptly murdered for it. A direct steal from The Day of the Jackal, the Jackal and Colette de Montpellier (Huselmana even steals the method, strangulation).

And, having returned to this subject, let me also say that I find Filip Peeter’s almost-emotionless portrayal of Gerardi to be exceedingly dull, leading to the series having a lifeless feel to it.

Nevertheless, I’ve started so I’ll finish, much as I did with that heap of shit, The Tunnel. Mynheer Huselmams is already writing a second series, so I’m mildly curious as to what he’s going to leave by way of set-up, but he really is a dull writer, without an original idea in him to support that self-aggrandising, “I write for big audiences.”