Wallander – plot tactics and formations

On dynamics within plot, and how Mankell’s Wallander is a superior crime drama.

I’ve been spending a little too much time on Zonal Marking of late, so it’s not entirely coincidental that I’ve been thinking about 4-4-2 and christmas tree formations when indulging in a spot of literary criticism. Well, not strictly literary – I’m referring in this post to Yellow Bird’s adapatation of Wallander, which in my view is massively superior to the more lauded BBC/Branagh Wallander (our Ken seems to play Kurt Wallander as a cross between Rebus and Hamlet, who drives noiselessly through the Swedish vastness, disturbed only by a ring-tone and the ghosts of his failed family relationships. He also has the demeanour of someone who is simultaneously being forced to eat pickled herring and can’t hear a word anyone’s saying. Which is obviously why people phone him so often).

Krister Henriksson as Wallander

Anyway. The most recent episode I’ve seen is ‘Skulden’ (Guilt) – and while it may not reveal anything particularly deep or novel about the human condition, it’s an enormously satisfying piece of drama to watch. I’ve only read one of Mankell’s originals, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it (Firewall – I didn’t enjoy it on screen, either).

If you’re not familiar with the Yellow Bird series, which Mankell developed but others write, the focus is much more on the ensemble – perhaps a little less so in Series 2, which lacks the bleakness of Series 1, presumably due to the departure (and suicide, sadly) of Kurt’s on-screen daughter, and the other intra-generational conflict (Stefan, an on-screen suicide to further confuse things). In my head , the Ystad police team has clear ranks – a 4-1-4-1 formation – Wallander on point, the Prosecutor, Martinsson, Nyberg and the ME in behind, Svartmann as a defensive shield and the Polis drones in defence. I guess that puts the dog in goal. Or the receptionist, whose name escapes me at the moment.

Ok – seriously, this episode shows some really well crafted relationship dynamics; the theme – ‘guilt’ echoes around the cast and plot; and this being Wallander, no-one emerges unscarred. There are three mother-son couples, the three ‘romantic’ couples (more if you include the paedophile subtext), the competitive man syndrome (the two brothers, the estranged husband, Kurt and Martinsson) – all set against Kurt’s desire to start again, to literally be cleansed (as per the beginning of the episode) and impress his new neighbour and boss.

The chains of guilt are established and detonated in sequence, each with unfavourable effects. Like all Wallander episodes, the team does the solving, not the individual. And what appears to be a red herring is usually not – it is simply an extension of the theme, a separate arc – counterpoint or reinforcement. While Kurt still gets to do the heroic parts – the breaking down of lies, and doors – it is a collective will and redemptive power of maternal love that ultimately win the day.

One thing I particularly like about it as television is the way the camera steps aside once the point is made – the difficult conversation with the little boy when they find the body; the suicide; the murder itself. It allows for imprecision – and involving the viewer, making them complicit, eg the setup of the ‘flashes’ in the shed is particularly good – it is the viewer that interprets this as the convicted paedophile using a flash camera – and while it’s hardly unusual to trick a reader/viewer like this, it was an exemplary way of literally showing how your own prejudices affect what you see – we are all guilty, sometimes).

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a work of staggering genius, but what it is, is really good storytelling. The reader/viewer is given two options at each main decision point – is the young teacher complicit? is the ex-con re-offending? does the mother lie? all the way through to husband or wife? and ultimately husband or son? It’s clear, logical, clever and most of all (returning to my theme from yesterday) believable.

If you haven’t seen any of them yet, and you can get BBC4, I strongly recommend watching them.

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