Ever since Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, crime fiction has been a staple of popular culture. Starting on the page, the genre has thrived in every medium from radio to Netflix. Last year, one of my favorite characters in the dense and storied directory of fictional detectives took his final bow: Kurt Wallander (as played by Kenneth Branagh for the BBC).
I saw an undercurrent of hunger in the last tranquil scene of Wallander, one rooted in the frailty of people.Wallander is a breathtaking series to watch. Set in Sweden, the atmosphere is tranquil with an undercurrent of brooding (these are murder mysteries, after all). Each 90-minute episode brims with shots so beautiful that you feel like your eyes are quenching a bodily thirst. And the stories are told in a refreshing, adult way. Far from the hyper-kinetic visual assault of a CSI-type show, but equally far from the cerebral yet ridiculously talky likes of Criminal Minds, Wallander’s wide landscape shots and bird’s-eye city views actually invite you to think, giving you a spacious trust to do so.
Looking under the Hood
To get at what makes Wallander so compelling, we have to first ask what makes crime fiction so enduring. These stories all follow a predictable rhythm—crime, investigation, revelation. In the fiction, we always begin with some sense—or at least fresh memory—of order, an unbroken world where the victim was still alive and well. But that order has been broken, and the detective must restore order by seeking out the truth. Because of this rhythm, detective stories offer a reliable source of emotional catharsis, but they also tap into a deep, eschatological longing. What is this agony between chaos and order but a direct reflection of the Creation-Fall-Redemption arc of history? Murder mysteries strike a deep chord that reverberates in our wait for final consolation.
The predictability of the plot gives us an opportunity to look beyond the “what will happen next” question that usually drives narrative and, since we know the well-worn sequence, look at how the story is told. What kind of person is the detective? What kind of world does he work in? In this way, popular genre fiction can open a valuable window into the anxieties, preferences, and even eschato-conjecture of their historical moments. By such measures, Wallander is a thoroughly this-moment example.
Two critical factors combine to frame the world of Kurt Wallander. One is his native Sweden. Often near the top of the list of the world’s “happiest” nations, Sweden stations our detective in a sort of glittering society, the ideal of modern progress. The other framing aspect of Wallander is its secular perspective. Religion lingers at the periphery, only making an appearance if a certain character under investigation happens to have some faith. To the credit of the writers and directors, religion isn’t subjected to Nietzschean hostility, but as far as the central characters are concerned, it’s completely out of mind. In some ways, this silent absence speaks more clearly than any puerile derision. Wallander’s world has left religion behind.
The style of the narrative reinforces this secular worldview. Absent the metaphysical banter often bandied about between cops over chalk outlines, the viewer can only watch Kenneth Branagh’s face to glean his state of mind. This is an exterior world, only concerned with the observable, the seen, the tactile—the immanent, free from spiritual concern. Wallander offers an exemplar of the steady, disenchanting march of progress, just the right amount of “stitious.” And it was supposed to be happy.
This layering of a secular framework over a famously happy, modern society sets the stage for what makes Wallander such a quietly provoking treasure in the genre. Despite the progress in which he’s immersed, Wallander the man is wholly devoted to murder, often violent (though the violence is not usually central, more an emotional haunting than a visible spectacle). This opens something of a rift between Kurt and everyone else.
Wallander’s Sweden is populated with people who want to embrace the happiness of their glittering, secular society, but Wallander himself is immersed in the darkness inking the underside. It clings to him, pushes him to the outside. He is divorced from his wife and at times estranged from his daughter, Linda, who begs him just to live a normal life (their relationship is one of the best long-term payoffs for investing in the entire series). He is also often at odds even with his fellow police detectives, mostly because he is prone to lash out at some oversight he sees as rooted in carelessness about their work. Branagh is especially and amusingly curt with a young Tom Hiddleston in the early seasons. Kurt Wallander is haunted by the chaos in a culture longing to believe in its own mythology of defeating it.
In this way, Wallander both exemplifies and yet antagonizes the secular ideal of a steady upward progress; its detective is a walking reminder that society has not progressed nearly as far as people would hope. He irks the superstition that secularism and economic prosperity will put to bed the ills in human nature. No, people are still fallen. Notably, over the seasons, Wallander catches murderers who range from the peak of wealth and influence down to the poorest rural citizens.
A Secular End, A Sacred Hope
This antagonistic stance toward secular progress makes something of a puzzle out of the final demise Wallander must resolve: his own. A central strand of the final three-episode arc is Kurt’s diagnosis and coping with Alzheimer’s, the disease that slowly undid and then killed his father. For a detective, a man who built a life and career around having a sharp and agile memory, dementia is a cruel fate, one that Branagh depicts with affecting fear and sadness. In the end, though, he must do what we all must do when we face suffering: He must find a way to cope. On a beach with his daughter and her daughter, he grabs hold of solace in the idea of other people remembering him and keeping his own memories alive.
In one sense, this affirms the truth that we should embrace our elder generations and face their losses with them. But, left alone, this human-centered hope still leaves a pang. Is it hope enough to be remembered for another generation or maybe two, and even then not to be remembered as you truly are, but only as the oral history of your family and community preserves you?
I don’t think so. I most surely want my wife and my boys to remember me with affection. I hope that I would have lived and loved them in a way that would nourish them after I’ve gone. But that is a hope for their life, not mine. It may guide me while I’m alive to have this desire for legacy, but death is a full stop beyond which I can do no more. And still I feel the need for my life to go on in a way that even the fondest memories among the living cannot provide. My desire for life swells and cracks the immanent frame.
So I saw an undercurrent of hunger in the last tranquil scene of Wallander, one rooted in the frailty of people, a symptom of the same fallenness that gave rise to the murder with which the storytellers made such hay. If fallen people can’t be relied on to build the glittering society, how can they be the answer to end-of-life longings? Wallander follows that classic Creation-Fall-Redemption arc that resonates so thoroughly, but the redemption comes from the same people who recreated the fall over and over. It all ends on this note of anxiety. Perhaps we could offer an alternative consolation.
Wallander, whether intentionally or not, raises a question that has a wonderful response: Who will remember us in the end? In a fallen world filled with heartache despite our best efforts, a world that will forget us and all the wisdom we spent a life to earn, we can still have hope in this: a God who knew us before he formed us in the womb (Jeremiah 1:5), a God to whom we can cry out for remembrance (Luke 23:42), and a God who did an amazing work to bring us this hope (Romans 8:9–11). When the best of progress still falls short, we have a hope that spills the banks of human limit, a counter eschaton to a secular end. Life is actually transcendent. This world we see and touch is not all there is. This hope is worth dwelling on, rehearsing to keep it at the front of our mind. In our world struggling to cope with the last things of life, this hope is worth sharing with our neighbors: We are not forgotten.