Even under blue skies, the windswept fields and beaches of southern Sweden appear bleak and hopeless in the second season of Wallander, the British adaptation of Henning Mankell’s bestselling series of detective novels, currently airing on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery! And nothing looks more bleak and hopeless than Kurt Wallander himself, a morose, unhealthy homicide detective played (with no hint of his usual charm and eloquence) by a blindingly pale Kenneth Branagh. A depressed, humorless policeman isn’t exactly an original conceit, and Wallander itself, besides its coldly beautiful settings, isn’t a particularly original show either. Each episode (there are three in season two) is built on a standard whodunit plot, fairly unmemorable but rendered well. The screenplays (adapted by Richard Cottan) are sharply written, the cinematography and direction are top-notch, and the actors (all British, all using their real accents) are culled from the incredible pool of character actors that Great Britain churns out like scones and clotted cream.
One of the nice quirks of Wallander is that his particular brand of misery doesn’t stem from any one defining event. There are no dead wives in his background, no botched cases where he let the young girl die in the well. He’s divorced, and there’s a grown daughter with whom he tries—and fails—to connect with, but these seem to be a product, not a cause, of his bad temper. His angst seems existential in nature, probably passed on by his father (a grizzled David Warner), an artist who, before he succumbed to senile dementia, spent his career painting 7,000 exact replicas of the same landscape.
Another quirk of Wallander’s is his abhorrence of violence. In the first episode, titled “Faceless Killers,” Wallander is forced into a gunfight, the outcome of which scars him for the remainder of the season. Later, in a subsequent episode, we see Wallander struggling to even hold a gun. It’s one of Branagh’s best moments, breaking into a flop sweat and removing his shirt before trying to handle his firearm. He seems genuinely scarred, and not in the sensitive-cum-macho way that quickly leads to the hero overcoming his fear and righting the world. Branagh’s fear seems overwhelming and recognizably human, like a man suffering from a trauma that will never go away.
Other attempts to shoehorn Wallander’s neurosis into the plotlines are less successful. During a racially charged investigation, Wallander learns about—and struggles with—his daughter’s new boyfriend, a Syrian (and a handsome doctor, of course). It’s a forced contrivance but nowhere near as strained as the final moments of the season. In an otherwise riveting plotline involving the ritualized slayings of elderly men, Wallander suffers a personal loss that connects him with the perpetrator. This leads to some unbelievable and overdone histrionics as Wallander makes the arrest. Integrating the psychology of the detective into that detective’s casework has long been a staple of the genre, but it’s so much more effective when it’s done subtly.
In the first season of Wallander, Sarah Smart had a more substantial role as Wallander’s partner, Anne-Britt Hoglund. This time around, like other member’s of Wallander’s unit, she’s relegated to not much more than scenery. This is because this is indisputably Wallander’s—and by extension Branagh’s—show, and watching his dour detective chase killers through Sweden’s neo-noir landscape is the draw. Still, it would be a better series if Wallander’s emotional demons didn’t always overshadow the simple joy of catching a killer.