Small City, Big Trouble: Bordertown
By Lance CharnesFebruary 1, 2019
It has to happen to every brilliant, troubled detective at some point in a career of hunting down fiendishly clever serial killers: one too many peeks into the abyss prompts him (sometimes her) to chuck the big crimes in the big city and move to a remote town where the crimes are small and life is easy.
In America, retired cops end up in Idaho, where they only have to deal with the wildlife and the militias. Detective Inspector Kari Sorjonen, late of Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation, chose his wife’s hometown of Lappeenranta, nestled in the southeast corner of Finland only minutes from the Russian border. Because nothing bad ever happens right next to Russia. Right?
Maybe Sorjonen isn’t such a great detective after all. If he was, he would’ve gone for reindeer herding in Lapland, and we wouldn’t be watching him in Bordertown, another part of Netflix’s seemingly endless stockpile of non-U.S. crime series.
You’d think that if Sorjonen (Ville Virtanen) wanted to get away from disturbing crimes, he’d sign up for traffic control or parking enforcement. Instead, he takes a position with Lappeenranta’s Serious Crime Unit. His first case is – wouldn’t you know it? – a series of murders involving young women.
It’s during this three-episode series opener that we start to see what made Sorjonen famous/infamous in the NBI: he notices everything, and he remembers everything he notices. He manages this through making a “mind mansion” and assigning his memories to different rooms. This isn’t exactly novel; it’s a fairly standard memory-boosting strategy. He goes one step farther by making the “mansion” real by laying out the floorplan in his cellar with masking tape.
Virtanen, a veteran Finnish TV and film actor, plays Sorjonen as an amiable, conscientious bloke with perhaps a couple of screws that want tightening. A tall, lanky man with a graying brush cut, Sorjonen often moves like a badly-animated stick figure and sometimes drifts off in the middle of a conversation as some tiny, vital clue catches his eye. It’s little wonder his SECRI colleagues consider him with a mixture of exasperation and bemusement.
You guessed it: he’s yet another Scandinavian crime-solving savant with periodically spotty interpersonal skills.
Unlike the typical Scandinoir protagonist, though, Sorjonen can actually maintain a successful long-term adult relationship. Part of his decision to flee Helsinki was to spend more quality time with his handsome wife Pauliina (Matleena Kuusniemi) and pert teenaged daughter Janina (Olivia Ainali). This he manages to do sporadically in between midnight sessions in the basement. The three of them seem to be genuinely fond of each other. Nobody’s an alcoholic or drug addict; none have any dread diseases anymore now that Pauliina’s brain cancer is in remission. This domestic accord is refreshing and a true wonder in shows such as this.
The supporting characters are various types that for the most part you’ve seen elsewhere. Perhaps the most interesting is Lena (Anu Sinisalo), the mother of one of the girls menaced in the first case. She has a murky background that becomes more opaque the more we hear of it. She’s a maybe-Russian cop and a certainly-Russian thug who ends up as the extremely hard-nosed yin to Sorjonen’s ethereal yang, and she’s often at least half a step ahead of him. This, too, is refreshing – Our Hero isn’t always the smartest person in the room.
You don’t need to be steeped in Scandinoir to enjoy Bordertown – indeed, it may be a drawback.
The series’ eleven episodes cover five cases. Except for the last, none are especially complicated or twisty or feature criminal masterminds. (The fifth case throws all the tropes at the screen – master criminal, serial killer, This Time it’s PersonalTM – and is less interesting for its conventionality.) The Russian neighbors sometimes leak across the border and complicate life. The city government may be bent, and the wealthiest family in town may have a hand in the bending. Again, nothing you haven’t seen before, but the pieces go together well and it’s entertaining to watch the gears turn.
Bordertown was produced for Yle (the Finnish BBC) by Fisher King Productions, a maker of Nordic TV series, and Federation Entertainment, which was also behind other high-gloss, high-sturm-und-drang series such as The Collection and Marseilles. It’s very Scandinavian: polished, well-made, clean lines, deceptively quiet. The dialog is mostly Finnish with highly legible and reasonably satisfying subtitles.
You don’t need to be steeped in Scandinoir to enjoy Bordertown – indeed, it may be a drawback. Kari Sorjonen isn’t nearly as much of a mess as are Harry Hole or Kurt Wallander, and the sight of a Nordic detective with an intact and functional family may give you the vapors. But it was these qualities that kept my attention through an otherwise straight-ahead detective saga. If you’re looking for a break from psychological or relationship dysfunction while getting your recommended daily allowance of crime-fighting, take a quick trip to Bordertown on Netflix.
*images courtesy of Bordertown / Netflix