Greyzone / Gråzon (Danish/Swedish/German, 2018), Blue Eyes / Blå ögen (Swedish, 2017), Next of Kin (UK, 2018), Below the Surface / Gidseltagningen (Danish, 2017)
If popular entertainment re-presents contemporary social anxieties in fictionalized form, a rash of TV drama series unfolding narratives of terror attacks is to be expected. Hell, even if it’s simpler – as simple as TV production money invests in shows that echo other recent hits – it’s expected, in the wake of the US hit Homeland, that TV series about terrorism and counter-terrorism will proliferate.
In among the dramas about serial killers, I have recently binge-watched a number of European TV series that try to engage with terrorism and related issues. Several of them are highly effective as TV entertainment, as thrillers.
How are they as social commentary?
Next of Kin, from the UK (and not to be confused with the UK sitcom Next of Kin), is the most didactic. It’s beautifully produced, dutifully acted, and comes across like an extended public service announcement: families, if you see ANY SIGN of your loved ones, or those within your ambit, behaving in ways that might raise suspicions they have been or are being radicalized, TELL THE POLICE NOW, TELL THEM EVERYTHING, DO NOT HOLD BACK – because look what a mess this could make of your family and your life. This could destroy EVERYTHING.
I have no quarrel with that message, by the way. The circumstances of the family that comes to grief (literally) in Next of Kin are so mundane that the point is plain: this could happen to almost any family (any family within a community where terrorist recruiters prey). And I repeat: as a thriller, it’s effective, albeit a hybrid domestic soap-thriller, pitched, I suspect, primarily at the women and teens.
The Swedish TV series Blues Eyes (Blå ögen) similarly functions as a warning against youth radicalization, although in this instance the radicals and terrorists are Right Wing activists and Neo-Nazis. Blue Eyes offers a much more complex take on who is vulnerable to radicalization and/or involvement in terrorist activities, and why, than does Next of Kin.
It also offers a more complex take on the power structures within which terrorist events occur. In Next of Kin, it’s ultimately about corrupt or unethical transactions at the level of global big business and government: it’s about foreign trade and investment. Blue Eyes would not dispute that, but it does map out in much more detail how this might operate.
I’ve seen Blue Eyes compared to House of Cards (the US version) and to the Danish TV series Borgen, both of which explore the compromises and corruptions of institutions of government, incorporating hefty doses of fictionalized violent crime. It’s a fair comparison.
Personally, I found the political shenanigans strand of Blue Eyes far less compelling than the plot strand following radicalized youth. Blue Eyes is left wide open for a Season 2. I’m up for that.
Two other series, Greyzone / Gråzon (a Danish/Swedish/German co-production) and Below the Surface / Gidseltagningen (Danish), do engage centrally with why individuals become terrorists but from a somewhat different perspective: where in Next of Kin and Blue Eyes, we follow the trajectories of young people being radicalized within their home communities in Britain and Sweden respectively, in both Greyzone and Below the Surface the main antagonists are men made murderous as adults in consequence of violence in lands far from Europe.
Greyzone and Below the Surface both make the point, strongly, that the violence that drives these men was perpetrated in consequence of decisions made by Western governments, generally – or at least tacitly – supported by their Western citizens.
Greyzone and Below the Surface raise much more troubling questions about guilt and innocence, about proportional response, about revenge and forgiveness. It’s hard to avoid the language of religion when discussing these two narratives, even briefly. Both series can be viewed as a mea culpa, and both resolve with reference to sacrifice and redemption.
Of these four TV series, I liked Blue Eyes and Greyzone best, but my pick is Greyzone. IMHO, Greyzone is a very superior thriller, for multiple reasons. It addresses terrorism, but it simultaneously refers to wider structures of violence and oppression: it focuses on a female protagonist largely within a domestic environment, and parallels with domestic violence occasionally spark a charge of their own.
Sometimes it called to mind for me the 1960s thriller The Collector (book by John Fowles, film directed by William Wyler). In the film The Collector, Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar enact the struggle that is misogyny. In Greyzone, actors Ardalan Esmaili and Birgitte Hjort Sorensen face off as man v woman as much as terrorist v victim or victim v weaponries industry oppressor.
In The Collector, the outcome – and implied sequel – is as we might expect in a novel written in 1963. In Greyzone, the relationships, and the story those relationships weave, are less predictable: more nuanced, more complex.