I went into the Finnish series Bordertown (2016–2019) figuring it might service my weakness for scenic, slow Nordic noir, which despite its epic bleakness seems to be episodic comfort food for me. But this one ended up delivering more than I ordered: a compelling, atmospheric serial mystery with intelligent, detailed scripts, memorable characters, and an air of psychological insight into stoicism in the face of profound suffering.
Brilliant, middle-aged detective Kari Sorjonen (Ville Virtanen), an investigator for Finland’s National Intelligence Bureau in Helsinki, leaves that job and relocates his family to the South Karelian city of Lappeenranta, near the Russian border. Kari’s wife Pauliina (Matleena Kuusniemi) has just survived a close call with brain cancer, so the family decides to relocate to a smaller town where Kari can step back from his obsessive work habits and focus on his family. He does take a job, however, at SECRI, an EU-funded experimental police unit focused on major, serious crimes. Kari is a peculiar savant, a cerebral, socially awkward man with exceptional memory techniques that elevate his mystery-solving skills to another level. The plan is to bring those techniques to the new unit and pass them on, but it quickly becomes clear that Lappeenranta isn’t as sleepy as it looks. A series of brutal crimes lure Kari deeper and deeper into the darkness beneath the city’s placid surface, and further into the compulsive depths of his own psyche. As events unfold that threaten to derail his home life—including a gradual, escalating showdown with a sociopathic criminal nemesis—Kari also manages to grow in the face of his struggles, strengthening bonds with Pauliina, his daughter Janina (Olivia Ainali), and his new work colleagues.
At a quick glance, there isn’t much in the building blocks of Bordertown to set it significantly apart from the many shows it resembles. A detective leaves the big city for a new start. Evils and conspiracies lurk under the pleasant surface of a peaceful-looking community. A neuro-atypical hero possesses preternatural abilities of detection, and idiosyncratic personality traits that aggravate his colleagues. An ass-kicking partner, former Russian FSB agent Lena Jaakola (Anu Sinisalo), brings complementary skills to the table. Scads of brutal crimes occur, involving murder, sex, drugs, religion, human trafficking, greed, and revenge. Many dark European procedurals roughly follow this template. But Bordertown is a first-rate example of its type, deploying its assets with an execution that is artful and thoroughly convincing. The characters are richly imagined and beautifully acted, especially by Virtanen, Sinisalo, Kuusniemi, Ainali, Ilkka Villi (as ambitious SECRI detective Niko), and Lenita Susi (as Lena’s resilient daughter Katia). Virtanen in particular should be singled out for the precise, quirky way he inhabits Kari Sorjonen; it can’t be easy to make deep thought physically interesting, but he manages it, selling Kari’s drive to close cases as something of a philosophical search for meaning. Sinisalo’s resourceful toughness is similarly realistic, making her a perfect foil, whose platonic partnership with Sorjonen quickly starts to feel like a feisty but comfortable marriage. The mysteries, meanwhile, are interesting, complicated, and absorbing, putting Kari’s skills to the test and justifying his reputation, while also servicing the themes and character transformations.
The three-season run is skillfully structured, possessing an overall shape that spans all thirty-one episodes, shaping a true, trilogy-like saga. But it’s a hybrid model as well, its greater arc broken up into two- or three-part cases that regularly introduce new elements, advance character, and provide timely, satisfying closure to the intrigue. And oh, the stunning northern scenery: it’s just beautifully photographed, lending the series a cold, remote look and feel that resonates with the stoic perseverance of the subject matter. (Man, drone footage has really done wonders for the establishing shot in modern television, and Bordertown’s use of the technology is breathtaking.)
Yes, it is slow, and it’s grim as all hell, and every episode probably warrants a different trigger warning. But as cerebral, slow-burning mystery procedurals go, Bordertown is pretty much the complete package, all the more winning for the inspiringly resilient found family at its center.