Below the Surface: Episodes 1 and 2

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Last weekend I attended Series Mania at ACMI, where I saw the first two episodes of Below the Surface, a Danish thriller from the people behind Borgen and The Killing. The entire series is about to premiere on SBS OnDemand as part of its Crime Time collection. A couple of notes: this is a brief review – I’ve only seen the first two episodes, and I don’t want to spoil anything, but I also don’t know if the show sticks the landing. The other is that I didn’t take note of the actors’ names, so I’ll be going by character names when I remember them. I didn’t take any notes until the Q&A with Kasper Barfoed after the show. On with the review!

The show begins with a scene of a Danish soldier being held hostage in the Middle East. Philip Nørgard is asked what he would do if he was let go. He gives an answer that his captor knows is crap, and then he’s tortured, before giving his real answer and reminding his captor that his government won’t pay a ransom. Then we see Philip’s return to Denmark – he’s made it home, but we don’t know the circumstances that led him there.

Several months (possibly a couple of years) later, we see a young woman walk to an underground train station. There are cuts to some suspicious men behind her. After the train doors close, Philip wakes with a start. There’s a woman at his apartment, and he’s had nightmares every time she’s stayed over. If he’s not willing to talk about his experience, she says she’s done, and she leaves his apartment.

Back at the train, three men take 15 passengers hostage, and take them through a series of underground tunnels to an area where they’ll be kept. The hostage takers are well-prepared with blankets and bottles of water. Meanwhile, Philip is at his father’s house, before he gets called into work – he’s now with the government’s anti-terrorism unit, and he’ll be heading up the hostage negotiation and recovery effort. Up until this moment, I was worried that it was a Homeland situation, and he would be the leader of the hostage takers, but he’s one of the good guys. There are flashbacks to Philip’s time in captivity throughout the episode, and it informs his decisions over the series.

What unfolds over the first two episodes is a suspenseful story that doesn’t forget its characters and plays with the audience’s expectations. When news of the attack breaks, there is immediate speculation based on the current geopolitical situation that the attackers are Muslim. However no one has seen their faces, and we don’t know their motivation even after two episodes, just what they want. It’s illegal under Danish law for the government to negotiate with terrorists/pay ransom for hostages, which adds another dimension to the situation. It’s also the reason Philip didn’t expect to return home, so I hope we find out why. I was impressed with the first two episodes, and I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the series. I’ll try to write up my notes from the Q&A next week, possibly when I’ve seen the whole thing.

All episodes of Below the Surface will be available on SBS OnDemand this Thursday, July 27.

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