Bordertown: a wild Finnish crime series

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

I just finished my latest Netflix binge, three seasons — 31 episodes in all — of Bordertown, a Finnish crime series set in the real life town of Lappeenranta, a 90-minute drive across the Russian border to St. Petersburg.

Horror writer Stephen King has proclaimed his love for it, and for the lead actor, Ville Virtanen.

I’ve really enjoyed it, for reasons I’ll explain here, but one of them, highly unlikely, is that this summer I interviewed a senior corporate executive via Zoom from her family cottage on an island in Lake Saimaa, the exact setting of this show! The opening credits for each episode are drone images of the lake, whether yachts in a harbor, a huge freighter passing beneath a bridge or logs.

It’s the largest lake in the country — 1,700 square miles.

I’ve been intrigued by the two Finnish women I’ve gotten to know a bit through this new work, my editor and the executive. I’m very interested to visit Finland now, and have been for years since discovering the beautiful black and white photography of the country’s top photographer, Pentti Sammallahti, and buying one of his images at an art show in Manhattan.

It’s a small country, bordered on the east by Russia and the north by Norway and to the west by Sweden, with only 5.3 million people, one of the least densely populated in Europe.

The show follows Kari Sorjonen, a weather-beaten detective who moves to Lappeenranta from the big city of Helsinki with his wife Paulina, who grew up there, and their only child, a teen daughter, Janina.

Unlike most crime shows, their family dynamics are as essential to the story-lines as his work: Paulina has survived brain cancer but she and Janina have a tough time with a man who shows very little emotion and leaves almost every family meal to rush to another crime scene. You really see the effects of his workaholism.

Sorjonen is eccentric as hell — and makes use of a “memory palace” to recall crucial details and make patterns of them to solve crimes. He does this in his bare feet in the basement of their home.

The crimes are varied, and some shockingly brutal, which can get wearying when you watch several shows in a row. But the music is haunting, and the landscapes and homes really beautiful and the characters complex and interesting.

It tends to run in pairs, with two episodes to complete each story arc, but its threads and clues begin at the first episode and go to the final one.

The first two seasons are shot only in summer or fall — with the final third season shot in winter, the crunching of footsteps in deep snow a part of every episode. As someone who loves and misses a snow-covered landscape, I enjoyed that.

And, if you love simple, elegant Scandinavian design as much as I do, you’ll also enjoy the stunning interiors! Lots of interesting hanging lamps, neutral furnishing colors, interesting wall colors and some very nice exteriors, whether a hotel or an office or even a hospital’s interior doors.

One really striking design element — even in all 31 episodes — no bright primary colors like red, blue, green or yellow, or bold patterns, whether in interiors or clothing. The cops all wear black, brown, navy or gray, always in plainclothes and mostly in jeans. The characters all wear shades of gray, brown, cream, pale pink — all of which are flattering to pale Finnish complexions and either dark hair or pale blond. You might see a flash of burgundy in someone’s tie, but that’s it.

And it’s so strikingly unemotional, in American terms — in 31 episodes, I think each parent says “I love you” maybe once to each other and to their daughter, even after she’s been traumatized by a crime. I wonder how much the Finnish tradition of sisu informs this: grit, determination, the pride in just toughing it out.

I noticed a striking absence by the end — not one person of color, ever. No Blacks, Hispanics, Asians; 87% of this very sparsely populated nation are Finns.

Have you seen it?

What did you think?

11 thoughts on “Bordertown: a wild Finnish crime series

  1. i haven’t seen it, but it does sound intriguing. the observations you made were very interesting, about the lack of colors, both on the set and in the variation of people.

  2. Thanks for the tip. Sounds like just the ticket and I needed a new binge. Have you seen British mini series – I May Destroy You? Just finished tonight. Often tough going but I got completely hooked. Actress and creator Michaela Coel is a brilliant talent.

    1. Whew!!!

      Yes, I did watch IMDY…it was challenging for sure, and sometimes very difficult to watch. I identified a lot in some ways with the character’s panic at having to produce her 2nd book under relentless pressure from her agents and editor. I think that’s a whole side of the “glamour” of publishing only writers ever know — and those relationships are just as fraught as any sexual ones — expectations!

  3. I love any understated crime shows with subtitles. This is next. Have you seen Borgen, The Bridge and the original The Killing? Not the American remake. Also The Trial is an Italian one (you can watch it with subtitles, without the dubbing).

    The Sinner is another one Neil and I just finished.

    1. I listened to this one dubbed — and am sorry only when (!!!!) there were a few key scenes in Russian NOT (?) translated and a few key shots of documents that were not subtitled to let us know what we were reading.

      Have not seen the 3 you mention — and have heard very good things about Borgen.

      Haven’t heard about The Sinner or The Trial.

      I binged all the UK ones (I think!): Happy Valley, Broadchurch, Hinterland, Shetland, The Bodyguard…

  4. ThingsHelenLoves

    I’m a Bordertown fan, currently a couple of episodes into S3. I find the characters and plot very watchable, but love the interiors and fashion inspiration also. Lena is quite something, isn’t she? My husband is working in that part of the world for the next six months or so and we’d hoped to fly out to see him. Of course, like all other things, that plan is at the mercy of Covid restrictions now!

    1. I love Lena. She is such a badass! But so are all the women — even Janina. I was very struck by how unsentimental they all are, very plain-spoken. Glad you’re enjoying it — and I hope somehow you get over there!

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