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Why ‘Nordic noir’ like Deadwind is taking over streaming services

There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

The first episode of Deadwind (a.k.a. Karppi), a Finnish detective series that debuted earlier this year, and did so well in its homeland that it’s already been renewed for a second season. Pihla Viitala stars as Sofia Karppi, a recently widowed Helsinki homicide detective who returns to work after a way-too-brief family leave. On the day of her reinstatement, she’s assigned a new partner, Sakari Nurmi (Lauri Tilkanen), who specializes in untangling fiscal malfeasance. The show’s 12-episode first season focuses on what initially appears to be the random killing of middle-aged wife and mother Anna Berghdal. The case soon becomes bigger, as Anna’s jittery, paranoid husband Usko (Jani Volanen) suggests she may have had powerful enemies.

Why watch now?

Because The Girl in the Spider’s Web opens in theaters this weekend.

Directed by Fede Álvarez (best-known for the twisty 2016 thriller Don’t Breathe), the film stars Claire Foy as Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant computer hacker and vigilante who makes it her mission to punish men who hurt women, either individually or institutionally. First introduced in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — as part of the late Swedish author’s “Millennium trilogy,” which was published posthumously — Salander’s grim, violent adventures have recently been continued in print by fellow Swede David Lagercrantz, who penned the 2015 novel The Girl in the Spider’s Web and 2017’s The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye. Fans of the 2011 movie version of Dragon Tattoo, starring Rooney Mara as Salander (or any of the three Swedish Millennium films, starring Noomi Rapace), may be surprised by how much the character has been transformed into a super-capable action hero, though the new books and film still retain her origins as an abuse survivor bent on revenge.

Larsson’s novels — and the copycats they’ve inspired, in print and on-screen — are part of a larger literary / cinematic / television movement sometimes dubbed “Nordic noir.” The genre is defined by its emotional chilliness and overarching sense of despair, expressed via brutal murder-mystery plots, often set in cold, dark countries like Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Finland. The themes, style, and tone of these stories — from their troubled detectives to their sense that contemporary society is rotten at its core — has spread beyond Northern Europe to the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, as seen in popular TV series like Broadchurch, Happy Valley, Secret City, Top of the Lake, and The Killing.

These kinds of shows have also become a staple of streaming services like Netflix, Acorn, MHz, Amazon, and Hulu, because they’re ideal for binging. The seasons tend to be short and self-contained, with cases that come together gradually but steadily, allowing for a lot of time and space between the big clues and cliffhangers, so the heroes can explore striking-looking locations and interact with locals who have their own stories to tell.

At 12 episodes, Deadwind’s first season is on the longer side, but it’s briskly paced. Within the first 25 minutes of episode 1, writer-director-creator Rike Jokela has already introduced Karppi’s complicated home life (where she’s struggling to raise two kids in her rare off-hours), her partner Nurmi’s wide-ranging expertise and insight, and several viable suspects. The subject matter is depressing, but the storytelling is addicting — like good, page-turning pulp.

Who it’s for

Mystery-lovers who don’t mind when stories turn very, very dark.

Deadwind didn’t draw a lot of attention when Netflix added it to its streaming lineup back in August 2018, perhaps because Nordic noir (and its non-Nordic fellow-travelers) has become so prevalent that it’s impossible even for TV critics to keep up. Fans of the genre will be able to recognize right away that this show’s a winner, though. Viitala and Tilkanen have great chemistry as devoted crime-fighters with different styles: her more intuitive, him more analytical. And Anna’s murder is a puzzle with a lot of possible solutions, involving everything from a secret past to a shady business deal. Like the best of these kinds of mystery series, Deadwind uses one bloody crime as a lens through for viewing larger societal problems like corporate corruption, and for scrutinizing the crime-solvers’ anxieties and biases.

Most importantly, Deadwind’s first episode holds to the principles that have made Nordic noir so popular. This is not some CSI-style procedural, where catching murderers is a high-tech, bloodless, impersonal operation. This is a character- and setting-driven story, involving a lot of legwork, and the slow piecing-together of a larger picture. It’s realistically grim, but also offers the simple satisfaction of watching smart professionals bring some order to a chaotic world, one case at a time.

Where to see it

Netflix. The service adds about three or four edgy European-style crime shows each month, so anyone who tears through Deadwind will have plenty of options for where to turn next. One recommendation: another Finnish series, Bordertown, about a decorated Detective Inspector who moves his family to a small community near Russia that’s more crime-ridden than he expected. Or, for Nordic noir diehards looking for something a little different, try Fallet, a dry Swedish comedy that subtly satirizes the genre.

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