My latest binge-watching obsession has been the BBC adaptation of Swedish author Henning Mankell’s noir crime novels: Wallander. The central theme of the show seems to be a lost Eden, with the billowing fields of Swedish farmland forming a counterpoint to the bleak evil of the crimes committed in this beautiful place. Meanwhile, our central character, a police detective, mourns the loss of what could have been in his relationships with his adult daughter, his estranged wife, and his ailing, elderly father. We do, however, see redemptive notes emerge in his relationship with his daughter, who cares for him tirelessly despite his many failings as a father.
In each weary line in Wallander’s face, we see his sorrow as he confronts evil in the midst of beauty. And in one episode in particular, “Faceless Killers,” we see his sorrow at the evil he finds within himself. Wallander has just met his daughter’s Syrian-Swedish boyfriend, a caring and fine young doctor, when he is called upon to investigate the vicious torture and killing of an elderly farm couple. When he arrives on scene, the wife is about to die. Wallander begs her to tell him who did these things to her and her husband and as he bends his ear close to her weak voice, she utters a single, unclear word. Wallander thinks it might be “foreigner.” He tries to keep this detail out of the press, however, as it might inflame the anti-immigrant sensibilities of some of the locals. However, this dying utterance is leaked and reprisals on the local migrant farm workers begin. Lives are lost, and Wallander eventually kills a neo-Nazi in self-defense, the first time in his career that he has killed a man. Wallander clearly has a very personal connection to the case and keeps demanding that the responsibility for solving it lies with him.
Finally, toward the end of the episode, Wallander agrees to have dinner with a colleague and reveals the reason for the weighty burden on his shoulders. He fears that the evil found within him is responsible for the string of events that have occurred. Evil within led to evil without.
When his friend gently asks him about his daughter’s new boyfriend, Wallander first tries to hide the prejudice that flitted through his mind. After all, this is a good young man who makes his daughter very happy! Then he admits,
“There was a beat. When I first saw him, there was something. Some…thing…inside me that I couldn’t get it out of my head. I couldn’t shake it off. And then when I thought [the elderly murder victim] said something, I thought that it might have been….”
“…Foreigner,” his colleague finishes.
“Was that just me?” Wallander asks, anguished. “I don’t know! Was that what I heard or was that just knocking around my stupid, little provincial head?”
“It’s natural,” his colleague says.
“It works both ways,” says the colleague. “It’s in all of us. It’s how we deal with it that counts.”
“Well, I never thought it was in me. And now people are dead. People that…[The white supremacist’s] gun wasn’t loaded.”
“He’d have killed you in a beat, Kurt. You had no choice.”
“I wanted it to be him. His fault. All of this. I just wanted to kill it.”
“Self-defense. You just…just got to live with it.”
How profound. Here we have a world and a story that is not peopled by any view of God whatsoever, but within it is the solid admission of what more or less amounts to original sin. Sin that is in everybody, even people who think of themselves as good people, who believe themselves free of such things as racism. Fear of the other, hatred and suspicion of the other is common to humanity. It can lead us to do evil, and sometimes blindness to our own prejudice can be especially damaging because we act without reflection.
And then, how quickly we shift the blame. Wallander admits that he wanted to kill the white supremacist as a stand-in for killing his own prejudice. If he eliminated this evil person from the face of the earth, perhaps evil itself would disappear. But as he comes to realize, it isn’t that simple. There’s evil within each of us.
If I could sit and talk with Kurt Wallander in real life, I would disagree with his friend, who tries to compassionately assure him that “it’s how we deal with it that counts.” Wallander may not be more evil than other people, but he is not less evil either. He has the same fallen quality within him that we all have. If I could talk with Wallander, I would say that there is simply no way we can deal adequately with the evil within us. Rather, Someone outside ourselves must deal with it. I’d say something about death and resurrection and Jesus. I’d say there’s forgiveness possible and that when we realize the depth of evil within ourselves, that is a perfect time to hear the best News ever.
But since Wallander is fictional, I suppose I should stop worrying about him and trying to talk to him. Maybe instead I’ll do what I can to assure those I know that despite the evil and ugliness you see within, you are loved, you are forgiven, and you can daily be made new.
Photo Source: Still of Kenneth Branagh in Wallander (2008), IMDB.com.