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Beartown Review
Image via HBO

TV

Beartown Serves Up Nordic Noir with a Focus on Family

Beartown is a Swedish thriller series based on the eponymous novel written by New York Times bestselling author Fredrik Backman.

For the community of Björnstad (Beartown), hockey is everything. A brutal crime puts into question their devotion to the sport on this Swedish import adapted from Fredrik Backman’s novel.

With a chilling opening in a breathtaking backdrop, Beartown starts off with a literal bang, setting up a gripping plot that draws one in instantly. Questions abound from the get-go. Who are these two running across the snowy landscape, one with a gun in pursuit of the other?

The dark mood is further enhanced by its contrast to the pristine landscape. It’s beautiful but harsh, and even deadly.

The show then switches gears and throws the audience into a much less tense story of a family returning to the patriarch’s hometown. The majority of Beartown Season 1 Episode 1 is lighthearted—one almost forgets the stand-off in the snow.

Beartown: 4 hockey players on the ice
Image via HBO

It’s a homecoming for retired NHL player, Peter Andersson (Ulf Stenberg), and a new adventure for his wife and children. The story gets caught up in the politics of the sport and the Andersson family adjusting to their new life. Maya (Miriam Ingrid) makes friends easily—her father is a hockey legend, after all—and has a flirtatious connection with classmate Kevin Erdahl (Oliver Dufåker).

Life goes on as normal in Beartown.

The ending of the first episode snaps the, now unsuspecting, viewer back to the dramatic intro and reveals the two figures as Maya and Kevin. She points the rifle at him and he falls to his knees on the frozen lake. A shot rings out a split-second after the camera cuts away. It’s quite shocking, especially after the uneventful, small-town life that makes up the bulk of the episode.

Episode 1 is bookended with this harrowing scene, but manages to strike a balance with the ordinariness. It sets the atmosphere for the rest of the season. One trusts that all will be explained in due time, allowing one to engage with the story.

Likewise, the whole season is capped with these two dynamic episodes. The finale brings closure and also conveys an overall theme of family and parenting. There are hints to this along the way, but Episode 5 really drives it home in an effective and affecting manner.

This is made clear in the very different ways Maya and Kevin’s families operate. Kevin’s father, Mats Erdahl (Tobias Zilliacus), is abusive; making him walk home with all his gear in below zero temperatures, ignoring him, and belittling him. Kevin’s mother is so complacent with this treatment that she might as well not even be there.

Beartown: Ulf Stenberg as Peter and Miriam Ingrid as Maya standing in the snow
Image via HBO

Hurt people hurt people.

Unfortunately, this is often the case when abuse is involved. There is a lot of sympathy for Kevin at the start. However, after he rapes Maya at his house party, one wants to fast-forward to that first scene where Maya chases him through the forest with a hunting rifle. But the plotline takes some interesting paths to get to that; the impatience fades and the audience is absorbed into the story once again.

Beartown is a story of a small hockey-obsessed town rocked by scandal, but really it’s about family bonds.

Maya comes forward about the sexual assault a week later which coincides with a big game for Björnstad. Kevin is the star player and the coach is Maya’s dad, Peter. They report the crime and the police haul Kevin off the bus that’s heading to the away game.

The entire hockey organization of Beartown is now in a panic. They won’t win the game that means so much to the welfare of their town. To many of the residents, an accusation of rape does not justify risking this important win. And after they lose, Maya and Peter are to blame.

“Why not wait?” This is asked over and over by the townspeople. It is one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the story—to see that people care more about a hockey game than a girl getting raped. Beartown established the importance of hockey to the community enough for this reaction to be, sadly, believable.

This behavior is most apparent in Mats who watches the game on his phone while his son is questioned by the police. He wants Kevin’s name cleared and for Peter to be out—everything for the sake of the organization. Peter, on the other hand, is focused on the wellbeing of his daughter…until doubt seeps in.

Beartown: Oliver Dufåker as Kevin talking to Miriam Ingrid as Maya at a house party
Image via HBO

The argument between Maya’s mom and dad about supporting her through this is really well done. The fact that Maya hears most of it adds another layer of drama. Thankfully, Peter realizes that the most important thing is to believe Maya. It’s especially gratifying to see Mira (Aliette Opheim), Maya’s mom, get so heated on the subject—she is pretty much in the background until the finale.

Fellow teammate Amat (Najdat Rustom) comes forward and exposes Mats’ villainy, testifying on behalf of Maya. The town now knows the lengths he went to in order to sweep everything under the rug. Later, when Kevin confesses that he did it, Mats refuses to hear it. The Erdahls end up moving, or rather running, away.

In the beginning of the season, there’s subtle mention of Peter and Mira’s youngest son who died before they moved to Beartown. It seems as if the cause of his death is another mystery to uncover, but it’s used in a much more symbolic way. They never disclose how Isak died, but Peter finally comes to terms with his death through the ordeal with Maya and is able to grieve.

Beartown: Aliette Opheim as Mira and Ulf Stenberg standing on either side of Miriam Ingrid as Maya
Image via HBO

One of the last shots of the finale is of the Andersson family having dinner. The four of them are seated around the table and there is a fifth empty chair, presumably in Isak’s honor.

Beartown is a story of a small hockey-obsessed town rocked by scandal, but really it’s about family bonds and how ultimately parents can’t keep their kids from getting hurt by this world, but they can stand by them and believe them.

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