Below The Surface is the latest drama to fill BBC4’s Subtitled Saturday slot, and it’s actually quite good. Not great, not spectacular, but good.
The first episode starts with the hijacking of an underground train in Copenhagen: fifteen passengers are marched off at gunpoint by three captors, then caged in a part of the metro system which is under construction. The terrorists are helpfully Anglophone, incidentally, which might be verisimilitude, or a production company with an eye on international sales.
The job of finding the hostages and securing their safe release falls to Philip Nørgaard (Johannes Lassen), the man in charge of the Danish Counter-Terrorism Task Force. Philip was himself captured and tortured in an unspecified foreign country, and as a result is still suffering from PTSD. His “escape” from captivity is referred to in a way which renders it somewhat ambiguous: to start with I wondered whether this was going to be a sort of Hygge Homeland, with the implication that Philip might be on the side of the hijackers, but I don’t think the show’s going there. Philip also has a somewhat high-maintenance girlfriend, Louise (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen), who clearly thinks he should just get over his own kidnap already, draw a line, and move on. Louise is also part of his task force, mind you, so maintaining the separation of church and state isn’t going to be easy.
Thus far the show has been refreshingly free of the Scandidrama cliches: no tasteful knitwear, no snow, no forests, and (best of all) no imaginatively mutilated dead young women. However, having a plot arc featuring the media seems to be nøn-negøtiable. So we’re over to yet another TV studio where no-one is allowed to sit down, and introduced to Naja, an experienced broadcaster who is selected by the captors as their link to the outside world: as part of their media strategy, in fact, they offer her a Skype interview with one of the hostages.
So who are the hijackers? And what do they want? They make contact with Philip’s team and provide an answer to the second question: they want €4m. There’s some debate about whether this is high or low. Seems quite reasonable, to me, for 15 hostages, but of course we need to go through the usual We Don’t Pay Terrorists stuff. An answer to the first question, on the other hand, remains elusive until right at the end, when the show pulls off a quite terrific twist, suggesting that one of the hijackers might well be known to Philip: specifically, that he’s Ahmad, the man who held Philip in captivity.
In the second episode, Philip tries to convince the head of the Danish security service of this, but the latter isn’t having it: Ahmad was killed by an American drone, so you’re imagining it, and are you feeling OK, Philip? I’m willing to bet that Ahmad’s body was never recovered, and those of us who have ever seen TV before etc. etc. Philip also has a conversation with his father, a retired security operative himself, which subtly heightens the mystery around his “escape” from captivity: my guess at the moment is that someone paid a ransom for Philip in defiance of governmental policy.
Which is kind of where we are with the present-day hostages. Naja is fired by her employers for running the Skype hostage interview – I would have thought that the ratings alone would have guaranteed her a job for life, but apparently not – so she sets up a blog and starts crowdfunding the ransom, with the support of the families of the hostages. Philip can’t stop her, exactly, but he reasonably points out that she has no experience of negotiating with terrorists. Not that his own point man, Esben, is great at it either, mind you, so he pulls Esben back and gives the gig to Louise.
The terrorists then offer Naja another interview with a hostage, but Philip is on alert: he thinks that they might be using Naja to further their cause, possibly even livestream an execution, and he prepares to block the transmission if necessary. And it is necessary: the interview is with hostage Adel (the excellent Dar Salim, who was Amir in Borgen and Peter in The Bridge), who has been goading the terrorists, verbally and physically, since being taken captive. I’m not sure why he was chosen for the interview, but he declines to follow the script, and just as a gun is pointed at Adel Philip pulls the plug on the stream. A few minutes later the task force is told where to pick up Adel’s body. By this stage we’ve been given, through flashbacks, an idea of Adel’s personality and background, so this is an effective gambit on a number of levels: we’re being introduced to the hostages, which increases our investment in their fate; and the writers appreciate the need to raise the stakes by killing one or two people off. All in all, it’s a promising start.