June is the Busiest Month, and In Praise of Saga Norén

June is shaping up to be busy. I’m just back from the How the Light Gets In festival, (yes, this was supposed to be finished and posted before then) tomorrow at 3.35 I’m modding a panel on Colonialism and Sci-Fi with the SFF/BFSA mini-convention at Burlington House, Piccadilly , and on June 30th  I’ll be at the Small Press Expo at Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Avenue. I’ll have two stories  on sale there – ‘Bells Ringing Under the Sea’ in Dark Currents with Newcon Press,  and Not the End of the World, which is going to be available by itself, for the first time, in a very limited edition chapbook!  Bells is the most modern story I’ve had published yet, and my first shot at doing a very blokey, first person male voice, which I rather enjoyed. It’s about a man thinking about the sea and the woman he loved and the reasons neither is currently in his life. Not the End of the World, on the other hand, focuses on two women living in a boarding house, in the last days of Nazi Germany, dealing with guilt, terror and love as strange presences walk the upper floors and  impossible tunes are heard through the walls.

Living in the future is a strange: The How the Light Gets In thing happened because SAMIRA ACTUAL AHMED, of whom I have been a  fangirl this many a year, read my post  Capes, Wedding Dresses and Steven Moffat about heroines and the lack thereof in pop culture, and she liked it and told the organisers. So I met all these awesome people like Samira herself and Giles Fraser and Brian Millar and Julian Spalding, and I got to talk about heroes alongside Peter Actual Tatchell and I read Aragorn’s “Men of the West!” speech and I was so impressive a woman fainted and the whole thing had to be called off halfway through.

Or possibly that was a coincidence.

In that post, and in Girls, Heroes, and Boob Jobs, I mentioned the fact that female heroes, when we get them at all, are rarely allowed to be strange,  difficult, anti-social, or eccentric, as opposed to sensible, normal and down-to-earth.

If you’ve read that post, and if you’ve seen The Bridge, it may not surprise you much that its main character  made me very happy. OH MY GOD  DID YOU WATCH THE BRIDGE? If you didn’t watch The Bridge, you need to rectify that immediately, and heroine Saga Noren is the reason why.

I know I’m  a bit late to the party when it comes to Scandinavian crime dramas — I missed The Killing and am now in that awkward “do I watch the English language remake first or is that a bit crap?” phase. But in the meantime, Oh, Saga Noren, you are the one I have been waiting for.  At last you have come to me, my eccentric, difficult, unpredictable crime-fighting heroine, who even has a, dramatic coat, which is far better than BBC Sherlock’s coat.  It does not, for starters, make its wearer look like a centaur.

 

The Bridge begins when the lights go out on a bridge between Denmark and Sweden. When they come on again, a corpse is lying in the middle of the bridge,  right across the border between the two countries. Only, it turns out, it’s not one corpse, but two, a Swedish politician and a Danish prostitute, cut in half and put together.

I hadn’t really intended to watch the show, it just happened to be on, but at that point I thought, “I believe you have my attention.”

Enter Saga Norén, Swedish investigator, confidently stomping into her proper domain with her peculiar stiff-backed, toy-robot gait. She’s brilliant, she’s beautiful, she’s very very odd, she loves her some crime, and she doesn’t like it when other people intrude their little problems like “cardiac patients in ambulances” into her crime scene. Where as many a TV detective abhors the rules  Saga is devoted to them and it’s a conflict with warm-hearted, shambolic Danish cop Martin Rohde who’s more than willing to go off-book from time to time,  that begins their patnership.  Saga takes  what’s usually a straight-man  characteristic – Just-the-facts-ma’am, by-the-book thoroughness to such an extreme it becomes a maverick trait. Martin takes the role often filled by a woman – the normal one, the kind one, the one who keeps the brilliant/eccentric character grounded among their fellow humans, who introduces them to things like friendship and being nice to people.  Occasionally I wanted to cry, “Stop letting him teach you to care, Saga, you’re fine as you are!” but really their relationship is complex, touching, and — despite married Martin’s roving eye and Saga’s crystalline good looks — always wonderfully platonic.

If only BBC’s Sherlock was more like The Bridge, I would be all over it. Saga shares some of the updated sleuth’s characteristics — low on empathy, lacking in social awareness, obsessive, doesn’t see why anyone would bother eating or sleeping when there is fascinating, gruesome,  complicated MURDER going on and how is it RELEVANT that it’s five in the morning?!   But unlike Sherlock (and, actually, like proper canon Sherlock Holmes) she’s ruthless, but never cruel.  She thinks nothing of - gently – hitting a semi-conscious poisoning victim in the face to keep her awake to answer questions, but while she doesn’t intuitively understand and is often vaguely irritated by people’s boundaries, she does respect them. “Okay!” she’ll respond brightly, when asked to do/stop doing something because she’s at risk of upsetting people.  Once a newly-widowed character whom Saga has seriously upset refuses to talk to her. Sherlock would have eviscerated her; Saga accepts without question, and it’s up to Martin to point out that the woman didn’t refuse to talk to him and Saga can always listen. “Am I annoying you?” she asks Martin occasionally. She knows she can annoy people; she doesn’t know when or why she’s doing it, and it doesn’t upset her unduly, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter to her at all. Increasingly, Martin finds the answer to the question is “no.”

She’s not a genius of perception, especially when it comes to people. “I don’t pick up on signs,” she says flatly. She’s a genius of persistence, of staying up all night staring at the evidence, of committing information to memory and working it out later, of keeping going past the point of healthy self-preservation.

She’s a little like Lisbeth Salander if Lisbeth were happy. Well, relatively speaking – no character who’s perfectly content can remain compelling for long, and we do duly discover there is some pain and insecurity lurking in Saga’s backstory . But it’s delightful to see a heroine for whom “unusual” is not synonymous with “damaged.”  She doesn’t fight crime to fill a hole or bandage a psychic wound, she’s  whole already. She does what she does because she really likes it. Because she’s good at it. And another surprisingly refreshing quality of the show is this is recognised, not by a rare few but by nearly everyone, and though it’s rare for anyone to get close to Saga as Martin does, she’s not an outcast, and he’s not the only one who sees what the audience sees, and duly warms to her. It’s also refreshing that though Saga’s closest relationships are with men, she’s only one of a number of women on the international team hunting the serial killer. Martin’s boss is a briskly competent woman, and Saga has several women working for her who both appreciate her talents and are unfazed by her strangeness.

Colleague: Saga… I just wanted to say, you’re doing a great job.

Saga: Yes.

Colleague: And if anything comes of this… you’re doing really well.

Saga: Yes.

Colleague: And if anyone can catch him, it’s going to be you.

Saga: Yes. I think so too.

Some reviews have annoyed me, like this one:

And on the Malmö side of the bridge there’s Saga Noren, a Porsche-driving ice queen, so devoid of empathy or any kind of social skills you have to suspect she’s on the spectrum. 

Yeah, I so believe he complained Sherlock or Batman were “ice kings” who are “hard to love,” don’t you? And isn’t it lovely how he treats  being “on the spectrum” as a character flaw?

In fact, Saga Noren is indeed pretty clearly “on the spectrum”– the actress Sofia Helin confirms this was deliberate, though the writers didn’t see Saga herself as being aware of it. I’m not sure I find it entirely credible that someone wouldn’t have suggested it at some point — but my mother tells me she worked with someone in the Home Office who was successful, undiagnosed, but widely thought to have Aspergers. That must have been well over  a decade ago, though.  In any case, the fact Saga’s particular brain make-up is an integral part of her without ever limiting her, is another breath of fresh air:

“The reaction from those with the condition has been overwhelmingly positive, [Sofia Helin] says. “One man from Norway wrote me a 20-page letter about his life living with Asperger’s. It was so touching. I also got letters from the Asperger’s Society in Sweden. They are happy, because she is not judged just because she is different – she is the hero.”’

The Bridge is filming a second series. I’m a little concerned that reuniting Martin and Saga to fight crime again might be contrived. But for the most part: I don’t care, gimme more Saga.

If you watch, you’ll have an idea of one kind of hero I’ve been holding out for (till the end of the night). But don’t watch because of that. Watch because it’s awesome. That’s what it’s always really been about.

 

 

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4 Comments

  1. Posted June 9, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    So, the thing about Sherlock? HE REALLY IS A CENTAUR .

    That’s why he’s so observant. Centaurs have highly heightened powers of observation.

    BBC Sherlock does after all stand for Best Brightest Centaur Sherlock.

  2. Posted September 23, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Great and perceptive observations about Saga and Martin and The Bridge!

    I’ve enjoyed this far more than the other Scandinavian noir series, mostly because of the main characters, who are both interesting, fun and very human.

    The bridge itself is also a spectacular feature, in real life it looks like it rises right out of the water, as it ends in an underwater tunnel on one side.

    I find it interesting you dislike Sherlock. I found the series (or characters) too intense and a little one-dimensional on the first viewing, but the humor and sarcasm won me over, so I like both Saga and BBC Sherlock.

    But I can definitely see that the personality traits they share are less likable for a woman than for a man, especially viewed with a man’s eyes, as the commentator you mentioned.

    Sad that some traits are ok in men but subject to criticism in women.

  3. Christian R. Conrad
    Posted April 6, 2013 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    I missed The Killing and am now in that awkward “do I watch the English language remake first or is that a bit crap?” phase.

    Haven’t seen the English The Killing, but I did see a couple of Branagh’s Wallander films.

    Based on that experience, I’d say stick to the originals and skip the re-makes altogether.

    HTH!

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