4 September 2018
This series is enough to make anyone cynical. It deals with white-collar crime: hedge funds, offshore accounts, tax dodges, market manipulation, insider trading, financial loopholes. In it details of fraud on a massive scale are witnessed by us.
Energreen is an up-and-coming player in the alternative energy industry whose shares are about to go public on the Danish stock exchange. When this happens the company will soar in value among investors, so the company’s game is to reach that level of visibility. Its image is green and clean, its investments — real or not — in wind and solar energy. The Holy Grail it now seeks is a patent on a thermo-conductivity process that can store energy (i.e., electricity) without using energy to do so. The First Law of Thermodynamics says energy is never lost, merely transformed or transferred. The real-world analogy here is that excess energy will be transferred into Energreen bank accounts. If successful, this means billions — in euros, U.S. dollars, Danish kroner, whatever. But the patent has not yet been granted, the work still theoretical. There’s a race to beat the competition to this elusive prize, just one more source of anxiety and strain on the company.
But the main work of Energreen is not research or even money laundering. It’s PR, the psychological game of attracting investors. Money smells itself. If there is such a saying, it’s apt. Greed is contagious. If the company can harness the greed of others, it can use such energy to satisfy its own greed. Everyone wins in this shell game, or everyone but the public and governments. The con is therefore double-edged: honey-trap the investors, cheat the enforcers (i.e., the police and judicial system). And the con is so good it even cons those working for Energreen, or some of them, mainly those too young and inexperienced to know there’s a code of deceit to be cracked related to the deception they operate in. They cannot see the problem because they are the problem, or a key part of it. As any organised religion knows, true believers are its greatest asset. Its methods go unquestioned by followers, its rules — such as loyalty and faith — sacrosanct. Win a true believer over and he’ll work for you blindly, ardently. The trick is to make him feel special. He’s on the inside, in the know. It’s the unbelievers who are lost and require redemption, not him, as he’s already saved. And it works, proved worldwide by billions who mumble prayers and give their hard-earned coin to these racketeers.
Alexander Sødergren is good at making others feel special. His two greatest assets are cleverness and charisma. He’s a step or two ahead of most people in the dark arts of psychological warfare, his mentors Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, and others. His art is political. He can make people like him, an important asset to have, as liking and trust often go together. He specialises in vulnerabilities, in the weaknesses of others. He’s got an eye for it to go with an amoral will to exploit such weaknesses, his victims even largely unaware of their victimisation. The exploitation could be anything, any weakness: sentiment, ambition, the need for direction, meaning, purpose — whatever it is that people seek in their professional lives. He’s wise to a central truth in the human existential condition: on some level we’re all motivated by self-interest because our survival depends on it. Existence is the thing, more than what we have to do to sustain it. The end therefore justifies the means. Armed with this insight, anything goes, no room for morality and principles in the Darwinian struggle to survive. Being better than the competition is what ensures your continued existence.
Alexander Sødergren does not look like a philosopher. He’s nerdy, scrawny, wears glasses, suits, ties, a corporate clone and drone like any other in appearance. But this is another of the weapons in his armoury, in this case camouflage. He looks harmless. At about 40 he’s a young or youngish CEO, put in charge by the board of directors and its elderly chairman, Knud Christensen, the only person with more power than Sødergren at Energreen. A double blind in a way, then, Christensen protected by more camouflage than even Sødergren is, his defence the board he can hide behind.
But there is one more power source in the organisation, or one operating with it but facelessly beyond it, a dark, malevolent force called the Swede (we never learn his actual name). He (the Swede) is Christensen’s go-to enforcer, his last resort, a man reserved for the ugly, messy jobs that require meticulous clean-up. The Swede is also well camouflaged. He looks gentle, quiet, avuncular or grandfatherly. He also looks sage-like with his long white pointed beard, a face from another age, perhaps one from a Russian Orthodox icon painted in the Middle Ages. But he’s far from saintly and spiritual. In fact, quite the opposite, a hit man devoid of conscience, an android sort of human with a missing heart, a person programmed to obey commands that most of us would shrink from. What binds his loyalty? This isn’t clearly stated or shown. Perhaps some kind of blood oath, though money surely doesn’t hurt. Yet if its riches he seeks, he never displays any affection for them, living instead like a monk or hermit, a man renouncing life — or extinguishing it — rather than embracing it. At any rate, the Swede comes with the job, so Christensen’s enforcer is now Sødergren’s as well. He is used sparingly, which suits Sødergren, as he (Sødergren) is a con artist first, a man who sanctions violent assault on others a distant second. But some rare moments will occur when things can’t be helped, at which point he reluctantly calls the Swede into action.
Irony and hypocrisy are not lost on the audience in this drama. We tend to view green companies as progressive, even idealistic entities. They have our better futures in mind, and not only ours. They care about wildlife, habitats, ecosystems, biodiversity and planet-wide problems such as pollution, climate change, global warming, coral bleaching, etc. Civilisation is built on energy, so we can’t do without it. But the most sustainable and least destructive energy is the best. So we lend our support morally and financially to progressive companies and governmental bodies that have the greater good for the planet in mind. Which is why scams such as Energreen’s may hurt the most. We expect gangsters to cheat and abuse us. They do, or try to, with guns and knives. White-collar criminals do not need such weapons. Less transparent but their crimes are just as destructive, or maybe even more so, as they can be global, affecting economies and ways of life everywhere. So, this film series is a damning indictment of corporate corruption, putting a human face on it — or on many human faces.
Three main subplots help us in this regard. Each are addressed now below.
The first focuses on Mads Justesen, a cop who works for the fraud squad in Copenhagen. He’s fairly ragged in appearance (unshaven, unkempt hair, jeans, lumber-jack shirts, leather biker jackets). You wouldn’t know he’s a law enforcement officer. He’s one of those street-wise mavericks, the sort that prefers bars and pavement to desks and computers. A gumshoe, he might be called. All the new technology is useful in tracking criminals, but he likes to meet them face to face in order to accuse and threaten them. He doesn’t always carry a gun but he does so when he has to. On the other hand, he always carries a certain attitude. He hates criminals and corruption. He believes, naïvely or not, that the police are one of the last barriers to chaos and anarchy, and acts on this belief. He knows the greatest criminals are the ones least transparent, but he wants to meet them anyway to put the fear of God, the law, or himself into them.
But life, as usual, is complicated and compromising, his domestic tranquillity almost non-existent. He loves his two teenage children, an older girl (Esther) and younger son (Albert). He loves his wife Kristina, too. But Kristina is a handful. Her health is poor (muscular sclerosis) and at times her mind is not steady either (prescription drugs). He nurses her, cheers her, supports her. He’s a family man, his family the centre of his emotional life. So when a crisis tears into it because of Kristina’s poor health and some of its consequences it shatters him, or nearly does. He hits the bottle, sleeps rough, is nearly homeless (though taken in by his good friend and colleague, Alf).
Things for Mads are compromising at work too. His methods are old school; those of his superiors are not. He’s kept on a short chain, but it’s one he continuously breaks. He’s fed up with modern methods that don’t work, especially in liberal Denmark with its nanny state mentality where the toes of the people must not be stepped on. Instead, he prefers to intimidate suspects into confessing. He is no lightweight.
The second main subplot focuses on Nicky and Bimse, a kind of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pair that provides dark comic relief. They’re two young working-class stiffs (early 20s), apprentice car mechanics going nowhere in life, if nowhere means staying put with what they’ve got (limited education, intelligence, manners, prospects, imagination, etc.). Nicky is married to Lina (or she’s his girlfriend), the daughter of Jens, his employer at the car garage. The young couple have a baby boy. Nicky may be at the bottom of the heap socially and financially, but there’s still something good in him — his heart. He loves Lina and their young son. He wants better lives for them. Trouble is, he’s in the underclass and knows it, so how to escape it, how to live that better life he dearly wants? Trouble arrives in the form of more money — illicit money chanced upon. Someone owns it. Someone will come looking for it. But in the meantime Nicky and Bimse, best friends from grade school onwards, can think of nothing better to do with it than bury it in a field. How much is there? A fortune — two million euros. Where did it come from? They don’t know but we do. It’s Energreen hush money that went astray. The Swede, you can be sure, will become involved.
The third main subplot involves Claudia Moreno. Who is she? She’s a young clever lawyer who joined Energreen recently (perhaps two or three years ago). She’s ambitious and keen to make her mark in the company. She does. Her star is rising. She becomes a confidante and advisor to Alexander Sødergren, the Energreen CEO. Her rise eclipses others. At least three men above her are eventually replaced. Naturally, this results in bad blood and resentment, but Claudia is protected by the higher corporate forces, including and starting with Sødergren. She does whatever is asked of her on the financial side, fudging contracts and the books ever so slightly to keep the company spotless with the public and government. She doesn’t view her work as illegal. Truth is, she doesn’t want to look into the details of it, would rather not know if some legal statutes have been violated. Everyone fudges in life here and there. The corporate world is no different. But it is, the stakes much higher. So, too, the stress levels. Her job will take its toll on her.
Sødergren is clever, as we have established already. He doesn’t use sex to keep Claudia where he wants to have her. Instead, he obliquely hints at it, usually through body language, not words. If he is to use this tactic, he will reserve it as an ace up his sleeve. Sødergren would be quite a prize, the young filthy rich CEO of a major eco-company, one of the key players in Denmark’s economy of the future. She knows, or thinks she knows, what being married to him would be like. We don’t have access to her mind, but we can sometimes read her thoughts on her face.
Sødergren is single and always has been, married instead to his work, ambition, greed, self, ego. Claudia is different. She was married to Steen. They had a son named Bertram (now about 8 or 9), whom they both love. They are divorced but civilised about it, treating one another with respect and sharing visiting time with Bertram. Claudia used to spend more time with Bertram, but lately, for the past year, her work and job have become all consuming. She barely has time for anything else as Sødergren incrementally ratchets up his demands on her mind, time and energy. She becomes indispensable to him and he often tells her that his success and that of the company is down to her in many ways. Yes, he knows how to titillate her vanity. He knows how to make her feel special. So without actually realising it she is losing Bertram more and more to Steen because daddy is spending far more quality time with him than mama is. Finally, Steen gets a job in Paris and takes Bertram with him. Claudia doesn’t like it, but work insists she stay in Copenhagen. She will visit Paris — two hours away by air — twice a month if she can manage it. Likewise, Steen will bring Bertram back to Denmark when he can. Their relationship, despite the strain of divorce and separation, remains amicable, as stated.
What will happen? This question relates to many things, to Energreen and all the players in the drama. The plot lines are intricate and complex. The editing has to be good to keep the story clear and coherent, so luckily it is. We can follow the loose strands and see where and how they tie together. This review, perhaps shallow, had to be for such a complicated drama. There are many other characters and incidents that broaden the action and give it a feeling of authenticity. For example, love interests. Tobias loves Claudia, or seems to. He also works in the corporate field, but not in Energreen. It seems things might work out for them, but trouble is always brewing in this series. Ditto for Mads Justesen, the fraud squad cop mentioned earlier. Kristina his wife is unstable (physically and mentally). She has a breakdown that also occurs emotionally. Their marriage seems on the rocks. Kristina’s doctor, Kristina claims, gives her more love and support than Mads can. He, too — like Claudia — is too wrapped up in his work and job (it is claimed). Alone, depressed and hitting the bottle, Mads seems destitute of love. Into that vacuum comes Ceclia, an old flame from his past. But she is not so old. He must have first known her when she was very young. She’s one of those Scandinavian beauties whose beauty is so offhand it suggests beauty is just second nature to her (Ingmar Bergman always loved this type: Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson, et al.). No designer clothes, no make-up. A natural beauty, then. Whereas Claudia with her insecurities is the opposite, her vanity depending on outward appearances. One rather hopes Mads and Cecelia can sustain now what they once had. We feel this way because we like Mads and want him to be happy. He is one of the good guys in this drama (as is his sidekick, Alf). We’re not all that happy seeing him suffer, and Kristina is hardly endearing with her unstable personality. Yet we know Mads loves Kristina and can sense Cecilia is temporary, a palliative for pain.
Reports say Season Two of this drama is not as good as Season One. Well, I wonder. The source of this wonder is Season One, which is beautifully and intelligently written (and Season Two has the same screenwriter, Jeppe Gjervig Gram, a writer associated with “Borgen”, another truly fine modern political Danish TV series). He’s got plenty of material here to work with. Energreen and many of its players figure hugely in Season One. The emphasis will shift in Season Two because of how key events play out in Season One, but most of the players will be back. Or so it seems. I intend to order Season Two on the basis of the excellence of Season One.
If you like fine and unpredictable police dramas, intelligent scripts, fully developed characters, interesting points of reference and story development, you will want to see this series. It does not resort to clichés and stereotypical cut-outs of characters. Instead, it plays out almost like a documentary in showing real people grappling with challenges and shortcomings in their lives. I’m a peaceful man but I wanted to kill some of these characters, the Swede and Sødergren topping my hit list. But I’ll leave it to the script writer to do the killing for me, if he does. Some are deserving of it, so I’ll be pleased if they meet nasty ends. Vengeance is mine! At least partly.