Iceland is both Europe’s most sparsely populated and farthest west country. Just south of the arctic circle, it has a relatively benign climate due to its proximity to the Gulf Stream. It’s a prosperous place that that has a market economy and generous social welfare programs. It is energy independent as it harvests the thermal energy that is ubiquitous because of the volcanic activity that is all around the place. The wonderfully named, but unpronounceable, Eyjafjallajökull volcano disrupted European air travel for six days when it last erupted in 2010.
Because of its exotic terrain and advanced civic organization, it is a major tourist attraction – or it was before travel was banned when a virus caused universal mass madness. It suffered a major financial collapse during the economic crisis of 2008. The country’s entire banking system collapsed. Financial controls were imposed which lasted until 2017. Before the coronavirus, the country’s economy had completely recovered and was doing nicely.
As the country is an island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean COVID-19 has not been much of a health problem – 2064 cases with 10 deaths. The tourism business, however, is doubtless kaput. Despite a population of a little more than 360 thousand the country is very advanced both socially and technologically.
The arts thrive in the tiny country. RÚV is Iceland’s public service broadcasting organization. Last year it telecast an eight part series which was released on Netflix this year as The Valhalla Murders. It seems odd that a nation said to be the most peaceful country in the world, due to its lack of armed forces, low crime rate, and high level of socio-political stability would make a film with murder in its title. Iceland is listed in the Guinness World Records book as the “country ranked most at peace” and the “lowest military spending per capita”. Guiness may think Iceland is the most peaceful spot on Earth, but the Icelanders who made the The Valhalla Murders have a different picture of their homeland.
Spoiler alert Most of the following contains spoilers. The Valhalla in the series is a defunct home for teenage boys who were beaten and abused. The story in this series is an embellished version of a real event that had no murders. The series has two murderers. One is a distraught father who decides to avenge the 30 year old killing of a son he mistreated and who was removed by the state from the custody of his parents. Why his wrath hibernated for three decades is not clear to the viewer. The other murderer, now the chief public prosecutor, was the serial rapist of the boys at Valhalla 30 years ago. It was he who murdered the boy the distraught father is trying to avenge. He was assisted by a policeman now the police commissioner and other prominent citizens. The prosecutor has decided to become a serial killer, also 30 years after his abuse. He’s killing those associates who know about his earlier rapes. If this description appears confused it’s because the storyline is pretty messy.
Forget about the story and focus on how the country is depicted. Everybody is inept and/or corrupt. The Icelandic police is manned, or in this case womaned, by officers who not only can’t do their job at an even minimum level of competence, but who violate the basic rules and ethics of policing.
Early in in the plot, the homicide squad is thought to be so below par that outside help from Norway is summoned. Arnar Böðvarsson is an Icelandic native who seems to work for the Norwegian police; he is summoned back to his native country to aid in the investigation. He too has a very muddy backstory. He hates his family and they reciprocate the feeling, except for his sister who is bullied by her husband. The family is very religious and therefore are depicted as fanatical brutes. We’re to assume that the family’s distaste for Arnar stems from his homosexuality. The family plot is superfluous and left dangling at the program’s end.
Regardless of his family status, Arnar is not very good at policing. Nevertheless, in a last minute spasm of understanding he figures out that his local partner Kata mistakenly has gone to the chief prosecutor for help in the murder and rape cases. She doesn’t realize that he’s the perpetrator. BTW, she’s earlier been suspended from active police duty because she let the other murderer get her gun and commit suicide with it. Thus, she shouldn’t have been anywhere near the perp, but she’s proficient at breaking the rules. She also had improperly interviewed a rape victim (a case unrelated to the crimes she’s investigating) trying to find out if her 16 year old son was involved – he wasn’t, I think. Then she destroyed evidence that might have implicated him. This is the gang that can’t shoot straight.
Is there anyone in this program that has a hint of ability? RÚV plays a small but crucial role in the plot in a bit of narrative solipsism. They treat themselves with a little more kindness than does the portrait of everyone else on the island. Apart from RÚV, the press is portrayed as the howling hounds they are.
What is the viewer to make of all this? Is Iceland a nest of crooked and criminal politicians policed by Laurel and Hardy? Is their reputation as a semi-frigid outpost of civilization and generous public spirit a mask for some dark national psychopathy? Most likely this is just another story. Murder and corruption sells. Eight hours of public spiritedness would really be dull. The show’s production values are high, the acting is very good, and the narrative sophistication excellent. If you’re running out of screen fodder while trying wait out the folly of our leaders, The Valhalla Murders is an innocuous way to pass some empty time.