Black Lake: Here comes the past again

Black Lake title card

So I’ve just watched my way through ace Scandi-noir chiller Black Lake, aka Svartsjön. It’s at times deeply thoughtful and always beautifully made, so I’m a bit surprised that it hasn’t built up more of an online following. The reviews I could find missed much of what made it so interesting.

Seasons one and two rhymed with and pushed against each other in interesting and carefully thought out ways, while critiquing a certain kind of infectiously toxic masculinity and playing subtle games with their supernatural components. And both are anchored by their sole dual-season character Johan, a man who’s neither hero nor anti-hero but rather some flawed, fascinating, and very well-written and acted combination of both.

Spoiler alert

Beware: if you haven’t seen Black Lake, you’re about to run into spoilers aplenty. So if you want to enjoy it unspoiled, stop reading now! And if you haven’t seen it and do want to read on, hopefully I’ve given enough context so you can understand who and what I’m talking about.

Rhyming two leads

Now to get stuck in. And where better to start with Black Lake’s rhymed leads, Hanne and Minnie? They’re both twenty-something women with shadowed pasts. As a child, Season One protagonist Hanne witnessed (and possibly caused) her brother’s death. Season Two protagonist Minnie, a recovering alcoholic, nearly let her daughter die in a house fire she herself caused while drunk.

Both are haunted by their pasts. Both come to terms with them as their respective seasons progress. Hanne meets the ghost of her brother and makes her peace with him. Minnie redeems herself by rescuing another mother’s child and proving herself truly able to care for her own.

But their respective journeys are not without peril. Of course, both face standard antagonist threats. They also run into a deeper shared challenge. Both find their sanity called into question as they engage with the past wrongs that erupt supernaturally into their mutual presents.

That’s a fascinating shared challenge, and a smart move on the part of the show. It’s very aware of the power of dominant histories, and the perils of going against them. If you question a shared myth, no matter how toxic it is, you’ll be called mad and might actually question your own sanity. Not because you’re actually in any way insane; rather, because you’re pushing against a cosy, comforting consensus. Black Lake dramatizes that process powerfully and concisely.

Toxic masculinities

Yup, there’s a lot of it, and it’s explored in some depth. In Season One, Johan is both a troubling presence and a victim of his toxic dad. All of the season’s action is set in motion by the actions of another, long-dead, toxic father, who has warped another, much more innocent son. We meet an adult toxic brother and see him get his come-uppance.  And we see how two gay characters are both trapped by and pushing hard against traditional, profoundly limited definitions of masculinity.

Much of that is echoed in Season Two, although in a more focussed way. It’s actually a prequel to Season One. It’s set on an island retreat, run by the determinedly self-centred Uno. He’s a one-time member of the French Foreign Legion, with a hinted-at dark and brutal past. Now he’s apparently put all that behind him and lives a selfless life of fatherly therapeutic service. Which involves shagging most of his female patients, bullying most of his male ones and completely failing to notice any of the actual psychological issues laid out before him.

His self-chosen name, Uno, is meant to imply that he’s achieved some kind of cosmic unity. It actually sharply describes his self-absorption. He only sees and acts for one person – himself. For most of the season he’s determinedly unaware of the chaos that surrounds him. When he’s forced to face it, he quickly goes to pieces. In the end, the repercussions of his own actions destroy him. That’s justice, of a sort. But Bella, at once the season’s antagonist and the agent of that justice, was and remains broken by him. The damage persists even when the toxin is eradicated.

Oh, and we get to actually meet Johan’s toxic dad. He’s a truly nasty piece of work, a casually brutal, deeply undermining presence. If Uno was a genuine therapist rather than a wannabe cult leader, he might have helped Johan understand and escape from his father’s dark influence. But Uno doesn’t even notice it. In fact, a throwaway comment of Uno’s – one that helped break Bella – has a similarly bleak impact on Johan, helping drive and (in retrospect) explain some of his more negative behaviour in season one. Again, damage persists long after the toxin’s gone.

Haunted by fathers and father-figures

That sense of persistence is particularly important in season one. Our heroes, led by Hanne, are up against a murderous ghost. One by one it offers each character a stark choice; either kill someone else or die at its hands. Some choose the former, some the latter. Hanne and her sister perhaps escape it, although that’s left ambiguous.

And yet, when we finally meet him, the murderous ghost is an oddly innocent presence. He’s actually a small boy called Mikkel, aged perhaps nine or ten. Mikkel was exposed to and then died for his psychiatrist father’s crazed eugenic theories. He’s acting out a Darwinian game his dad forced him to take part in – kill or be killed – in the hope of impressing him.

He’s at once entirely responsible for and entirely innocent of the murders he commits and forces others to commit. The toxin has infected him, but we’re carefully shown that his fundamental nature is kind and loving. The toxin is able to act through him because he’s too young to understand its real nature and consequences. Uno’s destructive blindness is a self-willed, adult blindness. Mikkel’s springs tragically from his boyishness. The true responsibility lies with the father, not the child.

Season two contrasts season one’s innocently destructive ghost son with a determinedly constructive ghost mom. She works through living mother Minnie to rescue her daughter from Bella. Their maternal presence offsets the show’s deep suspicion of fathers and father-figures, neutralising at least some of the violence that they can leave behind them.

It’s more than just bad dads

The show’s clear-eyed enough to know that mothers can fail too. Minnie’s past is one example of that. We also see it in spooky female janitor Gittan, who runs Uno’s island for him and has known him since Bella was young.

We find out that Gittan adopted Bella, becoming her stepmother when her real parents failed. Gittan clearly also failed Bella, although we’re not shown how. She’s now implicated in dodgy real-estate dealings with Uno. Perhaps, way back, she privileged his needs over the teenage Bella’s, looking the other way when a twenty-something Uno seduced, abandoned and destroyed her.

And it’s not just personal. The show’s very aware of violent oppression as a wider social activity, something that both interacts with and extends far beyond the individual.

Season One’s dodgy psychiatrist dad is a Nazi eugenicist. His beliefs and wider scientific network are lightly sketched in, hinting at a much deeper historical and political context for the bloody mayhem he causes. Some of the show’s modern characters lightly echo his racism, hinting at the depth and persistence of that context.

Sitting behind some of season two’s action is a fierce post-war Stalinist. Way back in the 50s, his beliefs lead him to execute a group of anti-Stalinist refugees. As a child, Gittan witnessed the murders. They haunt the present through her. Again, the show’s careful to note that oppressive violence doesn’t just happen in isolation. It’s always a symptom of much broader attitudes and challenges.

Johan the complex

And finally, there’s Johan. He’s a fascinating figure. In Season One, he’s at the heart of all the action. He brings everyone together in its haunted ski lodge setting, then bullies them all into staying as everything unravels and people keep dying. He’s a nifty solution to the classic slasher movie problem – why doesn’t everyone just call the police and / or leave after the first murder?

Of course, it doesn’t turn out well. But what’s fascinating about it is that – as we watch Season 1 – we’re watching Johan react to a comment of Uno’s from Season 2. Uno notes that, if your family don’t work out for you, you have to create your own family. In Season 2, Bella picks up on that in ways that lead to some terrible behaviour. In Season 1, Johan’s busy trying to escape his toxic father by creating a new family all of his own; one where he’s the Daddy.

The problem is, he’s only ever known toxic, controlling, abusive fathering. So he becomes a toxic, abusive, controlling father-figure himself. Without his hectoring, arrogant presence, the body count would have been much lower. But as I said, he’s a complex figure. Black Lake’s careful to show us that, like Mikkel, he can also be very genuinely loving and kind. He’s not destroyed by his own flaws; he’s broken by the ones that his broken father forced upon him.

Unlike Hanne and Minnie, Johan’s trying to push forward without coming to terms with his own past failures. We see both of them go through a process of reckoning and redemption. He achieves no equivalent rebalancing of himself. And so his very evident good qualities go to waste.

The past is another country, you really should read the guidebook

So, there you have it – a nifty, lightly supernatural double whammy of two stand-alone seasons that work together to dig into how the past can haunt the present, both on personal and broader societal levels. I hugely enjoyed both seasons. If you read this review and go off and watch them, I hope you do too. If you’re in the UK, they’re available on excellent horror streaming service Shudder (though oddly only if you’re subscribing to it through Amazon – it doesn’t appear on their standalone website any more), or on DVD. Enjoy!

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