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'Face to Face' is a murder mystery that lives up to the tradition of Nordic Noir

Lars Mikkelsen stars as real estate baron Holger Lang in Season 3 of the Danish thriller <em>Face to Face.</em>
Viaplay
Lars Mikkelsen stars as real estate baron Holger Lang in Season 3 of the Danish thriller Face to Face.

It's one of the amusing paradoxes of popular culture that Scandinavia has very few murders yet probably leads the world in murder mysteries. It just keeps churning out a seemingly endless supply of what's called Nordic Noir, from the groundbreaking 1960s procedurals by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, to today's crime novels byJo Nesbøand Camilla Läckberg, to international TV hits like The Killing and The Bridge.

The noir spirit occupies the center of Viaplay, a relatively new streaming service that specializes in Nordic television. I've watched a bunch of their crime shows, several of them good, and the one I've enjoyed the most is Face to Face, a neatly turned Danish thriller whose protagonists — different in each season — attempt to solve a murder over the course of eight half-hour episodes. The third and final season just dropped, and it's a real humdinger: Imagine if Logan Roy from Successionhad to solve a murder.

Lars Mikkelsen – whom you'll know from Borgen and House of Cards – stars as real estate baron Holger Lang, a smart, heartless developer with a graying beard as forbidding as he is. As the action begins, he gets sent footage of his young protege, Christina, being stabbed to death. Burning to figure out who did it, he rushes to his office and begins questioning his scruffy, ne'er-do-well brother, Markus, a wounded soul played with great feeling by Pilou Asbæk, from Game of Thrones and also Borgen. Could Markus have set up Christina's murder?

Things get really nasty, and Holger stalks out, following a lead he's gotten from Markus. In each of the next seven episodes, Holger meets someone new – his lawyer, his business rival, the chief of police, etc. – and engages in long talks that feel more like inquisitions than conversations. As the twists multiply and the action builds to an ending that Ross Macdonald might've appreciated, Holger comes to realize that there are a great many things about his life – and his relationships with other people – about which he has been ruinously wrong.

While the show's writer-and-director Christoffer Boe conceived Face to Face before the pandemic, its conceit is perfect for a world in which one doesn't want a lot of people on set. With a couple of exceptions, each episode focuses on essentially two characters talking. We watch Holger circle around someone he mistrusts, grilling them, pouncing on their lies and, in return, having them fight back with stinging rejoinders and questions of their own.

The show's format is not as austere as it may sound. The great Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai once remarked that "TV is dialogue" – and he's right. Forget about flying dragons and those boring action scenes they use to pad out episodes of Jack Ryanand all those Marvel series. Even in big-budget shows, people's favorite moments are nearly always the two-handers filled with talk that reveals character – Walter and Jesse arguing in Breaking Bad, Jaime and Brienne becoming unexpectedly close in Game of Thrones, pastry whiz Marcus making a personal connection with Will Poulter's Copenhagen-based chef in The Bear.

The talk in Season 3 of Face to Face sucks you right in, in no small part because every single performance is excellent – starting with the portrayal of Holger, whose blend of acuity and blindness Mikkelsen reveals with seismographic precision. Angrily protecting his empire and his sense of himself, he's positively Sherlockean in his ability to take a seemingly random fact or statement and tease out its hidden meaning. Yet even as Holger's brilliant, he's often stunned to realize that nobody is quite who he thought they were.

Ever since Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex, the best mystery stories have featured heroes who don't merely discover the truth about a murder but the truth about themselves. And that's what happens in Face to Face, whose heroes go on a journey of self-discovery. I'm not about to compare this series to Greek tragedy. Nobody will be watching Holger's story in 2,500 years. But it does remind us of an ancient truth: The biggest mystery of all is the self.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers
John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.