Nordic Noir and Autism

Kari Sorjonen, played by Ville Virtanen in Bordertown/Sorjonen.

Congrats to me for making the vaguest title I ever have on this site!

I love Nordic noir and always seem to find myself episodes deep into some usually-Swedish crime show with brooding characters and beautiful scenery. I’m certain it was the original Girl In The Dragon Tattoo movies that triggered it. There’s just something about it being foreign, the setting, and maybe how things are portrayed from their view I find more interesting than the English remakes or similar titles, like The Bridge.

Speaking of The Bridge* (nice segue, Lucy, your strongest writing suit), one of the most popular shows in this “Scandi/Nordic Noir” category is Bron/Broen, the original Danish-Swedish version of The Bridge. I’m not too sure if it’s me being biased but one of the best things about the show is the man character, Saga Noren, the Swedish investigator who appears to have autism (although it’s never outright stated, fans and autistics alike have agreed with this belief).

Thure Lindhardt as Henrik, Sofia Helin as Saga.

Saga presents what a typical person might think of when thinking of an autistic person. Her voice is more on the monotone side, her expression stoic. She ticks the boxes of a ‘by-the-book’ investigator with a high ethical and moral code, with an incredible focus but also this tenseness in her body that carries over into her cadence. Not surprisingly, she lacks and is confused in social awareness by most interactions that aren’t direct.
So, if it ended there, it would be a pretty flat, predictable autistic subject. But her being a woman and showing these traits is already something different. These traits are always shown as “male traits”, and from what I’ve seen online, are more tolerated in men than women.
However, Saga is non-judgemental and cares deeply for the people she’s closest to, including her younger sister who, as a teenager, she takes on a carer role in an attempt to get away from their mother.
But my favourite aspects of what makes Saga a great autistic character is she’s sexually liberated; very frank about the subject of sex (see the video above for an example) and partakes in one-night-stands, preferring them over a monogamous, permanent relationship.
The other is that it does she her hurt by other people’s words. In my interview with Learn From Autistics, I briefly talked about how autistic people can hear and understand what others say about them and although we appear impervious to what people say, we’re still people! We still get hurt by words, especially if it’s about us! This is illustrated in one perfect scene when she is called an ‘over-analytical robot devoid of any emotions’ by a colleague and you can see how much this hurts her (he’s a dick so…), as well as any talks about her failing her sister or her sister’s death is her fault.

While Saga is presented as an aloof, cold character, she is more complex and shows growth as the series progresses, especially when it comes to intimacy with others. I think it’s great that this was a female character presented in this way and her colleagues treat her with dignity and respect (again, don’t mind Rasmus, he is a dick). I remember finding myself even getting emotional at the situations Saga was in or how something was affected by something, relating to them in a way I haven’t really seen in media before.

Now, onto Bordertown which is much clearer in my head as I just finished it! Also before I start, screencaps came out blank so I had to take photos on my phone of the screen so the ones I’m showing are terrible, sorrryyy!

Okay first I should say that I think I was distracted when I watch the first episode where they were introducing all the threads and characters of the show and I was too confused and didn’t watch it for a while.
Then I was playing Alan Wake and became enamored with Ilkka Villi’s eyes and saw that he is one of the investigators in Bordertown and… I mean I started watching again with no distractions during that first episode this time.

There is no real reason for me to post a picture of Ilkka Villi, I just need you to understand how I got here.

I’m really glad I gave it another go because Bordertown was as great as The Bridge, this time set predominantly in Finland. Still beautiful scenery and imagery, great stories, great characters, including our main character, Kari Sorjonen.

While Saga is the more typical presentation of autism through frankness and stoicism but through a female character, Sorjonen is presented as a more emotionally-expressive man with a family with a good working relationship with his colleagues. Sure, Sorjonen hasn’t been confirmed as autistic, but the autistic community at large has spoken and claimed him as their own.
Going in blind, I noticed… things. You know those little things that make you go “ahhh… there’s something happening here.” Sorjonen has them, and when I searched “Kari Sorjonen autistic”, I wasn’t alone.

So who is Kari Sorgonen? Like Saga, he is a detective for the Serious Crimes Unit, or SECRI, who has for solving the most complex of crimes. By his own admission he’s hypersensitive (this is also shown in relation to certain stimuli, like smells) and hyperfocuses on his work, much to the frustration of his wife and daughter. This lopsided observance (something I literally just coined while eating a candied snake, I’m on a roll today) where he is incredible at picking up things like a suspect’s emotions when in the zone but not his own daughter’s is the main source of tension. He is hesitant and rigid to change. He also has his own area downstairs where he goes to look at cases, performing a perfect ritual to get in “the zone”.
Again, leaving his character like this would be flat and unrealistic, but Sorjonen has some wonderful, real qualities that are constantly shown. He isn’t rude, in fact, he’s very sweet and kind to others and can be very expressive. While he completely absorbs himself in his work and has difficulty verbally expressing himself, he shows affection and heart towards his wife, daughter, coworkers, and victims. He is the kind of person you’d want to know personally or professionally.

And would you look at that, knows you’re talking about him!

And that’s what I love about these characters. They are flawed people with human qualities that are well represented and valuable to not just autistic people, not anyone viewing. You might not know anyone like them, but autistics have picked up on their characteristics and feel a kinship with them. They aren’t presented as robots or sexless superhumans, they are real people in society that have a whole personality that isn’t just their “quirks”.

I’ve seen a better ‘accidental’ representation of autism from these two shows than I have from Australian, English, and North American shows combined! Sure, they both have the same job which can be seen as typical of their gifts, but the way they have been written and performed has really touched me and has made me feel respected and included. I urge you to watch both if you can (subs are better than the dubs but you do you). I know Bordertown is on Netflix and if you’re Australian, The Bridge is on Stan.

*It’s been a while since I’ve watched The Bridge so apologies if I’ve forgotten or misremembered details!

Some additional links!
How The Bridge’s heroine became a role model for women with autism

The Bridge: an unforgettable Scandinavian drama

Saga Norén Wikipedia has a great writeup of her character:

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