2 out of 5
Created by: Aleksi Salmenperä, Mikko Pöllä and Roope Lehtinen
From my perspective, we’ve had a couple of larger general shifts in TV in the past decade or so: Breaking Bad kicked off a wave of more cinematic, linear storytelling – less bottle-episode structures – and then the streaming model introduced a bingeable, watch-it-all-at-once concept. The learning curve combination of these shifts led to shows with shorter season lengths, more tightly controlled arcs, and… a lot of filler. It was like we couldn’t exactly let go of the 22-episode 2:1 standalone:season-plottings concept, encouraging 8- or 13-episode series that were somewhat designed to be watched in one go, and then stuffed with go-nowhere padding that was still rather unnecessary to whatever the main storyline was. We’re still smoothing this out, but I do think it’s gotten better overall.
White Wall, meanwhile, a Nordic sci-fi / horror-tinged thriller, has gone to the opposite extreme: it’s 8-episodes stripped completely of anything except the main story, which sounds great, except that that main story is only capable of filling up maybe a 2-hour movie. So now we’re sans filler… but we’re just waiting around for the story to pick up. And despite that story being interesting, carried by a very strong performance from lead Aksel Hennie, the slow crawl at which it develops not only kills any tension, but starts to fall into an unbelievable realm, where things are neither procedural or panicked enough to convince us of the reality of the show.
White Wall centers around Lars (Aksel), who leads a team of miners / engineers in charge of finalizing work on the underground tunnels of a nuclear waste depository in Northern Sweden. While the crew digs away at the last tunnel, getting things ready for a looming completion date, Gina (Karen Bryson) leads the political charge on the surface, trying to soothe public concerns over burying nuclear waste with various charts and graphs showing the depositories stabilities. Security lead Atte (Eero Milonoff) has to contend with some splinter protest groups that keep trying to break into the facility for various reasons. These two threads – the social glad-handing; the more radical protestors – are problems to essentially just be tamped down until Lars can sign off on the work, which should also precede his being able to settle his home life, as he’s developed a relationship with his co-worker, Helen (Vera Vitali), which he’s trying to end in favor of his marriage.
All of that’s well and good until Lars’ team hits the titular wall in their diggings: the first sign of what turns out to be a massive, buried structure of unknown materials that cannot be bypassed. Hereby hits our first “made for TV” ding: instead of finding more official ways to deal with this delay, Lars covers it up, and tries to limit knowledge of it to only his closest crew. There are justifications for this – money, publicity – but the problem is that the show doesn’t quite know what to do with this stalling for the next 6-episodes. While there are some bids at development, trying to scientifically determine what the material is, for example, the story essentially just sits on this, and very casually cycles through its romantic subplot, and its terrorist subplot, and the vaguest hints that the wall is supernatural, or perhaps alien, in origin. The subplots could qualify as filler, except there’s no energy or passion put into them, so they don’t actually feel like they take up any story space; the latter is interesting, but the writers pushed too far to keep things undefined, so that those hints never pick up any significant traction.
This languid pace meanwhile exposes some discrepancies in presentation: there’s this constant talk of the depository causing massive public contention, and yet, it never feels like we see anyone outside of the main cast. And while Atte seems to be played off as something of a simpleton, acting far more officious than needed, we’ll suddenly get one or two shots showing that compound as staffed with tons of workers, suggesting that he is actually overseeing quite a lot of people. But then in other contexts, we never see this staff, boiling it back down to making it seem like Atte is only bossing around 6 or 8 people. While this initially seemed like these discrepancies were playing in to drumming up a sense of isolation, the limited sets we end up visiting and the lack of developing that theme suggest it’s really just down to budget – White Wall was an expensive show, and perhaps a lot of that went in to its on-location mine filming.
Aksel’s performance is strong, as are some of the others – Milonoff included – but Hennie has the benefit of his character’s arc being written to be the most consistent and straight-forward: he sees the wall as a barrier to overcome, and stays on that path the entire time. Others have slightly more wishy-washy personalities, or have character arcs that feel slightly mismatched to the story.
White Wall is a show that could’ve done with a little less decompression, and maybe a little more flair. It has the waft of a hard-sci-fi setup, wanting to deal with its subject matter as seriously as possible, but then the writers haven’t add in the detail to support that approach, either.