Witch Hunt (Norwegian, 2020)

2 out of 5

Created by: Anna Bache WiigSiv, Rajendram Eliassen

The last couple episodes of this Norwegian drama / thriller tank it so completely that it renders the lead in nearly a waste of time. A really strong sense of focus and tension in its first 5 or 6 episodes, and a brilliant performance by Ingrid Bolsø Berdal are its saving graces, which makes the disparity found in its conclusion all the more upsetting. There are hints of what’s to come – or the lack of what’s to come, I suppose – throughout, but some of it can be partially excused as TV shorthand (some quite illogical decision making being the main culprit), and the hope that the cards it’s dealing out will actually be played. Alas, as you pass the midway point, that hope starts to diminish, and then at about episode 6, it’s clear that another game is being played instead.

Berdal plays Ida, who does finance work at top law firm B & G, being a respected taskmaster over invoices and timesheets. An oddity without the proper approvals crosses her desk, and in an attempt to track down its provenance, she’s essentially told to just shuffle the paper along. Which she does… hesitantly… but is wracked with guilt over the decision, having been able to stay on the right side of morality and justness in her career up to this point. Her husband isn’t much support in the matter, suggesting she keep her head down, but she decides to look into it, taking files off work property – a company violation – to get some research done in private. Indeed, the paperwork is linked to quite shady dealings, and she immediately escalates matters, accepting that she did a wrong by taking the stuff home, but wanting to make a right by reporting it. Her superiors gasp in shock and nod and say they’ll take care of it. …And within days, she’s accused of sexually harassing other employees, of racism, and then finally let go.

Witch Hunt features a female-centric cast, with spotlights on Ida, Birgitte (Caroline Glomnes), another employee at the firm, Anette (Ellen Birgitte Winther), a politician who gets mixed up in matters, and Aida (Sara Khorami), a journalist who’s investigating the people linked to the aforementioned shady dealings. The very title is suggestive of the persecution of females, and the show absolutely leans in to gender with all of the characters listed above – Ida able to be pushed out of her job more easily as a woman; Birgitte having to play up the sexual politics at work; Anette having to find a platform upon which she can keep the focus on actual issues about which she wants to speak; and Aida having to work harder to prove herself at her job than some of her male peers. The conspiracy angle is back-burnered – the fact that Ida gets absolutely no support from her family, and that she’s labeled a certain way in the press, make up the tensions the show puts us through, as Ida struggles to reestablish her life, and maintain respectability.

As mentioned, there are some definite flubs here in logic, as a bunch of supposedly smart people – in law, in politics, in the police – apparently can’t think what the ramifications of any of their actions are, leading to some eye-rolling interactions that could’ve saved some plotting trouble and given us some tighter dialogue options, but when we circle back around to Ida, Berdal absolutely anchors the show, bringing an incredibly recognizable fragility to things – she wants to do the right thing; she also doesn’t want to shake the boat. She wants to push back on her husband; she also wants to keep the peace in her family.

Unfortunately, for the generally tunneled approach it takes to this subject matter, it never ends up dealing with it. The conspiracy becomes the focus instead, and no woman ends up having any agency. Now, maybe it could be floated that this was purposeful, making a point about the system’s perpetuation, but – spoiler – it’s all happy endings in the conclusion, no harm, no fucking foul. In fact, the writers double down on forgetting that they were initially making a show about gender politics by floating a ‘to be continued’-ish tease related to the conspiracy. Big decisions are made without Ida present at all. They fridge one of the characters. If it had at least been a stronger show in terms of its procedural aspects, maybe it would get some degree of pass, but see above – it’s pretty dumb in that regard too.

It’s very much a shame, because I was utterly gripped by those first few episodes, roadbumps and all. I again come back around to Berdal – she was mesmerizing, and you felt absolutely horrible, going through what she was experiencing, and feeling the relative reality of it – it’s frightening, wondering how we might respond in a similar situation. And maybe that “reality” would’ve remained, ten, twenty years back, but in 2020, the way Ida is reduced down to a “strong female character” who then gets all of her decisions man-handed to her is embarrassing.